Putting Education Reform To The Test

New Thoughts And Old Thoughts On Florida Education From Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett

Kyle Stokes / StateImpact Indiana

Tony Bennett, Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction, at Wednesday's Indiana State Board of Education meeting.

Next week the State Board of Education will interview finalists to become the next Florida education commissioner.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, who lost his reelection bid, is one of three finalists and thought the front-runner for the post because of his ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Bennett says his sense of duty to children outweighed his being a lifelong Hoosier when he decided to apply for the Florida job, according to our colleagues at StateImpact Indiana:

As a guy who is a Hoosier through and through, who spent all but one year of his professional life in Indiana, I had to ask myself how important it was to balance that issue between loving the role of state school chief and driving education policy for children of a state versus living in Indiana. And I don’t believe there are any other states in the country better than Florida to do what I love to do. I’m excited about it, but will it will be hard? Of course it’ll be hard. But on January 11, I have to make a pretty quick emotional and intellectual pivot. And that emotional and intellectual pivot is I have to put Indiana in my rear-view mirror if I’m selected. And I have to underscore, ‘if I’m selected’…

I’m thrilled that the opportunity exists, and I hope the opportunity works out. I hope that on [December] 12 that we have the opportunity to serve the state of Florida, and the children of Florida more importantly than anything.

We spoke with Tony Bennett back in the spring. At the time, we were working on a story about Jeb Bush’s national influence and asked Bennett about his role with a an education group affiliated with non-profits Bush founded.

The interview sheds light on the relationship between Bennett and Bush and also is interesting in hindsight for Bennett’s views on the political issues that may have led to his defeat in Indiana. The Q&A, after the jump.

Q: How did the group (Chiefs for Change) come together and how did you meet up with Gov. Bush?

A: I first met Gov. Bush when he spoke at a state function here and I was introduced to him by Gov. Daniels. So that was the first time I met him…it was shortly after I the election. After I got into office.

We very quickly got to work on education reform. My sister actually is an educator in Florida and has always been an admirer of Gov. Bush. So I have probably for many years paid close attention to what Gov. Bush had done in Florida so I knew, I believed in my heart that he had a great blueprint for statewide reform, for policy reform.

That’s actually how I got involved, and how I became, if you will, acquainted with Gov. Bush was through Gov. Daniels.

There were three of us originally. Myself, Paul Pastorek, who was then the superintendent for the state of Louisiana, and Eric Smith, obviously the commissioner of Florida.

I would characterize it by saying Eric and Paul kind of took me under their wings when I first became a state chief. They knew that I was very much like them in many ways.

And so we had regular calls, Paul and Eric and I. And through those discussions we talked about how we could put a group of people of like-minded state chiefs together to really collaborate, to support each other, to discuss strong state reform.

And Eric mentioned ‘You know this might be something we can get some help from Gov. Bush on.’

So Eric actually contacted Gov. Bush and Gov. Bush then, if you will, put this group of state chiefs. We expanded that group from Paul, Eric and me. We included Deb Gist who is the state commissioner in [Rhode Island]. We included Gerard Robinson, who was then the secretary of education in Virginia, and as you now know, is now the commissioner in Florida.

And the five of us were the original Chiefs for Change. And that’s how Gov. Bush got involved.

Q: When you guys got started, what advice did he give you and what suggestions did he make for your organization?

A: Gov. Bush is a resource, and I think the number one thing that I always appreciate about Gov. Bush is this discussion is about how you advance education on behalf of children. So we were always focusin on child-centered, academic achievement-centered reforms.

That is really the mantra that Gov. Bush has always spoken to us about: ‘Let’s make sure that everything we do has the kids as our first priority. Let’s make sure everything we do has student achievement and improved student achievement as our priority. Let’s make sure we’re turning failure into success. Let’s recognize and reward great teachers.’

It was really the type of things that he always believed as a governor. He said ‘These are the folks in the country that are doing these things and stay focused on them; don’t get distracted.’

Q: One of the things he told me is that in the states where he gets involved, he’s always invited to those states. How have you invited him to Indiana and what role has he taken in Indiana?

A: First, I don’t think it’s any secret that Gov. Daniels and Gov. Bush have a pretty strong relationship.

So that is actually through our work in the Department of Ed and what I believed to be the Florida blueprint for education reform, we invited Gov. Bush to help us. We invited Gov. Bush to help us work with our legislators as we rolled out this package prior to the 2011 session of the General Assembly.

I obviously sought his counsel on issues. We brought him in to speak to our legislators. We brought him in to speak to our education roundtable.

So a combination of Gov. Daniels and me inviting him is how he was invited to Indiana. And I would tell you that we were very glad he accepted the invitation and came and shared with us.

Q: Obviously he carries some significant authority here in Florida as a popular former governor. What kind of reaction did he get in Indiana?

