THE BLOG
08/02/2013 08:52 am ET Updated Oct 02, 2013

The Big Lies Behind the Tony Bennett Grade-changing Scandal

The latest headline-grabbing education "reform" scandal is documented by emails that show Indiana "Chief for Change" Tony Bennett's staff was "intensely focused" on the grade given to a charter school, Christel House, whose founder (Christel Dehaan) has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett. When Bennett learned of the grade that his new A-F Report Card grade assigned to the favored charter school, he emailed, "This will be a HUGE problem for us."

A.P.'s Tom LoBianco reported on the "weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble" as Bennett, his staff, and other top staff at the Indiana DOE "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."

LoBianco further revealed Bennett's email which said, "I am more than a little miffed about this. ... 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's mendacity has been in service of two Big Lies.

Bennett's manipulation of data to help his allies is just a part of one of the school "reform" movement's bigger lie -- the claim that a single report card can accurately measure the effectiveness of diverse schools. That falsehood led to the first Big Lie -- the claim that politicos on high can use their primitive metrics to guide improvements in real schools. The hubris of accountability hawks viewing schools from 30,000 feet is what made the Christel House scandal inevitable.

Of course, we should be "shocked, shocked" that Bennett devoted so much time to help a privileged school. As Anne Hyslop of the New America Foundation concluded, Christel House's grade was "clearly inflated." Hyslop then explained, "These kinds of shenanigans are unacceptable and have chipped away at public faith in the legitimacy of school accountability systems over the last 10+ years of No Child Left Behind. Christel House's grade is simply more false advertising from states and local districts that have a long history of finding loopholes in accountability systems and exploiting them."

Lies and the search for loopholes have always been ingredients of the mother's milk of politics. And, as the Indianapolis Star editorializes, it is disturbing to see "how many times Department of Education staffers whipped out the word 'loophole, as they tried to figure a way to keep DeHaan, a substantial donor to Bennett's political career, looking good."

The real scandal, however, is not the questionable efforts to help friends. The real outrage is that Bennett et. al have used flawed metrics such as A-F state report cards to punish other schools, and as a weapon against educators.

One year before, the Indianapolis Public Schools appealed the "Fs" given to two high schools. They faced the same not-ready-for-prime-time rule that helped lower the Christel House grade. Their request was denied. Bennett said, "We could all day try to find a way of making the figures work."

Now, a question by an Indianapolis board member addresses the real corruption, "If the system was skewed to benefit Christel House Academy, then was it skewed to hurt IPS? That concerns me more than anything else."

Yes! That is the second Big Lie of data-driven accountability.

We should all be primarily concerned about the way that Bennett, and other disciples of the situational ethics known as "reform," have used a series of little and big lies, falsified data, spin, and innuendo to damage some schools in order to try to improve others. They have turned education into a cruel race where some win but, more importantly, others lose.

Test-driven accountability lives and dies with the Big Lie that high-performing charters, serving "the same kids," show that traditional public schools could be generating the same type of gains if teachers had "High Expectations." When "reformers'" tip the scales in order to help their allied schools, that is bad enough. The real scandal is their growing willingness to use dubious metrics to punish poor schools and their students in order to defeat political enemies.

Indianapolis reporter Matthew Tully believes in school reform, but he nailed the way Bennett's "bluster" produced this latest scandal. Bennett had long cited the charter school in question "as rock-solid, indisputable proof that charter schools were capable of miracles when it came to raising the academic achievement of low-income, at-risk students." And, "For Bennett, there was no gray area, no room for compromise."

And, Alexander Ooms is also a school reformer. His astute analysis of the Bennett scandal concluded with the type of Big Truth that is the antidote for too many "reformer's" Big Lies. He cites Nietzsche's words, "He who fights with monsters must take care lest he thereby become a monster."

Bennett, as Ooms noted, is not a monster. He is just one self-proclaimed superhero driven by the fantasy that schools and teachers, alone, can overcome the legacies of generational poverty. He and his allies, convinced of their righteousness, have ignored the welfare of poor children of color who are collateral damage in their scorched earth tactics against educators who disagree with their faith in high-stakes testing. That tragedy, not specific lies, loopholes, and cheating, is the real crime.