Commentary: Symbolism matters in education reform debate

April 4, 2013 By Cam Savage

After four years of Tony Bennett, defenders of the status quo and opponents of education accountability hoped they’d get a Superintendent of Public Instruction who would pump the brakes on education reform, lower expectations and generally leave them alone. Well, they got one. So when Superintendent Glenda Ritz took some heat for making her first – and to date only – major initiative a $100,000 renovation of her Statehouse office space, the education establishment breathed a huge sigh of relief. Symbolic perhaps, but a message had been sent. No more harping from the superintendent’s office about improving academic standards for students. No more pressure to increase graduation rates, AP offerings and participation, and no more emphasis on those dreaded measures of student performance known as tests. Nope, the Ritz administration is going to be one that prioritizes the truly important issues in education, like office space, the Statehouse equivalent to expansive high school football stadiums. I’m not an impartial observer; I’m far from it. As a kid I marched with my mother and her fellow teachers’ union members around the Kentucky Statehouse in Frankfort (though not understanding why) but have, in the intervening years, become convinced that we are not doing a very good job educating children. Too few of our children can perform at grade level. Too few take classes that will adequately challenge them and prepare them for college or a career. Too few graduate from high school and too few go on to college. Too few of those who do go on to college are prepared for its rigors when they get there, and not surprisingly, too few matriculate with anything resembling a meaningful degree. Many of those who do, and many who do not, start their adult life saddled with a suffocating amount of debt. These are the facts and they are not disputed. And while I have been aware of this tragedy for some time, I didn’t become a full-throated education reform radical until I went to work for

the Indiana Department of Education and its then transformational superintendent Dr. Tony Bennett. Almost all of the teachers, administrators, and parents I interacted with were good people who truly want what’s best for students, but very few have any real sense of urgency about it. You could be forgiven for thinking I’m a blind partisan and Bennett acolyte who is making a big deal of a little thing like a $100,000 office remodel, because I am. I am a partisan, but unfortunately, education reform isn’t truly embraced by either political party in Indiana. It’s a relatively small group of both Democrats and Republicans pushing the issue in our state. Contrary to popular opinion, some of the most effective education reformers in Indiana in recent years have been Democrats. But most elected Democrats are still in the pocket of the teachers’ unions and most elected Republicans are afraid of them. And I am an avowed Bennett acolyte, but that’s not why I’m disturbed our new superintendent spent $100,000 to renovate her office suite. I’m disturbed because of the message it sent to teachers, parents and students. Our last Superintendent of Public Instruction began his term by setting a goal that 90 percent of Indiana students would graduate from high school, that 25 percent would receive Advanced Placement credits (which means they’d succeed in classes that would prepare them for college) and 90 percent would pass both the math and language arts ISTEP assessments. Educators warned him not to do it; they said it wasn’t achievable. The ever-skeptical media was, well, skeptical. They wanted the 90-25-90 goals to serve as a “campaign-like” promise. That was never the point. The point was to set high expectations and challenge schools and school corporations to achieve more for their students. Bennett went so far as to cut $100,000 from his own office budget and use that money to provide merit pay incentives – cash - for teachers and principals in schools who did the most to improve graduation rates. Critics pointed out that it was a small pilot program. They said it was a symbolic gesture, that Bennett was just sending a message. Symbolism should not always be dismissed. Symbolism can be important. For example, how did Ritz pay for that $100,000 renovation to her office? According to the media, the “money came from savings

created by the previous administration.” Are you getting the message?

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