Future of Schools

Here's what Tony Bennett thinks of his critics

PHOTO: Photo by Kyle Stokes courtesy of StateImpact Indiana

(The second of two stories with experts from former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. For the first part, go here.)

Tony Bennett was a hard-charging advocate for educational change in Indiana, but both the polices he pushed and his sometimes brusque style rubbed enough voters the wrong way that he was defeated after one term as the state’s elected superintendent of public instruction.

Bennett remains a champion of test-based accountability and Common Core standards. In his four years as the state’s top education policy leader, he pushed for more tests and consequences for schools, teachers and students for poor results. After his upset defeat by Glenda Ritz in 2012, he was appointed to a similar post by Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

But his Indiana battles ultimately cost him that job, too. After less than a year in Florida, emails he sent as superintendent in Indiana were published by journalists and brought charges that he manipulated the A to F school grading system to help a favored charter school, Christel House Academy. Bennett had a “plausible” case for making the grading changes, a Republican-sponsored investigation found, but the ethics charges soon followed, also based on email and electronic files that suggested he and his public office staff worked on campaign matters on state time.

Late last year, Bennett left Florida and moved back to his native southern Indiana. In a recent interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, he said he’s spent a lot of time thinking about his time in office in Indiana and has arrived at some conclusions about what he did right and wrong, and about how he dealt with those who opposed him and those who were affected by the changes he pushed for. Here’s more of what he had to say:

Ethics charges

On the question of his upcoming hearing, Bennett remains confident:

“We made every effort to comply with the law. We think to the best of our ability, and to what we’ve been able to determine, we think we did that.”

Bennett said even a conviction on ethics charges would not diminish his term in Indiana:

“The body of work is the body of work. What we wanted to do was set forth a process. I don’t think the ethics case is going to define our term. “

The Christel House grade change

All accountability systems have flaws, Bennett said:

“There was never a perfect system. We did not try to build — we knew we weren’t building a perfect system. As a matter of fact, what we were trying to build was something better than the previous system. I still think we did that.”

On the question of whether the Christel House grade change was appropriate, Bennett said the Republican-led investigation had exonerated him:

“When you’re doing these types of things, these are very complex algorithms and they do constantly require that you go back and check your work. And so what happened was very simply we found areas of the rule that didn’t have application to all of our schools and we went back and adjusted that.”

Indian’s current accountability system

Bennett is proud of the system he built. His was regret was not pushing further:

“I think what is becoming evident is that developing good school accountability systems requires a measure of growth, it requires a measure of absolute performance, it requires looking at how you close achievement gaps. I would tell you something we missed on is —- and I really wanted it, I had hoped that we would have been able to do this, and we didn’t —- is that we didn’t also talk about the excellence gap. What about making sure our upper 25 percent are growing?”

Work for ACT

Bennett went to work for ACT Aspire last year. Here’s what he said he is doing:

“I do everything from strategic development, strategic affairs, to discussions around test development, formative assessments, you know, collateral and peripheral services. Anything that they really need, that they believe my expertise lends itself to, is what I’m providing for them.”

Tests like the ACT, he said, should become the high school test for states like Indiana and Florida:

“I have always been an advocate of that, even dating back to my days in Indiana. We actually we were working on a pilot to examine the use of ACT and SAT as our secondary assessments, and then when we announced it in Florida, it got quite a splash.”

The school reform movement

Bennett said school reform in the U.S. is on the ropes:

“Education reform — and Common Core is part of the education reform climate (and) culture — I sometimes refer to it as a prize fight. From 2009 to 2011, the folks like me, the education “reformers,” we won. That was rounds one through five. You saw states all across the country pushing tough, great reforms: Colorado, Tennessee, Indiana, Louisiana really doing big things. You got to 2012, the push-back started. And I would tell you today, that the folks who don’t think like I think, I think they’ve won rounds six through ten.”

His own mistakes

Bennett acknowledged he made mistakes in Indiana, and the biggest was the way he talked to teachers:

“Sometimes, the reformers fell into the trap of saying, they’re public schools therefore they’re really not interested in education reform. And I think that we lost some supporters. I think that a great misstep on my part was the fact that I lumped great teachers in with bad teachers. If I was a great teacher in Indiana, I would sometimes say, ‘does he mean me?’ ”

Indiana’s academic success in the Daniels era

Arguing that Indiana made progress during his term, Bennett pointed to Indiana’s gains last year on the National Assessment of Education Progress, a test sometimes called The Nation’s Report Card:

“People say to me, how do you know that you were getting things right in Indiana? And I say, well, look at our NAEP results. You had Tennessee and you had Indiana, top two states in the United States in terms of growth on NAEP, well, we got growth in NAEP on the backs of teachers who were implementing Common Core. We got growth on NAEP on the backs of a very competitive educational market due to increased, due to open enrollment in public schools, due to charter schools and due to the expansion of vouchers. We’ve got it based on the fact that we were holding teachers and schools accountable. We got it on the fact that were holding schools accountable for making sure students could read at third grade. The question of whether this stuff works; I think Indiana is a great example that shows that it does work.”

