TERRE HAUTE —
The day after state schools chief Tony Bennett responded to my three-column education series, a longtime friend and veteran teacher called.
“I just read the superintendent’s rebuttal in the Tribune-Star,” my friend said. “All I can conclude from it is that you are a dumbass. Welcome to the club. Anybody who doesn’t buy into his vision of education reform is considered a dumbass.”
The superintendent didn’t use such a coarse term in his opinion piece, but my friend is right. Ignorance (or worse) was implied throughout Bennett’s column. Among the charges: My series “completely misinterprets” the Indiana Department of Education’s “efforts to provide all Hoosier students with quality education opportunities.”
For those who missed it, I wrote what thousands of Indiana teachers know in their heart — that Bennett and his boss, Gov. Mitch Daniels, play fast and loose with statistics and anecdotal evidence in their committed campaign to paint Hoosier schools as “a mess” in need of radical reform. The last of the three columns consisted entirely of quotes from teachers, all over the state, who responded to the first two pieces.
Although Bennett accused me of repeatedly spreading “both inaccurate information and fear,” he provided not a single example of either. If the errors were in my Dec. 5 piece — a fact-filled attempt to counter a few of the gross misrepresentations offered by Bennett and Daniels — the superintendent didn’t say. If the alleged misinformation was in the fact-filled Dec. 5 sidebar by retired educator Vic Smith, none of that made Bennett’s essay, either.
In another omission, Bennett waxed poetic about a large, Dec. 9 gathering of educators at Deming Elementary in Terre Haute. He said he left with “an overwhelming feeling of optimism regarding IDOE’s efforts to provide all Hoosier students with an academically rigorous and globally competitive education.”
Sounds like a real join-hands-and-sing-Kumbaya scene, right? Typical of his (and Daniel’s) selective memory, Bennett left out the part about the thunderous ovation Vigo County schools superintendent Dan Tanoos received that night when he feistily challenged the state chief to “make us feel like you are advocating on our behalf instead of against us.”
Neither did Bennett mention West Vigo High School Principal Tom Balitiewicz’s refusal to wear the mantle of stumbling failure that Bennett and Daniels seem determined to hang around every school district’s neck.
Bennett also chose not to recount a stellar point made by Patty Curley, who has taught in Vigo public schools since 1984. Describing stints at two schools with very different socio-economic makeups, Curley said that if she had been judged as a teacher based on students’ test scores — as Bennett and Daniels advocate — she would have been deemed a bad one at the lower economic school and a “very highly effective teacher” at the wealthier school. Her teaching skills would not have changed, Curley said, only the situation in which she employed them.
Bennett did offer one curious example in his essay to indicate that I choose to short-change children so I can “defend the status quo.” Twenty of Indiana’s “consistently low-performing schools are at risk of facing state intervention at the end of the school year,” he wrote. Acknowledging that those 20 schools make up “only about 1 percent of all Indiana schools,” Bennett nonetheless scolded me and my ilk, saying, “we must not forget the thousands of real students held captive in those classrooms.” My series, he wrote, “ignores the plight of children in desperate need of better schooling.”
See the way the logic works?
I show in print how the governor and schools chief wrongly portray all of Indiana public education as an oil spill in need of a Herculean cleanup — the BP disaster metaphor is Bennett’s, not mine — and that makes me a compassion-challenged misinformation peddler who cares nothing for thousands of kids in a handful of schools that really are failing.
I show with numbers, studies and legitimate context that Indiana public education, overall, is pretty much in the middle of the nation’s pack — not ready for life support as Daniels and Bennett seem to imply every time they get near a PowerPoint — and I become another selfish, change-resistant defender of the status quo.
Like many elected and appointed leaders these days, Daniels and Bennett have an education agenda — and it looks like major restructuring better suited for a failing mega-business than for a public school system. The cruel irony is, some of the system’s thorniest problems are the result of often conflicting standards and benchmarks foisted upon educators by state and federal legislators who could not survive one day in a real classroom.
To sell such reform to taxpayers, bad news must be emphasized (or presented out of context), good news must be ignored, and people who question wholesale change for everyone must be vilified.
As I learned from scores of e-mails, letters and phone calls, many of Indiana’s most dedicated public school teachers and administrators feel beaten down by the Bennett-Daniels’ campaign to reform them. These teachers contend with social and economic problems that educators of my era could not have imagined in their worst nightmares. Whether it’s numerous students with severe learning disabilities or kids whose parents sell their teacher-donated clothes to buy methamphetamine, 21st century public schools demand that teachers use everything they’ve learned in college — and in life — every day.
A recent, telling statistic: In 2006, 36 percent of Hoosier students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, the litmus for what we now call economic hardship. This year, the percentage is more than 45 percent. Do you suppose that factor influences a kid’s ability to pass ISTEP?
Here’s a more encouraging statistic, regarding graduation rates, which frequently are cited as dismal by Daniels: Hoosier rates tumbled in 2006 to 76.4 percent from 89.5 percent, when the state recalibrated its method of graduation accounting. They have been rising ever since, recovering to 84.1 percent this year. The increase includes the Indianapolis Public School system, which still has an alarmingly low rate (58.3 percent), but has risen 10 percent in four years.
As a Fort Wayne Journal Gazette editorial put it: “The figures show steady and encouraging progress statewide — without the influence of vouchers, merit pay or teacher evaluations tied to test scores.”
After my series, message after message included a request to “keep telling our side of the story.” I understand the urgency, but even if I were not taking the next few months off, I couldn’t counter the misinformation about public education that flows from Indianapolis and Washington. Teachers, principals and district superintendents have to find a way to do that.
Teachers, let your unions bargain for your contracts, but hire or draft a team of knowledgeable spokespeople not connected to the unions who can rebut skewed sound bites and twisted statistics every time one is uttered. Speak up to your neighbors, your church members, your students’ parents and your local newspaper when you hear another politician accuse you of something you know isn’t true — like the governor’s repeated claim about how poorly Hoosier students perform on national reading and math tests.
The best defense is a good offense. Make certain all those incoming members of the Indiana General Assembly understand that if they rubber-stamp unproven, radical education reforms — instead of funding proven approaches such as full-day kindergarten — they will pay in the next election.
Parents and other taxpayers, at the very least, exercise some skepticism. A clear picture of education requires context. Examine statistics; find out whether an accuser is talking about 20 failing schools or an entire state system. Beware of open-and-shut vilification. Don’t accept a one-size-fits-all solution from either side of the issue. If you are confused or concerned about a politician-reformer’s charges, ask a teacher you trust to weigh in.
In the meantime, if someone implies you’re a dumbass because you think the majority of Indiana’s public educators are doing a good job and want to do even better — smile. You are in excellent and plentiful company. Welcome to the club.
Stephanie Salter’s column will return in the spring. You may e-mail her at SalterOpinion@gmail.com.