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The Resignation: Why Bennett and Not White?

August 5, 2013

John White is Louisiana’s Tony Bennett. Both engage in the same shady reformer manipulations, yet Bennett has resigned and White still has a job. How is that?

How, indeed.

On July 29, 2013, LDOE was supposed to publicize the 2013 school letter grades. No grades yet.

In 2012, the school letter grades were not released until October 22. Particularly from November 2012 to January 2013, my colleague Herb Bassett and I contacted White about problems with the grades. We were brushed aside.

In May 2013, White admits the grades are inflated. Even then he attempts to excuse himself from responsibility.

Grade massaging is difficult to pull off. It takes time. That is why the 2013 school letter grades are late.

Meanwhile, the first round of mandatory ACT administration results for Louisiana seniors became available for release– sort of. The LDOE website has no comprehensive spreadsheet of scores available for 2013. The Baton Rouge Advocate released score highlights. Conspicuously absent is any mention of the state-run RSD, which also has no scores available from 2008 to 2012 on the state website.

Another contradiction: According to LDOE, all Louisiana graduates took the ACT in both 2011 and 2012. So for White and Jindal to advertise the 2013 ACT results as a major deal because “every high school graduate had to take the test” is much ado about nothing– especially since the article in which they do so includes no details on specific, district-wide scores.

Why delay reporting scores unless those scores are being manipulated?

This very thought was on my mind as I read of Tony Bennett’s exposure for manipulating school letter grades during his time as Indiana’s superintendent and his almost-immediate resignation as Florida’s superintendent in connection with the incident. Perhaps Bennett expected more details to emerge regarding his gaming the system; perhaps he simply embarrassed Jeb Bush too much already.

As far as fixing the numbers goes, Tony Bennett has nothing on John White. Both violate what my colleague Herb Bassett refers to as “fair play”:

We have a sense of fair play that says the rules should not change after the game has started, even though they have unintended consequences we do not like. In the case of annual reviews that yield such unintended consequences (i.e. School Performance Scores or teacher evaluations), the current results must all remain valid or all should be voided. The rules cannot be changed after the first results are in. For the next year, the system can and should be changed (in advance) to avoid the unintended consequences. [Emphasis added.]

When it serves him, White plays the “I can’t change the rules” card. He did so regarding the 2012 school performance score inflation only because it allowed him to avoid accountability. As superintendent, he could have gone before the state board of education (BESE) and asked to suspend the letter grade process due to bias in the scores. He chose not to.

White does not do rules. He does designer results that suit his purposes– just like Bennett did for his GOP-donor-run Christel House charter.

White’s decision not to address inflation in school letter grades resulted in his awarding money to districts based upon unreliable scores.  I also confronted White and BESE regarding bias in the school performance scores and the implications for both misdirected funding and mislabeling schools as “failing.” Both such issues are also mentioned in connection with Bennett:

The emails, which also show Bennett discussed with staff the legality of changing just DeHaan’s [Christel House charter] grade, raise unsettling questions about the validity of a grading system that has broad implications. Indiana uses the A-F grades to determine which schools get taken over by the state and whether students seeking state-funded vouchers to attend private school need to first spend a year in public school. They also help determine how much state funding schools receive. [Emphasis added.]

Regarding similarities between Bennett and White, Bassett observes:

Preliminary data from Indiana’s School Performance Score System indicated that a particular charter school would receive a C instead of an A. The school was one that arguably was an outstanding school when judged by other evidence, despite what the flawed system rated it. Tony Bennett, then State Superintendent, insisted that the rules be changed – after the initial results were in – so that the school would receive a higher grade than initially calculated.

Additionally, the school apparently had certain powerful political connections Bennett wished to appease.

In Indiana, this is considered scandalous and Tony Bennett resigned from his current position as Commissioner of Education in Florida as a result of the scandal.

Now, John White’s predicament:

Preliminary data from Louisiana’s Value Added Model indicated that a small group of teachers of high performing students would receive a ranking of Ineffective instead of Effective. The teachers were arguably outstanding teachers when judged by other evidence, despite what the flawed system ranked them. John White on his own authority changed the rules – after the initial results were in – so that those teachers could receive a higher final evaluation than the initial VAM ranking would allow.

Additionally, it appears that this decision was in response to political pressure.

White and Bennett are in the same position. [Emphasis added.]

Bennett knew full well that he was shaping the Indiana school letter grade outcome to achieve a desired result for a single school, as his email attests:

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal, who is now Gov. Mike Pence’s chief lobbyist. [Emphasis added.]

What fantastic irony in Bennett’s statement! Rather than honestly show Indiana’s letter grade system for what it is– a system that awards a C to a top-donor’s charter– Bennett chose to falsify a grade in order to prove that The Reforms Are Working. What he ended up revealing to the public is that privatization is biased towards those with money and influence.

