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'Caught Cheating': Bennett Resignation Exposes Corruption of Corporate-Ed Agenda

Backers of school privatization and other pro-corporate reforms 'don’t like it so much when their narrative gets disturbed by the facts'

Jon Queally, staff writer

The mythology spun by the nation's top backers of corporate-education reform received another rebuke this week following the resignation of Florida's top education official after reports surfaced that he had pressed for a private charter school to be given a passing grade despite poor performance.

In an exclusive report on Monday, the Associated Press revealed that former Indiana and current Florida schools chief Tony Bennett—though he built a national reputation by promising to hold "failing" schools to account—was seemingly quick to renege on this pledge when "an Indianapolis charter school run by a prominent Republican donor" was on the verge of receiving a less than pleasing grade.

"How much more fraud and miseducation will be tolerated until thinkers and leaders step forward and admit that test-based accountability IS the problem?" -Diane Ravitch

According to AP, "Bennett's education team frantically overhauled his signature 'A-F' school grading system to improve the school's marks."

The "A-F" approach is just one of the signature proposals fostered by rightwing think tanks and corporate-school reformers which has allowed state officials to use a broad brush to paint schools as either "failing" or "passing" on a range of metrics. Critics of the approach say it is an arbitrary and misguided tactic, but one that serves corporate reformers by creating conditions in which schools are forced to accept corporate-friendly reforms.

As education expert Diana Ravitch explains, the "A-F" system is designed to set up public schools for failure and privatization. "Once a school is labeled D or F," she writes, "it goes into a cycle of decline that is usually irreversible as families leave, good teachers leave, funds and programs are cut, and the school dies, a victim of failed policies and malign neglect."

The Bennett resignation follows on other scandals involving high-stakes accountability schemes across the country that, according to Ravitch and other critics, shows how hollow the corporate-backed agenda truly is.

"The evidence is now overwhelming," argues Ravitch, "that test-based accountability encourages a slew of negative behaviors, including teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum, cheating, and gaming the system."

The Washington Post's education correspondent Valerie Strauss picks up on the AP investigation, and writes:

The amazing story is told in a series of e-mails obtained by the Associated Press, which show how Bennett pushed staff members to make sure that the charter school headed by Christel DeHaan, an influential Republican donor, did not get a “C.” Anything other than an A was not acceptable, he made clear. After all, he had been going around the state talking about how his standardized test-based school reform program had been working wonders. A “C” for this school would, apparently, hurt his accountability reputation.

The school grading system that Bennett adopted in Indiana was, ironically, pioneered in Florida when Jeb Bush was governor, from 1999-2007. After Indiana voters pushed out Bennett late last year, Florida’s Board of Education wasted no time in bringing Bennett over to run the Sunshine State’s public schools. It was not a coincidence that the board is dominated by Bush supporters, and that Bennett was a member of Chiefs for Change, a group of former and current state superintendents that Bush assembled to advance his brand of corporate-influenced school reform. Indiana (and other states) use the A-F school grading system for several reasons, including how much money schools receive and which schools should be taken over by the state because of poor performance.

MSNB's Chris Hayes covered the story during his evening news hour on Thursday:

As Strauss observes, this storyline is becoming "all too familiar" when it comes to backers of the corporate-education reform movement:

School reformers who have wrapped themselves in the data-driven accountability veil don’t like it so much when their narrative gets disturbed by the facts. So what do they do? They change the rules so the story they do like gets told, despite the facts.

And Ravitch, citing related scandals in New York, Georgia and Texas, concludes:

Bennett tried to game the system and got caught. New York State rigged the system to inflate scores but stopped after it was revealed in 2010. Beverly Hall gamed the system and will be tried for cheating. Schools across the nation have abandoned the arts or cut back on recess. The superintendent in El Paso is in jail for gaming the aystem.

How much more fraud and miseducation will be tolerated until thinkers and leaders step forward and admit that test-based accountability IS the problem?


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