Monday, July 29, 2013

Former Indiana Schools Chief Accused of Cheating to Boost Charter's Rating

GOP donor's school grade changed

This from WBTV:
Former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett built his national star by promising to hold "failing" schools accountable. But when it appeared an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor might receive a poor grade, Bennett's education team frantically overhauled his signature "A-F" school grading system to improve the school's marks.

Emails obtained by The Associated Press show Bennett and his staff scrambled last fall to ensure influential donor Christel DeHaan's school received an "A," despite poor test scores in algebra that initially earned it a "C."

"They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence's chief lobbyist.

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan's grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive.

A low grade also can detract from a neighborhood and drive homebuyers elsewhere.

Bennett, who now is reworking Florida's grading system as that state's education commissioner, reviewed the emails Monday morning and denied that DeHaan's school received special treatment. He said discovering that the charter would receive a low grade raised broader concerns with grades for other "combined" schools - those that included multiple grade levels - across the state.

"There was not a secret about this," he said. "This wasn't just to give Christel House an A. It was to make sure the system was right to make sure the system was face valid."

However, the emails clearly show Bennett's staff was intensely focused on Christel House, whose founder has given more than $2.8 million to Republicans since 1998, including $130,000 to Bennett and thousands more to state legislative leaders.

Other schools saw their grades change, but the emails show DeHaan's charter was the catalyst for any changes.

Bennett rocketed to prominence with the help of former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and a national network of Republican leaders and donors, such as DeHaan. Bennett is a co-founder of Bush's Chiefs for Change, a group consisting mostly of Republican state school superintendents pushing school vouchers, teacher merit pay and many other policies enacted by Bennett in Indiana.

Though Indiana had had a school ranking system since 1999, Bennett switched to the A-F system and made it a signature item of his education agenda, raising the stakes for schools statewide.

Bennett consistently cited Christel House as a top-performing school as he secured support for the measure from business groups and lawmakers, including House Speaker Brian Bosma and Senate President Pro Tem David Long.

But trouble loomed when Indiana's then-grading director, Jon Gubera, first alerted Bennett on Sept. 12 that the Christel House Academy had scored less than an A.

"This will be a HUGE problem for us," Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12, 2012 email to Neal.
Neal fired back a few minutes later, "Oh, crap. We cannot release until this is resolved."

By Sept. 13, Gubera unveiled it was a 2.9, or a "C."

A weeklong behind-the-scenes scramble ensued among Bennett, assistant superintendent Dale Chu, Gubera, Neal and other top staff at the Indiana Department of Education. They 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.

It's not clear from the emails exactly how Gubera changed the grading formula, but they do show DeHaan's grade jumping twice.

"That's like parting the Red Sea to get numbers to move that significantly," Jeff Butts, superintendent of Wayne Township schools in Indianapolis, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

DeHaan, who opened the Christel House Academy charter school in Indianapolis in 2002 and has since opened schools in India, Mexico and South Africa, said in a statement Monday that no one from the school ever made any requests that would affect Christel House's grades.

Current Indiana schools chief Glenda Ritz's office declined comment on the emails.

Ritz, a Democrat, defeated Bennett in November with a grass-roots campaign driven by teachers angered by Bennett's education agenda.

Bennett said Monday he felt no special pressure to deliver an "A'' for DeHaan. Instead, he argued, if he had paid more attention to politics he would have won re-election in Indiana.

Yet Bennett wrote to staff twice in four days, directly inquiring about DeHaan's status. Gubera broke the news after the second note that "terrible" 10th grade algebra results had "dragged down their entire school."

Bennett called the situation "very frustrating and disappointing" in an email that day.

"I am more than a little miffed about this," Bennett wrote. "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 said Monday that email expressed his frustration at having assured top-performing schools like DeHaan's would be recognized in the grading system, but coming away with a flawed formula that would undo his promises.

When requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an "A." Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to "legally" change the cutoff for an "A."

"We can revise the rule," Bennett responded.

Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its "A." By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75. Gubera resigned shortly afterward.

He declined comment Monday.

