Education, From The Capitol To The Classroom

Bennett On Turnaround Operator Comments: 'I Wouldn't Have Said It That Way'

    Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

    State superintendent Tony Bennett (left) addresses an audience of more than 120 people at John Marshall Community High School in Indianapolis. IPS Superintendent Eugene White (right) presented a district-generated turnaround plan for Marshall, which could be in line for a state takeover next year if test scores didn't improve.

    State superintendent Tony Bennett said Monday he appreciates the urgency with which the companies tapped to turn around five Indiana schools are approaching their task.

    That said, he would have chosen different words to convey that sense of urgency.

    Bennett spoke to StateImpact about the comments of school turnaround company officials at last week’s meeting of the State Board. The officials offered criticisms of the current state of the Indianapolis Public Schools — criticisms that struck some within the district as a little harsh.

    EdPower’s CEO Marcus Robinson said IPS had “abandoned” Arlington High School, writes the Indy Star. Charter Schools USA’s CEO Jon Hage compared the company’s assessment of IPS’ problems to a doctor “thinking he’d be treating a patient with stage one cancer, only to find stage three cancer,” reports WXIN.

    Speaking with StateImpact Monday, Bennett offered his reactions to those comments:

    I’m not going to criticize the turnaround school operators for what they said. I can certainly tell you I wouldn’t have said a lot of those things in that way. I consider myself probably as strong of an education reform advocate as anyone else in the country, and I’m not in a bad mood about it. I’m not angry about it. I do think it’s unfortunate that some of the rhetoric around education reform has gotten to that point…

    Would I say it exactly the way he said it? No. But that doesn’t mean I need to criticize him for it. My job is to set the vision and the direction for the state. Like I said, I’m going to be as strong an education reform advocate as possible, but I’m not going to be mad about it and we don’t want to be hateful about it. But frankly, these are people who bring a high level of intensity for the work that they do, they’re all trying to convey a strong sense of urgency, and they’re all wanting to make sure everyone knows that they’re going to put their marker down to act as quickly and as aggressively as possible on the behalf of children, and that’s what I think we have to remember.

    StateImpact question: To you, there’s truth value in what they’re saying? Or does it go that far?

    Bennett: Whenever people talk about a crisis, I still believe this is not a crisis. This is a long-term pathology. What we heard tonight didn’t happen last night. Katrina is a crisis. The tornado that hit Henryville is a crisis. The decline of our schools is long-term pathology, it happened over time. And so the truth value is the crisis has occurred because a whole lot of people were standing around and saying, ‘We can’t allow this to happen anymore. We must act quickly.’ That’s the truth value. I think the emotion you heard from our turnaround operators was emotion couched in that context — that they must act now. That’s what they’re being challenged to do by the state board of education, by me. That’s the truth value.

    I think the other truth value is that we have to be upfront and honest. We so often talk about, ‘Let’s give this time.’ Do the kids have time? You know, if I get angry about one thing, it’s when adults tell me, ‘Let’s give this time.’ Because I want to ask every adult who says that, ‘Who in the hell is gonna give the kids time? Who’s gonna give them another year?’ You know, time is the only thing on this earth that we can’t make more of. We can’t make more of it to give a kid their high school years back, their fifth grade years back, or their third grade years back. So the truth value is we have to act with a sense of urgency when this long-term pathology has hit the place where we must act.

    Both Hage and Robinson stood by their characterizations when approached by local media after the State Board meeting last week. From WXIN:

    ‘Actually I would say it’s even more serious than that,’ Hage said, after being asked about the cancer comment. ‘Students not achieving year over year is something we should all be outraged about.’

    ‘We see kids throughout the corridors who are not in classes, who are not being held accountable,’ said Robinson, referring to Arlington. ‘That to us is not school.’

    In his comments to StateImpact Monday, Bennett also said officials from the turnaround companies each offered different perspectives on the circumstances surrounding the takeover.


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