On Tony Bennett’s “grading-gate,” avoid the rush to judgment

There’s nothing like a mid-summer “scandal” to get the education press buzzing, and there’s little doubt that the media will continue to have a field day with revelations that Tony Bennett worked to change Indiana’s A–F grading system after learning that a high-performing school started by a wealthy donor would receive a mediocre C.

I don’t know what really went on inside the Indiana Department of Education—and neither do you. And that’s my point: Try to resist the rush to judgment.

As a former government official myself, the episode has triggered a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder. I know how reasonable and even principled actions of public officials can be spun to look malevolent in the hands of eager journalists and political enemies.

Specifically, the dust-up reminds me of the famous Reading First fracas, starring my friend Chris Doherty, who led the federal reading initiative. Disgruntled vendors filed FOIA requests to get their hands on internal emails, including some memorable (if not family-friendly) missives from Doherty about the “dirtbag” publishers who were pressuring state and local officials to use Reading First funds to pay for their discredited, ineffective whole-language programs. Doherty, who rightly saw research-based reading instruction as akin to the cure for cancer, worked his heart out to keep these (accurately-named) dirtbags from succeeding. And for that he was fired from his job, bullied and berated by Congressman George Miller, and threatened with criminal charges.

Washington moved on, as did Chris, and then a few years ago something funny happened: NAEP scores in fourth-grade reading jumped significantly, especially for the low-income, low achieving students who were Reading First’s focus. Interesting.

Back to Bennett, another friend (and winner of our cheeky Education Reform Idol contest two summers ago). He had spent months (and much political capital) building an A–F accountability system for Indiana’s schools. These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.

The easy thing for Bennett to do—as with Doherty before him—was to accept the formulaic outcome as a foregone conclusion. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. But he knew that the A–F system wouldn’t have “face validity”—with the public or with politicians—if even obviously excellent schools didn’t make the grade.

(Longtime education wonks may remember a similar situation in New York City from the early days of the Bloomberg/Klein era, when their brand-new school grading system labeled some of Gotham’s most sought-after schools as failures. The problem wasn’t the schools, it was the metric.)

So Bennett worked to fix the problem—not, I believe, because the school was connected to a donor, but because no one would trust an accountability system that labeled even excellent schools as worthy of C’s or worse. (As I said the other day, we reformers need to be as worried about slandering the reputations of good schools as we are about letting bad schools off the hook.)

Bennett’s political enemies will ascribe impure motives to his actions. The rest of us should refuse to join along.

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