Are Children Learning

Tony Bennett: Indiana should have renamed Common Core at the start

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

Indiana’s former state Superintendent Tony Bennett was his usual outspoken self on a recent trip to Denver.

He was invited there to speak at a Donnell Kay Foundation speaker series and while he was in town he sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Maura Walz. (The foundation also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat Colorado.) Bennett, who faces a May hearing on ethics charges for allegedly using the resources of his office for campaign purposes, talked about the case, Indiana’s dumping of Common Core standards, his attitude toward his critics and what he hoped his legacy would be.

Bennett was a strong early champion for Common Core, education standards that 45 state ultimately agreed to follow. Indiana last month passed a bill to void its adoption of Common Core and draw up new state standards. Here’s what Bennett had to say about Common Core.

Lawmakers, he said, didn’t always know much about Common Core:

Bennett said the pushback that led Indiana to void its adoption of Common Core, and other states to consider following its lead, is unfortunate:

“I think we have legislators that are against something that they really haven’t researched very well. For instance, I can tell you, I am not certain some of the legislators I’ve dealt with who are opposed to Common Core could stand up and tell you why they’re against Common Core.”

On Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, Bennett explained his motives:

“When I was in Indiana, I pursued adoption of the Common Core in large part because I was very alarmed at the percentage and rate at which students had to be remediated leaving high school. So I thought that was a terrible drain on our system; I thought it was wrong. Gov. (Mitch) Daniels one time referred to it as a breach of warranty, that when we send kids out of the K-12 system and they need to be remediated. So I looked at Common Core as a potential solution to that. Higher standards, greater rigor, greater expectations, and an opportunity to elevate our children to be more competitive. The discussion has been lost in all of this, federal overreach, by inserting the word curriculum as opposed to standards.”

Bennett blamed messaging for the Common Core backlash:

“It is unfortunate that the federal government felt the need to be so visibly in front of this issue. Because it wasn’t their issue. So that’s been a problem. In conservative states that are worried about federal overreach, that in and of itself created a problem.”

But Indiana’s Common Core adoption, he said, was not influenced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the federal government:

“I never one day felt pressure from Secretary Duncan to adopt Common Core. Never once. And we were a state that dropped out of Race to the Top. So believe me, if a state could have walked in and said, hey, we’re not going to do this Common Core thing, it could have been us.”

Criticism of Common Core, he said, is often contradictory. Critics say the standards are too weak and at the same time they say Common Core tests are too hard:

“It’s been an argument that comes out of both sides of one’s mouth. In one instance, we don’t think that the standards are very good, but on the other instance, we don’t like the fact that our students’ performance might go down.”

The majority of Indiana teachers, Bennett said, support Common Core:

“We were all-in in Indiana. As a matter of fact, I think that Indiana is going to be a really interesting study going down because I frankly think teachers were ready to move in that direction.”

Bennett said there never would have been a Common Core controversy in Indiana if the state had just adopted them with a different name:

“I always told my staff, it was one of my greatest mistakes in office: I should have re-branded those things as the Hoosier Standards for College and Career Readiness. And these are Indiana’s new standards! These are not Common Core, these are Indiana’s new standards and we’re going to adopt them like Indiana standards are always adopted! Which we did. We’re going to implement them the way we’ve always implemented standards so that there was this total buy-in.”

Indiana’s well-regarded prior standards were not superior to Common Core, as critics often argue, he said:

“Indiana standards that we worked off of prior to the adoption and implementation of Common Core, we referred to as a mile wide and an inch deep. They did more to take away local control than Common Core did! We had so many indicators and so many standards that teachers were literally trying to make sure they hit every one and jam all this information into 180 days of school. With Common Core, the fewer, clearer, deeper standards — it enabled, in my opinion, and I’m a former classroom teacher, my daughter is currently a third grade teacher and has taught in the fifth grade, if you ask her, you know what she would say? This gives me greater flexibility, greater autonomy, to be more creative about developing state of the art, 21st century lessons for my kids.”

History alive

Inspired by Hamilton, Colorado students perform their own raps and poems on the big stage

PHOTO: Photo by Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post
From left, West Leadership Academy's Alexandra Andazola Chavez, Jose Torres Andazola, Rossy Martinez Sanchez, and Zehydi Chaparro Rojas perform "The Story of Peggy."

The plush red seats at the Wednesday matinee of Hamilton in Denver were filled with 2,700 teenagers who’d spent weeks studying a special curriculum about the hip-hop musical’s namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the other Founding Fathers. Even though the show’s four-week Denver run had been sold out for months, the teenagers were seeing it for free.

Some of them had dressed for the occasion in high-heeled boots and three-piece suits. Others wore jeans and Converse. They represented 38 Colorado high schools that serve high proportions of students from low-income families, and many of them were students of color.

That’s notable because most of the cast of Hamilton are actors of color. Hamilton, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson are played by black and Latino actors, a decision creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has said reflects America’s racial makeup and is meant to pull the audience into the story of an immigrant, Hamilton, who played an important role in the nation’s founding.

Before the show, 23 students took the stage to perform their own spoken word poems, raps, monologues, and scenes inspired by what they’d learned from the Hamilton Education Program curriculum, which was devised in part by Miranda and has its own hashtag: #EduHam.

“My body felt electrified,” said Josiah Blackbear, a 15-year-old sophomore at West Early College in Denver, who performed a rap he’d written about Alexander Hamilton. “The words I was speaking brought power and truth to the rest of the venue.”

Here is video of six of the student performances, including one entirely in Spanish.


