Friday, June 4, 2010

Falling for the "Tough Love" Spin

It's been noted here before that the Indy Star's Matthew Tully needs to be commended for bringing public education into the spotlight (although somewhat problematically) but here he shows some ignorance.  Bennett clearly sees where his bread is buttered and he's laying it on thick for Tully.  Some questions might be: what does one make of policies that "don't make sense"?; what do we make of cutting professional development support, time, and opportunities that make teachers better? how do you possibly defend education policy decisions with literally NO data behind them?  how do you defend a process that cuts out public comment, parental views, and due process?  how does responsible journalism allow politicians to spin failures as victories?

But perhaps most important, at what point is tough love not love anymore?  Indiana Citizens likes what you do Tully but.... you're falling for it again.

Tony Bennett's tough love

I've heard many complaints about state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett during months of conversations with teachers and school administrators. In fact, the easiest way to guarantee an eye roll from a public school educator is to simply mention Bennett's name.
He hates teachers, some insist. He's arrogant and too blunt, others argue. He's the governor's puppet, many believe. Or, critics say, his reform plans just don't make sense.

As much as I like teachers as a group, and as much as I respect the difficult challenges they face, I could hardly disagree more.
Bennett's tenure hasn't always been pretty. But he's done exactly what Indiana needed him to do during his first 17 months in office: He has put the debate over improving public schools at center stage. He's stood up to the entrenched education establishment. And he's made clear that neither baby steps nor the status quo is acceptable.
Still, there is a valid concern that Bennett's increasingly bitter battles with teachers unions, as well as his criticism of bad teachers, has left many good teachers feeling like collateral damage.
"That's a very fair observation," Bennett said Thursday morning during a meeting with editors and reporters from The Indianapolis Star. "Frankly, at times good teachers get lumped in with bad teachers, and that is unfortunate. Do I regret the dynamic that has occurred? Yes. Do I wish we had done a better job of messaging the sincere appreciation we have for great teachers? Yes. And I take full responsibility for that."
That's a good thing to say. There aren't many people who deserve more appreciation than those who do a good job of teaching children.
Still, Bennett's best trait is his willingness -- eagerness, even -- to take the punches that come with fighting the education bosses throughout the state. It's a trait some of his supporters argue clouds his message. Although they might be right, there's much to be said in praise of an education leader who lives in constant frustration with the state's current education climate.  "I will have no remorse for calling out the things that do not serve Indiana's children," he said.
As for his hard-charging early days, he's not apologizing, saying, "We had to drive home the fact that we were going to push for excellence." Union leaders have kicked back fiercely at Bennett. Those who apologize for the poor performance of districts such as Indianapolis Public Schools suggest that leaders who push for big changes cannot by definition be supporters of public education. The forces that attempt to protect the status quo in public schools are as powerful as anywhere else.
That's why I've appreciated Bennett's willingness to expose the harm caused by some union contract rules, and to say things state education superintendents before him refused to say.
Without question, he needs to reach out to rank-and-file teachers. But remember, his aggressive style has raised the profile of the education debate in Indiana, and led more people to take seriously talk that the state might finally force dramatic changes.
"If schools are not performing," Bennett said, "the state has a moral imperative to intervene. The state has to have the political courage to step in and help these kids."
I just spent nearly a year closely observing a public school, and I still find it hard to believe this country allows so many of its children to attend schools that do not offer an education even remotely comparable to better schools only miles away.
Bennett has occasionally stumbled. And, no doubt, he has angered many in the education business.
Let's hope he keeps it up.


1 comment:

  1. Yeah, Matthew - you observed probably the worst school in Indiana, so I'm sure that's an adequate job of research on what's working or not.

    When your REPUBLICAN State Legislators express the view that Bennett is the worst thing for Indiana education and that he's Daniels' puppet - THEN you know teachers have a point.