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.”

Future of Schools

How this Indiana district realized counselors weren’t spending enough time counseling

PHOTO: Denver Post file

About a year ago, the counselors in the Beech Grove school district made a discovery: They were spending less than half of their time on counseling.

Instead of meeting with students one-on-one or in small groups, they were spending most of their days on routine tasks, such as overseeing lunch, proctoring exams, and filling in for secretaries.

When they realized how much time those other tasks were taking away from counseling work, it was “an eye-opener for everyone,” said Paige Anderson, the district college and career coordinator.

The counselors began tracking their time as part of a planning grant from the Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy. In 2016, the foundation launched Comprehensive Counseling Initiative for Indiana K-12 Students, a $49 million effort to improve counseling in Indiana. Experts say meaningful counseling can help schools support students as they navigate problems both at home and in the classroom. (The Lilly Endowment also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

What Beech Grove staff members learned during their planning process is already changing their approach to counseling, said Trudi Wolfe, a counselor at Central Elementary School, who was instrumental in applying for the Lilly grants. Now, administrators are taking on more tasks like proctoring tests. And one intermediate school hired a new counselor.

“The schools will take counselors and meet the needs of the school,” Wolfe said. “Part of the process is helping administrators understand, school counselors need to be doing school counseling.”

Last month, the endowment announced its second round of implementation grants, which awarded about $12.2 million to 39 schools and districts. Beech Grove will receive $259,727 to redesign its counseling program to focus on the social and emotional needs of students, with the largest chunk of that money going to staff training.

The aim is to develop a strategy for handling the trauma that students face at home, said Wolfe. Over the past 10 years, the number of students in the district who are poor enough to get subsidized meals has risen by about 25 percentage points to 72 percent of students.

Beech Grove has also been affected by the opioid crisis, said Wolfe. “We have kids living with parents who are dependent on drugs, and they are not meeting the needs of their children.”

Those growing challenges mean that it is essential for counselors to have a plan for helping students instead of just meeting the needs of each day, Wolfe said.

Counseling is an investment that can have long-term benefits. After Colorado began an initiative to hire more school counselors, participating schools had higher graduation rates, increased enrollment in career-and-technical programs, and more students taking college-level courses. A 2016 report found that by keeping students from dropping out, the Colorado program saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

But in Indiana schools, counselors often have large caseloads. In 2014-2015, Indiana had an average of 543 students per counselor, above the national average and significantly higher than the American School Counselor Association recommendation of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Hiring more counselors alone is not enough to create stronger school counseling programs, said Tim Poynton, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies counseling. They also have to spend their time on meaningful counseling work.

“You need more school counselors. That’s necessary, but it’s also not sufficient,” said Poynton. “If you hire more school counselors, and you have them doing lunch duty and things that basically you don’t need a master’s degree in school counseling to do, then you’re not going to see those important metrics move.”

When schools were applying for the Lilly Endowment grants, many reported that counselors were focused on urgent social and emotional challenges and struggled to help students plan for the future, according to the endowment.

Those challenges can have ripple effects, making it harder for school staff to tackle long-term goals such as ensuring that students sign up and meet the requirements for the state’s scholarship program, 21st Century Scholars.

If counseling is done well, most students will be prepared to go to college, even if they do not seem interested when they are in high school, Poynton said. But when counselors are dealing with urgent problems, they have significantly less time to devote to college preparation, he said.

“In urban schools, school counselors are often focused on getting students to school and meeting their immediate needs,” Poynton said. “In the higher-performing suburban schools, where the students and families don’t have those same kind of issues or concerns, the emphasis is almost entirely on the college-going process.”

In a statement from the endowment, Vice President for Education Sara B. Cobb said the response to the Lilly grants shows increased awareness of the crucial need for counseling programs.

“We are impressed with how school leaders have engaged a wide variety of community partners to assess the academic, college, career and social and emotional needs of their students, and respond to them,” Cobb said.

The Lilly grants are going to a broad array of schools, and they are using the money in different ways. At Damar Charter Academy, which educates students with special needs, few students earn traditional diplomas or have good options for higher education. That’s why school staff plan to use the $100,000 counseling grant they received to build relationships with employers and create training programs for skills such as small engine repair, automotive maintenance, landscaping, and culinary arts, said Julie Gurulé, director of student services.

“If we can commit to getting them the skills they need while they are with us,” she said, “they will be able to go out and gain meaningful employment, and … lead the kind of lives that we all want to.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Beech Grove City Schools $259,727
  • Damar Charter School $100,000
  • Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township $671,300
  • Purdue Polytechnic Indianapolis High School $100,000

Delayed decision

Officials promised to update a Giuliani-era agreement between the NYPD and city schools almost a year ago. So where is it?

