Tony Bennett’s charter-school grade manipulation

Former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was some kind of magician. He made dozens of Indianapolis high-school students disappear in order to award an A grade to a charter school founded by a GOP mega-donor.

Tom LoBianco of the Associated Press revealed Monday that Bennett and his Department of Education staff manipulated Indiana’s school grading system to produce an A for Christel House Academy, run by Indianapolis philanthropist Christel DeHaan.

The AP story, relying on email messages obtained under the state’s public-records law, shows Bennett and his top assistants scrambling frantically after they realized highly regarded Christel House was going to get a C under the newly revised grading system.

“I cannot count the number of times we have been in meetings with Christel, The Chamber (of Commerce), Brian Bosma, David Long, and others when I have said that we count Christel House as an A school,” Bennett vented to his assistants in an email on Sept. 13, 2012.

Bosma is speaker of the Indiana House of Representatives. Long is president pro tem of the Indiana Senate. Why do they care what grade a charter school gets? As LoBianco writes, DeHaan “has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.”

Christel House was known as an effective school serving elementary and middle-school students from high-poverty backgrounds. It expanded to ninth grade in 2010 and added 10th-graders in 2011. And in the spring of 2012, its high-school students bombed the state’s end-of-course assessment in algebra. Continue reading

Indiana ‘turnaround’ schools get their money

Indiana’s turnaround schools are getting the extra federal dollars they requested. Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz announced federal School Improvement Grant awards last week, and three-fourths of the state’s $9 million in discretionary SIG funding went to five “turnaround academies.”

Awards under the federally funded Section 1003(a) grant program included $1,474,000 for Roosevelt Academy, $1,402,000 for Arlington High School and $1,329,000 each for Thomas Carr Howe High School, Emma Donnan Middle School and Emmerich Manual High School. School Improvement Grants are awarded by state education agencies to boost performance at persistently under-achieving schools.

Roosevelt, in Gary, is run by Edison Learning. The other four are in Indianapolis. Arlington is run by Indianapolis-based EdPower, and Howe, Donnan and Manual are operated by Charter Schools USA. The state took charge of the schools in 2011 and turned to “turnaround school operators” to administer them. Ritz, no fan of state school takeover, handed oversight to the Indianapolis schools to the Indianapolis mayor’s office in February.

At the State Board of Education meeting in June, Marcus Robinson, CEO of EdPower, insisted Arlington needed at least as much SIG money this year as it received last year to keep operating. Continue reading

State board balks at reconsidering Indiana’s fail-the-test, flunk-the-grade rule

School Matters asked last week if the State Board of Education was ready to drop the rule that Indiana schools must retain third-graders for failing a reading test. We got a quick answer: Not yet. The board turned back a request Friday by Superintendent of Public Instruction Glenda Ritz that it initiate the process of revising the state reading rule.

Ritz had just started explaining her proposal when board member Dan Elsener cut her off. “It looks like we’re changing horses too often here,” he said. Board member Tony Walker told Ritz she was wasting her time because no one would make a motion to reconsider the rule. (See Scott Elliott’s Indy Star story for more).

Ritz argued that starting the lengthy rule-making process would trigger a conservation in which the board could refine the rule and improve reading instruction – a topic about which the superintendent is passionate. But the board wasn’t hearing her. Instead it agreed to discuss the issue informally prior to its Aug. 7 meeting. Members could signal then if they’re ready to revisit the reading rule.

Oddly, the word “retention” wasn’t used in the somewhat tense exchange Friday between Ritz and the board. But grade-level retention is at the core of Indiana’s reading rule – and retention has been, for years, a contentious topic in education policy.

Research is mixed, at best, on whether forcing struggling students to repeat a grade is likely to help them catch up academically. Continue reading

Will Indiana drop third-grade retention rule?

Arguably the most egregious policy pushed by former Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett was the requirement that third-graders be retained for failing a reading test. Now it looks like his successor, Glenda Ritz, is trying to get rid of that rule.

As of now, the posted agenda for Friday’s State Board of Education meeting includes a proposal to start revising the state rule governing reading instruction. The revision would strike the part that, with some exceptions, mandates retention of students who don’t pass the third-grade reading exam, called IREAD-3. Instead, the proposal says that, if a student doesn’t read at grade level by the end of grade 3, the school “shall, in consultation with the parents, determine if retention, as a last resort, should be implemented.”

The proposal also would drop a requirement that schools provide 90 minutes of uninterrupted, daily reading instruction. They would still have to provide at least 90 minutes of reading instruction a day, but it could be broken up. This seems to make sense. For a lot of young children, 90 minutes of uninterrupted anything can be tough medicine.

Daniel Altman, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said eliminating the third-grade retention requirement will align the reading rule with what state legislators intended when they passed a law, in 2010, calling on the Department of Education to create a plan for improving early reading instruction, including retention “as a last resort” and with “appropriate consultation with parents or guardians.”

“It’s important to have this conversation,” he said. “We want to have the best reading instruction in Indiana that we can possibly have.”

The State Board of Education in early 2012 adopted a rule that said kids who failed the third-grade test should be held back Continue reading

‘Voice,’ not ‘choice,’ will make schools better

Supporters of school choice like to cite the logic of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” – the idea that, if parents are free to select the best possible school for their children, the market will respond by improving the quality of education across the board.

The economist Albert O. Hirschman, profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in a recent New Yorker article, pointed out that economic systems aren’t always so simple and predictable.

In his best known book “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” Hirschman contrasted “exit” and “voice” as the two primary ways that people deal with challenging situations. “Exit” means voting with your feet, taking your business somewhere else. “Voice” means staying put and trying to make things better.

“There is no denying where (Hirschman’s) heart lay,” Gladwell writes. It lay on the side of voice.

In the example of a public school or school system that should improve, “exit” means you leave for a private or charter school and “voice” means you work to make the public schools better. You join the PTO, volunteer, go to school board meetings, write letters to the newspaper, lobby the legislature, etc. Continue reading