— Education —

March 20, 2013


Adults Failed the NECAP...What Does It Mean?

Patrick Laverty

According to Kim Kalunian's story on 630WPRO.com, 30 out of 50 of the adult test takers received a score that wouldn't allow them to graduate from high school. At least on the first try.

However, what does that tell us? Does the correlation say that these people who scored poorly will not be a success in life? Well, I guess that depends on your definition of success. One might question whether being elected to the General Assembly is a "success."

But one of the troubling parts is when State Representatives like Larry Valencia and Teresa Tanzi come out with quotes that can be construed by the high school students to mean that the test should not be important. Valencia was quoted:

"I was good at math. I took trig, statistics, pre-calculus. I have a degree in chemistry. I think the test is very unfair. It doesn’t represent what the average high school student should know."
Ok, so Rep. Valencia thinks the questions are irrelevant. Has he gone around to ask high school math teachers what they think of the questions on the test? How about the committee that creates the questions? Or are his statements a little less-informed?

Also, Representative Teresa Tanzi said:

“As one of the many capable and relatively accomplished participants who scored ‘substantially below proficient’ on this exercise, I do believe this points to a problem with our state’s new diploma system.”
Problem with the diploma system? Any rational person can construe those remarks to mean that she doesn't think the test should be a requirement for graduation. At least, that is one of the points that the Providence students were trying to make with this event.

The question that I have here is whether people think there should be a minimum set of requirements in mathematics and reading comprehension in order to earn a high school diploma.

And don't forget about this little fact:

In 2010, over 60% of recent high school graduates enrolled at CCRI must be placed in remedial courses; most of these students will not earn a degree.
Our students are failing the NECAP and CCRI is telling us that our high school graduates need remedial work to even take a normal college workload. Yet, we have students and state legislators downplaying the importance of the NECAP. It would seem that the NECAP is at least a minimal indicator of student readiness for college-level work.

Yes, something is broken in Rhode Island's education system, but I really don't think the problem is with the NECAP requirement to graduate. Maybe the problem is with the teaching and/or learning.

In yesterday's GoLocalProv, there was an article about a student who didn't pass the math portion of the test on her first try. She felt she wasn't prepared by her school in Coventry for the questions on the test:

"We had a math packet in the summertime to go over and it wasn’t counted as a test or a quiz, it was an optional thing that you had to do,” she said. “I did it but on that little packet, I didn’t understand any of it. There was nothing about Algebra on the packet, there was only stuff about Geometry and there wasn’t anything you had to solve, it was all multiple choice questions.”

Gobin says her school went over the packet on the second day of class and then shifted its focus to Algebra II exclusively. When she took the test, she said, it included trigonometry and other subjects that her class is just getting to now, five months after the NECAPs were administered.

If all of that is true, that's a failure of the curriculum at the school. If the state's board of education and other leaders feel the questions on the test are relevant for students to know at the time of the test, then the school should adequately prepare the students for the test.

As many have now said, the best thing to come of all this is that people are aware of it and talking about it. There should be no quick and easy answers. We've known for some time that education in Rhode Island was falling behind and needed to be fixed. Maybe now with this new spotlight, we can find the true causes and get to work on fixing them.


March 19, 2013


Students Get at least 4 cracks at Passing the NECAP Requirement

Marc Comtois

In light of the recent outcry over the NECAP graduation requirements, here are the actual requirements as published on the RI Dep't of Ed. website:

First Chance: Score 2 on first attempt (2 out of 4, 2 is partial proficiency) in 11th grade.

If they fail the first try, the student and his parents are then given a school-developed progress plan to follow and students are told exactly what score they must get in subsequent tests to show adequate progress (i.e. they don't actually have to even get a "2").

Second Chance: Re-take test in Fall of 12th grade. Score 2 OR SHOW PROGRESS TOWARDS PROFICIENCY (which means most students who scored a "1" on first try need to answer an additional 5-8 questions correctly).

Third Chance: Re-take a shortened test in Spring of 12th grade. Same requirements as 2nd chance (score a 2 or show progress).

Fourth Chance: After the second failure (ie; between the 2nd and 3rd re-takes), students can substitute scores from an approved list of tests (such as AT tests, AP tests, Accuplacer test, and others).

All of this occurs over a year following the first failure. I'm sure school departments will have remediation classes and other programs in place to help students satisfy the requirement. And parents could even take matters in their own hands and get their kid some extra help like a tutor or (for free) something like Khan Academy.


February 17, 2013


RI #1 In Teacher Absenteeism

Marc Comtois

Earlier this week, USA Today highlighted that Rhode Island was the state with the most teacher absenteeism in the country (GoLocalProv picked it up today), according to a study by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.


New research suggests that teacher absenteeism is becoming problematic in U.S. public schools, as about one in three teachers miss more than 10 days of school each year. The nation's improving economic picture may also worsen absenteeism as teachers' fears ease that they'll lose their job over taking too many sick days, researchers say.

First-ever figures from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, compiled in 2012, also show that in a few states, nearly half of teachers miss more than 10 days in a typical 180-day school year.

Among them:

Rhode Island: 50.2%
Hawaii: 49.6%
Arkansas: 48.5%
New Mexico: 47.5%
Michigan: 45.6%

Schools serving larger proportions of African-American and Latino students are "disproportionately exposed to teacher absence," notes researcher Raegen Miller, who studied the federal survey data for the Washington-based Center for American Progress, progressive think tank.

The national average is about 33% ("1 in 3"), but in RI it's 50%. Great. Look, I'm as tired as anyone of highlighting yet another negative "high" ranking, but when national publications highlight the results of Federal Government studies, we can't ignore them. The rest of the nation won't. So, yet again, we're the "hey, at least we don't live there" state.


February 2, 2013


Ed Commissioner: Let's Put the Children First

Monique Chartier

On January 22, by a vote of two to two with four others abstaining (that's right, four abstentions due to possible conflicts of interest), the Chariho School Committee failed to implement a policy of non-seniority based layoffs for the Chariho school system.

Late yesterday afternoon, possibly in response to this uncourageous vote by the Chariho School Committee or perhaps to the looming March 1 deadline for districts to send teacher layoff notices, RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist released a letter in which she

threatens to impose sanctions “up to and including loss of certification,” taking districts to court, or withholding state education aid unless they comply with her interpretation of a key education regulation called the Basic Education Program. These sanctions go beyond Gist’s previous statements about teacher assignments , when she said seniority cannot be the “sole” factor in assigning teachers but she did not say directly that job fairs and bumping are, in effect, illegal and punishable.

Teacher unions immediately squawked. Not sure why; this is all supposed to be for the chiii-hhhhhhiiiiillllllll-dren. (Thanks to Phil Hirons for supplying the correct contextual pronunciation of the word.) Anyway, that's what we are told at contract negotiation time when raises are on the line. Ah, but now it appears that a different priority has emerged.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers promptly lashed back, saying Gist is bullying school committees and administrators and attempting to gut collective-bargaining rights. RIFT President Frank Flynn said that contrary to Gist’s statements, education policy does not trump state labor law. ...

Flynn said the union is “considering its options” in response to the letter, which he called “outrageous” in both tone and content.

So it is "outrageous" to place educating children ahead of seniority (not qualification) based hiring and labor-friendly laws? Huh. I'm not sure how many people would agree with that. In any case, at least we are quite clear now that this is not all about the children.

[Monique is Deputy Editor of the RISC-Y Business Newsletter.]


December 6, 2012


Things We Read Today (39), Thursday

Justin Katz

Critical thinking sexism in Providence schools; a masculine career in disability; indoctrination; gambling on the law; an earnest pun.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 28, 2012


Things We Read Today (36), Wednesday

Justin Katz

Threats to the economy (cliffs and debts); RI lagging again (yawn); dependors and dependees; Social Security a problem; and a civil right to the war zone frat party.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...



Good Intentions Gone Wrong

Marc Comtois

Michael Barone writes:

In "Mismatch," law professor Richard Sander and journalist Stuart Taylor...[tell] a story of good intentions gone terribly awry. Sander and Taylor document beyond disagreement how university admissions offices' racial quotas and preferences systematically put black and Hispanic students in schools where they are far less well-prepared than others.

As a result, they tend to get low grades, withdraw from science and math courses and drop out without graduating. The effect is particularly notable in law schools, where large numbers of blacks and Hispanics either drop out or fail to pass the bar exam.

This happens, Sander and Taylor argue, not because these students lack ability but because they've been thrown in with students of exceptional ability -- the mismatch of the authors' title. At schools where everyone has similar levels of test scores and preparation, these students do much better. And they don't suffer the heartache of failure.

That was shown when California's state universities temporarily obeyed a 1996 referendum banning racial quotas and preferences. UCLA Law School had fewer black students but just as many black graduates. The university system as a whole produced more black and Hispanic graduates.

Similarly, black students interested in math and science tend to get degrees in those subjects in historically black colleges, while those in schools with a mismatch switch to easier majors because math instruction is pitched to classmates with better preparation.

University admissions officers nevertheless maintain what Taylor in the preface calls an "enormous, pervasive and carefully concealed system of racial preferences," even while claiming they aren't actually doing so. The willingness to systematically lie seems to be a requirement for such jobs.


November 27, 2012


Things We Read Today (35), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Healthcare and what you get for free; making a living trying to fix the dying (state); the dictator prescription; and unhealthily sexist (female) teachers.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


November 23, 2012


Things We Read Today (33), Friday

Justin Katz

What's up with the Providence charter push; why RI schools lack warmth; how pervasive is progressive destruction; and how an island is like policy knowledge.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


October 7, 2012


College Loans and Defaults

Patrick Laverty

I had a discussion recently with GoLocalProv.com writer Dan McGowan after his article on college loan debt and we got onto the topic of whether that debt might ever be dischargeable through bankruptcy.

I do think we'll see a time when bankruptcy clears out loan debt and if Obama returns to the White House, he could be the one to do it. But it'd be wrong.

With everything else in bankruptcy there is something tangible to repossess when the payments stop, whether it is a house or a car. One obvious exception is credit card debt. That's the risk that those banks take and they hedge that risk with the ridiculous interest rates on slow payers. That covers the defaults and write-offs from people using plastic.

If someone gets an education and can walk away from the debt through bankruptcy, why would anyone pay for college? You have the diploma, you have the education, you have the knowledge, what can they take away from you? They can't make you "unlearn" those things. Sure, they can deny you ever attended, but a smart employer doesn't care about diplomas. All they should care about is "can you do the job?"

The problem and the fix is on both sides. Students and families need to do a better job thinking about what they're doing and finding the right value. I don't just walk into the Ferrari dealer and sign the note and take the car. I actually think about whether I can
afford the payments on the Ferrari, or do I actually need to get a Chevy? Too many people go for the Ferrari cost of education when all they can afford is the Chevy. At the same time, I want schools and banks to make the student sign something showing what the repayment will be, even from day one.

For example, let's say for fall of freshman year, I need to borrow $10,000. That's pretty small to pay back, maybe $60 a month. No big deal. But what if I need to borrow that for the next seven semesters, or maybe a little more to cover the increased cost that the
school is charging. Maybe when I graduate, my real monthly cost will be $500 or $600 a month. Students need to know that going in. I should probably even know that before I matriculate. If I know what my need is to attend each college and I can calculate what the final monthly payment will be, will I be able to afford that? Can I get a job in the field that will pay me that?

Do I really want to get a bachelor's degree in Medieval Studies and have a $700 a month college loan bill, along with rent, car loan, insurance and some of the other things like an iPhone and the ability to go out on a Friday night? What do those jobs pay? Are there any jobs? That all should be taken into account, but rarely is. When I took out my college loans, I had no idea what my final monthly debt would be.

Lastly, I also see an attitude in some of these articles about the hardship that these college graduates and other former attendees. Some have an attitude that they'll "never" be able to pay back the entire loan. I've even read this kind of attitude from people who owe $20,000 or less. Seriously? That's a car loan. A car loan is normally paid back in five or six years. College loans give at least ten and have a lower interest rate. Anyone with the attitude that it's impossible to pay back a $20,000 college loan really never should have gone in the first place and likely never had any intention to pay it back.

Now that I and most of my friends are in our forties, many of us are finally getting out from under our college loans. Yeah, it's taken about twenty years for some. That's how long it can take. That's the deal we agreed to. It might not look like you're making progress by sending that $500 a month out and the balance seems to never drop, but it does. (Just wait until you get a mortgage if you want that kind of depressing monthly update!)

Presumably, you went to college to get an education that you'll use to make money for forty years or more. To use ten to twenty years to pay for it sounds like a pretty good tradeoff. Things don't just happen overnight.


September 26, 2012


Things We Read Today (19), Tuesday

Justin Katz

Believing the political worst of priests; spinning bad SAT results; the skill of being trainable; the strange market valuation in Unionland.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 24, 2012


Things We Read Today (18), Monday

Justin Katz

Many faces of big government: standardized tests; interest group buy-offs; government as marketing practice; and the United States of Panem.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 20, 2012


Providence Public/Charter School Idea Requires More from Everyone

Marc Comtois

Last week I called it "refreshing" when the news came out that Providence was looking to convert 9 public schools to public/charter hybrids. Some were understandably skeptical, but, as I responded, I was encouraged because the idea "indicates a change in mindset, even if a little bit, from the same ol'/same ol'."

Education maven Julia Steiny attended a meeting regarding the proposal--a "meet and greet" for the staffs of the 9 schools--and had her own observations, reminding us that "the whole point of the charter-school movement from its inception in the early 1990s [was] to encourage experiments and innovations that could spread back to the regular district schools. But the way history played out, charters and district schools felt pitted against one another, bitterly competing for resources, students and praise." She also described Providence School Superintendent Susan Lusi's three goals, chief among them being that "charters are characterized as being cohesive communities of parents, students and staff."

