Bennett-gate And The Politics Of Grading Schools

Jeff Bryant

Last week’s midair disintegration of a high-flying apparatchik in the movement known as education “reform” is still making headlines in local press and the national media.

Tony Bennett was a hero of the national movement bent on reshaping public education along the lines of consumerism and marketing imperatives. The state where he burnished his reputation, Indiana, was dubbed by a Beltway conservative belief tank as an “Ed Reform Idol”. His policy of grading schools A-F based on an algorithm of test score data was embraced by political leaders in the Republican and Democratic parties.

Now revelations of a cheating incident in Indiana, where Bennett and his team altered a school grading scheme so a charter school run by a campaign donor changed from a “C” grade to an “A,” have prompted him to resign from leading the public school system in Florida, where he landed after losing a reelection bid in Indiana the previous year.

People who like the idea of evaluating schools and educators on simplistic grading systems in the name of “accountability” were quick to label Bennett’s transgression as “not that big of a deal” or excusable because of his “legacy.” Bennett himself attributed revelations of his transgressions to “political enemies.”

But anyone who has given support to failed school reformers like Bennett and their ideas – in particular the notion of using test score results to grade schools and label educators as “ineffective” – should think more cautiously about what they’ve signed on to.

So What Exactly Happened?

Writing at the blog site for the New American Foundation, Ann Hyslop – a reform enthusiast herself, it should be noted – has the widely acknowledged best description of how Bennett gamed the system he created.

According to Hyslop, it was a “frantic” process in which Bennett and his aides found a way to change the favored charter school’s grade by creating a “loophole” so the school’s troublesome “high school data were thrown out” and the school could rise to an A.

Interestingly, as Hyslop noted, the loophole that was created for Bennett’s favored charter was denied to two traditional Indiana public schools. As the Indianapolis Star reported, the poor grades those schools received landed them in state takeovers by a charter school company, Charter Schools USA, an organization that eventually employed Bennett’s wife. Coincidence?

A quick take of the Bennett affair would be that here was just “one bad actor” working in a system whose integrity is still beyond dispute. That would be a mistake.

It’s All About The Quality Poverty

A thorough understanding of the Bennett affair should not stop short of taking into account the context of the reforms he pushed – in particular, the idea of grading schools “A” through “F.”

School grading systems have been sold to voters as accurate measures of school quality. Armed with such measures in a “choice” system, parents, we’re told, can go shopping for higher-rated schools, and bureaucrats can target lower-performing schools for shutdown or takeover by an agent, usually a charter school, who can “fix” the school.

But based on an analysis conducted by Matt DiCarlo of the Albert Shanker Institute, the grading system devised for Indiana had more to do with the characteristics of the students served by schools than it had to do with giving parents and policymakers real insight into the effectiveness of the schools.

DiCarlo’s analysis showed, “Almost 85 percent of the schools with the lowest poverty rates receive an A or B, and virtually none gets a D or F.” Conversely, over half of the schools with the highest percentages of the poorest students received “an F or D, compared with about 22 percent across all schools.”

His conclusion, “as is the case with most states’ systems, policy decisions will proceed as much by student performance/characteristics as by actual school effectiveness.” (emphasis original)

“Under Indiana’s system, a huge chunk of schools, most of which serve advantaged student populations, literally face no risk of getting an F, while almost one in five schools, virtually every one of which with a relatively high poverty rate, has no shot at an A grade, no matter how effective they might be.”

DiCarlo also looked at the grading system used in Florida and concluded that it “does a poor job of gauging school performance per se.”

Since more advantaged students tend to score more highly on tests when they enter the school system, schools are largely being judged not on the quality of instruction they provide, but rather on the characteristics of the students they serve.”

Even when there are instances where Florida schools are being very effective in accelerating student performance (at least insofar as tests can measure it),” DiCarlo found, the state grading system is unlikely to identify them.

As with Indiana’s grading system, DiCarlo concluded that Florida’s “is a de facto system that metes bad grades onto schools serving children who are already bound to struggle in the system and gives a near free pass to schools that service students who are the least apt to struggle.”

