The Emperor’s New Clothes.

“Do you believe he is qualified to report on the matter of School Board Trustees in Kingston?”

That rather odd question was put to me by Global News reporter, Alexandra Mazur just this past weekend as I found myself, yet again, caught up in another controversy involving Paul W. Bennett.

It all started last Tuesday evening. I was sitting in my living room, minding my own business, when I received a random e-mail from of all places, Ontario.

According to the correspondence, a confrontation was brewing in the Limestone District Board between a group of elected school board trustees and a small group of disgruntled citizens. At the heart of the matter were concerns about transparency, which had apparently ignited a few years back when the Board voted to close down some local schools. This was, unsurprisingly, not particularly popular, and there was public backlash.

In 2018, after the untimely passing of a school board chair, the trustees appointed a temporary replacement to the position instead of holding a bi-election, a decision that garnered further criticism. It got so toxic that a group gathered together under the banner of #TRUSTee to run candidates in the 2018 election. The latest evidence of general unrest and dissatisfaction has come from a group called LEARN. (Limestone Education Advocates Reform Network). This group recently received an offer from the executive director and lead consultant of The School House Institute, Paul W. Bennett, to write an independent review of the Limestone Board’s governance structure.

The person who contacted me had stumbled across some of the pieces I had published over the years, and was not particularly impressed with Bennett interjecting himself into the fight. (She made some rather amusing references to the old tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). Apparently, Bennett had been flown out to Kingston by LEARN, and was planning on appearing (uninvited, I might add) at the trustee meeting the next evening to present his findings. The e-mail was looking for anything else that I had on Bennett’s work. I obliged, and then went back to minding my own business.

The next day, however, things got interesting.

I was sent a link to a Global News article written by Ms. Mazur, and was rather surprised to see myself named in the piece, complete with a link to an old post of mine, criticizing some of Bennett’s work. When asked about it, Bennett explained that my article “…referred to one study he wrote over six years ago” (which is true) and that the 11 he had written since had “never been questioned” (which is decidedly not true). Ms. Mazur wrote in the story that she had tried to reach out to me for comment, but that I had not responded.

Having had no record of any attempt to that end, I took to Twitter to ask for an explanation, which Ms. Mazur was graciously willing to provide, and the two of us were eventually able to connect. Although quite tempted to return to minding my own business after that interview, I felt that, since I was named directly in the story, I should be permitted a word or two of clarification.

To start with, my criticisms of Bennett’s work truly began in 2013 when he wrote a policy paper for The Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS) on the state of a program here in Nova Scotia called Schools Plus. Although admittedly a bit harsh in tone, I was able to point to several obvious errors in the paper. In that instance, I had my conclusions soundly backed up by the independent principal evaluator of the program, Kay Crinean, who agreed that Bennett was well off the mark.

In 2014, Bennett penned another report for AIMS, this one calling for improved teacher standards. That piece contained some fairly substantive errors, so much so in fact that the Minister of Education at the time Karen Casey, had to set the record straight. When confronted with the errors, Bennett stated “At every level, there’s confusion…We couldn’t get a straight answer from anybody…”. That AIMS would allow a policy paper to be published before ensuring that the author completely understood the issue says a great deal about both the organization’s academic integrity and its standards.

In 2016, I again took AIMS (and by association, Bennett), to task when another policy paper emerged, this one on E-learning in Atlantic Canada. In that document, Bennett decried our system as falling behind the rest of the country. That paper, (which echoed a previous one by Bennett written for the Society for Quality Education in Ontario) relied heavily on the work of Michael K. Barbour, a recognized expert in the field. When I took the time to contact Barbour, he validated my criticism of Bennett’s work, explaining that Atlantic Canada was doing quite well in fact. According to Barbour, his work had been completed mis-represented.

In 2017, Bennett was raising alarm bells about the number of days schools had been closed here in Nova Scotia due to inclimate weather. Bennett referred to the work of one Joshua Goodman out of Harvard in a story carried by The Canadian Press.

“… it affects math scores significantly,” said Bennett, citing a report from… professor Joshua Goodman. He said Goodman’s research was based on up to five lost days, and the professor was shocked to hear from Bennett that Nova Scotia schools regularly meet or exceed that number.”

In fact, Goodman’s research came to the exact opposite conclusion. He determined that school closures due to storm days do not have a significant impact on student achievement. Even more bizarre was that Goodman, (to whom I again reached out) had no recollection of ever “hearing from Bennett”. That time around, Professor Goodman himself, in a direct social media exchange, chastised Bennett for misrepresenting his findings.

Then, in 2018, a group called Educators for Social Justice attended an AIMS sponsored event where eventual NSTU president Paul Wozney, standing face to face with the man, publicly criticized Bennett’s policy paper on school governance. That interaction was filmed by the group, and widely circulated on social media.

I must admit that I am not entirely sure how all of this could lead Bennett to tell a reporter, upon whom he had relied quite heavily for his own paper, that his work had never been questioned.

For the record, I truly have no particular axe to grind with Paul Bennett. At the very core of it, my issues have been with the work, not the man. His penchant for promoting himself as “executive director and lead consultant” of an entity which, by all accounts, consists entirely of himself is odd, but of no real concern of mine. Furthermore, if folks want to pay him for his services based on that claim and are happy with the results, who am I to argue? It’s not my money.

Finally, having no way of verifying the Limestone District Board Chair’s evaluation of the report as “…an opinion piece submitted by a for-profit consultant…rife with lies, errors, and inaccuracies” I had to beg off on answering Ms. Mazur’s questions about qualifications. Having very little skin in this particular game, or even much knowledge of the issue at hand, I thought it best to decline, despite my fairly thorough knowledge of some of Bennett’s past transgressions.

What did strike me so profoundly, however, is why someone from Kingston hadn’t taken the time to seriously look into the question of qualifications in the first place?

Considering what is at stake in our public schools, I might suggest that any doubts around that issue should have been satisfactorily answered long before anyone was put on a plane.

Sadly, when it comes to public education expertise, it seems that far too often we are content to stand around and gawk at the emperor’s garb, without perhaps considering that he may actually be wearing nothing at all.

 

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Filed under AIMS, Education Policy, Educational Change, Educational commentary