As Steiny concurs, noting that "since charter schools live or die on their ability to attract and keep students and families, they’re famous for being warm, welcoming places that parents prefer to the often-hidebound, district schools." So, to be successful, the people in public school buildings will have to embrace that sort of change. Steiny offers this anecdote:

So consider this little clash of cultures. Many of the Providence district attendees expressed a strong desire to improve their relationship with parents. One charter director conceded that involving urban parents is a super-tough job. So his teachers all visit their students’ homes before school opens in the fall, to meet or re-connect with the family and talk about their mutual expectations for the year.

A Providence teacher asked, “Who does these visits?” The Director enthused, “The classroom teachers. And giving the parents a business card, saying call me any time; this is my cell phone number, that creates a relationship that’s crazy powerful.”

“The teachers give out their cell phone numbers?” asked one. “Yeah,” said the Director. And there was an uncomfortable pause.

It's about more than just changing the model, it's about changing the attitudes of everyone. More will be asked of everyone. Is everyone willing to step up to the plate? We'll see.


September 17, 2012


Things We Read Today (12), Monday

Justin Katz

Chafee shows his bond cards, Chicago exposes a metric discord, Rhode Island misses the skills-gap/business-cost lesson, QE3 misses the inflation nebula, and college majors miss the mark.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 13, 2012


Providence Schools/Teachers: When all else fails....Charter

Marc Comtois

Refreshing (via ProJo):

Providence schools superintendent...Susan Lusi, together with Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith and School Board President Keith Oliveira, are promoting the idea of district-operated charters, which would give principals greater say over what happens in the classroom without sacrificing union protection for teachers....

Given the us-versus-them attitude toward charter schools, Lusi was pleasantly surprised when nine Providence schools said they were willing to pursue charter school status....With so many schools under the gun to improve student achievement, Lusi knew she had to do something to shake up a system that has remained largely unchanged, despite wave after wave of reform.

“People don’t think they have permission to think outside the box,” Lusi said Tuesday. “Symbolically, this is a signal to think outside the box.”

Providence and many other districts, she says, have been trapped by the notion that school has to look the same in every building: 50-minute periods, a 6.5-hour day, 26 students per class. It doesn’t, Lusi says. There is no research that says that the old agrarian model of learning works. In fact, there is a growing body of research that says schools should fine-tune their instruction to meet the diverse ways students learn.

Providence has already begun to tinker with tradition. This year, most of the city’s high schools have a longer day. They have also adopted a class schedule with longer blocks of time. Some schools are toying with the idea of offering a Saturday academy or afterschool enrichment programs.

Lusi says charter schools do three important things that the district needs: create a school culture that is warm and welcoming, bring in partners with innovative ways of looking at teaching and learning, and attract additional resources. About $5 million in federal money is available for new charters.

Trying something new is a start.


September 10, 2012


Teacher Walkouts in Chicago, Conspicuous Details

Justin Katz

The Chicago Tribune is reporting that 25,000 public-school teachers are picketing, rather than teaching, today.  The details are a bit distant from Rhode Island for a finely tuned analysis, but it's fair to say that the union is not fighting a political class on the verge of right-to-work legislation.  A significant political emphasis on "labor peace" can just mean that the goalposts move.

In this case, Chicago school district administrators are saying that they offered 16% raises over four years. The union is complaining about health benefits, teacher evaluations, and job security.

Taking a long-term view, though, the key sentence in the entire story, by reporters Noreen Ahmed-Ullah, Joel Hood, and Kristen Mack, may very well prove to be the one that I've emphasized in the following paragraph:

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


September 8, 2012


Abolition by Merger of the Board of Governors for Higher Education: Explain Again Why We're Doing This?

Monique Chartier

At the last minute and with zero public notice or input (this session, anyway), the General Assembly in June rushed through a merger of the state's Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education and the Board of Governors for Higher Education into an 11-member Board of Education.

After days of questioning by the Providence Journal (great follow-up, guys) as to why this was done, G.A. leadership finally responded by citing their frustration at

the failure of the state’s schools to adequately prepare students for college

which they believe can be fixed in part by forcing

K-12 and higher education to work more closely together.

But setting aside the larger matter that perhaps the problem of inadequately prepared Rhode Island college freshmen cannot be traced to a lack of cooperation between the K-12 and higher ed systems, where is the explanation as to exactly how the de factor elimination of the Board of Governors for Higher Education would improve the state's K-12 academic achievement?

Yesterday's GoLocalProv article reporting that the

Merger of Education Boards May be Placed on Hold

is an excellent opportunity to revisit this ill-advised legislation.

Believe me, that I find myself in agreement with the NEARI

While the pressure to postpone the merger is believed to be coming from higher education side, National Education Association government relations director Patrick Crowley said his organization believes the legislation should be re-examined.

on a point of education policy has given me pause. And, of course, following upon their maneuver last September to extend in-state college tuition to illegal aliens, which was completely unacceptable in principle, budgetarily and quite likely legally, I have quite a dim opinion of the current Board of Governors for Higher Education.

Despite these reservations, I find myself far from satisfied with the proffered explanations for the merger of the two boards and quite concerned about its likely fall-out. The consensus seems to be that most of the attention and efforts of the newly created board will go to the K-12 side of their purview. But this would de-emphasize higher ed. Is that wise when one of the weaknesses hampering economic prosperity in the state is a lack of workers with post-secondary skills in certain areas?

Is it possible that the real reason for the abrupt passage of this legislation goes back to that decision last year by the B.G.H.E. to give in-state tuition to illegal aliens? If so, lots of people are certainly with you on that point. However, wouldn't abolishing the B.G.H.E. just end up punishing innocent bystanders - i.e., RI colleges and, ultimately, college students - rather than the responsible party? Not to mention failing to redress the wrong itself ...


September 6, 2012


Slow Adjustment to the Teacher Union Machine Continues in Chariho

Justin Katz

This video by Evan Coyne Maloney succinctly presents a critical part of the small-government, free-market perspective on one of Rhode Island's most intractable difficulties:

The machine by which teachers' unions turn public dollars into union-organization profits and political patronage is clear and unambiguous.  One could argue that the process is for the better, for one reason or another, but Coyne Maloney accurately follows the money.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


August 28, 2012


"Education Support Professionals" Block School Opening In North Kingstown

Marc Comtois

In June, the North Kingstown School Committee voted to privatize the union jobs of 26 custodians. Twenty of the twenty-six were re-hired by the private company--GCA--that was brought in to take over.

The committee voted to award a bid to GCA to privatize the district’s custodial department and will plan to award the contract at its meeting Tuesday night. Though the staff got the axe, GCA has made a verbal agreement to hire all of North Kingstown’s current custodians as long as they pass a BCI check. The custodians will be rehired at the company’s “enhanced wage.”

The committee also moved to reject the ESP (Education Support Professionals) contract and made substantial changes to its support staffing. Though the committee agreed 4-2 (Benson and Dick Welch opposing) to grant the paraprofessionals a one-percent pay increase (up from the superintendent’s recommendation to freeze salaries), it also eliminated life insurance for ESP, cut three sick days and one personal day and established new buyback rates for employees who opted out of health care. (Those new rates are now $2,500 for family and $1,200 for individuals.)

Employees who work fewer than 30 hours per work will no longer be eligible to receive health care through the school department. (Formerly, the cutoff was 20 hours.) The committee also authorized the hiring of 12 part-time employees to replace six full-time positions – a move that will save the district approximately $198,000.

NK School Committe Chair Kimberly Page explained it wasn't an easy decision to privatize. Now, via Bob Plain, we learn that the NK School Committee is--according to the NK school unions--engaging in "economic violence" (gotta love the hyperbole), which is why the NK school unions united in solidarity to close the schools for the sake of, er, 6 jobs. Or maybe there's more to it than that.
Education special interest groups, such as the teachers unions, are experiencing a decline in membership. As Stephen Sawchuck reports in Education Week, “by the end of its 2013–14 budget, NEA [the National Education Association] expects it will have lost 308,000 members and experienced a decline in revenue projected at some $65 million in all since 2010. (The figures are expressed in full-time equivalents, which means that the actual number of people affected is probably higher.)”
Look, it's pretty simple. This is only a little about jobs and mostly about power for unions. They certainly didn't shut down school for "the children." Or is shutting down a school district what we're call "education support" now? (Wait, don't answer that!).

For those who think handing these support services over to contractors will result in diminished quality, well, guess what? If the people of North Kingstown aren't happy with the janitorial services, they can go to School Committee meetings and complain. That's one benefit of hiring a private company to do these services: if NK taxpayers demand better results and they don't happen, they can fire GCS and find someone new. I know, it's amazing but true. It happens all the time in the private sector. Really.


August 27, 2012


Dept. of Education Commends Privilege

Justin Katz

Defending the No Child Left Behind Act, on the Hoover Institution's online Uncommon Knowledge show with Peter Robinson, President George W. Bush argued that parents need to be able to see measurements of their school districts' achievements in order to hold them accountable. The point is well taken, but there are reasons conservatives at the time were suspicious of the enthusiastic support of the late "liberal lion," Senator Ted Kennedy (D, MA).

Even apart from the urge to teach to the test, measurements run the risk of being obscured in order to argue for increased funding.  If a school does poorly, administrators and union organizers blame the lack of resources (and the local population); if a school does well, the same people declare success and argue for rewards.

The latter was recently the case in Tiverton (where, full disclosure, I'm running for school committee).  Justifying a three-year contract extension that included various forms of raises, despite the uncertain economy and annual budget fights, Superintendent William Rearick picked from among the RI Department of Education's (RIDE's) school report card results for evidence that the town's schools are "top performers."

Of particular note is the ranking of one elementary school, Fort Barton, at the very crest of RIDE's list, among the 17 "commended" elementary schools. Tiverton has two other schools for children of the same age group, one of which, Pocasset, landed at the next level, "leading," and the other of which, Walter Ranger, was graded "typical." Familiarity with some of the demographic differences across this economically diverse town led me to wonder how the scores are calculated.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


August 2, 2012


Technology and Education Then and Now

Marc Comtois

The family and I recently spent a long weekend in Washington, D.C. and we visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The "America on the Move" exhibition included a 1939 Dodge school bus from Martinsburg, Indiana, which served as a platform for explaining how technology (the bus) affected education.

In rural areas, the introduction of school buses changed the character of the communities they served and the lives of the children who rode to school. Students who had once walked to a local, often one-room, schoolhouse now rode a bus to a larger consolidated school where they were taught in separate grades. Progressive educators viewed buses as a step toward modernizing rural education....[and] favored larger schools, arguing they would provide students a better, more standardized education. Some rural citizens feared consolidation would bring higher taxes and a loss of involvement in their children’s education. One midwestern farmer said his local school was “the center—educational, social, dramatic, political, and religious—of a pioneer community.” But declining rural populations and better roads spelled the end of one-room schools. In 1920 Indiana had 4,500 one-teacher schools; in 1945, just 616.
I'd say that everyone was right, to a point. At the time, most rural students did benefit from the standardized education (much as did their more urban peers) they attained via a more efficient school consolidation model and better trained, more professional teachers.

Rural folks were correct in that taxes probably did go up to meet the increasing costs of professionalized (and eventually unionized) education. I also don't think that--while the school does still serve as a neighborhood center of sorts (at least in a populous 'burb like Warwick)--many would argue that parental involvement in school has declined precipitously since then.

Fast forward to today and the problems and debates we have with education have less to do with the implementation of a standardized education model than with the very nature of the standards themselves. Indeed, technology continues to play a key role in this contemporary push/pull as, for example, it is the internet upon which ideas such as distance learning and "flipping the classroom" are built and which could lead to, ironically, a less centralized, more student-centered, personalized--versus standardized--education.


July 30, 2012


What Is Math For? Well, What Is Public Education For?

Justin Katz

For a quick diversion from the immediately relevant tasks of quantifying legislator votes and charting the ebbs and flows of Rhode Island civilization, I can't resist commenting on Andrew Hacker's New York Times question, "Is Algebra Necessary?":

My question extends beyond algebra and applies more broadly to the usual mathematics sequence, from geometry through calculus. State regents and legislators — and much of the public — take it as self-evident that every young person should be made to master polynomial functions and parametric equations.

There are many defenses of algebra and the virtue of learning it. Most of them sound reasonable on first hearing; many of them I once accepted. But the more I examine them, the clearer it seems that they are largely or wholly wrong — unsupported by research or evidence, or based on wishful logic. (I’m not talking about quantitative skills, critical for informed citizenship and personal finance, but a very different ballgame.)


My experience was somewhat like that of Glenn Reynolds: I was good at math but didn't become a fan until I began putting it into practice. That practice rolled out in many different phases: Music, for one, is built on mathematical concepts; analyzing public policy as a hobby in my mid-20s lent a new relevance to calculations and proofs; but the visceral love of math only came when all of my preferred career paths came to a dead end of unemployment.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


July 17, 2012


A Decade of Moving Next Door

Justin Katz

I've been following taxpayer migration data for years, but in a haphazard way. A new study that I've coauthored for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity finally gave me the opportunity to review all fifteen years of available data from the IRS.

The picture — from the 2003 beginning of what can only be described as an exodus — is frightening. After accounting for the tens of thousands of Rhode Islanders who moved to other states and other taxpayers who moved in the opposite direction, Rhode Island lost 24,455 households, with $1.2 billion of annual income (not inflation adjusted). More conspicuously, a net 3,406 taxpayers moved right across the border, to abutting counties in Massachusetts and Connecticut, taking with them $254.5 million in annual adjusted gross income (AGI).

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


July 2, 2012


Changing Utilization of Local School Districts in RI Cities and Towns

Justin Katz

In 18 of 32 combined Rhode Island school districts, enrollment has been falling as a percentage of the population under eighteen. That means families are choosing non-district charter schools, private schools, or home schooling.

As the following chart shows, Cranston and Woonsocket are the only urban districts not losing community buy-in. Among the schools in the urban circle of Providence, a substantial portion of the decrease may have to do with the proliferation of charter schools and other non-district public schools in the area over the last decade. For the 2010-2011 school year, such schools claimed 4,636 students.

The percentages derive from enrollment figures available through the RI Dept. of Education and 2000 and 2010 U.S. Census data for population under 18. The possibility therefore exists that some of the difference may also be explained by an increase of children under 5 (kindergarten) or 18 and above, but still in high school. (Consistent data at the city/town level does not allow for more targeted analysis.)

