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Superintendents Sound Off On School Reform At Harvard Conference

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TONY BENNETT
Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett | AP

In the eyes of Indiana State Superintendent Tony Bennett, America's schools can only improve by taking on a number of different reforms simultaneously. Different parties to the education debate stress different measures -- charter schools, voucher programs that use public money to fund private schools, looser union protections for teachers -- but implementing reforms one at a time won't do anything, Bennett said.

"We had a robust public school choice system with charter schools in our state for a few years," Bennett said. "It didn't do anything."

So this year, Indiana passed controversial laws that created an expansive voucher system, made teacher tenure contingent on effectiveness, limited collective bargaining, ended the process of firing teachers in order of seniority and required teacher evaluations to be "significantly informed" by student performance on standardized exams.

"We built it with four big bills, we brought every special interest group together and said you can't be for just one thing," Bennett explained. "We told the charter school guys, if you start selling out on the voucher folks," he said, he'd take them to task. "We built a coalition of people who all wanted something and said we've got to be for school reform, comprehensive school reform. ... Now that we got the track built and the train starts, you'd better get on it or you're going to get run over."

Bennett spoke Thursday at a conference at Harvard University hosted by Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next. The conference addressed U.S. students' global competitiveness -- or lack thereof -- on exams. Panels at the conference focused on testing, standards and choice and competition in school reform.

State schools chiefs sounded off on these topics following a year of major legislative changes in education management across the country. One major theme at the conference was giving schools the ability to identify, recruit and retain better teachers.

Paul Pastorek, who until recently headed Louisiana's schools, said that he prioritized student learning over educators' collective bargaining rights. Still, when it came to devising Louisiana's new teacher evaluation scheme, he consulted teachers themselves, he said.

"We're not going to produce information by naming teachers on what their evaluation results are," said Pastorek. "What we will produce on a school-by-school basis is the number of teachers in the school" performance results, so parents can judge schools based on teacher evaluations.

Bennett, too, said he went straight to teachers -- "not to the unions, but communities," he said. "I looked them in the eye and said, 'This is what we're all about. We're about limiting collective bargaining.' We took notes."

Chris Cerf, who heads New Jersey's schools, said he learned that the most important factor in making schools better is talent.

"You've got to break all the china you need to break to maximize the leadership of your teacher force and your leader force," Cerf said. "You have to hold tight what success looks like. "

Bennett mentioned that Indiana's state government is prepared to take over local schools for the first time, due to their low performance. Pastorek, under whose watch New Orleans' Recovery School District was taken over by the state, said that the goal is to eventually produce schools that can correct themselves without state oversight.

"The problem ultimately, I think, with the model of the state coming in and saying, 'Here's how you do it,' is the people in the districts after a while get tone deaf, and when they don’t see the results, they go away," Pastorek said. "I think you can push from the top, but you're not going to be able to push them to world class."

The conference followed the release of a paper that emphasized American students' low international standing on math exams. One panel addressed just such common standards and exams.

Shanghai, had the highest percentage of proficient students on the international PISA math exam in 2009. But Shanghai High School Principal Shengchang Tang said that uniform standards and exams were only responsible for part of his students' success, noting their results were "not as outstanding" in reading and science. A major component of high performance in Shanghai, Tang said, comes from high expectations on the part of parents.

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