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August 5, 2013

HAYDEN: Bennett scandal will make reform harder

INDIANAPOLIS – Last spring, a small public elementary school in the small city of Goshen, won a big award from the private Milken Foundation: It was named one of the four best schools in the nation for teaching excellence.

I thought the recognition was newsworthy so I wrote about it. Unlike elementary schools in affluent communities that are used to winning accolades, West Goshen Elementary School has a student population that few school administrators would envy: Almost 80 percent of its students come from poverty-stricken families and many of them are the children of Hispanic immigrants who speak little English.West Goshen earned the award by embracing many of reforms put into place by Indiana’s former state schools chief Tony Bennett, who is now under a shadow of scandal. It focused resources on boosting student test scores, provided intense remediation for students falling behind, adopted a teacher-mentoring program modeled by other schools, and recruited community volunteers to provide tutoring, support and encouragement to children so easily discouraged by failure. In talking to school principal Alan Metcalfe, I could hear urgency in his voice. He was on a mission to raise the reading levels of his third-graders because he knew the odds for students who are poor readers and who live in poverty are grim: They’re six times at greater risk for dropping out. Yet when West Goshen Elementary School was graded by the state, under the nearly impossible to understand A-F grading system that Bennett implemented at the direction of the State Board of Education, the school got a D. And that is what’s really wrong with the state’s complicated school grading system. Parents, teachers and communities leaders in Goshen knew that West Goshen wasn’t a school on the brink of failure. The recent allegations that the Republican Bennett rigged the grading system to benefit a charter school founded by a Republican campaign donor are serious. So serious that Bennett has resigned his position as the Florida education commissioner, a post he took after losing his bid for re-election last November to Democrat Glenda Ritz in the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. The politics behind the scandal are ugly – and sure to get uglier in coming days – but it in some ways, it obscures the concerns that the A-F grading system was flawed from the start. Earlier this year – long before the Bennett scandal broke – Republican and Democrat legislators were calling for it to be overhauled. Among those lawmakers was Republican state Sen. Carlin Yoder, a former school administrator and a Bennett ally on many things. Goshen is in Yoder’s district. “I knew the Goshen schools were doing tremendous things,” Yoder told me earlier this week. “So that’s what caught my attention.” Yoder was part of the group of lawmakers who successfully pushed for the law that mandates the State Board of Education come up with a new A-F system by November. “We don’t have an A-to-F grading system that is fair to schools,” Yoder said. “We need to work on it.”The Bennett scandal will make that task difficult: Hearts have been hardened by the allegations and already the conversations in the Statehouse have turned bitterly partisan. Surely, the Bennett scandal will be exploited for all its worth. When writing this column, I went to back to look at that story I wrote about the West Goshen Elementary School and pulled this quote from that principal who was working so hard to do right his students: “It doesn’t matter what we’re teaching if the students aren’t learning,” he said. “To focus on anything other than learning is a big waste of time.” Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com

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