Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Bennett Emails: A Look At How The Sausage Of Policy Is Made?

State superintendent Tony Bennett delivers his concession speech at Lucas Oil Stadium Tuesday evening.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Tony Bennett, then Indiana's state superintendent, on election night in November 2012.

Tony Bennett’s emails instructing state education officials to reshape Indiana’s A-F school rating system with one charter school in mind “reveal the sausage-making nature of the process,” blogs Greg Forster:

Any kind of evaluation system must involve qualitative as well as quantitative testing… Ultimately you have no choice but to pick some examples of [schools] you presuppose to be very good or very bad (or in the middle, for that matter) based on some kind of opinion — maybe yours, maybe your organization’s, maybe a consensus of experts, maybe a popular majority — and see if your system ranked those cases in accordance with the presupposed opinion. It is logically impossible to remove this element of judgment. You just can’t fully test a system for evaluating schools without at some point picking out some super-schools and asking “did these score well?”

It would be naïve in the extreme to think that any set of political actors would carry out that reality check in any way other than something like what the Bennett emails reveal.

The lesson here is not “Bennett is corrupt” but “all educational standards privilege someone’s opinion of what is a good school, and government privileges the opinion of powerful interests.”

Ditto Fordham’s Mike Petrilli:

He had spent months (and much political capital) building an A–F accountability system for Indiana’s schools. These systems are as much art as science (more akin to baking cookies than designing a computer), and when they tried out the recipe the first time, it flopped. One of Indiana’s brightest stars, a charter school known to be super high performing, ended up with a C. Clearly, the recipe needed fine tuning.

In 2011, StateImpact profiled Christel House Academy, the charter school in question.

At the time, state data showed that, among Indiana schools with more than 90 percent of students receiving free or reduced price lunch, Christel House had higher test scores than every other charter school and all but a handful of traditional public schools.

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett delivers a speech in Indianapolis.

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Former state superintendent Tony Bennett delivers a speech in Indianapolis.

“We wanted a system that passed the face validity test, and the face validity test is that there are schools that are A schools and they should obviously be that,” Bennett told StateImpact on Monday.

So do Petrilli and Forster have a point? Are Bennett’s e-mails no more than a window into the sausage-making process of state policy? University of Texas professor Julian Vasquez Heilig isn’t buying the argument.

“All accountability levels and ratings are subjective and arbitrary,” he writes on his blog, Cloaking Inequity. “They have absolutely no empirical or evidence base.”

School Matters blogger Steve Hinnefeld suggests Bennett’s actions may not be all that different from those of school officials in Georgia, who currently face criminal charges for cheating on standardized tests:

Bennett told the AP he didn’t do any favors for DeHaan and his only concern was to make sure the system was fair for combined schools. But the emails belie that claim. They show Bennett worried about results for Christel House and Christel House alone… I never guessed Bennett and his staff would be so cynical as to manipulate the grades to bump Christel House all the way from a C to an A.

“How much longer will [state] lawmakers themselves continue to support a charade designed and maintained to please wealthy donors?” adds Karen Francisco in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.

More reactions here — and add yours in the comments below.


  • Mouse Rat

    So, the future of education, the evaluation of teachers, the amount they are paid, is all about “making sausage” that tastes good to donors and Charter School backers.


    Tony Bennett and his team conspired to break a law, a codified school performance grading system, that he himself pushed into place.

  • Karynb9

    It’s not like Christel House was dinged for only have 97% of their students passing ISTEP when they had 98% of them pass it last year. They “earned” their C in the first place because only 33% of their kids who took the Algebra ECA exam passed it. That’s lower than the rate by some of the IPS schools who ended up being placed on the takeover list, and even called “admittedly terrible” by the DOE in the emails. I don’t see how you can look at a 33% passing rate on a test and predetermine that the school it belongs to should be an A school.

  • John Pence

    The fact of the matter is, Tony Bennett’s first concern/question when grades were beginning to be calculated as expressed by the e-mail was the grade for Christle House. If you accept the “making-sausage” analogy, I’m also concerned what he chose to be the benchmark by which all other schools would be judged. It’s also disconcerting, at least for me, Bennett’s own comments about meeting with DeHaan and political big-wigs like Bosma and Long and guaranteeing that Christle House and other charter/private schools in Indiana would earn and A. It’s very clear where his priorities were and it wasn’t with the public schools in Indiana. I could go on and on and on but I think I’ll stop here.

