TERRE HAUTE —
Indiana can emerge wiser from the uproar surrounding its A-to-F school rating system. Improvement can come through lessons learned.
A report issued last Friday assessed controversial changes to the system made last fall by former Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and his Department of Education staff. The review, ordered by Republican leaders of the Indiana Legislature, was conducted by a bipartisan duo of John Grew and Bill Sheldrake — veterans of past Democratic and Republican administrations. It serves as an explanation of how Bennett and his team responded to an initially low grade for an Indianapolis charter school hailed by Bennett as a model for success.
The reviewers concluded that switching of the school grade for Christel House Academy from a C to an A triggered a systemwide change that was applied evenly to all schools. They saw Bennett’s urgent push to raise the Christel House grade — bogged down by low algebra test scores — as a “plausible” maneuver to “save the credibility of the new accountability model and a desire to treat a recognized good school fairly.”
Bennett and his supporters viewed that conclusion as vindication from critics. That vindication indeed may be appropriate, in terms of his application of the changes made to the ratings system just before the A-to-F scores were released. However, much of the criticism of the grade changing — revealed through emails obtained by The Associated Press — centered on the potential influence of the Christel House founder, a prominent donor to the political campaigns of Bennett and other Indiana Republicans. The Grew-Sheldrake report did not delve into that concern, but stuck to the fairness of the method used to apply the changes.
“Any further motivations underlying these actions are beyond the scope and documentation of this report,” they wrote.
The various sides in the school-reform debate have drawn their own conclusions. Bennett said, “I am pleased with this vindication, not for me, but for the work of my colleagues at the Department of Education and for the 1.1 million Indiana students that have benefited and will continue to benefit from a clear and rigorous school accountability system.” Grew and Sheldrake said their report neither exonerates, nor condemns Bennett (who resigned this summer as Florida schools commissioner amid the controversy) but explains how the changes were made.
Their report recommends more changes be made — to the system itself.
An overhaul of the A-to-F school ratings, initiated by the Legislature, was already under way before the grade-changing flap. The Grew-Sheldrake recommendations stand as quality-control standards for that overhaul. One meaningful criticism of reforms enacted under former Gov. Mitch Daniels and Bennett was that landmark changes kept coming so fast the dust never settled, and the effectiveness and impact of one policy could not fully be gauged before the next wave of changes hit. Grew-Sheldrake cited the need to slow down and evaluate the implementation of a new school ratings system.
The reworked formula should be transparent, easier to understand, they said. The existing formula rightly drew complaints over its complexity. Grew and Sheldrake also recommended “extensive” input from “experts and practitioners from the education community,” which would include folks who actually work in classrooms. The plan must be acceptable to average Hoosiers. The new ratings formula should be tested as a pilot program for a year, allowing schools to provide feedback, so appropriate adjustments can be made. And, finally, the Legislature, governor and state schools superintendent, now Glenda Ritz, need “closer interaction,” the report stated.
Each idea reflects a lesson learned, perceived vindication aside.
Ideally, the real victors in this episode will be Hoosier children and their families, whose schools will operate under a well-vetted, comprehensible accountability system.