Considering his future

Bennett said he’s looked backward more than forward since leaving Florida:

“The last nine months have allowed me to be very self-reflective, and that’s been a good thing for me. The one thing that my wife always reminds me is that when we, when I became a school administrator, when I got into education, I just wanted to do good things for kids. That’s what I cared about. But when I left my role as a district superintendent and went to the state chief in Indiana, I never had any delusions of grandeur that I was going to be like this national spokesperson for education reform. I never saw myself as that; I never wanted to be that.

I want to do whatever helps people who care about doing what’s right for children … Let me just say that (a) huge mistake we made, and I would challenge our skeptics and say they should be reflective in this way as well, a huge mistake I made was (saying) that anyone who didn’t agree with me didn’t care about kids.”

Facing his critics

Many times, Bennett said educators started out arguing with him but ultimately grew to respect him even if they didn’t agree. Among his examples was former Warren Township Superintendent Peggy Hinckley:

“Peggy was also a critic of mine in 2008. And when I learned how she ran her schools, I ended up contracting with her to help us turn around schools. But you know what? Peggy’s probably not with me on all the policies. But here’s what happened. Peggy and Tony came to the conclusion that all of us care about kids. We may not necessarily agree with policy positions but just because we don’t necessarily all agree on vouchers or something else, that doesn’t mean that Tony Bennett doesn’t care about kids, or it doesn’t mean that I’m a corporate reformer and just care about big business. I would never go and say that Diane Ravitch is something evil. Because I believe in her world she does care about kids.”

Too many public debates get polarized and unnecessarily personal, Bennett said:

“I heard somebody say, we need to have a civil discussion about the gay marriage amendment in Indiana. I’m sorry, that doesn’t happen. It should. It should happen. But the people who wanted the ban would tell you that the people who don’t support the ban are trying to erode society — no, nobody’s trying to do that. You know, I’m a conservative, right? I don’t believe that President Obama gets up every morning thinking, ‘what am I going to do to ruin America today?’ ”

The debate can change, Bennett said, but only if the debaters stop trying to win at politics:

“I think one of the things that we all have to have the stomach to do is sit down at the table, discuss the issues, and then walk away to our constituencies and not try to claim victory. And not try to say, this is what happened and try to get into the revisionist history mode that is so pervasive in politics. I think that’s huge. I used to say to people, you want to sit down, let’s sit down and have a talk, but let’s agree that when we leave here, we tell exactly the same account of what happened at the table. “

Since he left public life, Bennett said he believed at least some critics have come to appreciate him more as a person:

“I don’t have any righteous indignation about what happened. I am very humble about the mistakes we made. But I think for instance, there are people who have written and said things as a result of the ethics, as a result of philosophical positions, who have written and said things about me and they’ve never taken the hour that you’ve taken out of your day to meet me. You know? They’ve never said, that’s not the impression I get about that guy.

One of the nicest things that happened to me happened at South by Southwest, I was doing a panel at South by Southwest and a teacher from a charter school in Indianapolis was in attendance. And when it came to the question and answer he stood up and said, ‘I did not support Tony Bennett in 2012 and I’m sorry.’ “

Considering his legacy

Bennett said he hoped his work in Indiana would stand the test of time:

“I want to be remembered as a guy who cared about education, cared about doing what he thought was right. Whether or not everybody else did or not, doing what he thought was right. I want to go back to what I said — I didn’t come into this to build a legacy. I told Gov. Daniels that in 2008 — I am here because I want to serve with you. I had the most phenomenal opportunity a human being can have and that was to serve with the best governor in America for four years.”

words of advice

Here’s advice from a social worker on how schools can support transgender students right now

PHOTO: Getty Images
A flag for transgender and gender noncomforming people is held up at a rally for LGBTQ rights at Washington Square Park.

Soon after news broke that the Trump administration could further roll back civil rights protections for transgender students, one New York City teacher sent an email blast to her fellow educators.

She was searching for materials to use in biology class that reflect people of different gender identities, but couldn’t find anything.

Many city educators may similarly grapple with how to support transgender students after it was reported that the Trump administration is considering whether to narrowly define gender based on a person’s biology at birth — a move that could have implications for how sex discrimination complaints in schools are handled under federal Title IX.

Olin Winn-Ritzenberg — a social worker at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center — has some tips for navigating the questions and emotions this latest proposal might surface. He runs a support group for transgender teens and their peers who want to be allies, and says the most important advice is to just be willing to talk and listen.

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis,” he said. “By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support.”

Here’s what he had to say about recognizing transgender students, the protections that New York City and state offer, and some mistakes to avoid.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are your tips for how to explain the news to students and young people?

