Florida State Education Commissioner Tony Bennett resigned from his post last week because back when he was superintendent of education in Indiana, he changed the grade of one of Indiana's finest charter schools under Indiana's accountability system from a C to an A. The accusation that has been leveled at Bennett is that he made the change at the behest of a campaign donor who ran the charter school. A dozen other schools' grades were also changed because of problems with the grading formula.
Those who disliked Bennett ranged from liberal education historian Diane Ravitch to conservative pundit Michelle Malkin. These odd bedfellows have two things to celebrate: 1) the fall of a Republican education reformer who supported Common Core State Standards and welcomed some of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's bipartisan education reform initiatives; and 2) a dust-up over grading schools based on student achievement, which they oppose.
The school grading system that Bennett championed and is best known for is not unique to Florida and Indiana. Fourteen states have enacted it and several more have introduced legislation around it. What's more, studies credit the reform for promulgating change in schools, especially when coupled with high standards, good data systems and parental choice.
In this era where we can go online and get rankings of hotels, restaurants, doctors and dog walkers, offering some sort of easy-to-understand metric for a school's performance shouldn't be counter-intuitive. Wouldn't most parents rather have state education officials offer this information and explain its meaning than to have to rely on a real estate agent or next door neighbor to figure out whether a school is good or bad?
Holding schools accountable for teaching their students is a good thing. And giving parents an easy way to understand how schools are doing is critical; an A to F grading scale is something we are all familiar with and understand. It is also critical that parents, schools and teachers know exactly how school grading standards are determined and applied and they must be applied fairly to all schools. There must be total transparency in any school accountability process and state school superintendents should open the books to anyone who would like to examine how they are applying grading standards to their public schools.
The real losers in this sad episode are Gov. Rick Scott and the children of Florida who have lost another education commissioner. The governor wanted a bold reformer – and on that count he is now 0 for 3 since he was elected in 2010.