The way Indiana’s top school official Tony Bennett told it, Lebanon teacher Byron Ernest came up with the idea: hold an online town hall meeting, take questions via Twitter, and answer them over a live video webcast.
“When Byron has a great idea, I always get a little worried,” Bennett joked, nodding to the former Indiana Teacher of the Year, who moderated comments on his iPad. Ernest seemed eager to bill the forum as hard-hitting, saying, “We’ve got to ask the tough questions.”
Regardless of whether the webcast actually pushed Bennett out of his comfort zone, the state superintendent fielded several questions on the hot-button issue of testing on the same day Indiana students in Grade 3 through 8 started taking high-stakes standardized tests.
Here are some of the questions Ernest pulled from Twitter to ask Bennett:
Bennett’s response: Don’t be nervous, he said. “I was taken last night when one of the students in Henryville [where a tornado destroyed much of their school] said, ‘We were ready for our tests, I wish we could’ve taken them.’ Our teachers are doing an incredible job teaching to Indiana’s standards. And when we teach to Indiana’s standards, our students are ready for mastery of the assessment… Every indicator in our state is up. And that tells me our students are going into this week of assessment very confident and prepared.”
Bennett’s response: “Whenever I hear that, I always challenge people to tell me what the punitive measures are… Let’s be very direct about this. Accountability drives reform. We see it every day… Would I do some things differently? Absolutely. But I can’t look in the rear-view mirror. This is not about punishment, this is about advancing education so that our children can get all they deserve.”
Bennett’s response: “This shouldn’t be something we get too worked up over because, again, let’s go to the high school level: I don’t think English Language Arts 10 and Algebra is what every high schooler should have to be prepared for the world. We know when we’ve used lower stakes assessments, that compromises the validity of the accountability system… I’m what you might call an assessment apologist. Teachers won’t like when I say this, but we should assess more. That’s how we know students learn.”
“The great thing about charter schools is that you close them if they don’t work. We’ve done that,” Bennett said, adding, “You are exchanging flexibility for a higher level of accountability.”
After the forum, StateImpact tweeted at the #TalktoTony hashtag asking for responses about the forum — “Did [Bennett] get ‘Tough Q’s’?” I asked. “Did he answer well?”
Commenter Alex Sage tweeted this response: “He got a few tough questions, ignored the toughest ones. Did not connect his actions with his goals. Twitter not a good forum.”
According to counts on the video streaming website Ustream, which hosted the webinar, the forum got 150 total views, but averaged roughly 50 viewers at any given time. Bennett and Ernest said they would likely hold a similar forum some time in the future.