If it’s news like this, that’s hard to maybe pin down what it exactly means (this was a memo, and does it have teeth? What does it mean?) I would look to them for the feeling of it. That’s what’s really important and a lot of what’s going on is just fear mongering, and a denial of trans existence. And that is something our young people will be able to speak to, to no end, and that they’re not strangers to — especially under this administration.

I would want to help ground things and offer some reassurance that a memo doesn’t have teeth and that we can look to our local New York City and state protections — that we’re lucky to live in a place that has such strong protections, especially for students.

What kinds of protections should New York City students expect to have in schools?

A student in New York City could expect to use the facilities that align with their identity, and could expect to possibly see all-gender facilities in their schools — as there are more and more of those being converted. They can expect to be able to file or register a complaint of discrimination against other students or even staff, and can expect to have an LGBT liaison within the Department of Education. They can expect to have their name and pronoun respected and utilized, and come up with a plan with a staff member around, if they’re transitioning socially or in any form at school, how they would like to be supported and how that looks in each unique situation.

It doesn’t always happen. But the fact that we do have it in policy means that there’s a means to pursuing it and that the institution is on the side of the trans or gender non-conforming student and would help to rectify any situation that’s feeling unsafe or unsupportive.

How can teachers and adults show support for their transgender students right now?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that you want to wait until somebody is in crisis. It shouldn’t be necessarily on any student to bring it up. By bringing it up ourselves, we’re modeling support. Even though this is a memo and we’re all waiting to see what they’re going to try to do with it, we know the intentions behind it…

I think we can speak directly to that and not make the debate about, ‘Is there or isn’t there a trans experience?’ That’s maybe one of the most powerful things. Yes, we exist. And if you’re an ally: ‘I’m a witness. You exist. You’re valid and as valid as anybody else.’

What would that validation look like in a school setting, say, if you’re a math teacher?

I think that making things visible is powerful. So if there’s a public bulletin board in a hallway and it says, ‘We stand with our trans staff and students,’ and then people have an opportunity to sign it.

I really think it can be an individualized response by a school depending on that school’s culture and if there is leadership by students, say, ‘We would like to be vocal and explicit in our support. You come up with the idea.’ Or, not to put it on them but say, ‘We’d love to be guided or get input from you on how to do that,’ so it is, wherever possible youth and trans-led.

Say, ‘What do you need and what can we provide?’

What should teachers and adults avoid saying or doing at a time like this? What are common mistakes to avoid?

I think a common, misguided mistake — that’s not necessarily hateful, but is really harmful nonetheless — is propping up a debate that’s going to hinge on ‘Do trans people exist?’ Or, ‘Defend or argue against sex being a binary, scientific, biological basis to view narrowly.’  

If a teacher wanted to engage with this but the assignment were more like, ‘What are your thoughts,’ there is so much education that needs to be done first — and that can put a person’s very identity and being up for debate in a classroom setting.

Another really bad thing would be just to ignore it because people are maybe scared of going there or don’t know what to do.


Top principal’s ambitious goal: 100 percent at grade level — and her school is close

PHOTO: Aisha Thomas
Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, won a national school leadership award.

In late September, Aisha Thomas, principal of Zach Elementary School in Fort Collins, got a phone call from a student’s mother. The woman said her daughter had been telling everyone that she wanted to grow up to be a principal just like Thomas.

It was particularly heart-warming because the girl was multiethnic, just like Thomas.

“I have arrived,” Thomas recalled thinking at the time.

Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come. In early October, Zach Elementary was one of five Colorado schools recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School, and on Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that Thomas had won a prestigious leadership award.

Thomas is among 11 principals nationwide — all leaders of Blue Ribbon schools — selected for the Terrel H. Bell Award for Outstanding School Leadership.

“I’m floored,” she said. “I just come to work and I do what I do, and I love kids and I love people.”

But there’s more to it than that.

Thomas, who’s in her sixth year at Zach and her 17th in the Poudre School District, steers the school using five-year plans, frequent classroom coaching visits, and an emphasis on teacher collaboration.

It’s critical to know “where you want to take your school and your staff,” Thomas said. And then to be patient.

“It does take five years of churning through the day-to-day and showing up for people,” she said. “It takes time.”

The school’s latest five-year plan includes a goal that 100 percent of students will meet grade-level academic and behavior expectations. The school, situated on the southeast side of Fort Collins, uses a curriculum based on the Core Knowledge sequence.

Close to 90 percent of Zach students already meet academic standards, Thomas said, but it’s not enough. Even if there’s only one child missing the mark, what if that one kid is yours, she asked.

Thomas said school leaders have always tracked serious behavior problems, but this year will begin monitoring smaller classroom disruptions and distractions that affect student learning. The school also recently hired a coordinator who runs student groups on social-emotional learning and coaches teachers on managing student behavior.

Before she came to Zach, Thomas was a middle school counselor and assistant principal in the district. Since then, she’s discovered she loves the elementary age group.

“I love how creative the kids are and they’re just sponges for new information,” she said. “They don’t take themselves too seriously and they’ll tell you if you’re having a bad hair day.”