Will Tony Bennett's school reforms hurt struggling students?

April 8, 2010
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Indiana Secretary of Education Tony Bennett late this month plans to begin offering parents statistics he hopes will ratchet up pressure on schools to turn out better students. The results will be interesting, because we’re about to get another lesson in the power of information—but possibly not what Bennett intends.

Bennett wants parents to know how their children compare to other students across the state who fare the same on the ISTEP-Plus test.

Think of it as a hyper-individualized version of the Indiana Department of Education’s plotting of school performance. To see how the department views your school, click here and scroll to the bottom.

Here’s how the student-level version of the department’s Growth Model initiative works: Johnnie gets a certain score on ISTEP-Plus, and he’s lumped into a group of all other students across the state with the exact same score. Now, instead of being benchmarked against a local or state average, Johnnie is compared to a narrow group of academic peers.

When parents get their first peek at the numbers, they will be able to see whether their children rank high, were typical, or fell behind the peer group average.

The Department of Education not only hopes parents will demand more from schools, but it also hopes teachers who rocket students ahead will get noticed.

However, in the nuanced world of unintended consequences, something different might happen.

Mike Copper, who retired last summer as superintendent of Lawrence Townships schools, thinks the initiative might inadvertently push more resources to top students at the expense of students who score at the lower end of the spectrum.

Follow Copper’s train of thought, if you will.

Motivated parents, whose children tend to score high, will quickly latch onto the benchmarks and track their children’s performance intently. If their kids lose altitude against their peer group, complaints will follow. Superintendents and school board members, who already know many of these parents by name, will get to know them even better.

Meanwhile, other parents will never figure out the comparisons are available and still others will know the figures are available but won’t bother to check. Unfortunately, those parents’ children tend to struggle academically. Copper pegs parent involvement from as low as 10 percent at some of the worst schools to over 80 percent at some of the best.

As the motivated parents turn up the heat, two scenarios will develop, depending on the maturity and stability of both administrators and board members, Copper says.

Veteran boards and superintendents secure in their relationships with their boards will tell the motivated parents to in effect take a hike, that they’re moving ahead with strategies that do the most good for the most students. Pouring resources into helping a few students who already enjoy lavish attention from devoted parents makes little sense when too many other students are struggling, will be the message.

However, those districts are the exception, Copper says.

In the vast majority of districts, the parents will resort to a time-honored approach of going straight over the heads of superintendents to board members. Board members, many of whom haven’t been in their positions long enough to understand an education strategy let alone a real threat from a hollow one, will panic about the prospect of losing top students to charters or private schools.

In most areas of the state, any threat to leave a school is empty. That’s because there are no alternatives. Even in intellectually vigorous Columbus, where Copper was superintendent earlier in his career, there was nowhere to go.

Nevertheless the superintendent, realizing board support is eroding, will shelve the broad plan and shift resources from struggling students to top students—anything to get the “noise” out of their heads.

In the end, the kids who need help the least get more, and those who need it most get less. Not what Bennett has in mind.

“It will have a neutral impact,” Copper predicts.

What do you think about Bennett’s plan? Copper’s assessment?

  • Bennett is a fool
    ISTEP is already almost a worthless test that tells you little about what student knows, what they can do, and what valuable skills they have mastered that will prepare them for a global job market. The numbers and stats are all just a horrible way to show how bad students are now so they can show tiny gains over the next couple of years and hail success. The poorly behaved kids who are not acheiving in school usually have parents at home that are not doing their job or are not educated themselves. Does Bennett actually think they will understand what this information means. I would be willing to wager over 50% of parents in this state do not understand the concept of a percentile. All smokes and mirrors to get more charters, vouchers, and violate separation of church and state.