A: Can I couch this in an interesting – because you said he carries a lot of clout in Florida as a popular former governor? But let me say something about Jeb Bush the education reformer, because I think that will answer the question that you asked. So I don’t want to lose sight of this.

Because if there’s one thing I want to say about Gov. Bush – and I want to say this in this context. One of the things you’re going to find out about me is that I’m objective enough to tell you where I’m not objective.

And I’m objective enough to tell you I may not have the highest level of objectivity when it comes to Gov. Bush, because he is not only an education reformer who I admire. He is a man, a person, whose character I admire a great deal.

I guess the best way for me to characterize this is to say: Jeb Bush has a big, a big mind and a big heart for education reform. He has the right mind and the right heart for education reform.

So to answer your question: Jeb Bush, in my opinion, may be, may very well be, the leading voice in the United States on education reform.

He understands the policy. He understands the right policy. He understands the implementation. But more than anything he understands the ability and the need for the right message.

Because I think one of the things embedded in the question you asked me is this: I don’t think any of us would argue at times that the rhetoric and the discussion around education reform sometimes sounds angry. And I think that’s what many educators sometimes feel and hear, is they hear people saying negative things about teachers and about public education.

And the thing that I think helps Gov. Bush be very widely accepted across party lines, across ideologies is the fact that he is not an angry education reformer. He has the right heart and the right mind for education reform. He’s very much a statesman about it.

So the direct answer to your question is: As a result of the incredible professional and person qualities that Gov. Bush possesses, I would tell you that while there are people who may disagree philosophically, I never run into people who believe that Jeb Bush is out to ruin public education.

So many times when we talk about these types of reforms and we talk about Gov. Bush, we end up having a discussion about philosophy and not about anger.

And I think that’s a tribute to Gov. Bush, and I think that’s why when we brought him to Indiana he commanded such an audience. I think that’s why people came and wanted to hear him at the roundtable. I think that’s why people were compelled by the Florida story and the way he did things in Florida.

Q: You mentioned a couple of time the Florida blueprint. In approaching your job in Indiana, how much of that Florida blueprint have you adopted and have there been parts where you decided maybe that’s not right for Indiana?

A: We tried to adopt, literally, as much of it – I would almost would say all of it. As a matter of fact, I would say Indiana – and I think Gov. Bush may or may not verify this – but, I think Indiana was the first state to really adopt the Florida model.

We are fully implementing anti-social promotion for third grade reading. We have A through F grading of schools. We use a growth model in our school accountability system. We have annual teacher evaluations. We have performance-based pay. We have the nation’s most expansive voucher program. And we have an expanded charter school community where all of it is held together by a high level of accountability, school accountability.

So I would say to you there are very few, if any states, that are as closely aligned to the Florida model as Indiana.

Q: You mentioned the third grade reading standards. You guys are about to see the first results of that coming up here fairly soon, right?

A: Yes sir.

Q: Gov. Bush said that the process in Florida was – ‘traumatic’ was the word that he used in going through that change. But he said within two years you could see some very positive results from it. What do you expect in Indiana and what are you telling teachers, parents, students about what this change is going to mean?

A: This is an area where I think Gov. Bush and I would both probably quote [U.S. Education] Secretary [Arne] Duncan. Because anti-social promotion policies, like the one in Florida and the one in Indiana, are very strong validations of Secretary Duncan’s comments that we must quit lying to our children.

And I think when we socially promote children – Gov. Bush mentioned them as traumatic – well I don’t think there’s anything more traumatic than going to 19 different communities like I did last summer where we were considering intervention in failing schools, and almost unanimously hearing that one of the most prevailing problems — especially in these high schools that had been chronically underperforming — was a dynamic where so many of the children were asked to master literacy skills in high school text books that they frankly weren’t prepared. We heard teachers say ‘We have children reading at the fifth and sixth grade level.’

What we’re seeing in Indiana is, frankly, we have spent a ton of work, a ton of time, a ton of effort, over the last two plus years preparing our teachers, preparing with new reading frameworks —  those types of things – and I think we will likely not see as dramatic of results in the first year. Frankly I think we’re seeing our schools, because of the ground work we did prior to administering this first third grade test, I think we’re going to see some pretty strong results. But what I do think what we’re going to see, is we’re going to see children move through our education system who are now prepared to use the skill of reading to learn. And that’s a dynamic that I believe is necessary.

We’re very excited. We think it’s the right public policy for children. We think it’s the right public policy for our schools. I don’t know that we’re going to see quite that traumatic of results maybe that Florida saw in their first year of implementation, and some of that may be due to the fact that we were able to scale up in terms of what we do to prepare schools around literacy maybe a little different than Florida did.

Q: There’s been some backlash to some of the policies that Gov. Bush didn’t necessarily invent, but that he popularized. Such as the kind of high-stakes standardized testing that we’ve seen in Texas; some of the opt out movements across the country. And then some of the other things, such as Common Core that he championed that make some conservative folks nervous about the prospect of national standards. How do you react to those things and those criticisms?