It’s About The Kids Politics

The grading system invented by Bennett and his team in Indiana was mysterious from the beginning. As an op-ed by the editors of the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette noted, “Educators well-versed in test scores and evaluation systems couldn’t make sense of it” at the outset. The column quoted an Indiana superintendent who told legislators in a letter last November, “It is not criterion based, it does not statistically make sense, it does not account for standard measure of error, it is unexplainable and difficult to understand, and it fails to comply with current law and administrative code.”

But state lawmakers intent on punishing public schools never heeded these warnings, and a state board hand-picked by the governor backed Bennett all the way – and in fact, still aims to roll out a new grading system in the coming school year.

Much like Indiana’s grading system proved to be, Florida’s system for grading schools has been subjected to overt manipulation more often than not since it rolled out in 1999 – most recently, in fact, under Bennett’s watch when he requested that 262 schools slated to earn an F be reduced to 108 schools instead. When the state board complied, even the board chairman who voted to change the grades didn’t think “the truth is being revealed in the current grading system,” but “trusted Bennett to fix the problem.” So much for that plan.

According to Florida education professor Sherman Dorn, the problem with “any system of labeling in education” is that “the boundaries of categories are somewhat arbitrary,” yet the arbitrary labels end up carrying all sorts of major consequences for the school and the students it attends to. What parent wants to send his or her child to an “F-rated” school?

The consequences of school grading systems are what catapult them from the realm of cold, calculation into the white, hot mess of politics. When the system is not being led by, in Dorn’s words, “a lot of smart people in shirtsleeves figuring out how to crunch numbers to identify exactly the schools that need help and the school that should be highlighted as great,” what we get instead is a crude lever that a few – the governor, a few legislators and bureaucrats – can use to portray themselves, or their opponents, as heroes or villains to the public.

The fact that Florida’s school grading system is driven to a great extent by politics is not lost on the local media. As the Palm Beach Post recently editorialized, “school grades are a hoax” that is being “politically-driven.”

Florida’s school grading system has in fact been dubbed by parent activist Kathleen Oropeza as “the big lie.” Oropeza, co-founder of FundEducationNow.org, a nonpartisan Florida-based education advocacy group, wrote recently, “As parents, we teach our children empathy for others and the importance of fair play. How do we tell our children that although their grades are improving, their school is an F? How do we explain that a school grade is not true, but arbitrary?”

Dorn maintains that any state “stuck” with such a grading system as Florida’s can take measures to improve it. But wouldn’t it be wiser to not get “stuck” with one to begin with?

Nevertheless, these school grading systems have proliferated across the country.

Bennett Has Company

Bennett is hardly the first person to be a “reformer” turned faker.

As the Bennett scandal was going down, veteran education journalist John Merrow examined the results of “America’s most visible education activist” Michelle Rhee and found that the results of her reforms have been nowhere near the “success” that she and her boosters claim.

Despite Rhee’s well-oiled propaganda machine, her real track record, Merrow wrote, started to come to light “in March 2011 when USA Today reported on a rash of ‘wrong-to-right’ erasures on standardized tests and the Chancellor’s reluctance to investigate.”

But the test score erasures were just the tip of the toxic iceberg left in Rhee’s wake, as Merrow explained. Six years after Rhee and Kaya Henderson – a Rhee “deputy who “has stayed the course,” according to Merrow, – “DC public schools seem to be worse off by almost every conceivable measure.”

Not only have teaching and principal positions become a revolving door, central office staff has bloated, costs have increased, and a gaping achievement gap between minority students and their white peers has continued to expand and become the country’s worst example of inequity.

Nevertheless, Rhee’s ship sails on, buoyed by ever more largesse from the corporate foundations that favor her policies.

Interestingly, Merrow had to post his analysis of the Rhee failure on his own blog because he couldn’t find a press outlet willing to publish it – not a “national story,” one editor told him.

With the revelations of “Bennett-gate” now splashed across the national press – at a time when schools are not even in session – maybe now more journalists will be eager to expose the fake reforms of failed reformers.

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