Tony Bennett’s Tragic Resignation

by Reihan Salam

Tony Bennett, Florida’s education commissioner, has resigned from his position. This is, in my view, very sad news, as Bennett is widely regarded as one of the country’s smartest, savviest, and most effective education reformers. Earlier on, Bennett had served with distinction as Indiana’s elected state superintendent, but he was defeated in his bid for reelection last year. This week, a series of emails emerged which have seriously damaged his reputation. It seems that Bennett and members of his staff revised the evaluation procedure for schools on learning that a school backed by Christel DeHaan, one of Bennett’s prominent supporters, was due to receive a “C” rather than an “A.” Rick Hess of AEI, a leading expert on education reform and a friend and ally of Bennett, interviewed Bennett yesterday, before Bennett’s resignation:

A typical headline from Monday and yesterday was that over the Huffington Post story. It read, “Tony Bennett… Changed Top GOP Donor’s School’s Grade.” Having long been a friend and admirer of Bennett’s, I was interested in hearing his take on the situation. We spoke yesterday afternoon, and here’s what he had to say.

Rick Hess: So, Tony. You know that the story here is disconcerting at first look. Can you offer any more context or backstory that we should know?

Tony Bennett: The backstory is simple here, Rick. In our first run of the new school calculations in Indiana, we turned up an anomaly in the results. As we were looking at the grades we were giving our schools, we realized that state law created an unfair penalty for schools that didn’t have 11th and 12th grades. Statewide, there were 13 schools in question had unusual grade configurations. The data for grades 11 and 12 came in as zero. When we caught it, we fixed it. That’s what this is all about.

RH: And Christel House is one of those 13?

TB: Because Christel House was a K-10 school, the systems essentially counted the other two grades as zeroes. That brought the school’s score down from an “A” to a “C”.

RH: The media coverage features the flurry of e-mails specifically around Christel House. Why did that provoke such a sharp reaction?

TB: Someone gave me a great analogy. I’m a track and field guy. I run, I try to keep my weight down at about 190. Christel has been a track-performing school for a number of years. If I get on the scale one day, am doing everything the same, and am still wearing my same clothes and they fit, and the scale suddenly reads 215, I am going to question what’s going on. So when we ran these grades, it became apparent that we had done something incorrectly. Christel House was a high-performing school with a track record, but when they stepped on our scale they were a “C”. So we suspected there might be something that was being weighed incorrectly by our grading system. That school was the catalyst for us to review the program and implement changes that wouldn’t penalize other schools with different grade configurations.

RH: Did other school grades change?

TB: I think grades changed for all 13. All 13 didn’t have 11th or 12th grades the way our system would recognize them, so they were all being calculated at zero for those particular measures.

If Bennett is being completely above-board with Hess, it seems that Florida has lost a gifted public servant for no good reason. 

Of course, it could be that Bennett is being dishonest or misleading. But you’d think that his critics would at least respond to his claims before resorting to cheap insults. Does it really make sense to arbitrarily punish K-10 schools?

P.S. And sure enough, there is a reply to Bennett’s argument. According to Anne Hyslop, Bennett’s story doesn’t hold water:

The state has several variations of its grading rubric to apply to different school situations and set-ups. The basic models are 1) elementary and/or middle school grades and 2) high school grades. Then, there is a combined model for schools that have students in grades preK-8 and grades 9-12 – like Christel House, which served students through 10th grade in 2011-12. The grade point averages for the 3-8 portion of the school and the 9-12 portion of the school are weighted according to the percentage of enrolled students in each grade span to arrive at one final, combined grade. (The final scale: 3.51 – 4.00 points = A; 3.00 – 3.50 points = B; 2.00 – 2.99 points = C; 1.00 – 1.99 points = D; 0.00 – 0.99 points = F)

Within the two basic models (ES/MS and HS), there are also deviations for special circumstances. Typically high school grades are calculated with a 60% weight on proficiency in end-of-course exams in Algebra I and English 10 (with potential bonus points for increases in proficiency rates from grades 8-10 and grades 10-12), 30% weight on graduation rates, and 10% weight on college readiness indicators. But some high schools are given special consideration: small schools, HS feeder schools (grade 9 only), 9-10 schools, and 11-12 schools. In the 9-10 model, proficiency rates make up the entire school grade, split evenly between Algebra I and English 10, and the bonus points do not apply.

Confused yet? Bear with me. Christel House should have been evaluated using a mixture of two of the models: the 9-10 model and the combined ES/MS + HS model. Except they weren’t. Because Christel House wouldn’t have gotten an ‘A’ that way. In fact, one of the released emails walks through the calculation (using preliminary, rather than final, achievement data). Under this method, Christel House earned a ‘C’ grade, “a HUGE problem for us” according to officials. 

So it seems that Christel House’s poor high school performance led Bennett and his staff to discount high school data across the board. I’m still inclined to think that Bennett is an admirable public servant. But Christel House has permanently tarnished his reputation.