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.”

baby steps

Efforts to integrate schools in one corner of New York City show promising signs, according to new data

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
P.S. 15 Roberto Clemente is one of the District 1 schools that met enrollment targets under a new diversity plan.

A school integration plan launched in Manhattan’s District 1 showed early signs of progress, according to data released Thursday by the education department.

Seven of the district’s 16 elementary schools met their targets for offering a more diverse group of students admission. If families accept those offers, it would mean three more of the district’s schools fall within the city’s goals than before the plan was implemented.

More progress was made when it comes to offering admission to a similar share of students with disabilities across all schools. All but one school — East Village Community School — met their goals.

The goal is for all elementary schools to enroll a share of needy students — those who are homeless, living in poverty, or still learning English — that is close to District 1’s average of 67 percent. Before the integration plan was implemented, only four elementary schools in the district fell within that range.

The district also wants schools to admit a similar proportion of students who have special needs: between 9 and 29 percent.

But large disparities remain among schools. At the Neighborhood School, only 38 percent of offers went to needy students, compared with 81 percent of offers at Franklin D. Roosevelt. East Village Community school only offered 7 percent of seats to students with disabilities. At the STAR Academy, it was 25 percent.

“There was no belief that, in one year, this was going to transform everything,” said Matt Gonzales, who supports school integration work through the nonprofit New York Appleseed. “So it sounds like there’s been some shifts and that’s a really positive development.”

District 1 is the first place where the city is trying to integrate elementary schools across an entire district. The stakes for the trial are high: Encompassing the Lower East Side, East Village and a sliver of Chinatown, the district is widely seen as a potential model for other integration plans that are in the planning stages.

The numbers released Thursday only reflect admissions offers made. Parents still have to accept them. But they could also decide to send their children elsewhere, meaning the student enrollment could ultimately be different.

“If this was enrollment, I would be high-fiving everyone,” said Naomi Peña, the president of the local Community Education Council who has been an outspoken advocate for the district’s integration plans. “I think the real meat and potatoes is the actual registration.”

Districts across the city, including District 15 in Brooklyn, are developing their own proposals to spur more school diversity. So far, District 1 — a small, diverse neighborhood where all of the elementary schools are unzoned — is the only place where the city has moved forward after years of advocacy from parents.

Under the new admissions model, needy students receive priority for a portion of seats in the incoming kindergarten and pre-K classes at every school. It is coupled with an on-the-ground effort to make schools more welcoming to families of all backgrounds, and encourage parents to consider schools they may have shunned in the past. That work has been seen as crucial to making the plan work, since parents still have to choose where to send their children.

Another test of the model will come later this spring, when offers for pre-Kindergarten admissions go out.

The education department says progress is being made in other elementary schools across the city that have pursued their own integration efforts through the Diversity in Admissions program. Most of the dozen schools in that program met their targets for the upcoming year, according to data released by the education department.

Similar to the efforts in District 1, schools that opt-into the program reserve a portion of their open seats for needy students. Except the Diversity in Admissions program is school-by-school, instead of district-wide, and participating schools set their own enrollment goals. Some aim to admit more students who are in the child welfare system or have incarcerated parents, with targets ranging from 20 percent of students, to 75 percent.

I am excited to build on the progress we’ve made,” the outgoing schools Chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said in a statement.


Impressed by Memphis students planning April walkout, Hopson gives his blessing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson meets with student leaders from Shelby County Schools and other Memphis-area schools to discuss their planned walkout on April 20 to protest gun violence in the wake of this year's shooting rampage at a Florida high school.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Thursday that students who walk out of Memphis schools next month to protest gun violence will not be punished.

He also invited student organizers of the April 20 demonstration to speak April 24 to the Board of Education for Shelby County Schools “so our community can hear from these wonderful, thoughtful students.”

Hopson met Wednesday with about a dozen student leaders from district high schools, including White Station, Ridgeway, Central, and Whitehaven and Freedom Preparatory Academy.

“Based on this incredible presentation, I have agreed to be supportive of the walkout, as long as it’s done in an orderly fashion and as long as we work some of the details out,” Hopson said after the meeting.

“No students will be suspended or expelled for taking part in this event. No teachers will be disciplined for being supportive of these students,” he said.

At least six Memphis-area high schools are planning student walkouts on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

Shelby County students did not participate in the March 14 nationwide walkout because Shelby County Schools and other local districts were on spring break. That walkout, which was held on the one-month anniversary of a shooting in Parkland, Florida, pushed for stricter gun laws and memorialized the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The April 20 walkout is part of a related nationwide “day of action” that encourages school events focused on pushing policy changes to reduce gun violence.

Hopson’s declarations put to rest concerns that students might be punished for trying to exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech while the district also seeks to ensure school safety. Earlier this month, school districts in Arkansas, Georgia, Maryland, and New Jersey threatened students with unexcused absences, detention, and disciplinary action if they participated in the March 14 walkout.

Most of the student organizers in Memphis are involved in BRIDGES, a program that brings students together across racial and socio-economic divides to discuss civic issues.

Hopson called their walkout plan “one of the most amazing presentations I’ve ever seen.”

Many Memphis-area students also plan to participate Saturday in the related nationwide “March for Our Lives.” More details on the local march are available here.