The effects of these methodological shortcomings, however, are tempered by trends within the state. The population under 5 years old fell in Rhode Island, from 63,896 (6.1% of total population) in 2000 to approximately 56,856 (5.4% of total population). At the state level, therefore, the percentage of children under 18 who are also under 5 notched down from 25.8% to 25.4%.

Continue reading on the Ocean State Current...


June 20, 2012


Gist Recommendation to Close Charter School is a Positive for School Reform

Marc Comtois

Education Commisioner Deborah Gist is recommending that the state's first charter school be closed.

Gist is recommending that the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education not renew the charter for the Academy for Career Exploration, formerly Textron/Chamber of Commerce, when its five- year charter expires next year....Gist criticize[d] the school’s performance while noting that its reading scores are higher than the average in Providence, the district where the school is located.

While 80 percent of ACE’s juniors scored proficient in reading, none were proficient in math on the 2011 New England Common Assessment. Ten percent were proficient in math in 2010; 2 percent in 2009.

“ACE has consistently failed to educate its students in math,” Gist wrote in a four-page memo to the Regents, who will likely vote on the matter later this summer. “Overall, the school’s administrative and board leadership has not provided oversight for student learning.”

As I recall, when it was still Textron Academy, the former head of the school, Rick Landau, left because of frustration with the school's teachers union, who insisted on maintaining the practice of "bumping," which meant that teachers versed in the pedagogy of Textron could be removed by teachers with more seniority and without relevant training. I'm not sure if this practice continued, but it's clear the school has not lived up to it's part of the bargain.

Those dancing on the grave of the Academy for Career Exploration because they think it proves charter schools are universally bad are missing the point. For instance, while RIFuture's Bob Plain pithily commented, "So much for the private sector being able to do it better…", it's hardly the case that the failure of one charter means all charters are bad (but that's not to say they're a panacea, either).

Charters--even unionized ones--are generally more flexible than public schools when it comes to reforming and applying new teaching methods and, yes, even when it comes to shutting them down. So the real takeaway from this story is that, because it was a private endeavor, the commissioner is able to close it down because it didn't perform and she can do it much more quickly than if it was a public school (Central Falls, anyone?).

That Gist can recommend closing--and presumably actually close--a charter because it's not performing is a mark in favor of the charter school model. Shutting down a bad performer is exactly the sort of immediate accountability (relatively speaking) that school reformers are looking for. If this flexibility existed in our public school system, then maybe there wouldn't be a need for charter schools at all.


May 31, 2012


Providence Failing in ESL

Patrick Laverty

In an article posted yesterday by Linda Borg in the Providence Journal, the Providence school system is failing those students who are learning English as a second language. For the time being, let's put aside the "they shouldn't be here in the first place!" comments, as that's a separate issue.

The article talks about a study commissioned by former Providence Superintendent Tom Brady (is there anything Tom Brady can't do?) and it found many deficiencies in Providence's ESL curriculum.

These students do not have access to rigorous math and English courses that could boost their academic achievement, he said. Instead, they are often offered a “watered down” curriculum that does not help them catch up with their English-speaking peers.
...the district does not have high expectations for its English-language learners nor does it hold staff members accountable for their academic progress.
Staff said they didn’t see themselves as responsible for improving this population’s performance and said they didn’t know who was responsible for students’ progress. Moreover, educators said they didn’t know how many schools were failing to make adequate yearly progress because of their English-language learners.
I go back to the same questions I've always had. Why do we separate students by age instead of ability? If we have a seventeen year old that doesn't understand English, why are they in math and science and social studies classes with other seventeen year olds that do understand the language? That is just setting those kids up to fail, get frustrated and quit completely.

If a school system has students who don't understand the language, why not use language immersion? Why bother even trying to teach them math, science and social studies until they do understand English? Put them in ESL classes until they do understand it, even if that is the full six hours a day. Have them learn basic English and English in context of what they'll be doing in the other subjects. When they are then ready, let them move on, but keep checking back on them and their progress. Anything else just seems like a waste of everyone's time.


May 24, 2012


East Greenwich Looks to Stay on Top

Marc Comtois

Yes, East Greenwich has economic advantages that Central Falls doesn't have. It also has parents, teachers and a community that is involved in the school. These are all reasons for why East Greenwich High School has been ranked as the best high school in the state and one of the top schools in the nation. But, over and above all that, it is a willingness to continue to push boundaries and have a dialogue about re-shaping what it means to have an education.

During the second “Excellence in Education” forum held on Monday, School Superintendent Dr. Victor Mercurio told a group of about 25 residents that the state’s minimum requirements for a 180-day school year and 330 minutes of instruction per school day may inhibit student performance and teaching efficiency.

Mercurio said the School Department is exploring several alternative plans for creating a year-round academic schedule including the use of a four-day school week.

According to Mercurio, other school districts that have shortened their school weeks in an effort to reduce spending witnessed beneficial results relating to student achievement....In addition to a year-round schedule, Mercurio said the department is also examining the use of longer school days and alternative methods of instruction, such as digital devices and social media.

“The bricks and mortar part of school is no longer the essential piece of the relationship between a teacher and a student,” he said.

The idea of "flipping the classroom" (mentioned here before) was also discussed:
...[Assistant School Superintendent Paula] Dillon said other districts have found success by “flipping the classroom,” which essentially means that students use digital devices to experience the lecturing part of their coursework while at home. They then go to school to work hands-on with teachers for problem solving and review work. The educational model is the opposite of how most districts operate with teachers lecturing during the school day, and students working on the subject matter at home, she said.
The overall goal is to make actual instructional hours more efficient and effective. It sounds like it was an interesting and worthwhile dialogue, but it's really just shooting the breeze until it is actually put into effect.


May 16, 2012


Spending More Money Gets Us Better Education, Right?

Patrick Laverty

On Monday, GoLocalProv.com released their annual high school rankings for Rhode Island. 51 public high schools ranked on a variety of factors. I was speaking with a friend of mine from Cumberland and we were lamenting our home town's disappointing ranking at 34th. "That's what you get when you have the lowest per-pupil spending" he mentioned. Which then got us thinking. Is that true? Does Cumberland rank 34th because it has the lowest per-pupil spending rate at $11,090? So we decided to take a look and test correlation.

The correlation we tested was per-pupil spending against the GoLocalProv rankings. Argue against how they ranked them all you want, but they are what they are. The Barrington and EG schools are at the top and the Providence schools are near the bottom of the rankings, as we often see.

If you want to brush up on correlation, here's the Wikipedia page.

What we found when we did the correlation was a -0.14 relationship. Very, very weak. If you want to conclude anything, spending more money does not get you a higher ranking on the GLP charts. If anything, in a very, very weak way, more money gets you a lower ranking. But just for the sake of the argument, let's call it no correlation at all.

We hear of people in education telling us that if we just spend more on education, we'll get better results. Even though, we are one of the top spenders in the country for education and we have some of the worst results in the country for that money.

Also, when schools are in trouble, like in Central Falls and some in Providence, we're told that the problem is more with the student's home life and with the parents. When the Central Falls teachers were all laid off, we were told they were just scapegoats for inattentive parents or parents who didn't value education. The teachers are scapegoats for lazy kids according to others.

If that's the case, the problem is with bad parents, then how will throwing more money at the problem solve it? The teachers have told us that the problem isn't with them, the problem is with the parents. The solution is that we should spend more on the schools? The top ranked school in the state spends less per pupil than the last ranked school. The school paying the most is ranked 21st. Similar examples are seen throughout the chart. I know there are other factors that go into good schools, but this doesn't point to "more money" being the solution.


May 4, 2012


The Media On Student Loans

Patrick Laverty

We have a debate going on in Congress about raising the rate on student loans from the current 3.4% to the old interest rate of 6.8%. There is very little coincidence that the Democrat-controlled Congress who passed this change set the expiration date for an election year. Either continue with the Democrat chosen rate or deal with the consequences in November.

However, my issue here is with the media. I've read so many sources about this situation and many of the writers aren't telling the full story. I don't want to pick on the Warwick Beacon because I've seen the same sort of thing in many different news sources, but this is just the one that I'm using for illustration.

For some Americans, increasing an interest rate by 3.4 percent may not be a cause for alarm. For Cranston native Andrew Iasimone, however, who has incurred $32,000 in student loans in his freshman year at Roger Williams University, this could be a big problem. Iasimone still has five years to go in his pursuit of a double major in political science and psychology with a concentration in forensic science.

Paying back his loans may become even more difficult this summer should Congress increase the interest rates for the Stafford Student Loan from 3.4 to 6.8 percent. If that is the case, students like Iasimone may be looking to pay an additional $4,000 to $5,000 more in interest costs, according to Charles Kelley, executive director of the Rhode Island Student Loan Authority.

Later in the article, Mr. Kelley states:

An increase in the interest rate would affect 36,000 Rhode Islanders with Stafford loans amounting to a total of $150 million, said Kelley.
To me, that's either simply untrue or really misleading. Let me ask you this, based on what you read there, if you had a pile of student loan debt and Congress changes the interest rate to 6.8%, would you think your payments are going to go up? Of course you would! Not so fast.
The increase would only affect interest rates for subsidized Stafford loans for undergrad students issued after July 1, 2012. Interest rates for existing loans won't change.
Any Stafford loans originated before July 1 of this year, will keep the old interest rate. So your pile of debt is unaffected by this change. If Congress raises the rate to 6.8%, then don't use the Stafford program, go to a bank and get a lower rate.

Additionally, the Beacon article mentioned this one student's $32,000 in loans for his first year, however this rate change will only directly affect federal Stafford loans and not all of that $32,000 is Stafford. We know this because again from the USA Today article:

That estimate is based on a borrower with $23,000 in subsidized Stafford loans, the maximum allowed for undergraduate dependent students.
That's one of my big frustrations with the media today. You try to be informed and you read the news but often they struggle to get the whole story out.


April 5, 2012


Governor Chafee Questions Higher Education Costs

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Projo's Gina Macris reports today that Governor Lincoln Chafee is not happy with the management of public education finance in Rhode Island...

The Board of Governors for Higher Education should have known better than to negotiate 3 percent compounded raises at the public colleges for the next three years, when other state employees, taxpayers, and families of college students are so challenged, Governor Chafee said Thursday.
Operating costs for "Public Higher Education" plus the "Rhode Island Higher Education Assistance Authority", consolidated into one item in this year's budget, grow in the Governor's budget by 2.8% over the amount spent last year (which involved a $9 million+ overrun of the originally budgeted amount), for a total of 10.8% growth over the past two years...

FY 2013 Request$983,006,187
FY 2012 Revised$956,245,535
FY 2011 Audited$887,212,753

To his credit, Governor Chafee seems to realize that this kind budget growth cannot continue indefinitely, even if a nearly 11% increase in operating costs implemented over two years might be the kind of spending that some Rhode Island progressives refer to as "austerity".


March 13, 2012


Teacher Absenteeism Means Academic Inconsistency

Marc Comtois

While looking at Civil Rights data for my previous post, I noticed that they included a category labeled "% FTE of Teachers Absent > 10 days of the School Year". I then started looking at some of the numbers. To ensure that I was seeing what I thought I was seeing, I went to their data definition sheet (located at the bottom of the data sheet for Woonsocket, for example) to verify what a couple key terms meant:

* FTE (Full-time equivalent) – a measure of staffing that factors in the proportion of time a staff person serves (at the particular location). A staff person who is at a location for the entire day is 1 FTE at that location; a staff person who is at a location for a half day is 0.5 FTE at that location.

* Absent (for teachers) - A teacher is absent if he or she is not in attendance on a day in the regular school year when the teacher would otherwise be expected to be teaching students in an assigned class. This includes both days taken for sick leave and days taken for personal leave. Personal leave includes voluntary absences for reasons other than sick leave. Do not include administratively approved leave for professional development, field trips or other off-campus activities with students.

I then compiled the available data into the below chart (data isn't available for all of the school districts in Rhode Island. If your school isn't listed, there was no data).

District% FTE of Teachers Absent > 10 days of the School Year
Bristol/Warren77.9%
Woonsocket72.2%
Cranston71.2%
Barrington67.5%
Middletown65.7%
Central Falls64.9%
West Warwick57.8%
Providence56.9%
South Kingstown56.4%
Pawtucket50.7%
Westerly50.0%
East Providence49.0%
Johnston43.1%
North Providence41.5%
Chariho37.0%
Warwick36.8%
North Smithfield31.2%
Lincoln26.2%
Cumberland24.0%
Narragansett22.0%
North Kingstown19.3%
Coventry5.0%
Tiverton3.9%
*SOURCE: U.S. Office of Civil Rights Data Collection

Again, because these numbers are so high, I thought that perhaps I missed something. My first thought was that they may have included maternity leave in the absentee rate. I'm still not sure about that. Another thought I had is that they simply pooled all possible FTE days and divided by all of the days absent, which would allow a few people taking many sick days to affect the entire pool. I think this may account for a portion of the high numbers. I don't believe RI teachers pay into Rhode Island's TDI system, so they pool their sick days so that members with prolonged illnesses can take time off without missing pay. (If there is any other factor I'm missing, feel free to correct me, please).

Nonetheless, taking the above into account and given the definitions listed, it appears as if we have a problem with teacher absenteeism in the majority of Rhode Island school districts. Even if the "it's a problem" line is (albeit) arbitrarily set at 10%--and 10% is still pretty generous, particularly when most people in the private sector don't get more than 5 sick days a year, much less summers and school vacations--there are at least twenty-one school districts in Rhode Island that have teacher absentee rates of around 20% or more. That isn't good.

Regardless, even if I think its one of those root cause problems that has led to places like, say, Woonsocket, ending up in their current dire straits, the apparent lack of professionalism isn't even my primary concern. Instead, I'm more concerned with how such inconsistency in the classroom affects students. We are told that, whether or not it's the ideal, school is the one place where kids can go for structure and consistency. Instead, too many Rhode Island students are faced with a revolving door of substitute teachers who have little or no stake in their educational growth. So much for consistency.



