The Tony Bennett Flap: First, Think About the Kids

I first met Tony Bennett over the phone in 2009. He called me at the Fordham offices to talk about something I wrote regarding Indiana and Race to the Top. He was very sharp, extremely reform-oriented, strong-backboned, and—in fine Midwestern tradition—decent and straightforward. Every interaction I’ve had with Tony since has only reinforced my early impressions.

So my initial reaction to his resignation was personal: I’m terribly disappointed for him and his family; these things are grueling to go through. I hope people have some level of sympathy. Of course, we should also be disappointed and frustrated if additional news, beyond this excellent analysis, makes it appear that this was more a case of playing favorites than fixing an error.

But—without going all cliché on you—we need to think about kids right now. First, Indiana’s: The reforms Tony advanced in the Hoosier State were invaluable. The student-performance progress that state has made is notable. The Christel House situation puts Indiana at a fork in the road. Do they use this as a reason to roll back the last era’s reforms? Or do they see this as an isolated incident (big or small, depending on what is ultimately revealed) that won’t be allowed to undermine the smart path they are on? I’m more than a little worried that retrenchment may be in the offing. For example, consider Governor Pence’s recent statement pulling back on the Common Core and common assessments.

This whole thing is also very unfortunate for Florida, a state that was setting the curve in recent years. It’s now gone through five chiefs in fewer than four years. That’s a mess. States that have made progress in recent years (e.g., Massachusetts and Maryland) have had great continuity in educational leadership and strategy over a long stretch of time. All this Tallahassee turmoil serves to distract. I’m sorry to say that Florida is likely to have a hard time landing a new chief. Potential candidates will look warily upon this environment.

And we need to keep an eye on what this means for Common Core and PARCC. Bennett’s been among the nation’s strongest CCSS backers and maybe the leading conservative supporting the standards. He’s now left without a public perch—at least for the time being.

The influence on PARCC, I fear, will be even greater. Florida has served as PARCC’s fiscal agent. Tony has been a driving force behind PARCC from the start. PARCC is losing Tony as a chief and maybe Florida as a member.

My last thought is about these new A–F accountability systems that are at the root of this entire situation. They try to simplify into a single letter grade an entire school. That makes it easy for consumers to get a quick take on a school. But it obviously obscures lots of nuances. Crafting these systems is enormously challenging. There is no “right” answer for which components ought to be used and how each should be weighted. States are trying their best to come up with fair, transparent systems, but no matter what, there will always be questions about how final grades shake out. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of these things.

Obviously, if any state official tampers with the formula to help a favored school, that is unethical and undermines public confidence in accountability frameworks. But sometimes the decisions made are actually about good policy, not sinister politics. I know that today’s hyper-cynicism will favor the latter interpretation in most cases. But we have lots of deeply committed state chiefs trying to do right by kids. Regardless of how the Indiana case ends, let’s try to give some of our leaders the benefit of the doubt.

-Andy Smarick

This blog entry first appeared as part of a forum published in the Fordham Institute’s Education Gadfly Weekly. In light of the news of Tony Bennett’s resignation, Fordham asked several top education-policy analysts to explore what the resignation would mean for school accountability going forward.

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