Tony Bennett’s Not Corrupt, He Just Did His Job Very Very Poorly

Michael Petrilli and Andy Smarick took to Twitter today to try and explain why Tony Bennett did what he did (Petrilli’s longer thoughts are here.) The basic defense is that when Christel House Academy scored a ‘C’ it tipped off Bennett’s team that something was wrong with the system. An error was found regarding schools of a certain grade span, and the error was corrected, causing the grades of a handful of schools to change.

If that’s the case, then fine. But that doesn’t square with the story:

When Bennett requested a status update Sept. 14, his staff alerted him that the new school grade, a 3.50, was painfully close to an “A.” Then-deputy chief of staff Marcie Brown wrote that the state might not be able to “legally” change the cutoff for an “A.”

“We can revise the rule,” Bennett responded.

Over the next week, his top staff worked arduously to get Christel House its “A.” By Sept. 21, Christel House had jumped to a 3.75. Gubera resigned shortly afterward.

After the error was found, the formula seems to have been continuously revised until Christel received an ‘A.’ I’m willing to give Bennett the benefit of the doubt — I don’t think he was corrupt or attempting to give illegal favors. I think he was using Christel in a genuine good faith effort to create the best system. But by using Christel to calibrate the results Bennett didn’t create a system that rewards schools for reaching an objective standard of excellence, he created a system that rewards schools for being like Christel. That’s a bad way to create an accountability system.

Once the error was recognized there’s only one thing that should have happened. Bennett’s team should have met and decided how they thought it was best to grade the affected schools, without bothering to look at any individual school. Bennett has a team of trained professionals and statisticians and they should be objectively grading schools on what they believe to be the best mutually agreed upon metrics. They shouldn’t need past results to “check” their work. If they do, the system is not objective. If the federal government decided on a rating system for universities, but then tweaked it because Harvard and Yale only got a B, people might not suspect foul play, but they wouldn’t say it was a good and objective way to build the system.

Opponents of accountability have had to swallow a lot of bitter pills over the last few years (pills I’ve generally been happy to see them swallow.) But the saving grace has been that the accountability is objective. The system is blind to specific schools, and that means everybody is treated the same. Bennett sidestepped that standard in way that wasn’t appropriate for a public agency. He never should have been assuring good schools that they would receive good grades. The methodological merits of the system should have been able to stand on their own.

On Twitter Neerav Kingsland asked Smarick how we know that Christel is high performing, and Smarick replied that it had done well under previous grading systems. But the previous grading systems were flawed! That’s why a new one was being made. Even if Christel’s good performance in past systems was “real,” and even if you accept that Christel is objectively a great school, allowing a single school to influence an accountability system pushes you to a point where all objectivity starts to leak out. In this specific instance it may not have led to an inferior grading system, but using a single school for calibration is, to put in mildly, not a best practice. Thus Bennett’s sin wasn’t corruption, it was merely doing a really bad job.


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