Race Stats on School Suspensions: Be Careful Jumping to Conclusions

Marc Comtois

RI NPR Education blogger Elisabeth Harrison reports on newly released data (collected for 2009) from the federal Office of Civil Rights showing that, when it comes to school discipline, "African-American students are more likely to face harsh discipline than their peers." Harrison reports that for Rhode Island, it "depends on the school district."

Plenty of statistics appear to support this assertion and Harrison provided some examples supporting these findings (and I paraphrase/quote her report here)*:

* Cranston - African-Americans comprised 4% of the student population but accounted for 50% of all expulsions.
* Pawtucket - Hispanic students made up 66% of all in-school suspensions but represented 25% of the district’s student population. African-Americans accounted for 33% of in-school suspensions and 29% of the student body. White students were the single largest group & had no in-school suspensions.
* Woonsocket - "African-American and Hispanic students were both slightly over-represented in the in-school suspension category."

Harrison's other finding: that these same minority groups are under-represented in advanced courses as well as gifted and talented programs. Again, results vary by community and Harrison cited a couple examples (again, this is a paraphrase/quote of Harrison):

* Woonsocket - There were no non-white students in Woonsocket’s gifted programs and no Hispanic students taking calculus even though Hispanics represent roughly 25% of Woonsocket’s enrolled school population.
* Providence - Hispanic students were under-represented in the district’s gifted programs and calculus classes, and Hispanic students were less likely to take the SAT or the ACT than their peers in other racial and ethnic groups.

This prompted RI Future's Bob Plain to observe that "the easiest way to avoid discipline at local high schools is to be white." However, while Plain didn't specifically address the achievement gap (instead focusing on the "disciplinary gap"), I think the statistics regarding the achievement disparities confirm what most educators and eduwonks have noted over the years: these poor participation rates in academically advanced programs can be best correlated to socio-economic factors rather than race.

I also think the same could be said about the disciplinary statistics. Unfortunately, there is no clear breakdown in the data that takes these factors into account. Nor does demography account for other factors. Without that information, and by using statistics in the same way, we could just as look across the data and easily conclude that being a male puts you behind the 8-ball in nearly every aspect of education. Therefore, I hereby proclaim that the easiest way to avoid discipline at school is to be a girl.


* I'd stress that while Harrison made it clear that Rhode Island showed mixed results, she primarily focused on examples that seem to support the idea that minorities are disciplined more than whites. As a counter, a quick look at the same data for such diverse communities as Warwick and Central Falls--Warwick is predominantly white and Central Falls is predominantly Hispanic--show pretty consistent numbers across the board.

ADDENDUM: Commenter "Dan" points out something I was wondering about. The relative consistency in the data for such seemingly disparate communities as Warwick and Central Falls supports the idea that economic disparity within a school system could be a bigger driver of disparate disciplinary rates than race or class itself, per se.


March 6, 2012


Star Kids for the Children Left Behind

Justin Katz

From a new interview/profile on the Ocean State Current; for the complete article visit the page:

Rhode Island is "leaving behind a remarkably high proportion of the population," Beacon Hill Institute Senior Economist Jonathan Haughton told the audience at a February 28 conference hosted by the RI Public Expenditures Council. "But those who make it through high school get on to college and do rather nicely."

Over the past decade, addressing the problems of the American education system has become the subject of national political debates and high-profile documentaries. During that same period, the Star Kids Program, based in Middletown, RI, has quietly gone about building a 100% graduation rate for the disadvantaged children of parents dealing with drug addiction and incarceration.

Star Kids works with private schools, charitable organizations, and individual sponsors to offer students guaranteed financial and community support from the time they enroll through their college application process. “We’ll never displace any child,” says Executive Director Kathleen Burke. The result has been that not a single one of the 148 students who have begun with the program and stayed within its geographical area has dropped out. That includes 12 who have graduated, all going on college (one trade school), with the most prestigious being Notre Dame and Georgetown.

The program began in 2000, when Dr. Timothy Flanigan --- head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Miriam Hospital, Rhode Island Hospital, and Brown University --- applied his experience cofounding Providence’s Rhode Islanders Sponsoring Education (RISE) program to the East Bay, from Newport to New Bedford. Often at the suggestion of social workers, families approach Star Kids, and the organization assists them through the process of choosing and applying to private, mostly religious schools.

In the plainest terms, what Star Kids offers to parents and other legal guardians is a choice of schools and a way out of a detrimental environment. In that regard, it can be seen as part of a larger trend, a movement, in education. According to Stephen Nardelli, Executive Director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools, the latest round of lotteries for the state’s 15 public charter schools, held last week, sifted through 6,521 applications to fill 697 openings. “It’s clear that there is a demand for public school choice,” he says.

“The real root is one child,” says Burke. “If you can make one child’s life better, if you can break into one generation of a family that’s been ’round and ’round with issues, then that’s going to help the educational system as a whole.”


February 25, 2012


“It’s an abuse of power”

Patrick Laverty

“It’s an abuse of power,” said Frank Flynn, President of the RI Federation of Teachers (RIFT?).

He's referring to a situation in Woonsocket where the school committee gave notice to all school department employees that they could be laid off this year, similar to what Providence did last year.

Now, I agree that it is silly to do this to 100% of your workforce. We all know that Woonsocket will have schools next year and they will need teachers, so why all of them? There is a minimum they will need, so why not only notify the remainder?

That being said, I find the Flynn's comment pretty funny. Why is it that when the unions exercise their rights to the full extent of the law, they're just "playing by the rules" but when the school committee does the same, "it's an abuse of power"?

What makes this even more egregious is Flynn and others, like Deborah Gist don't like the March 1 deadline for these notices. They complain about how it hurts the morale of the teachers and causes so much stress right in the middle of the school year. However, it was the teachers' unions who requested this date so the affected teachers could have plenty of time to figure out how to go forward and start looking for a new job.

And, it could have been prevented.

Projo writer Jennifer Jordan also explains:

Last year, teachers’ unions lobbied for the General Assembly to pass binding arbitration for teachers, saying if they gained that power, the notification deadline could be moved back. The Senate passed the measure, but it failed in the House and the deadline remained March 1

The part that gets me is "could be moved back". What? Does the General Assembly need the unions' approval to pass a law? Jordan implies that this stress that the Woonsocket teachers are now feeling could have been resolved, but their own union heads prevented that from happening? Teachers, were you aware of this? Are the teachers' union lobbyists always working for the best interests of their members at the State House? In this instance, it sounds like that answer is "no".


February 17, 2012


Teacher Evaluation: If not Value-added, then what?

Marc Comtois

While Education reformer Rick Hess thinks "would-be reformers [are] getting waaaay ahead of themselves" when it comes to implementing "primitive systems to measure everything they can, or to validate everything else (observations, student feedback, etc.)" under the mantle of value-added analysis, he also doesn't dismiss it out of hand as a way to evaluate teachers. Why? Because he doesn't see any alternative evaluation tool being offered that is appreciably better. Assuming that we all think teachers--like other employees--should be evaluated, he offers five alternatives:

Continue reading "Teacher Evaluation: If not Value-added, then what?"

February 7, 2012


New Education Funding Formula Contributes to Increases in State Aid

Marc Comtois

Dan McGowan at GoLocalProv has a story on how Governor Chafee's budget sends more money to the cities and towns.

A GoLocalProv review of the Governor’s budget plan shows Barrington, East Greenwich, Lincoln, Cranston, Scituate and North Providence will all receive at least 16 percent bumps in aid, with Barrington and East Greenwich – two of the wealthiest communities in the state – getting 38.2 percent and 36 percent increases, respectively.

In total, 15 communities will receive at least ten percent increases and Providence, which receives by far the most state aid of any city or town, will get a 9.5 percent increase in aid.

As Dan notes, the increase is "mostly in education aid". That is because the state passed a new funding formula bill (PDF) last year and, based on the calculations, communities such as Barrington and East Greenwich are seeing an increase because they had been getting less money on a per pupil basis than other cities under the old, hodge-podge,/who-you-know-in-the-legislature system. The percentage increase looks big for the "rich" towns like Barrington and East Greenwich, but they are less in real dollars when compared to the nearly 19% increase for Cranston, for instance.

Additionally, GoLocal didn't include school aid for a couple cases where communities share a school district--Exeter/West Greenwich and Bristol/Warren. With the exception of Portsmouth, these four communities are the only ones experiencing an overall decrease in aid. Based on the new funding formula, these towns will be receiving less education aid, which makes their reduction in state aid even more than that indicated by GoLocalProv.

In years past, the perception in the Legislature (and, probably, in the general population) has been that Barrington and EG didn't "need" more aid. Conversely, the old system failed to account for population and demographic changes that have occurred in some communities--Bristol and Warren, for example--by continuing to send the same or a little more money every year while, for instance in the case of Bristol/Warren, the student population continues to go down. Well, a comprehensive funding formula takes out such "gut feel" factors. We'll see how this plays out: To some, the new funding formula may not be "fair", but it is equitable.


February 2, 2012


Providence Mayoral Academy Gets First Approval From Board of Regents

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Blackstone Valley Prep's Twitter feed, the State's Board of Regents has given preliminary approval to an Achievement First operated mayoral academy to be sited in Providence -- with Board of Regents chairman George Caruolo casting the 5th and deciding vote in favor.



Achievement First, Paying Twice?

Marc Comtois

The application by Achievement First to open a new charter school (a Mayoral Academy) in Providence is up for approval before the Board of Regents today. In an effort to promote this application, RI-CAN has been rolling out "7 Facts in 7 Days" on their website. Whether you approve, oppose--or are pre-disposed to either--one fact (already touched on by Andrew) contained some additional information that was news to me.

FACT #5: Under Rhode Island’s new fair funding formula, money follows the child, so the Achievement First Mayoral Academy would not be taking money away from its host districts. --- Because of Rhode Island’s new school funding formula, each of the four communities that the Achievement First Mayoral Academy would serve are set to receive additional resources from the state in the coming years. Instead of a lump sum, districts will receive funding based on enrollment and student need, so that every child will get their fair share of state dollars, whether they go to a public charter school such as Achievement First Mayoral Academy or a traditional public school. To allow districts to adjust to the new funding formula and changes in enrollment pattern, districts will even get funding through the 2017-18 school year for the students who are no longer enrolled in their schools. {Emphasis mine}.
So for 4 or 5 years, districts sending kids to the Providence Mayoral Academy will still receive compensation for students they won't be directly educating. What is the more likely scenario come the end of the 2017/18 school year: 1) The districts will have planned accordingly and their budgets will anticipate the oncoming "shortfall" such that they will be able to absorb budget cuts or 2) The districts will factor in the windfall and expect it to be part of the new funding baseline regardless of the "deadline"?


January 30, 2012


The Most Disingenuous Argument Against Mayoral Academies

Carroll Andrew Morse

Suppose you have two schools. Both are funded with public money. Each is run by a principal, with both principals reporting to a superintendent, who reports to a school committee. (This is a small-scale model of what opponents of structural education reform, in Rhode Island and elsewhere, believe is the primary way -- if not the only way -- that public education should be delivered).

Now consider a different system. There are still two schools, again both funded with public money. In this system, one school is run by principal who reports to a superintendent, while the other is run by principal who reports to a Board of Directors headed by a Mayor.

In both systems, the same amount of money is spent per-pupil in each school.

Opponents of structural education reform will argue that the second school in the second system has taken money away the first school, even when the same amount of public money is spent in both systems to educate the same number of students. It makes no sense, unless complaints of charter schools and mayoral academies taking money away are understood to mean that money is being taken away from the control of a school committee, which has nothing to do with either the educational function or the public status of the schools being considered.

Scale the numbers of schools, students, and personnel to a more realistic level, and the argument is equally as nonsensical. Suppose there are 20 schools in a system. Each school has a principal, who reports to a superintendent, who reports to a school committee. Next postulate a system with 18 schools, each with a principal, who reports to the superintendent, who reports to a school committee -- plus 2 more schools, each with a principal, who reports to a Board of Directors headed by the Mayor. Again, opponents of structural education reform will (seriously) argue that, in the second case, the 2-school subsystem has taken money away from the other 18 schools, even 1) if the total amount spent across the 20 schools in both systems is the same and 2) the same amount per-student is spent in each of the district schools in both systems.

Those advancing a rationale that money that is part of a system that they don’t control automatically must be money that has been taken away from them cannot be counted on to get anything correct about the rational management of public finance, or of public education.


January 17, 2012


Trapping the Motivated in Failing Schools

Justin Katz

This thinking, expressed by "Cranston parent," "graduate of the Pawtucket public schools," and "professor of law at New England Law - Boston" Monica Teixeira de Sousa in an op-ed, yesterday, is telling of a certain mentality:

We know that parental involvement in a child's education is one of the most powerful predictors of educational success. It is clear that a lottery system admissions process results in enrolling those students who have parents or guardians who are willing and able to take the affirmative step of placing their child's name on the list.

This seemingly small act is no small feat for many families who may be experiencing crippling problems such as illness, domestic violence, poverty and homelessness, among others. The children being raised in such circumstances and whose parents for whatever reason may not enter them into the lottery are denied any educational choice.

Underlying this sentiment is a broadly held and deeply flawed worldview that our circumstances can make us something less than human. Illness, violence, poverty, and homelessness can so rob us of our individual agency that we lack the capacity to choose even to try to overcome by the minor act of placing a name on a list. And that, naturally, is why we need leftists and education bureaucrats to tell parents where they must send their children to school and what models to use for the design of their services.

More acutely disturbing is the insistence that parents who are truly motivated to find opportunities for their children should be denied those opportunities because other parents may not seek them. It reminds me of the video making the rounds of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher explaining that progressives would rather that the poor live in worse conditions so long as the wealthy lived in worse conditions, as well. I wonder whether Teixeira de Sousa has considered that the presence of a choice might inspire some parents to realize that they should be involved and considering their options.

Be that as it may, I'm inclined to take her argument and run with it. Fine, let's amplify educational choices by developing a voucher system allowing parents to send their children wherever they like.