During Memphis visit, former Newark schools chief touts ways to change student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

As the top schools chief in Newark, Cami Anderson was horrified at the strict discipline policy she saw in one of her high schools. Since then, she has left the New Jersey district and taken her ideas on the road about reducing suspensions and moving away from exclusionary discipline practices.

This week, Anderson came to Memphis as part of her Discipline Revolution Project at the invitation of Stand for Children Tennessee, The Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, School Seed, and Shelby County Schools. The New Teacher Project is partnering with her on the national tour.

Anderson has been meeting with Shelby County Schools administrators and board members as well as charter school leaders, philanthropists, education advocates, and students. Her time will culminate in a public event hosted by Stand for Children on Thursday at the National Civil Rights Museum.

Chalkbeat sat down with Anderson after she explained to a group of about 40 charter leaders her six focus areas to reduce classroom disruptions while also preventing sending students home when they’re in trouble. (This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.)

Related story: Tennessee students more likely to be suspended if they’re black boys — or live in Memphis

Question: How did you land on student discipline as an area you wanted to focus on?

Answer: If there’s actually a thread in my career, it’s this. I essentially ran the system of supports for the kids in New York City who are on their last stop on the train, so to speak. I’ve always worked with kids who are marginalized, the ones who really struggled in school. So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we need to get better at collectively to serve all kids, to really embrace the “all means all.” That’s been my lifelong question.

The three areas to me where inequities are most obvious are: enrollment policies, how we handle discipline, and mobility and how a kid stays connected to school. Discipline is where it comes to a head. It’s both a place where our collective inability to reach all kids shows up and it’s also an opportunity if we actually figure out how to prevent young people from misstepping in the first place, but then respond in healthy ways when they do Then we’d actually start to solve the broader equity issues.

Q. School leaders say they don’t want to have a lot of suspensions because students miss out on class. But they’re also not sure what to replace suspensions with to manage student behavior well. What would you say to them?

"You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something."Cami Anderson

A. That’s one of the main reasons we started Discipline Revolution Project. We don’t want you to do X, whatever X is: suspend kids, use corporal punishment. But educators are saying, rightfully so, then what are we doing? Our whole framework is trying to answer that question and give them tools to get to the “why” behind finding alternative responses.

Most people who use punitive or exclusionary discipline don’t actually think it works that well. They just don’t have a lot of other tools. So, when you give folks a lot of other tools and they find that it works, it’s a very powerful thing. When people try out a restorative conference, they say “Oh, I feel better. The kid feels better. And we actually got back to the lesson faster.” You can’t just be against something. You have to be for something.

I’ve heard a lot of demand for basics of restorative practices (conflict resolution between students and students and teachers), though I don’t think they should stop there. They want training for student support teams. And overwhelmingly, the places I’ve been want to talk about how teacher bias plays into who gets disciplined, but they don’t know how to start the conversation and for it to be productive.

Q. Memphis’ two school districts have emphasized a bottom-up approach on discipline reform: adding behavior specialists, school counselors, soliciting support from principals and teachers. How have you seen other districts do it?

"Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that."Cami Anderson

A. I’ve seen districts lead with policy and only make statements declaring they will cut suspensions in half or put a moratorium on suspensions or rewrite their policy. Policy-level change is critical but insufficient if you only do that. What you see is folks who are actually on the ground working with students may not have the strategies to replace it with something productive. That causes people to be more entrenched in their views that discipline reform wouldn’t work, some schools subtly pushing kids out, underreporting discipline data, all that.

I’ve also seen the opposite where it’s all about professional development and capacity but at no point is there is any accountability for those same schools, for example, that suspend 90 percent of the kids. People watch what you do, not what you say. If you don’t align your policies and your actions with your values, then you also have limits to the impacts you have for kids.

Frustrated with high suspension rates, Memphis schools shift to restorative justice

I’ve come to believe you need all of it and you need everyone working together. Stop admiring the problem and get on to the solutions.

Q. What pushed student discipline practices more widely into the national conversation? What have you observed from the conversation here in Memphis?

A. People are looking at data, which is a good thing, and seeing patterns like everyone else. Another thing is I believe a lot of people who got into education reform are completely dedicated to equity. And now they’re seeing this side of it, and like someone said in the training today, they feel a sense of “healthy guilt.” I think it’s great they’re having the courage to be honest. And then a lot of folks had kids. You start thinking, “Do I want any of that happening to my own kid?” I’m personally heartened and encouraged and motivated to see a collective sense of responsibility and focus on this.

There’s a lot of energy and candor in Memphis about this issue. Some other cities I’ve been in think they have it figured out when they don’t. When there’s that much energy, I think anywhere — including in Memphis — people can be tempted to devolve into the blame game, no matter what district or charter hat you wear. That energy can be the greatest asset or greatest liability.

Study: When Chicago cut down on suspensions, students saw test scores and attendance rise

Q. The school shooting in Parkland has been a catalyst for more conversations about the trauma students bring into the classroom — conversations that were already happening about violence in low-income communities of color. What would you say to school leaders on how to address that?

A. I’m most interested to know what adults can do to mitigate those risk factors for young people who experience trauma. I feel like it could take us down a very bad path to just observe that there are things called “adverse childhood experiences.” To me, that’s not enough. The question then is what are the environments and strategies that we can put in place as educators and adults to mitigate the impact of those traumatic experiences. Things like relationships, trust, consistency, high expectations, high supports, and support healthy identity development especially in times of conflict. We know from research that young people who face long odds who ultimately prevail, they are exposed to environments that really embody those things.

You can both be aware of and acknowledge those experiences that make it harder for them to succeed in school. But if you stop there, I don’t think you’re doing justice to young people. There are things we can do in schools to help create the environment to help them succeed.