The emails don't detail what Gubera changed in the school formula or how many schools were affected. Indiana education experts consulted for this article said they weren't aware the formula had been changed.
Links to the emails:,,,,


Anonymous said...

But this could Never Happen In Kentucky...

Anonymous said...

Beyond the obvious political implications, this is just part of what is going on in our own state. Leaders simply pulling out of thin air cut scores, percentages for components of school composite scores, etc. They have no rationale for half this stuff other than their own perogative and position to create the evaluation weights and components. One must assume that our commisioner has surround himself with a cadre of "yes-men" with no one daring to point out that the emporer has no pants. Guess we will just have to wait until the money runs out, Dr. Holliday advances to his next career aspiration beyond KY or just maybe our citizens get fed up with it all. (I doubt the later as educators can hardly make heads or tails of it all, much less someone not directly tied to the profession.)

The problem they are going to have is the same as if you tried to cook a dish with 30 different ingredients. Monkeying around with one alters others and you end up contermeasuring and recalibrating your receipt so much that all you end up with is a bunch of dirty pans in the sink, a bunch of wasted ingredents and twice as much of a dish that not even the dog will eat it.

The name of the game is advancement (i.e. the Peter Principle). Move up, make some interventions and then move up again by identifying your previous position contributions devoid of any tangible long term result (which apparently in KY is 1 - 2 years).

How else can one justify all the initiatives which are being brought out over the last 3 - 4 years that educators can't even keep up with much less gather any meaningful information. ASSIST, Turn around 360, PGES, PPGES, Program Reviews, End of course exams, NGSES, Val-ED, TELL, CIITS, KPREP. . . . and on and on. I use to be frustrated with it but now I can't do anything but laugh out of frustration.

Anonymous said...

Use to be taking care/educating of my kids, addressing parent concerns, maintaining a safe building and supervising my staff was what it was about. Now we have made leading a school about the most dehumanizing, electronically monitored and regulated task one could imagine. The toughest part is that it isn't even sold to you as a known comodity for success. We are just spitballing here and hoping that our hard work on something new is going to get us better results. When is this state ever going to learn that being the cattlecatcher also means eating the bugs, catching all the dents and saving others from your mistakes? "Let KY try it out first and then we will see what works and doesn't work."

If we were to shift these multiple interventions onto private industry it would topple over from top down bueracratic oversight. You hire the right people to do the job you describe and then you trust them to do it. KDE inf Frankfort or some vendor packaged evaluation tool from Princeton isnt going to do any better job identifying if a teacher is getting it done than I am through my daily interactions with the staff and students. Hate bust the bubble but the same flaws which are identified in the current system will continue to exist even with the hours of online PPGES training and testing.

Ironcially,all of this stuff is suppose to be making us more effective educators but it is really just causing more work which isn't part of direct instruction. There is only so much time in the day and heeping more work on educators to document and prove they taught, harms your operational capacity and staff morale. A good principal doesn't need a TELL or Val-Ed survey to know what is happening in their school any more than a teacher needs KPREP results to know if their student is learning. These instruments are simply a means of centralizing yet more data for the state for it to fail to use meaningfully beyond a self congratulatory soundbite or public browbeating in the press for schools that don't jump the new hoop well enough.

The sad part is that in order to be compliant and complete all elements which are being rammed down the pipe by KDE it would require one to either water down any benefits by taking a rubber stamp/hoop jump approach to completion or you else implement to the highest degree and lose touch with what is going on with your school (not to mention your own personal/familial life).

Its just joke how we have allowed a handful of yahoos to shanghai our profession. I would have never gone into educational administration if I knew what I know now about were we are going. All the ideals and human characteristics which draw folks with the genuine hearts and motives needed for being educators are increasingly being devalued because they can't slap a number scale on it. Dealing with dozens of different people on a daily basis in support of their growth does not lend itself to a specific pre-determined program or logarhythm, yet that is what our leaders are aiming. I fear that teachers will soon be religated to almost robotic status in terms of their expected behaviors and outcomes, no different than the current post secondary trend toward technology supported mass production coursework.