Reform Is Good for Education

Justin Katz

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity has just released a study showing that education reforms involving "accountability, transparency, and parental choice" can catch minority and disadvantaged groups up to the average, while increasing the average overall. Most striking, in my view, is the comparison between a state that really wants to reform and one that wants to make make it look like it's reforming:

Florida grades all district and charter schools based on overall academic performance and student learning gains. Schools earn letter grades of A, B, C, D, or F, which parents can easily interpret.

The full study (PDF) provides more detail:

Florida determines schools' grades in equal measure between overall scores [on a standardized test] and gains over time. In addition, the state divides the “gain” portion of the formula equally between the gains for all students and the gains for the 25 percent of students with the lowest overall scores. Figure 14 below illustrates how the state determines these grades (50 percent on overall scores, 25 percent based on the gains of all students, and 25 percent based upon the gains of the lowest performing students).

In Rhode Island, as I've pointed out before, the performance of our schools is, first, masked by significant changes in testing mid-decade that boosted the impression of progress and, second, inflated by the fact that schools with too few children in a particular category automatically get credit for adequate progress in that category. Andrew put it well a few years ago, when he said that "the final classifications have more to do with some obscure bureaucratic criteria than with how well students are learning."

Much of the Center's study, which was initially developed by Bill Felkner for the Ocean State Policy Research Institute, compiles charts to illustrate that, yes indeed, Florida's students have advanced considerably, to the point of surpassing Rhode Island. The key takeaway, though, ought to be the description of the state's reforms:

• Public-school choice. Students in low-performing public schools may transfer to a higher-performing public school of their parents’ choice.
• Private-school choice. Families with special-needs children have access to the McKay Scholarship Program, which provides vouchers to attend a private school of choice. Corporations in Florida can also receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit for contributions to organizations that fund private scholarships for low-income students.
• Charter schools. Charter schools offer families another choice. During the 2008/2009 school year, more than 100,000 Florida students attended charter schools and more than 50 new charter schools began operation.
• Virtual education. Florida is a leader in online learning. More than 80,000 students in the state take courses online.
• Performance pay. Florida’s performance pay system rewards teachers who achieve student gains, not necessarily those who have the longest tenure. It also provides bonuses for teachers who increase the number of students who pass Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Since beginning performance rewards for AP completion, Florida has considerably increased the number of all students who take and pass AP exams.
• Alternative teacher certification. Non-traditional routes to teacher certification, such as permitting school districts to offer teacher certification programs, reciprocity with other state teaching certificates, and honoring certification offered through alternative teacher certification programs such as the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence (“ABCTE”), play an important role in bringing qualified teachers into the classroom.
• A+ Accountability Plan. In 1999, Florida required that students be tested annually. While Florida has graded the performance of its public schools since 1995, the Sunshine State moved to a more straightforward grading system in 1999.7 The new grading system, coupled with the introduction of the annual Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), means that students and schools are held accountable for academic outcomes.
• Social Promotion Ban. Florida has also curtailed the “social promotion” of students. This reform plan requires students to pass the third-grade reading (Florida Common Assessment Test) FCAT before progressing to fourth grade

Once such reforms are implemented (and I don't encourage any breath holding on that count, in Rhode Island), the next step would be to expand them such that they apply not only to minorities and the disadvantaged. There's plenty of room for average and above average students to be assisted to real, world-class excellence.


January 12, 2012


Connections: Cranston Prayer Banner->Teacher Pay->Failing Catholic Schools

Marc Comtois

Back when TLC actually put on programs that reflected their actual name (The Learning Channel) instead of just reality crap, there once was a show called Connections, hosted by a balding English dude with glasses named James Burke. I loved that show. In it, Burke would link seemingly unrelated items through history. (Like getting from sugar to atomic weapons). This morning, I felt like I went down a similar path as the Cranston school prayer banner led me to Rhode Island's attempts to equalize teacher pay in the late 1960's and how that ultimate failure played a part in the decline of Catholic schools in the state. Interested? Read on.

It started when I read the judge's decision on the Cranston school prayer banner. In it, he bases much of his reasoning for removing the banner on the Supreme Court's ruling in Lemon vs. Kurtzman, which established a three part test for determining the establishment of religion. From Judge Lageux's finding (p.28):

According to the Lemon v. Kurtzman analysis, a governmental practice, or legislative act, must satisfy three tests in order to survive an Establishment Clause challenge. It must: “(1) reflect a clearly secular purpose; (2) have a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion; and (3) it must avoid excessive government entanglement with religion.”
While Judge Legeux provides other "tests", he relies greatly on Lemon (and, interestingly, puts great weight on the Cranston public's reaction--from fellow students, to School Committee Members, to Mayor Fung--to Ahlquist's request to remove the banner. In essence, her instigation resulted in a reaction that, according to the judge, confirmed her fears. But I digress).

What I then discovered is that Lemon actually dealt with a Rhode Island statute--originally challenged under DiCenso vs. Robinson--as well as the Pennsylvania Lemon vs. Kurtzman. Both had to do with sending public funds to private schools. In the case of Rhode Island (from the Supreme Court ruling, emphasis mine):

The Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act was enacted in 1969. It rests on the legislative finding that the quality of education available in nonpublic elementary schools has been jeopardized by the rapidly rising salaries needed to attract competent and dedicated teachers. The Act authorizes state officials to supplement the salaries of teachers of secular subjects in nonpublic elementary schools by paying directly to a teacher an amount not in excess of 15% of his current annual salary. As supplemented, however, a nonpublic school teacher's salary cannot exceed the maximum paid to teachers in the State's public schools, and the recipient must be certified by the state board of education in substantially the same manner as public school teachers.

In order to be eligible for the Rhode Island salary supplement, the recipient must teach in a nonpublic school at which the average per-pupil expenditure on secular education is less than the average in the State's public schools during a specified period....The Act also requires that teachers eligible for salary supplements must teach only those subjects that are offered in the State's public schools. They must use "only teaching materials which are used in the public schools." Finally, any teacher applying for a salary supplement must first agree in writing "not to teach a course in religion for so long as or during such time as he or she receives any salary supplements" under the Act.

The "appellees" (ie; plaintiffs) were Rhode Island taxpayers who "brought this suit to have the Rhode Island Salary Supplement Act declared unconstitutional and its operation enjoined on the ground that it violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment." In this case, the Rhode Island taxpayers won as the court ruled that such public/religions "entanglements" were unconstitutional. (The court also didn't like the idea that the necessary government auditing required in the statute relied upon the State examining the books of many a private, parochial school or church).

So what have we got? In the late '60s, public school teachers were having success in collectively bargaining higher salaries and private (ie; Catholic) schools in Rhode Island were experiencing a lay teacher shortage. As summarized by the appellate court that dealt with the DiCenso case:

The Salary Supplement Act [includes] specific legislative findings: that non-public elementary schools enroll 45,000 students, or 25 per cent of Rhode Island's elementary school children; that because of the numbers enrolled, these schools are vital to Rhode Island's educational effort; and that the rising cost of teachers' salaries makes it increasingly difficult for these schools to maintain their traditional quality....The financial crisis in these schools stems from the rapidly changing composition of their faculties. As recently as ten years ago, the Archdiocese of Providence relied almost exclusively on nuns to staff its school system. Lay teachers filled only 4 or 5 per cent of the system's 1200 teaching positions. By 1969, lay teachers constituted one third of the teaching force....Each shift from a teaching sister to a lay teacher represents a threefold increase in salary expense (i. e., a shift from approximately $1800 to $5500 at present levels). Moreover, the increasing salary levels in public schools make the task of recruiting lay teachers annually more expensive.

...A comparison of past and predicted salary levels [shows]...[i]n 1968-1969, a starting lay salary in the parochial schools was $5000 a year. In 1969-1970 the diocesan school system offered $6000, hoping that 15 per cent of this amount, or $900, would be paid by the state under the Supplement Act. In the meantime, however, the standard beginning salary for public elementary school teachers in Providence and elsewhere has increased from $6000 to $7000.

Ultimately, because of its unconstitutionality, this attempted remedy failed and many Catholic schools--School Choice 1.0, if you will--were impacted and, ultimately, closed.

ADDENDUM: There is a case study written by Patrick Conley and Fernando Cunha that is out there, but I couldn't get my hands on it (for free--I'm not payin' for it!).

* NOTE: To be sure, there still remain parochial schools in Rhode Island, but they no longer educate the 25% of Rhode Island students they once did. Affordability isn't the only reason for the decline in number; the fading importance of religion in our culture is also a factor. Incidentally, my kids go to public schools.


January 7, 2012


Effective Use of Experienced Teachers' Time

Patrick Laverty

Today's Providence Journal had an interesting story about Lillian Turnipseed, a Providence teacher coach. She is a teacher with 38 years of classroom experience, so it would be natural to believe that she would be a great candidate to tutor new teachers.

She is one of Rhode Island’s 17 “induction coaches” responsible for helping the state’s 270 new teachers improve during their critical first year.
I've had discussions with others who believe that this is a very good an efficient use of older and experienced staff. I agree that it seems to be a smart use of these valuable employees. Rather than having a teacher burned out after 35 years in a classroom or a 50 year old fireman carrying people out of buildings or a 55 year old police officer chasing down criminals on foot, use their wealth of knowledge to the benefit of the group.

With a teacher, my thought is you will have one of three situations. Either the teacher will be like Mrs. Turnipseed and be a great fit for tutoring the new and upcoming teachers or still be willing to be in the classroom and be effectively teaching into their 60s or they'll be a burned out and ineffective teacher who should be allowed to leave or retire when they want. However, I don't see it as a valid excuse to start collecting a pension after 20 or 25 years in the classroom because we simply have "burned out teachers." Change it up and find new and exciting challenges for them. If they don't want to do either one, that's ok, no one is going to force them to stay, but that's no reason to start the pension payments either.

With police and fire, a similar experience could be had. I agree with those who ask if I want a 50 year old firefighter trying to carry me out of a burning building and down a ladder after the job had taken its toll on their body for 25 or more years. No, I don't want that. But at the same time, I see no reason for that firefighter to retire yet. Why can't that person do a part of the job that doesn't require carrying one out of burning buildings, like conducting fire alarm inspections? Traveling to schools and offering fire safety tips to children? Training the younger firefighters entering the job. Even cleaning and maintaining the equipment. Again, no one is going to force these people to stay on the job, but if they do want to keep collecting a paycheck, find tasks they are capable of doing that help efficiency and can properly use their years of expertise and knowledge.

Mrs. Turnipseed is an excellent example for all, as she could have retired many years ago, but still wants to help others and has found a way to use her strengths and experience to benefit Providence.


December 24, 2011


Schools from Bailout to Bankruptcy?

Justin Katz

An article in today's Providence Journal describes a familiar aspect of a town's movement toward receivership that might point to a common contributing factor:

A national investment ratings agency, Fitch Ratings, on Thursday downgraded the outlook for Woonsocket. In its report the agency said the city of almost 42,000 people faced a School Department deficit of about $2.6 million in this current budget and that it views "the potential implementation of state oversight positively." ...

The city narrowly averted not meeting its $1.7-million school payroll next week, the re- port says, until the state altered its payment schedule for education aid and gave the city its $4.5-million share early.

As we've been discussing a school department deficit is at the center of East Providence's problems, too. It would take some research to confirm, but I'm beginning to suspect that President Obama's stimulus gifts to public schools might be a proximate cause of the bankruptcy.

I know that the Obama windfall to Tiverton averted the difficult decisions that the local taxpayers had managed to force through budget maneuvers and, indeed, led to additional spending. The following year, the school department successfully manipulated the budget system in its own direction (with threats of school closings and more) in order to build the federal handout into the regular budget. Indeed, it was clear from the first mention of the magic Obama money that the plan was to do exactly that.

In towns that hadn't just slowed the growth of their school budgets (which the public-sector folks love to refer to as "a cut"), the stimulus funds wouldn't have been used to replace lost funds, but to add new services. When the funds went away, the result would be a massive deficit. So, I wonder: how much of these budget-and-democracy-destroying deficits are attributable to the federal government's gifts (borrowed from future taxpayers)?

To the extent that such is the case, the obvious and fair remedy is to stop the unfunded services, raises, and whatever else the federal money covered.


December 20, 2011


Government Edges into Preschool... Expensively

Justin Katz

Over on the blog for the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity, I've highlighted the high cost of letting government edge its way into the preschool business.


December 16, 2011


Closing the Achievement Gap, One Way or Another

Marc Comtois

The big education news this morning is that Rhode Island has won another Race to the Top grant, this time for early childhood education. Details will come later in the day, but it is another step in closing the so-called achievement gap between poor, disadvantaged students and those who, I suppose, are considered advantaged (middle-income, stable families, etc.). It's, obviously, a desirable goal, but there are, as always, unintended consequences. For while our attempts to close the gap appear to be working--disadvantaged students are getting better--I've mentioned before that our normal or higher achieving students are getting worse in the process. In a piece in today's Washington Post, Michael J. Petrilli and and Frederick M. Hess summarize the problem:

In 1996, Rand Corp. scholars determined that low-achieving pupils benefit when placed in mixed-ability classrooms, faring about five percentage points better than those placed in lower-track classes, but that high-achievers score six percentage points worse in such general classes.

In 2008, six years after No Child Left Behind became law, a survey of teachers found 60 percent saying that struggling students were a “top priority” at their schools, while just 23 percent said the same of “academically advanced” students. Eighty percent said that struggling students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers; only 5 percent said the same of advanced students.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute and the Northwest Evaluation Association released a study in September that tracked more than 100,000 high-achieving pupils over time and found that more than one-third lost steam as they progressed through school. The Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless has reported that, while the nation’s lowest-achieving students made significant gains in reading and math between 2000 and 2007, top students’ gains were “anemic.”

Good-faith efforts to help disadvantaged kids are not intended to hurt average or high-achieving students, but such leveling is an all-too common, unintended result of such good intentions. We may not be leaving as many children behind, but we're also slowing many of them down in the Race to the Top. If it's a tie, everybody wins....right?


