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Will Tony Bennett's school reforms hurt struggling students?

April 8, 2010

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?

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