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A school safety agent at Staten Island's New Dorp High School.

Last October, city officials said they were on the cusp of announcing changes in the way the New York Police Department interacts with schools — an overhaul that began more than three years ago and sparked months of negotiations with advocacy groups.

But nearly 10 months later, the city has not announced any revisions to the “memorandum of understanding” that governs police involvement with school security, leaving in place a nearly two-decade-old agreement that has not been altered since Rudy Giuliani was mayor and “zero tolerance” discipline policies were in vogue.

Now, police and education officials say revisions won’t be made public until this fall. That timeline has infuriated advocates who said they made progress with senior city officials but have recently been kept in the dark and fear their recommendations are being ignored.

“Here we are three years later without any explanation from the administration,” said Kesi Foster, an organizer with Make the Road New York and the Urban Youth Collaborative who serves on a mayoral task force charged with revising the agreement. “It’s extremely frustrating and disheartening.”

As Mayor Bill de Blasio has worked to overhaul school discipline policies, which have reduced suspensions and student arrests, advocates say the outdated MOU has become a roadblock.

The 1998 agreement officially gives the city’s police department authority over school safety agents, a force that rivals Houston’s entire police department in size. The agreement was controversial at the time, with some city officials saying the presence of police officials made student misbehavior more likely to end in arrests.

Mark Cannizzaro, head of the city’s principals union who was a school administrator in the 1990s, said it was not unheard of for principals to consider calling the police for incidents as minor as shoving. “There was, at one point, a zero tolerance approach that didn’t make sense,” he said.

The current memorandum is a reflection of that era, advocates say, and is one of the reasons students of color are disproportionately likely to wind up in the criminal justice system instead of the principal’s office. It was supposed to be updated every four years, but has still never been revised.

De Blasio seemed to agree that the memorandum needed to be reformed, and convened a group of advocates and senior city officials who recommended changes. Among the group’s recommendations, released in 2016, were giving school leaders the lead role in addressing student misbehavior, making it more difficult for school safety agents to place students in handcuffs, and ensuring students are informed of their rights before they’re questioned.

Johanna Miller, the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said senior officials — including Mark Rampersant, the education department’s director of security, and Brian Conroy, the chief of the police department’s school safety division — participated in the task force and seemed receptive to changes. The group agreed there should be limits to the type of offenses that could trigger police involvement, multiple participants said, excluding offenses such as smoking cigarettes, cutting class, and certain instances of insubordination.

But when the city presented the group with a draft agreement, many of their recommendations had vanished, according to people who were present during the meetings, some of whom requested anonymity because the city required that participants sign nondisclosure agreements.

“They basically eliminated all of the major changes that we made,” Miller said, adding that the group requested another opportunity to change the agreement more than a year ago. “And that was the last we heard of it.”

City officials would not comment on why the process has been delayed or why key recommendations never made it into the draft agreement. Some task force members said they believed education and police department lawyers, who had not participated in the group’s discussions, played a role in stripping the draft agreement of the most important changes.

An education department spokeswoman acknowledged in an email that “agency lawyers have been involved in order to ensure the MOU is aligned with existing local, state, and federal laws and in the best interest of students and families,” but did not comment further on why certain changes were not included.

Asked why task force members were required to sign nondisclosure agreements, the official said the decision was made “To protect the confidentiality of any shared student data and remain within (The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) compliance.”

The task force still meets quarterly, although several of its members say they have not received updates and did not know the city planned to release an updated memorandum this fall.

“The DOE and NYPD have been working in close partnership to finalize updates to the MOU and ensure that the changes are done correctly in the best interest of students and families,” education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote in an email.

Cannizzaro, the principals union chief, said he has not been informed about potential changes to the agreement, adding that school leaders should have discretion in how misconduct is handled and noted the police play an important role in school safety. “We certainly appreciate their presence — we need their presence,” he said.

Some members of the task force wondered whether the selection of a new schools chief has delayed the process, and at their most recent meeting in May, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza stopped by. “He said something to the extent of, he knew it was an issue and was going to put eyes on it,” said Nancy Ginsburg, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society and a member of the task force.

Ginsburg said she appreciates that changes take time, but also stressed that the current memorandum can make it difficult to hold officials accountable since the agreement is so vague.

“It’s impossible to hold the agencies to anything if there are no rules,” she said.