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.”

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

next steps

Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.