Quick note on Tony Bennett: anchor cases and leadership

I’m trying to get some other things done today, but the news on Tony Bennett is dominating education reporting in Florida this week, and my two cents’ worth of response is easy to explain. Essentially, the emails AP dug up through a public records request showed that when he was the state superintendent in Indiana, Bennett tinkered with the “school grade” formula when it was clear a well-known charter school was not going to receive an “A.”

The problem is not that Bennett wanted to adjust the school-“grade” formula: that had been pushed in the state for a number of months by a number of players, and all sorts of bureaucratic mechanisms need tinkering. The problem is that Bennett was focused on an anchor case: the grading system would be fixed when a single school he thought he knew had the right result, and the emails make it look suspiciously like Bennett fixed on that anchor case for political reasons (charter-school politics in the state).

Because Bennett is no longer in charge of the Indiana state education bureaucracy, he can’t order an underling to find a broader set of emails to provide context, but he can request them, just as AP did, and he should know what he’d be looking for. But I don’t think a broader context will solve the fundamental problem Bennett created; he either carelessly implied or made clear to to his direct reports that what he cared about was this school, not the system. His brief interview with Rick Hess doesn’t address that issue.

I’m hesitant to make parallels between policymaking and teaching, but since the advocates of attaching grade-like labels to schools use that parallel, maybe the following alternative cases will be helpful in explaining my perspective:

  1. For a large university course, teaching assistants alert the faculty member to some anomalies in grading. She and the TAs sit down, look at the distribution, discover some test questions that just didn’t work, delete them, and otherwise address the grading of a course in a systematic fashion.
  2. Same course, different set of events: faculty member has ignored TA concerns until a student whom the faculty member knows from another context complains about his grade. “I’m a straight-A student!” Faculty member rushes to write email to TAs: “Joe Whinger can’t have a C. Something must be wrong. We meet at 3 pm today to fix this, because Joe should be earning an A.” At the meeting, the faculty member talks entirely about Joe and his grade; TAs and faculty member fiddle with grade thresholds and weighting until Joe has at least an A-.
  3. Same prod as #2 (Joe), same email to TAs, but at the 3pm meeting the faculty member and TAs focus on the general distribution of performance and adjust the grades based on the coursewide data.
  4. Same prod as #2 (Joe), except here’s the email that goes to TAs: “One of the students came to me with an interesting question about the last exam and his grade. Based on that, and, yes, on your concerns earlier, we need to look at the items and score distribution. Are you all available at 3pm?”

Here’s Bennett’s problem: the emails strongly suggest he was engaged in either #2 or #3. Naming the individual charter school doesn’t distinguish between the two, but it certainly wasn’t a case of #1 or #4. Only #1 and #4 are the appropriate responses. Either #2 or #3 is poor leadership; #3 is at best a rescue of an initially bad response.

Update: Over at the New American Foundation’s blog, Anne Hyslop shows that what Bennett did is the worst case, akin to #2. Bennett has since resigned from the commissioner position. He is the second education commissioner Governor Scott has pushed as a supposed reform star from another state, and the second to go down in flames. With apologies to Oscar Wilde, to choose one embarrassing education commissioner may be regarded as as a misfortune; to choose two looks like carelessness.

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3 responses to “Quick note on Tony Bennett: anchor cases and leadership”

  1. CCPhysicist

    Oh, that is rich. In what world are “terrible” 10th grade algebra scores associated with a “top-performing” school? Quite the opposite, because 10th grade algebra appears to me to be a major indicator of a student who will not be prepared for college-level work and end up in remediation.

  2. Glen S. McGhee

    “Anchor case,” indeed.

    But isn’t this how we perceive reality? Internal benchmarking (or call it stereotyping) like this is everywhere, from reading my water bill to keeping up with the neighbor’s new car. Why should we expect it to be any different for Tony Bennett?

    No wonder there are “poor leaders” …..

  3. Jeffrey Hellmers

    You’ve missed the point here. How they discovered the problem is not the issue. The scandal is that they KNEW what the problem was, and fixed it dishonestly. The school in question had a low grade because of bad scores on the Algebra test, as your first commenter points out. There wasn’t a problem with the system. The system just gave them an outcome they didn’t like, and so they found a loophole and dropped the bad scores completely from that school’s grade.

    The proper analogy, to use your situation, is that the prof discovers that Joe Whinger got a C. Then when they investigate why he got a C, they find out that it’s because he wrote a terrible answer to a key question. (But lots of other students did fine on that question.) Then the prof says, “Well, I know Joe and he’s usually a good student, so we can’t give him a C. Let’s just drop that one question from the whole test for everybody.” And then Joe gets an A. It helps, of course, that Joe’s parents are rich and powerful and pay the professor’s salary.