December 13, 2011


NEA as Reformer?

Marc Comtois

The national NEA's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching published a report, "Transforming Teaching: Connecting Professional Responsibility with Student Learning," (PDF) that lays out their vision for modernizing and reforming the teaching profession.

The Commission laid out three guiding principles upon which the teaching profession should be based: Student learning is at the center of everything a teacher does; Teachers take primary responsibility for student learning; Effective teachers share in the responsibility for teacher selection, evaluation, and dismissal. It recommends a better system of teacher development (including reforming teacher certification programs), the creation of National Teaching Standards, peer-review based teacher evaluations, and they even recommend an end to the traditional step-contract. As Rick Hess (a member of the advisory committee, incidentally) says, these ideas and proposals are all well and good, but:

And what will the NEA actually do with its big report? Will the locals and state affiliates that drive the NEA take the effort seriously, or will it gather cyber-dust on the cyber-shelf? Is the national NEA serious about any of this, or is just an effort to deflect criticism and slow down the push for policies designed to reshape teacher evaluation or pay? How many teachers does it expect to actually be moved out of the profession under peer review? How seriously should we take its talk about removing licensure barriers or closing down lousy teacher prep programs?
We'll see.


December 7, 2011


Mayoral Control Not a Panacea

Marc Comtois

One of the most attractive aspects of imposing Mayoral control--vice school board oversight--via Mayoral Academies or the like is that it is a vehicle by which a school can start fresh by cutting through the red tape and other problems currently hamstringing innovation in our schools. Further, it puts one person--and a visible one at that--"in charge" and accountable. But it's not a panacea and some of the very criticisms currently levied against politicized school boards could eventually be applied to mayoral-controlled schools .

For his part, eduwonk Fred Hess thinks mayoral control can be effective in urban districts, but also warns that it's a model that doesn't address the root problem of school district composition and the delivery of services. He and Olivia Meeks advocate for "organiz[ing] schooling around function rather than geography" in an interesting paper that delves more deeply into the issue. Have a read.


November 3, 2011


Board of Regents Approves a New Teacher Evaluation System for RI

Carroll Andrew Morse

The Associated Press is reporting that the state Board of Regents has approved a new evaluation system for RI public elementary and secondary school teachers...

Rhode Island teachers who receive poor evaluations for five consecutive years will lose their certification under new rules adopted by state education officials.

Teachers will receive 1 of 4 ratings during annual evaluations: highly effective, effective, developing or ineffective. Any teacher deemed "ineffective" for five years in a row will automatically lose their certification.


November 2, 2011


Questions for 21st Century Teacher Union Members and Their Leaders

Marc Comtois

Celine Coggins, founder and CEO of Teach Plus, has some questions for 21st Century teacher union leaders. Please read carefully before assuming the worst (regardless of which "side" you are on the issue).

What would it mean to put an emphasis on the New Majority? After almost a half-century of baby-boomers as the dominant demographic in the teaching force, we've reached a tipping point whereby those with fewer than ten years classroom experience are now the majority in teaching. These are the teachers who are the future of the profession. These are the teachers who will determine whether the union will remain a force. Yet, they are wildly underrepresented in holding union offices and participating in union activities. Successfully getting newer teachers involved in the union would almost certainly lead to challenging debates within union halls. Union leaders must judge for themselves whether they are up for that challenge and what the future might hold if they are not.

What would it mean to put an emphasis on high-performers? To start, this bias would lead to a serious, quantified look at the proportion of time the union as an organization spends on (A) grievances and the due process rights of those with questionable records relative to (B) cultivating leadership and growth opportunities for others in the teaching force. That would open up a conversation about whether the organization could put more time and effort into those in category B. Quite possibly, the answer would be no. There may be no room to shift focus to better address the interests of high-performers. All of the other things the union does may be too important. In that case, though, the natural next question would be: how might the union benefit from an outside partner like Teach Plus to address an unmet need among an important subset of teachers?

What would it mean to put an emphasis on solutions-oriented teachers? At Teach Plus, we often hear from young teachers that they see their union as--to borrow a phrase that doesn't fit exactly--the party of "no." They see a need for reform but don't identify their union as taking a leadership role in reform. In many cases, this reputation is undeserved. In every city where Teach Plus has had a role in helping young teachers get involved in policy decisions, it has been with the collaboration of the union. Yet, this impression is pervasive. How do we get to a place where the accomplishments of the AFT Innovation Fund and the NEA's efforts to close the achievement gap are more visible than the negative stereotype of the ever-complaining teacher down the hall who is very active in the union? I don't know; but I know Teach Plus has been able to build that type of community on a small scale.


November 1, 2011


In-State Tuition Raises Larger Question About Social "Investment"

Justin Katz

In a Providence Journal op-ed (which now apparently inevitably means "not online"), Sandy Riojas and Daniel Harrop argue in favor of in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. The first part of their argument is that President Ronald Reagan would have supported their side of the debate.

As admirable and iconic as Reagan may have been, a former president's view of a current state policy question is effectively irrelevant. And besides, it's not as if illegal immigration and in-state tuition are recent developments, so one might well reply: Forget "would have"; the applicable question is, "did he?" I've not seen the evidence.

More interesting, however, is the view of government and higher education that Riojas and Harrop promulgate:

There are Rhode Island Republicans who believe the state wastes its investment when it educates undocumented students through high school and then forces them to pay hiogher prices to attend a public college. Is high school graduation the milestone when these students are penalized for unknowingly entering the country illegally?

... [Subsidizing in-state tuition, the] state ultimately loses nothing, while gaining a greater proportion of the population that is college-educated and can participate in improving the future of Rhode Island.

Is high school really so worthless that a graduate cannot "participate in improving" the state? I'd argue that such an attitude, with the concomitant increase in the subsidization that the government provides for higher education, is what's driven the unsustainable inflation of tuition across the board. A high school diploma is, or ought to be, valuable in its own right, and any reasonable assessment of the actual skills needed in the workforce will likely conclude that it is sufficient for a great many jobs. So, yes, a high school diploma may, indeed, be the line after which the local society should consider legal residency status.

A precondition to both the development of the economy and the improvement of the state and nation as civic units is that the rules apply. Individuals and private organizations can bend them, but the state — with its ability to apply force and confiscate property — cannot. Putting aside the fact that subsidizing in-state tuition does, undeniably, cost the state something, the greater cost may lie in the lesson that doing so for illegal immigrants teaches about the validity of the rule of law.


October 27, 2011


Later Retirement Doesn't Harm School Districts' Payroll Costs

Justin Katz

The notion that forcing teachers to work an additional five years before retirement will cost districts money came up during my appearance on the Dan Yorke Show, last week, and it apparently has some currency in the General Assembly. Obviously, though, a replacement hired on a five-year delay will cost less than one hired earlier until he or she hits step ten, so to see how the balance works out, I've taken a look at the numbers.

The upshot is that, in the long run, the later retirement saves the district money in salary — which doesn't factor in the post-employment benefits, like healthcare, that it would have to pay for five additional years of retirement under the current system. (In some districts, a later retirement date would eliminate their post-employment healthcare costs entirely.)


October 26, 2011


Being Forgiven

Patrick Laverty

It seems lately one of the topics for discussion is that of the heavy burden from college loans. Some are calling for the loans to be completely forgiven. That means the debt is eliminated.

The money was borrowed from a lending institution, where that might be a private bank or the US government, papers were signed agreeing to pay it back, the student received the education, and now they don't want to pay it back. It's too much money. The banks knew they were lending these people more than they could afford to pay back. "Predatory lending."
Interestingly, an NYU professor is actually advocating for students en masse to simply stop paying their college loans

New York University professor Andrew Ross led a discussion about the burden of student loan debt — now estimated to be between $550 billion and $829 billion — and proposed a radical solution: “A Pledge of Refusal.” The idea is that protesters would sign a pledge to stop making payments on their student loans as soon as 1 million had joined in making the pledge.
The article goes on to ask about the professor biting the hand that feeds him.
Ross acknowledged the irony of protesting against one of the main sources of his salary but added, “I feel very bad that my salary has actually been financed (by these debts). … To me it is just heartbreaking to see my students carry so much debt. It’s just immoral.”
However, the repayment of the loans isn't a source of his salary. He already has his money. He won't be out anything and neither would NYU. It is the banks and the US government who would be out their investment.

Also, the money that is repaid by graduates for their loans goes directly back to current students to pay their college costs. So if Professor Ross is successful, what will happen is the low-income students today won't be able to go to college because the money won't be available. Is that what they want to be responsible for? Some hard-working, low-income student not being able to go to college?

Where is the personal responsibility in this? Where was the plan here? Where was the forethought in signing for five- or six-figure loans for an education that may not have jobs available to pay the bill?

Some people today believe that higher education is a basic human right. I would disagree. People have a right to an education through high school and then the rest becomes a privilege. Especially when today, a college education is not a requirement to get a good paying job in many fields. Yes, there are fields where a college or graduate education is required, but for many other fields, it is not. I would love to have a 6,000 square foot house on a cliff overlooking the ocean with a garage full of fast cars. I can't afford that. College is no different. People need to learn to live within their means. If that means going to CCRI for a couple years to get the general education requirements in first and then transferring to get the bachelor's degree to save money, then that's what they should do. If it means getting a low-level job at a company and using a tuition reimbursement benefit to get a degree, then do that. If it means working your way up in your chosen field and getting experience instead of the education, then do that.

The bottom line for these people is they took on the debt, there's no way to give anything back like you can when your house or car is foreclosed on, so the debt has to be collected on. That's why it is guaranteed. This is explained to people when they sign the note and agree to put themselves in debt. Forgiveness? No. Please pay what you owe so the next person in line can make their decision about whether they want to borrow the money to go to college too.


October 24, 2011


Education Idea: Flipping

Marc Comtois

I found this interesting:

Students watch short online videos of lessons at home and do homework in class with their teacher's help....The videos are mostly created by the district and led by the best teacher on a topic. And when kids do homework, they're getting help from their teacher, rather than parents at home....Teachers say the method frees up time to make sure students understand.

"It's made my job a lot easier," said Chris Carpenter, a social studies teacher. "I do like this model, because what we've done for the last 10 years just wasn't working anymore."

...flipping allows the school to put the best expert in front of students at all times. The best teacher on a topic makes the online videos, so one teacher can reach hundreds of students.

And when kids do homework in class, they're getting help from their teacher rather than parents who might struggle with the material. Teachers say flipping at times quadruples the amount of time they spend working directly with students -- ensuring students have a firm grasp of the lesson.

The initial returns are good, but it's a small sample and there are hazards (as always). Regardless, it shows how technology allows us to break old models and try new ones that may work better in today's day and age.


October 6, 2011


No Cell Phones In Schools

Patrick Laverty

Well, it's about time. In today's Valley Breeze, Marcia Green tells about a new policy at Cumberland High and Middle schools that ban any use of handheld devices. The policy is based on one that was previously instituted in Warwick schools. The Cumberland schools used the first two weeks of the year to inform and remind both students and parents of the new policy. CHS Principal Dorothy Gould explains the policy succinctly, "If we see it or hear it, we're going to ask for it." The penalty is to lose the device for five days.

My first thought on the punishment was that it sounds a bit harsh. Five days? Why not give it back at the end of the day? But on second thought, there isn't much "risk" in the "risk vs. reward" equation. If the risk is to lose the device for five days, including nights, that might make someone think twice about bringing it into the school or at least into sight of a teacher.

Of course, the policy isn't without its opponents either.

Gould said five families have "raised a big, big stink by arguing, fallaciously, we can't keep them overnight. Or they say, 'My kid is a good kid so you should do something differently for my kid.'"
Two of the cases are even arguing this to the superintendent, who completely supports the policy.

Some parents try to argue that they need to keep in touch with their children during the school day. I don't quite understand that one. They're at school, they're learning, if something comes up that you need to know about, the school will call.

Then there was also a woman who posted in a Facebook group about her son having a health "emergency" at the school. He was vomiting. She said the school tried to get in touch with her by phone, but her employer doesn't allow her to receive phone calls. Being aware of this, the son texted his mother to let her know what was going on. The son lost his cell phone as well and the mother isn't happy. Does this situation smell fishy to anyone else? How does her employer prevent her from taking calls during the day, even in an "emergency", but she can accept text messages? I just don't get some parents.

So I would like to take this time to congratulate the Cumberland Superintendent Phil Thornton and the school principals on adopting this policy. School time is learning time and the other eighteen hours of the day can be used for cell phone time.


September 27, 2011


In-State Tuition for Illegals, Whether You Want to Pay for It or Not

Justin Katz

Last night, with the approval of RI's chief executive, Lincoln Chafee, the Board of Governors of Higher Education decided to act in lieu of the General Assembly and implement a policy of offering illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates for the state's public universities. That makes Rhode Island just the fourteenth state to be so generous, and the first to make the decision without involving the people's elected legislators.

The big lie of issue, which Ted Nesi describes here is that there is no cost to this decision — perhaps even an increase in revenue. I spent some time looking at the numbers, last night, and although I don't have time, this morning, to make my findings presentable for this post, I just don't see how that could possibly be so.

I'll show my work (as the math teachers say) in a future post, but in a nutshell, dividing the total operating costs of the University of Rhode Island by the number of full-time equivalent students suggests that the university has to make $20,615 per student. Clearly, total tuition and fees of $11,366 for in-state matriculating undergrads won't cut it. If, as advocates claim, in-state tuition were sufficient to educate a student, then the University ought to be investigated for price-gouging out-of state students, who pay $27,454.


September 21, 2011


Closing the Achievment Gap the Wrong Way

Marc Comtois

Frederick Hess:

Today, the notion of "closing achievement gaps" has become synonymous with education reform. The Education Trust, perhaps the nation's most influential K-12 advocacy group, explains: "Our goal is to close the gaps in opportunity and achievement."...Such sentiments are admirable, and helping the lowest-achieving students do better is of course a worthy and important aim. But the effort to close gaps has hardly been an unmitigated blessing. In their glib self-confidence, the champions of that effort have refused to confront its costs and unintended consequences, and have been far too quick to silence skeptics by branding them blind defenders of the status quo (if not calling them outright racists).

