EDITORIAL: State education chief's agenda gets good grades

 IBJ Staff
August 28, 2010
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IBJ Editorial

Tony Bennett, the state’s superintendent of public instruction for nearly two years, deserves accolades for shoving education reform toward the top of Indiana’s agenda.

Unlike his predecessor, Suellen Reed, who seemed little more than a cheerleader for schools, Bennett is pushing hard-nosed reforms.

And while at times he’s unfairly cast the state’s powerful teachers’ union—the Indiana State Teachers Association—as a villain, Bennett wisely struck a more productive, collaborative tone during his State of Education address Aug. 23. The New Albany Republican avoided the rhetoric that scores political points but does little to actually improve schools.

To be sure, he championed one of his biggest issues—the need to tie teacher promotion and recognition to student performance. He criticized the current system that rewards teachers financially solely on the number of years they teach and the degrees they hold.

But he also acknowledged that the problems of the worst schools go deeper than the teachers in the classrooms. The problem also is a leadership void in the principal’s office.

Bennett said administrators he met with in districts with some of the lowest-performing schools reported that as many as three-fourths of their teachers were ineffective.

“More shocking to me is that some building administrators have failed to conduct rigorous annual examinations to identify ineffective teachers, or they have failed to take appropriate actions when teachers are found ineffective,” he said.

At another point in the speech, he added, “More than any other reform ... we must focus our efforts on the only factors proven to make a big impact on student achievement: great teachers and great school leadership.”

We’re all for accountability, and we like Bennett’s efforts to begin grading schools on an easy-to-understand A through F scale. Our reservations are all about execution and methodology. Students are not widgets, and test scores—while important—shouldn’t be the sole measure of a school’s effectiveness.

Similarly, we applaud Bennett’s commitment to expecting more of schools with large numbers of low-income and minority students—groups that have historically underperformed. But the new grading system must factor in the additional challenges schools serving those populations face. Often, by the time children from impoverished families enter first grade, they’re already woefully behind peers.

Bennett rightfully points out that throwing money at schools is not the solution. But wise investments in the right areas can help. During his 60-minute address, Bennett didn’t say a word about universal full-day kindergarten—which would have a huge, positive impact on the state’s most at-risk kids. We’d like to see him champion that costly cause when the economy improves. We’d also like to see the state free up money to address ballooning class sizes that undermine the efforts of even the best teachers.

But these are mostly quibbles. Bennett’s on the right track. Hoosiers should not accept mediocrity or worse from their schools. Bennett is making the most aggressive push to improve Indiana’s education system since the A-Plus reforms passed in 1987 under then-Superintendent of Public Instruction H. Dean Evans. It’s about time.•


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