    • Karynb9

      Well, it’s pretty clear in the emails that he wanted Christel House to be an A and John Marshall in IPS to be an F and everything else was apparently supposed to fall between. I think a big part that’s being missed in the reporting of these emails is that as wrong as it is to predestine Christel House to be an A school, it’s even more devastating to predestine John Marshall to be an F school. The allusion was made multiple times in the emails that changing things to benefit Christel House was great…as long as John Marshall didn’t accidentally receive a benefit was well.

      I would also like to see an Open Records Request (that may already be out there) for DOE emails in the weeks leading up to the 2011 announcement that Howe, Manual, Emma Donnan, Arlington, Gary Roosevelt, Broad Ripple, and Indy Washington were receiving their sixth F and therefore eligible to be taken over by the state. Several people close to the situations in those schools report that criteria set by Bennett and the DOE in 2010 and 2011 (“If you get _______ on this assessment and your students grow ______ points on that assessment, you’ll be off probation”) ended up NOT being the same criteria they referenced when announcing the final grades (“Well…you DID end up getting ______ in that area, but since you got ______ in this area that we never told you factored into anything until today, you get an F.”). I strongly suspect the “sausage recipe” was messed around with several times behind the scenes in those cases as well.

      • John Pence

        yep, Karynb9, I did notice the passing reference to John Marshall and knew they were close to being taken over. It was my suspicion that the interest John Marshall in relation to his Christle House problem was out of concern that any changes made to pad DeHaan’s school might also help previously failing public schools. But since there was nothing other than a passing reference to John Marshall in the e-mails I didn’t go down that road as it might be considered too speculative (but definitely not unreasonable given who we’re dealing with). I also like one of Bennett’s points he offered in defense: that other schools, not just Christle House, saw their grades go up. Yeah, 13 school all of them charters. LOTS of things going on here. I also suspect that there are other e-mails out there with interesting revelations.

  • Jorfer88

    I think they just put out the report card for the school today (but maybe I missed it before): . It seems that Bennett threw out the high school grade (based on my calculation it was likely a 1.25 (D) as this gives a 2.9 (C) overall based on # of students and a 3.25 elementary and middle) and used the elementary and middle school grade of a 3.25 and then proceeded to get 2 possible bonus point opportunities by rescoring ECA tests (possibly legitimate rescores but definitely a lot more scrutiny than would normally be given). It seems he was able to get at least a .7% increase in math scores to a 3.5 (B). All it would take is 7 students rescores in an elementary and middle school of 474 students. From there all he had to do was alter the definition of high growth to gain a .25 increase from math growth to bring the overall to a 3.75 (A). Even though these would not be extremely dramatic changes; throwing out the high school score is. it was unfair to the rest of the schools with poor ECA results and was wrongly done after the fact. Schools should know what they are aiming for before the fact (to know how to direct resources and make decisions) and the systems should be backtested to figure out their reliability for determining school accountability and not just beta tested on the spot with the future of this country at stake. It also must make sure that those that are punished are those actually responsible for the problem. This system failed on all these accounts.

  • Karynb9

    A pretty fabulous quote from Kathleen Porter-Magee of the Fordham Institute in regards to the “it’s an art, not a science” argument made by Petrilli and others…

    “If accountability is indeed more art than science, we need to be very careful about the consequences we tie to them. The quality of art, after all, is judged by personal taste, not by some unassailable objective measure.”


  • Bilgewater

    As I commented elsewhere in a different State Impact article, I was delighted when Bennett was defeated in the election in November, and I’m ecstatic that he lost his Florida job. He did immeasurable harm to teaching in this state.

    What Bennett’s defenders have ignored (or glossed over) is that the A-F system had HUGE ramifications for teachers and their jobs. Since educators could’ve been fired from their jobs, why wasn’t this accountability system fully tested BEFORE it was passed into law? Why was it slapped together, then rejiggered when the results didn’t work out to TB’s liking?

    Now that Bennett’s evaluation system and his backstairs jobbery have been examined a little more closely, why didn’t Indiana’s lawmakers do a little more homework before signing on to this?

    The entire measurement scheme was like assembling an airplane while flying it. That figure of speech has been overused, but it aptly describes the process.

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