The truth is that achievement-gap mania has led to education policy that has shortchanged many children. It has narrowed the scope of schooling. It has hollowed out public support for school reform. It has stifled educational innovation. It has distorted the way we approach educational choice, accountability, and reform.

For example:
Of particular concern is the way "achievement-gap mania" has forced educators to quietly but systematically shortchange some students in the rush to serve others. Pollsters Farkas and Duffett, for instance, have reported that struggling students possess an unrivaled claim on teachers' attention. In 2008, the team found that 60% of teachers surveyed said that struggling students were a "top priority" at their schools while just 23% said the same of "academically advanced" students — even on a question to which teachers could provide multiple answers. When asked which students were most likely to get one-on-one attention from teachers, 80% of the survey participants said academically struggling students, while just 5% said academically advanced students.
The results have been troubling:
And children who are ready for new intellectual challenges pay a price when they sit in classrooms focused on their less proficient peers. In 2008, Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless reported that, while the nation's lowest-achieving students made significant gains in fourth-grade reading and math scores from 2000 to 2007, top students made anemic gains. Loveless found that students who comprised the bottom 10% of achievers saw visible progress in fourth-grade reading and math and eighth-grade math after 2000, but that the performance of students in the top decile barely moved. He concluded, "It would be a mistake to allow the narrowing of test score gaps, although an important accomplishment, to overshadow the languid performance trends of high-achieving students . . . .Gaps are narrowing because the gains of low-achieving students are outstripping those of high achievers by a factor of two or three to one."
Defining success downward isn't the way to close the achievement gap. It has also resulted in an loss of "buy-in" from parents.
Gap-closing strategies can be downright unhelpful or counterproductive when it comes to serving most students and families, and so can turn them off to education reform altogether. Longer school years and longer school days can be terrific for disadvantaged students or low achievers, but may be a recipe for backlash if imposed on families who already offer their kids many summer opportunities and extracurricular activities. Policies that seek to shift the "best" teachers to schools and classrooms serving low-achieving children represent a frontal assault on middle-class and affluent families. And responding to such concerns by belittling them is a sure-fire strategy for ensuring that school reform never amounts to more than a self-righteous crusade at odds with the interests of most middle-class families.
So they take their kids and put them in another, alternative system. Like private/parochial schools. In short, a laser-like focus on closing the achievement gap in math and reading has left much by the wayside.



Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Patrick Laverty

The North Providence school system is getting national notice for letting cameras into their schools to help film the documentary "Bullying: Words Can Kill". This is a problem that is finally getting some notice around the country, as it has gone on for decades.

We have seen multiple examples of suicide among school children (like this, this and this) because of bullying and the newer version, cyberbullying. The previous kind of bullying is what probably all of us saw growing up on the playgrounds. The biggest and seemingly toughest kid in school would get what he wanted by either verbally or physically intimidating other students. Now, the cyberbullying has extended itself to the internet where rumors and stories can reach dozens or hundreds of classmates in seconds through email, texting, Facebook or Twitter.

It's great for the kids themselves to learn what are the results of this bullying, and what it does to others. Take the example of one eighth grader

“I never hurt anyone,” Berdecia says. “I called them names, spread rumors and said stuff.”
This student was invited to join the school's anti-bullying campaign and he eventually came to see the light.
"I thought, ‘No one should be treated like that."

So why is it that an eighth grader can figure out that "no one should be treated like that" but adults still haven't? Even professional, educated adults working in professional fields? Or worse, why is it that others in the field of education work so hard to eliminate this behavior among the students of their schools, yet implicitly condone this behavior among adults and peers?

This week, the Deputy Executive Director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island was convicted of cyber-stalking. The NEARI is one of the two organizations in RI that represent school teachers. Another NEARI officer, Secretary Louis Rainone has been involved in a number of altercations as well, including comments to the East Greenwich School Committee "All of you who voted for this will burn in hell." Then at a State House demonstration where someone was videotaping the proceedings and after Rainone attempted to prevent the filming and was informed of the cameraman's First Amendment rights to film, he replied "My First Amendment is that I’m gonna take you outside and stick this [camera] up your ass." Most recently WPRO's Bob Plain recorded an encounter with State Rep. Jon Brien when Rainone offered to step inside the elevator and "show you how charming I can be".

Is this all behavior that the teachers condone? Implicitly, they do. They pay these people to represent them. While North Providence is represented by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) not NEARI, other schools in the state have their own anti-bullying efforts. Some of those schools are represented by NEARI and are represented by Leidecker and Rainone. Here is a list of cities and schools who are represented by NEARI*:

  • Barrington
  • Bristol/Warren
  • Burrillville
  • Chariho
  • Cumberland
  • Davies
  • East Greenwich
  • East Providence
  • Exeter/West Greenwich
  • Foster
  • Glocester
  • Jamestown
  • Little Compton
  • Middletown
  • Narragansett
  • Newport
  • New Shoreham
  • North Kingstown
  • North Smithfield
  • Ponaganset
  • Portsmouth
  • RI School for the Deaf
  • Scituate
  • Smithfield
  • South Kingstown
  • Tiverton
  • Westerly

Until the teachers at those schools step up and tell their NEA that this behavior is intolerable both in the schools, around town and on the internet,
they are implicitly condoning this behavior and are involved in hypocrisy between their leadership and the lessons they're teaching at school.

* - information gathered from http://www.neari.org/


September 18, 2011


Teachers Bucking Their Union

Patrick Laverty

Out in Chicago, Democrat Mayor and former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel campaigned on a promise of longer school days. Now that he's actually following through with this, the teacher's union is balking. But the part of this that is most surprising is the teachers are knowingly and voluntarily contradicting their own union.

Last month, the union rejected the district’s offer to give elementary school teachers a 2 percent raise in exchange for adding 90-minutes to the school day.
Maybe not so surprisingly, the union is accusing the school district of bribery and coercion to get the extra school time in place. I think the part I don't understand is why is it now bribery to pay teachers more money for extra work, but when the union wants to discuss that kind of setup, it's called "compensation". If the union's not involved or opposed, it's "bribery". Just making sure I have all the facts straight. And as to that whole coercion part
STEM principal Maria McManus said her staff had been discussing a longer day since August 1, when staff received their schedules. “The teachers asked for it,” she said.

So then we can wonder how the union is taking this with regard to its members. I'm sure the union understands that it actually works for the teachers and not the other way around right? Because if the teachers want to do something in the name of improving education, who is the union to stand in their way?

A STEM staff member who participated in Friday’s meeting said a CTU representative came to the school to speak to the staff about the waiver vote. The staff member said the representative seemed to be using “scare tactics”, at one point telling teachers he would put on his “mean hat.”

“He made it seem like it was more about the rights and compensation and less about the importance of the extra time,” she said. “He didn’t really hear our voice.”

So I guess the teachers being educated professionals in the field know less about what would be good for the students than the unions?

So how much extra time are we talking about here? In RI, the minimum requirement is 5.5 hours of instruction time and 180 days. That math says we must have 59,400 minutes or 990 hours in a school year. In Chicago, the current requirement is 52,360 minutes a year or 873 hours. That works out to about 4.85 hours of instruction a day in Chicago. They're looking to add an extra 1.5 hours a day. That is quite the investment for teachers and what they're being offered in return is a 2% raise.

So let this serve as a blog post where teachers are congratulated for doing what is right, doing what is best for education and the students they serve, even if they are directly contradicting the wishes of their own union.


September 15, 2011


A Focus on Spreading Largess

Justin Katz

Meanwhile, in education, Commissioner Deborah Gist is trying to change the way in which Rhode Island schools handle's a teacher's career trajectory so that performance coincides with raises and advancement. (Readers from the private sector may recognize this strange concept as "the way things work.") One of the means by which the commissioner would achieve this shift is through the certification process:

For the first time, certification would be tied to a teacher's effectiveness in the classroom, based on the new evaluation system rolling out this fall.

Also, certification would be tiered, with new teachers receiving a three-year "initial" certificate, and advancing to a five-year "professional certificate" if their evaluations are satisfactory. To distinguish the top level, teachers who are "highly effective" would be eligible for a seven-year "advanced" certificate.

Moreover, teachers wouldn't necessarily reap rewards for putting in their time in a college classroom, gaining credits. Instead, working with their principals — and with reference to their evaluations — they would pursue continuing education that applies to their own skill sets and situations. That could still mean college courses, but it could also mean workshops or other less formal (potentially less costly) activities.

Not surprisingly, some members of the Rhode Island Certification Policy Advisory Board, "which includes teachers union officials, the heads of schools of education at the state colleges, and representatives of teachers, principals and superintendents," aren't fond of the idea. Rhode Island College Dean of the School of Education Alexander Sidorkin, for example, thinks it's important for teachers to continue purchasing his organization's offered courses. To reach the "advanced certificate," he'd like to require teachers to have purchased their full Master's worth of 30 credits.

Any teacher who goes through RIC would thereby ensure that Sidorkin's department would bring in something north of $11,400 per teacher. It doesn't take but a bit of back-of-the-envelope calculation to observe that the market in question amounts to tens of millions of dollars.

Nonetheless, a professional analyst of such things, Arthur McKee, doesn't think this money transfer (ultimately from the taxpayer to institutions of higher education) is necessarily worth the investment:

"By and large, getting a master's degree in education does not increase effectiveness in the classroom, whatsoever," he said.

But it does increase the revenue of organizations with representatives in notable positions in state government.


September 7, 2011


Who Pays for Past Mistakes

Marc Comtois

Generational warfare: It's bound to happen here in Rhode Island with the pension crisis. It's also happening nationally on the budget deficit debate with the new Super Congressional panel set to convene. Education Policy wonk Rick Hess offers his perspective:

You're either with the kids or with those rushing to the ramparts to defend retiree entitlements. So, which is it?

Consider the President's vague calls last week to spend billions more on school construction and preserving school staffing levels (which would've been more compelling if he had offered any inkling as to how we might pay for it). Obama finds himself unable to do more than offer marginal, dead-on-arrival programs because the feds have spent more than half the budget just mailing checks to retirees, covering health care bills, and paying interest on the accumulated debt. Everything else—schools, financial aid, the FBI, defense, transportation, the environment, NASA, foreign aid, you name it—has to make do with what's left.

As Julia Isaacs at the Brookings Institution has pointed out, the federal government now spends about $7 on seniors for every $1 it spends on children....Do we really think it's a good idea to spend half of all non-interest spending on making retirement ever more comfy?

Past or future? Which will it be? He provides an important breakdown of we pay for current Medicare spending:
[T]oday's retirees have contributed taxes that amount to less than half their Medicare outlays. Today's Medicare payroll tax doesn't fund Medicare--it funds only Part A (hospital expenses). Premiums cover just 25 percent of Part B (doctor treatments and visits). And premiums for Bush's Medicare drug program (Part D) cover just 10 percent of the cost. The rest of the hundreds of billions in outlays for these programs is vacuumed out of general revenue. (See here for a good breakdown on Medicare funding.)
And Social Security:
Social Security has the government reflexively spending hundreds of billions to mail out monthly checks to the wealthiest segment of the population, without an ounce of thought as to whether that's the best use of borrowed funds (the famed Social Security "trust fund" being, you know, nonexistent). The Social Security Administration reports that more than 20 percent of those 65+ have incomes over $65,000 a year. In a nation where median household income is in the $40,000s, is it really radical to rethink how much we mail to these households every month?
As for taxes:
Toss in all of the tax deductions that President Obama called for eliminating this summer, including the corporate jet deal, and you address another $400 billion over 10 years, or less than 2 percent of the shortfall. So, just keeping the deficit from exploding will involve all those taxes and trillions more in cuts. Those demanding substantial new spending then need to raise hundreds of billions beyond that, through additional cuts or tax increases....Even with hefty tax increases, protecting existing entitlements ensures that we won't have much available for schools, colleges, or anything else.
He urges education advocates to step up to the plate and take on the AARP and similar groups so that more money can go towards kids and education.
In short, it's possible to get our house in order, free up dollars for schooling, and shift dollars towards youth. But doing so requires facing down the massive, intimidating seniors' lobby.

Shared sacrifice involves asking Baby Boomers and retirees to step up and, you know, sacrifice. It doesn't mean holding harmless the generations who voted themselves free stuff through the good times and doesn't rely almost entirely on raising taxes and curtailing benefits for the under-40 set.

Hess' bailiwick is education and his goal is to increase funding for it. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Hess' priorities, his argument helps to lay out the choice that needs to be made: should the people who benefited or made the mistakes in the past be held most accountable for those mistakes? Or should their kids and grandkids?


August 31, 2011


Speaking of Corruption and Inefficiency in Public Schools

Justin Katz

Ed Achorn's latest column, in support of mayoral academies, gives a bit of the flavor of the sorts of people whom Governor Chafee has granted authority to judge and shape Rhode Island's education system:

Soon after taking office, Mr. Chafee purged the Regents of reform advocates, and installed people who seem much more inclined to defend the status quo, including Chairman George Caruolo, a casino lobbyist and former state representative. Some believe that the governor made the appointments specifically to kill off mayoral academies, for the very reason that they are so promising, and might prod traditional public schools to change in ways that would shift the focus from rewarding special interests to serving students.

Another Chafee appointment was Carolina Bernal, of the union-backed Rhode Island Institute for Labor Studies. Ms. Bernal’s boss, Executive Director Robert Delaney, is married to Colleen Callahan, the "director of professional issues" for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. She is herself a member of the Board of Regents.

Governor Bought-and-Paid-For has only made explicit that which has been dragging Rhode Island and its education system down for a long, long time. Too many people are empowered to feather the beds of interests that have absolutely nothing to do with how well educated our children become.



Vouchers for Private School Are Only Fair (and a Smart Way to Save Money)

Justin Katz

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this:

Weeks after Indiana began the nation's broadest school voucher program, thousands of students have transferred from public to private schools, causing a spike in enrollment at some Catholic institutions that were only recently on the brink of closing for lack of pupils.

