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Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 06 2013

Thoughts on Tony Bennett: Honesty, Holistic Grading, and the Market Long-game

In case you missed it, Florida schools’ chief  Tony Bennett resigned last week because when he was chief of Indiana’s schools, he changed the grade of a school (Christel House) run by strong financial supporters of his causes from a C to an A. Rick Hess interviews Bennet right after the scandal breaks. He initially makes up an excuse that he was correcting a flawed grading rubric that was only discovered because a Christel House, a school they admired received a C. This claim now appears patently false, thanks to some very good investigating here and here. It’s interesting how some who usually rail against corrupt school practices (and a market antidote) were so quick to write this off as a non-scandal (listen to segment 3) without knowing all the facts. Bennett later resigned without putting up too much of a fight.

What’s the lesson here? A few thoughts:

1. It further emphasizes the need to have only one real enemy in this ed reform battle: those who dismiss, manipulate, or lie about data that don’t fit into their narrative. Tony Bennett did this by playing favorites with low performing schools (by his metric) whose founders happened to donate money to his causes. Pundits also did this when they defended him because they tend to agree with his reforms, and chose to ignore the robust evidence to the contrary.

2. This incident sends a bad signal about more holistic approaches to accountability. Bennett’s report card was laughably simple, relying at least for high school just on standardized test scores, graduation rates, and a college readiness index. Yet he was still was able to leave the state before it came out that he totally disregarded two of these data-points in order to boost a school’s grade. For those like me who think that school report cards should also discuss student satisfaction, teacher satisfaction, teacher experience, parent satisfaction, etc. it seems like accountability would will be much more difficult. In Detroit, there is a promising effort to create such user-friendly holistic reports, but even they have at least five charter or district school leaders and major local philanthropists on the board who could bias the organization (if not as overtly as Bennett, more subvertly by emphasizing indicators they know their schools embody).  This inevitably happens as a result of financing: big educational donors who would be likely to support such a system also are likely to fund schools in the area.

3. This suggests, in my mind, that there is a useful federal role in data collection. I’m all for local management and autonomy, but in terms of deciding upon, collecting, curating, and presenting data and results, I’d prefer a Washington technocrat to a politically motivated local politician. Maybe something like an educational GAO (America’s greatest bureaucracy)?

4. In a useful wrap-up,  Eduwonk offers some thoughts on how the A-F grading system was unpopular because it may penalize schools experimenting organizationally or pedagogically (this should be the fear of all who don’t want schools that necessarily prioritize test scores). I think the more holistic grading approach helps alleviate this problem, but as Eduwonk author Andrew Rotherham sums up, “Voucher supporters must be chuckling at all this because they have an answer here…just let the market do it.”

Indeed, as we imperfectly work through trying to objectively display the characteristics of schools in a limited choice-based system, I’m not convinced more people won’t come to the same conclusion. I don’t think voucher supporters are chuckling, I think they know this is an inevitability. Quite a long game.

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