    The recent licensing changes are going to destroy middle school education in this state. People will refuse to get math or science degree that require advanced levels of calculus or physics to teach 7th grade students proportions and prealgebra. It is not going to get other working professional in other fields to come into education. Why would anyone come into education in Indiana when teachers are treated like the are nothing but tax leeches.
  • Skeptical
    I think the thought process that is being suggested is too much of a stretch. There's simply no believability factor to it. Was it such a slow news day that you had to run a story on mere speculation just to whip up a little controversy?
  • Parental involvement is key
    As the daughter and wife of teachers (and a mom myself), I can tell you that parent involvement makes all the difference in a kid's performance. However, parents who don't bother coming to any school event or teacher appointment, who don't take or return phone calls from school, who don't respond to written notices, and who generally ignore their child aren't going to be moved by complex statistics. Not participating in your child's education at even the most minimal level should be considered a form of abuse.
  • Tony Bennett
    Schools closing, libraries closing, newspapers folding, hello dark ages. And Bennett is concerned about is explaining ISTEP to parents. I know No Child Left Behind is responsible for the obsession with ISTEP testing, but, seriously, we have more important educational problems.
  • Demands without resources
    Bennett has lots of ideas - some of them are good. However, he makes demands and decisions without appropriate regard to the consequences. He abolished current teacher licensing standards, indicating he would come up with a new system. That left hundreds of newer teachers in the midst of meeting their requirements for license renewal that now have no way to complete and renew their licenses. Meanwhile, the continued budget cuts and increased demands are quite in conflict with each other. Teachers already spend hundreds of $$ per year out of pocket and countless evening and weekend hours creating lesson plans, grading papers, and meeting with parents.Now the class sizes will go up, leaving students with even less individual focus. The failure of students is always blamed on teachers, instead of parents and school system flaws. New teachers are cut each year due to reductions, until they finally give up and leave the profession. We lose the teachers who are there for the right reasons, but become ineffective with no ability to exercise their creativity and independent judgment. Bennett should finish at least one change before he pours more of his topsy turvy flow of ideas into the already messy and confusing pot.
  • Reality
    Recently the DOE stopped printing paper ISTEP reports to save money. Parents must log on to the website to obtain their children's scores. Most parents of students I teach in Hamilton County NEVER bothered to go to the website to get the scores. Some could not figure it out and asked me to print the report for them. If parents won't take the time to get ISTEP scores does Bennet think they will take the time to see how their kid measures up? I think not! Only the parents Copper described will take the time and they will drive teachers and administrators more nuts that Bennett is already doing!
  • You miss the point, Sir.
    There's no question the growth model will empower parents, but I do not see how you can blame Bennett if local school boards make bad decisions about the allocation of resources between programs for high-achieving and low-achieving students.

    The growth model as I understand it will provide more data than ever before on what's really happening within our classrooms. This is a major step forward for school and taxpayer accountability. For the IBJ to print such a one-sided critique of this advancement in transparency strikes me as irresponsible and uninformed.

  • What's wrong with motivation?
    Trying to bring the bottom up by pushing the top lower is not a good model either. Why shouldn't those with the drive and ability be given everything they need to excel? Why is it a crime to accomodate those people for whom education is a priority?

    The old saying "You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink" totally applies here. You can provide every tool imaginable for students to succeed but if they and their parents don't want to, what can you do? Shaming them into it is one way. I see this somewhat as a way to shame the parents by showing them their child against his peers, not a faceless national or state average.

    And by the way, not EVERYONE who has drive and ability is affluent (which is what Mr. Copper is somewhat insinuating). One child I know has admission offers from several high ranking colleges (Duke was one)and was on the free lunch program at school - but his parents CARED. He was a 21st Century Scholar, and actually used the program. His parents saved up to send him to camps and programs. They were in the principals face. Being pushy got him where he is today and I say more power to them!
  • price tag
    You have just put a price tag on athletes who have been nurtured in the public schools the first 8 grades with a no cap on vouchers for HS. Private schools are already offering scholarships to top athletes, look at the final 4 in this year's basketball tourney. No student, no matter how poor, unless an adult encourages, will get a voucher and these adults are already involved. Vouchers are a no way to promote better students.

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