Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The looting phase of education reform and the other Tony Bennett

[In response to Joseph's prod]

I realize regular readers must be getting tired of these stories (new readers can see why by searching this blog for "looting"), but it looks like we have to go over this one more time. When it comes to metric-based education reform:

1. There are numerous easy and effective ways of gaming the system;

2. There are huge financial and political incentives for gaming the system;

3. There are powerful advocates across the political spectrum (from David Brooks to Jonathan Chait and Matthew Yglesias) who can be relied upon to provide ample cover for those who game the system.

Under these circumstances, it would be shocking if we weren't seeing extensive cooking and out-and-out fraud. Still, even by the standards we've come to expect, this is really something.

From a truly impressive piece of investigative journalism by Tom LoBianco:
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s marks.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an “A,” despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.


Bennett, who now is reworking Florida’s grading system as that state’s education commissioner, reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that DeHaan’s school received special treatment. He said discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other “combined” schools — those that included multiple grade levels — across the state.

“There was not a secret about this,” he said. “This wasn’t just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid.”

However, the emails clearly show Bennett’s staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.

Bennett estimated that 12 or 13 schools benefited, not just Christel House, but the emails show DeHaan’s charter was the catalyst for any changes.

“The fact that anyone would say I would try to cook the books for Christel House is so wrong. It’s frankly so off base,” Bennett said in a telephone interview Monday evening.

Bennett rocketed to prominence with the help of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors, such as DeHaan. Bennett is a co-founder of Bush’s Chiefs for Change, a group consisting mostly of Republican state school superintendents pushing school vouchers, teacher merit pay and many other policies enacted by Bennett in Indiana.


But trouble loomed when Indiana’s then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012, email to [then-chief of staff Heather] Neal.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”

By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a “C.”

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a “C” to an “A,” including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high “B” look like an “A” and changing the grade just for Christel House.

It’s not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan’s grade jumping twice.


Bennett said Monday he felt no special pressure to deliver an “A” for DeHaan. Instead, he argued, if he had
paid more attention to politics he would have won re-election in Indiana.

Yet Bennett wrote to staff twice in four days, directly inquiring about DeHaan’s status. Gubera broke the news after the second note that “terrible” 10th grade algebra results had “dragged down their entire school.”


When Bennett requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an “A.” Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to “legally” change the cutoff for an “A.”

“We can revise the rule,” Bennett responded.

Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its “A.” By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75. Gubera resigned shortly afterward.
This is a big story for a number of reasons.

There's the scale of the thing.

There's the funding aspect; assuming something of a zero-sum arrangement, some schools had to be cheated out of some of the money that was coming to them.

There's the seemingly complete lack of integrity on the part of the Indiana Department of Education. Pressure to change a grading formula is one of the most common ethical challenges educators face. We all know the right thing to do in this situation, but it appears from the emails that no one in power seriously tried to hold the ethical line.

There's Bennett's position in the reform movement. Under his watch, Florida is pushing one of the most extreme reform agendas. Perhaps more troubling, even before the Indiana revelations came out, the Florida Department of Education had already been accused of cooking charter school results since he arrived.

1 comment:

  1. All I can say is errrrr...

    I do suspect that suspect that many charter schools are merely political "favors".