“Oh, crap”: Accountability is Arbitrary and Political

Tony Bennett

In the 1990s, I worked for the Houston Independent School District and we had our own accountability system that ran parallel to the Texas accountability system. One year I was responsible for setting the formulas for our rating system (Exemplary, Acceptable etc) I remember one day sending my calculations for the accountability system to Coach Paige’s (former Secretary of Education and Godfather of NCLB) office and getting the reply back that I had set the bar too high, we had too many low-performing schools (~35). So I reset the accountability formula and it yielded too few low-performing schools (~5) according to the edicts from above. Then I set the formula so that it yield approximately 15 low performing schools—the Three Little Bears’ porridge was just right for the Superintendent.

Just in case you still thought that accountability was neither arbitrary, nor political. There is interesting news today out of Indiana uncovered by the AP. Turns out that emails obtained by the AP show that Tony Bennett, former Indiana State School Superintendent, and current head honcho of Florida schools, changed ENTIRE Indiana accountability system just to benefit a top GOP donor’s charter school #?!? #cronyism #charters. The AP reported:

Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold “failing” schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett’s education team frantically overhauled his signature “A-F” school grading system to improve the school’s marks.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan’s school received an “A,” despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a “C.”

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

…trouble loomed when Indiana’s then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.

“This will be a HUGE problem for us,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to Neal.

Neal fired back a few minutes later, “Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved.”

By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a “C.”

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They examined ways to lift Christel House from a “C” to an “A,” including adjusting the presentation of color charts to make a high “B” look like an “A” and changing the grade just for Christel House.

It’s not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan’s grade jumping twice.

“That’s like parting the Red Sea to get numbers to move that significantly,” Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I am more than a little miffed about this,” Bennett wrote. “I hope we come to the meeting today with solutions and not excuses and/or explanations for me to wiggle myself out of the repeated lies I have told over the past six months.”

Bennett said Monday that email expressed his frustration at having assured top-performing schools like DeHaan’s would be recognized in the grading system, but coming away with a flawed formula that would undo his promises.

When requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an “A.” Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to “legally” change the cutoff for an “A.”

“We can revise the rule,” Bennett responded.

Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its “A.” By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75. Gubera resigned shortly afterward.

Is this isolated to Indiana? Of course not. All accountability levels and ratings are subjective and arbitrary. They have absolutely no empirical or evidence base. No Child Left Behind, for all its demands for scientifically based research, was never based on scientific evidence that it would close the achievement or opportunity gaps. Thus, no surprise when it won’t deliver as promised by 2014.

Corporate reformers, be sure your sins (and bs) will find you out. Unless of course you are successful in privatizing education— then we won’t have the public access to expose your wall street-style backroom dealings…

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Categories: Accountability, Charter Schools

Author:Julian Vasquez Heilig

Julian Vasquez Heilig is currently an Associate Professor of Educational Policy and Planning and African and African Diaspora Studies (by courtesy) at the University of Texas at Austin.

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7 Comments on ““Oh, crap”: Accountability is Arbitrary and Political”

  1. July 29, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    Reblogged this on Willis School of Thought and commented:
    This is happening everywhere. Not only is this about the politically and ideologically motivated actions in education policy it is about the corrupting force of campaign money.

  2. August 13, 2014 at 7:14 am #

    Accountability is must for everyone to overcome the problem faced by a country due to corrupt peoples.

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  5. A-F Accountability Letter Grades: Reform or Different Name, More of the Same? | Cloaking Inequity - April 25, 2014

    […] Indiana also decided to adopt A-F under the guidance and leadership of Tony Bennett (who later ended up in Florida). What is really clear about A-F, and accountability  in general, is that they are arbitrary and political. I wrote the following in the post “Oh, crap”: Accountability is Arbitrary and Political […]

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