Bennett’s “solution” was to alter a scoring category in which Christel House had a zero to one with an average from other categories in the calculation of the school score. Compare this with the suggestion that a legislator offers White for “tweaking” value-added scores for teachers at his district’s high-scoring magnet elementary when some teachers of high-performing students were rated as “ineffective” in October 2012. This information is from a recorded phone conversation between the legislator (Seabaugh) and White as noted on Tom Aswell’s Louisiana Voice blog:

Seabaugh’s complaint was apparently that if a student’s score dropped from, say a target score of 430 to 420, he should not be given a score of minus 10 but simply a zero so long as his newer score kept him in either Advanced or Mastery classification. That way, said Seabaugh, “It won’t count against the teacher if he went back a little.”

Seabaugh said he was not trying to exempt anyone from the VAM evaluation, “just tweaking the way you calculate the numbers. Why not, if you stay within the top two categories, you just get a zero. You’re not doing away with the system…and you’re not exempting anyone or creating some kind of other category.”

At one point White suggested creating a policy that keeps data but does not always use the data in the evaluation.

I don’t believe you can get it past BESE, so why not write it in such a way as we can get it passed?” Seabaugh responded.

I’m going to feel out the board on that,” White said. “I think we can get it past BESE. I may ask your help on that but I think we can get it past BESE.”  [Emphasis added.]

When White wants to avoid responsibility, he blames “rules in place” from BESE before his arrival. When he wants to “tweak” teacher evaluations, he plots how he might “get past BESE.”

Designer results.

The erratic nature of Louisiana’s VAM (value added modeling) used in teacher evaluations was another issue I wrote about in a paper to legislators in December 2012. In March 2013, BESE submitted this report on VAM to the Louisiana legislature. The BESE report also includes information indicating that VAM is erratic and could misclassify any teacher regardless of his/her actual professional performance.

White knows that VAM does not work. However, he chooses to focus his energy on the misclassification that concerns a legislator who is a Jindal supporter.

On July 8, 2013, White issued a bulletin that noted the voiding of VAM scores for “roughly” 50 teachers who were rated ineffective despite their students scoring well on the standardized tests; in place of the VAM scores, White instructs these individuals that they must have the alternative, student-learning-target evaluation done– after the fact:

A very small number of teachers’ scores (roughly 50 statewide) are undergoing further study before they are finalized. In these cases, the majority of students were performing at ‘advanced,’ ‘mastery, or ‘excellent,’ but the ratings placed the teacher as Ineffective. These teachers’ value-added data will not appear in the Compass Information System. Evaluators should use student learning targets to assign the student growth rating for these teachers. [Emphasis added.]

 White ignores the likelihood that other teachers’ VAM scores are also problematic. He does not address how foolish it is to have these 50 teachers set up “targets” for a year that has passed and for students now gone. And he does not address this issue as stated in BESE Bulletin 130 (teacher evals), section 325:

Requests for invalidation of evaluation results shall be made prior to the state’s release of annual value-added results and no later than June 1.

Of course, the above statement involves situations in which the teacher or administration request to invalidate the result. There is no section that specifically addresses how the superintendent should pick and choose what results he wishes to invalidate according to his whims.

If any issue should have forced White to resign, it should have been the July 2012-released “muddying the narrative” emails surrounding his scrambling to cover up the complete lack of rigor in voucher school selection. No site visits were required for voucher school approval– until such was fabricated after the fact in an email exchange including White.

One of the “approved” schools, New Living Word, now owes the state almost $400,000 in overcharges.

White exercised zero oversight of the voucher program, from start to finish. There are emails on White to prove as much. And it isn’t as though White has only one scandal; in this post alone, there’s the taped phone conversation with a legislator regarding the altering of the teacher evaluation formula for select teachers, and there’s White’s admission of inflated 2012 school performance scores. These are only a few examples. Read here for many more.

How is it that Tony Bennett is out of a job and White is not?

I believe the difference is in each one’s proximity to Jeb Bush. Both Bennett and White are Bush minions as members of Chiefs for Change; however, Bennett was a favored son. Bush held a fundraiser at the 2012 Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE) summit for Bennett’s possible re-election as Indiana superintendent. When Bennett lost, Bush (via Gov. Rick Scott) shuttled him into the position of Florida’s superintendent. And now, Bennett’s actions might jeopardize Bush’s “lynchpin of the reforms”— the school letter grade.

The school letter grades hold all of the reforms together, for it is via low letter grades that Bush and other reformers levy consequences against community schools and hand them over to privatizers.  The school letter grade is the mark of failure upon which the argument for privatization depends.

John White continues to con his way as Louisiana superintendent, and he will thrive in this capacity until some one of his clandestine arrangements is publicized and connects his illegal dealings to the likes of Jeb Bush.

In that moment, White will have hit his trip wire.

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