A: That’s a great question, because it’s a very insightful question from the perspective of: Think about what you just asked me. And this, in my opinion, is what makes Gov. Bush such a statesman on education reform. Because Gov. Bush, and I stand with him very strongly on this issue, has been a strong proponent for Common Core standards. He has also been a strong proponent for school choice; for, obviously, high-stakes testing and accountability.

Well if you think about those discussions and you take the high-stakes accountability and testing and you take Common Core, he is truly advocating of behalf of what is best for children without any consideration to which end of the spectrum he agrees with. And I would just ask you to think about that. Because that in and of itself is indicative of how strongly bi-partisan Jeb Bush the man sees the need for education reform. Frankly, he has been willing to go against the grain of some of his, and my, traditional constituents as it applies to Common Core. And he has taken on the education establishment on other issues, such as choice, accountability, teacher effectiveness.

So, I guess, I think the way you asked that question is a perfect to testament to a guy whose heart is 100 percent – I go back to his heart and his mind being in the right spot for education reform. If the guy has a compass in his chest, it’s pointed due north. And that due north is at kids every day.

Q: How closely do you guys, do you with Chiefs for Change, work with the foundation staff and use their research or their advice on things that they’re working on?

A: The foundation has been instrumental in Chiefs for Change. A matter of fact I dare say that Chiefs for Change wouldn’t be able to operate and we wouldn’t be able. We talk as chiefs, the eight of us along with Paul Pastorek and Eric Smith who even though they left the chief role they’ve stayed on in emeritus situation. We have phone calls every two weeks with the chiefs.

The foundation staff helps us. The foundation staff helped us during the legislative process. The foundations staff helps us with communications as we’re asked as Chiefs for Change to go to Capitol Hill and testify. The foundation staff is there.

And once again I attribute that, because if you think about it, because on the Chiefs for Change we have Democrats and Republicans. This is not a strict Republican group of guys who are all kind of right wingers. This is Democrats and Republicans. And once again it’s a result of Gov. Bush and the foundation standing for what’s right for children and what’s right for education.

And I am never shy about saying, that if we didn’t have Jeb Bush and we didn’t have the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Chiefs for Change wouldn’t exist.

Q:  One of the things that people have been discussing in Florida is if you look at NAEP scores, Florida has kind of plateaued and essentially made no progress over the last six years after making fairly quick progress during Gov. Bush’s time in office. Is that a sign that these policies have diminishing returns after a while, or is something else going on?

A: I’m going to use a phrase that Gov. Bush uses frequently, and that is ‘Success is never final, and reform is never finished.’ Part of what we constantly think about in Indiana, and what I would talk about with Gov. Bush when we have an opportunity to talk about, is what’s the next level? What do we need to do to refine these reforms so that we don’t hit plateaus?

And so I don’t necessarily think it’s because they have diminishing – we’re going to hit a place where they plateau and you get, really, very little return after a certain period of time. I do think what we have to keep our mind and our eyes on, is the idea that when you pursue these type of reform you’re not finished. You have to constantly look at implementation.

Let me say it this way: I don’t know if Gov. Bush mentioned this to you, but he actually motivated me, I heard Gov. Bush, I was with him when he and I both spoke down at Baton Rouge for Gov. Jindal’s summit.

And during Gov. Bush’s remarks he referred to Gen. David Petreaus’ book “All In.” And he referred to Gen. Petraeus saying if you’re going to be a great leader, you have to get the big ideas right, you have to communicate the big ideas effectively, then you have to implement the big ideas with fidelity. They you have to get the feedback loop, so as you implement you see where you have to adjust, improve and constantly adapt so that you’re continuing with new big ideas and getting those right. So it’s a constant cycle.

And I guess my point in saying that is, I think that’s the challenge to education reform. You can pass all the sexy laws you want. Until you implement them, and until you make those adaptations, and until you constantly look at a continuous improvement plan around them, I think that’s the challenge and I think that’s the key to not hitting constant plateaus.

Q: What is Gov. Bush like personally?

A: He has probably been one of the warmest people to me that I have met in the job. He has been very patient with me. He has been very kind of his time. We’re sitting here as I look at my watch it’s 2:37, and I promise you if I send Gov. Bush an email, that I promise you within 20 minutes I’ll get an email back.

And I’ve got to tell you, in the life of Jeb Bush I don’t really think Tony Bennett’s really quite – I’m not really an anybody. I’m not anything special. And yet there has never been a time when I have been around that man that he hasn’t made me feel special.

And he’s been generous of his time. He’s been generous of his talent. If somebody said something bad about Gov. Bush to me, as we’d say where I came from, that’d be fighting words.


About StateImpact

StateImpact seeks to inform and engage local communities with broadcast and online news focused on how state government decisions affect your lives.
Learn More »