It's a scenario public school advocates have long feared: Students fleeing local districts in large numbers, taking with them vital tax dollars that often end up at parochial schools. Opponents say the practice violates the separation of church and state.

As a society we've determined that public money should be set aside to ensure a minimally educated population. In a voucher system, the parents receive some of that money and determine where to direct it. "Separation of church and state" should apply such that schools that are accredited for that objective should not be penalized just because they also provide religious instruction.

In a recent conversation with a woman who's renting a property on which I've been working, she mentioned that she'd transferred her children from a Catholic school to the public schools in her town for various reasons. We're not talking one of the elite private schools, by any means, but still, her son's commentary on fourth grade in the public school was that it was like going back to kindergarten. I've had similar experiences with my own children and have heard other parents express agreement.

Yet, the teachers at this particular school make less than half of what public school teachers make — with the comparison becoming even more imbalanced if we factor in benefits. That fact should shame public school teachers and spark a revolution at the voting booth.

Even if parents could receive back the portion of their own taxes that goes to educating their children, the education system couldn't help but become more efficient and achieve better results as a whole.


August 10, 2011


Rising College Costs due to Administrative Bloat

Marc Comtois

From Investors Business Daily:

An IBD analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that from 1989-2009 the number of administrative personnel at four- and two-year institutions grew 84%, from about 543,000 to over 1 million.

By contrast, the number of faculty increased 75%, from 824,000 to 1.4 million, while student enrollment grew 51%, from 13.5 million to 20.4 million.

The disparity was worse at public universities and colleges, where personnel in administration rose 71%, faculty 58% and student enrollment 40%. Private schools also saw administration and faculty growing faster than student enrollment, although faculties slightly outpaced administration increases.

Nifty graph here! More:
Administrative personnel are employees who are not engaged in instruction and research. The jobs range from university president and provost to accountants, social workers, computer analysts and music directors.

One reason administration at public institutions has grown faster may be that bureaucracies tend to expand their staff and programs over time, regardless of need.

"The increase has a lot to do with all the money these institutions pull in from third parties, like state funds and student financial aid," said Daniel Bennett, a research fellow at the conservative Center for College Affordability & Productivity. "They're using it to grow their staff rather than on students."

The Cranky Professor adds his first-hand two cents:
What's gone up is staff....And by "staff" I don't mean "departmental secretaries."...What we mean are student services. And the people who defend this growth, almost all of whom are self-interested members of the student services staff, explain that we HAVE to grow here because students now expect these services.

I suppose they're right. Advertise a full service nanny-system and you will get parents and students interested in a 4 to 6 year extension of the nursery.

Perhaps it is the only way to run a college nowadays. I am skeptical. I'm not skeptical about the quality of our support staff - I'm sure they're as excellent and hard-working as the faculty and secretarial staff. But the trend lines are undeniable -- that's where the growth in full-time, benefit eligible appointments is. Faculty have grown too, but as we know from all too many articles, that growth is not in the tenurable category.


July 30, 2011


Government's Version of Accountability

Justin Katz

So, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to stop enforcing regulations if Congress doesn't modify them to account for the failure of those regulated to comply:

Frustrated by what he called a "slow-motion train wreck" for U.S. schools, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he will give schools relief from federal mandates under the No Child Left Behind law if Congress drags its feet on the law's long-awaited overhaul and reauthorization. ...

Duncan has warned that 82 percent of U.S. schools could be labeled failures next year if No Child Left Behind isn't changed. Education experts have questioned that estimate.

Still, no one thinks states will meet the law's goal of having 100 percent of students proficient in math and English by 2014. A school that fails to meet targets for several consecutive years faces sanctions that can include firing teachers or closing the school entirely.

Therein lies the problem with repairing government ineptitude with greater and more-centralized government authority: Nobody actually believes government will use the stick against itself or its favored constituencies when the carrots stop working. Government self-regulation is a perpetual bluff.

ADDENDUM:

For those who might be tempted to make the distracting claim that I can't believe what I write because the legislation in question passed during the Bush Administration, I should note that I thought, said, and wrote much the same back when the law was still in the works.


July 29, 2011


Feedback and the Public Sector Exemption

Justin Katz

A recurring theme arose when the Providence School Board voted to eliminate administrator unionization:

[Stephen Kane, executive secretary of the Association of Providence Public School and Staff Administrators] now worries that the fate of each administrator will be left to "the whim of the School Board. Of course, it's going to get personal. It's going to get political."

You can call it "whim" or "judgment," but granting responsibility throughout any organizational hierarchy is the most effective way to ensure efficiency and productivity. Whether the goal is corporate profit or public education, whether consumers react to policies through purchase decisions or taxpayers through votes, administrators must be accountable to policy makers, and policy makers must be accountable to stakeholders.

Unions certainly change the calculation a bit for their members, but not unlike resistors in an electrical circuit, they inherently distort the feedback loop by distributing some of that responsibility onto labor processes. That can have its benefits, but over the long term, it hinders the organization's ability to adjust to the interests of those it ostensibly serves.

And when the organization is a government entity, it can survive by fiat as problems fester.


July 27, 2011


On School Budget Confusion and Arbitrary Authority

Justin Katz

Trying to follow public policy debates — particularly those having to do with the transfer of government money — is like trying to make sense of an incoherent dream. Whenever you hear or read that there is "confusion" or "ambiguity" related to a particular law, it's a reasonable assumption that one or more parties are doggedly asserting false conclusions based on irrelevant information. Such appears to be the case with a recent disagreement between the Warwick School Committee and City Council concerning legislation that allowed towns to reduce their contributions to their schools during the recession.

Normally, towns must follow "maintenance of effort" provisions in the law that require at least the same amount of local money to be appropriated for the schools each year, with some allowance for reduction based on shrinking enrollment. In 2009, the legislature added the following language to the relevant statute:

Provided, that for the fiscal years 2010 and 2011 each community shall contribute to its school committee in an amount not less than ninety-five percent (95.0%) of its local contribution for schools for the fiscal year 2009.

The clear and plain reading of that language would allow a town to hold the schools to 95% of their 2009 local contribution for 2010 and 2011 without regard to the rest of the statute. The fiscal 2012 requirement brings back the requirement to contribute at least as much as "the previous fiscal year." Careful reading of the article (which is confusing, and which, for some reason, doesn't cite the relevant law) suggests that Warwick allocated $123.9 million in local funds for schools in FY10 but took the legislature up on its offer to reduce that amount in FY11, to $117.7 million.

The Warwick School Committee is asserting a legal right to at least the FY10 amount for its FY12 budget. Since the law makes no mention of reverting back to 100% of older budgets, however, it is clear that "the previous fiscal year" (FY11) would be the new baseline. That is, the Warwick City Council is entirely within the law to hold to the $117.7 million, and the leaders of both chambers of the General Assembly have chimed in to confirm as much.

School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado cites a letter from Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist justifying the schools' position and, no doubt, in true Rhode Island fashion has some behind-the-scenes assurances from the Department of Education. Although I can't find the text online, having read a few such "rulings," I'd expect it to be the legal equivalent of mumbling in one's hand before asserting an arbitrary decision. Unfortunately, these things aren't decided by the clarity of the law, but by the willingness of the parties to keep rolling the dice at each successive stage of legal review, up through the Department of Education and then the judiciary.

That's all pretty standard, though. The disturbing aspect is what tends to get lost in these narrow debates and, through accumulation, in civic discourse more generally:

"She is the commissioner of education and she's our boss," Furtado said. "I honestly don't know where we're going to find the money; we're already down to the bone."

Deborah Gist is not the boss of the Warwick School Committee; the people of Warwick are. Too often, elected officials join with the education bureaucracy to conspire against their communities' taxpayers. Rather than muddying the legal waters with strained analysis, Furtado and her committee ought to set about finding a way to live within the restraints that they have insisted must be imposed. Many of the people of Warwick are surely "down to the bone," as well, and very few of them have $150 million annual budgets to comb for savings.


July 19, 2011


Training for Jobs That Don't Exist

Justin Katz

Under normal circumstances, this program might be an unalloyed positive, and I do believe that every student should have some familiarity with construction and trades:

On Olmsted Way, a short street across from the Wanskuck Mill on Charles Street, 10 graduates of the YouthBuild Providence program are at work this summer, renovating 24 apartments in two buildings at the Olmsted Gardens affordable-housing complex. ...

In the YouthBuild Providence program, www.youthbuildprov.org, part of the national YouthBuild network, low-income youths ages 16 to 24 work to earn their GEDs or high school diplomas while also learning job skills by building affordable housing. Marques said the 10-month educational program includes alternating weeks of classroom work and on-the-job training.

The money for the program appears to come, ultimately, through the federal government, in part (one infers) by paying for the projects, which thereby operate with the inexpensive labor. But are public dollars spent on training for a flailing industry really a good idea?

The organization's Web site calls construction "a booming industry in our state that is poised for substantial growth." Another article in Sunday's Providence Journal, however, describes the industry's employment position as follows:

In building construction, slight job gains in commercial and industrial construction are being swamped by losses in residential, where foreclosures, tight credit and depressed prices have taken a toll. In June, residential and commercial building companies employed 1.2 million workers, down 15,900, or 1.3% from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department.

Back in October, Rhode Island led the nation in its percentage of construction jobs lost, and I haven't seen any evidence that much has changed. That means that job training programs focusing on building are adding low-end labor to an industry that already has a great deal of downward pressure on employment and salaries. And a 10-month program does so relatively quickly.

That sounds like a blueprint for stagnation for older workers and disappointment for new entrants to the trade. Were it a (gasp) for-profit program — with enrollees paying for their training — it would have to adjust to economic trends. With government funding, the folks making the financial decisions aren't those who stand to gain or lose by graduates' success or failure, and the bureaucracy in place to funnel the funds generates its own motivation.


July 12, 2011


Pensions Are an Example, Not the Whole Problem

Justin Katz

I'm skeptical that anything substantial will come of the current push for pension reform among elected officials, but even if some positive change results, I'm concerned that elected officials and the public alike will wipe their hands together with a collective "problem solved." This article explaining that growing pension costs promise to eat up whole increases in school budgets for the next fiscal year, for example, doesn't offer any hint that labor costs have been doing just that for years, decades.

But let's start with the faulty attitude under which the public sector has become corrupted:

"In some regards the state Retirement Board made its adjustments in a void without thinking about the wealth of the communities in the state or conflicts with the tax levy cap," Peder A. Schaefer, assistant director of the [Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns], said.

The only consideration that the Retirement Board ought to make when setting payment requirements is what reasonable predictions should be applied. The fact that the promises of elected officials will be difficult to requite does not lead to the conclusion that the state ought to pretend otherwise, which is what Schaefer is ultimately suggesting.

The executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Tim Duffy, gets a little closer to my main subject, though:

"Hopefully the pension review commission will address this major problem," Duffy, from the school committee association, said. "Otherwise we have a situation that doesn't even allow for critical decision-making by school committees. "They won't even have the ability to weigh what [programs] are most important to student learning because basically they'll have budgets that are just funding a retirement system."

This dynamic is nothing new. Schools have been ending programs (like music) and forcing parents to pay separately for sports precisely because school budgets, which almost never actually decrease, whatever enrollment may do, are basically just funding the salaries and benefits of the adults employed within them. Pensions are unique because they were future payments that administrators didn't have to slip into the system on an regular basis, as they have had to do with salaries and more immediate benefits, like healthcare.

Even with those, though, the game is stacked in the unions' favor, with steps, longevity, and the arsenal of budgetary tricks that make voters believe that they have no choice but to pay up. We don't need structural changes just for pensions. We need them for our entire school system.


July 8, 2011


NEA Convention Wrap-ups

Marc Comtois

I touched on some of the goings on at the NEA convention earlier in the week. Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week and Patrick Riccards at Eduflack have summaries up about the now-wrapped NEA convention and what came out of it. Some points from Sawchuk:

* [T]he NEA removed the sentence from its resolution on compensation that prohibits performance-based pay or merit pay. Make sure to read this important update, which potentially gives the union more flexibility in how it handles compensation changes.

* On the Common Core State Standards Initiative, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told me that the union is fully supportive of the effort and hopeful that the new generation of tests will be much more sophisticated. He said he has, however, gotten some queries about teachers uncertain of what to do because they are now expected to teach to the new standards, while their students are being assessed on the former ones....At the same time, Van Roekel acknowledged that stopping annual testing until the new assessments are in place could jeopardize students who have gotten more attention under the NCLB-required disaggregation of data.

* [T]he chair of NEA's Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching, Maddie Fennel, made a short presentation to delegates....Fennel said the best and most successful teachers should work with the toughest students, just as the best doctors see patients with the most challenging symptoms. Will the NEA as a whole go along with that idea? Stay tuned.

* The union is now pushing for regulatory relief from elements of the No Child Left Behind law (like the 2014 deadline, the sanctions cascade, and the "highly qualified teacher" designation), but without the strings that the Obama administration plans to attach.

And from Riccards:
* NEA moved to condemn, but not call for the ouster of, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (most notably for his support of teacher firings in Rhode Island and presumably for his defense of the tying student performance data to teachers in Los Angeles), yet then turned around and endorsed President Barack Obama for 2012. If there was ever a cabinet secretary in tune with his president, it is Duncan. So are we truly upset with Duncan or truly content with Obama's leadership? And if it is the latter, are we endorsing his work in issues like the economy and healthcare, and setting aside concerns with his Administration's education policies? And was endorsing Obama in 2011 an apology for waiting so long to endorse him in 2008?

* NEA officially placed Teach for America on its public enemies list. For years, union leaders have tried to discount the role that TFA does or should play in public education. In recent years, union cities like Boston have complained about TFA teachers taking away previously union jobs. So now the NEA has a policy stance that matches its rhetoric regarding the TFA movement. But what about those TFA teachers who are members of their local unions? How do they show up at the next union ice cream social?

* NEA approved the use of test scores to evaluate teachers, with one important caveat. Yes, the NEA said, student test scores should be one of the elements used to determine the effectiveness of a teacher. The catch? NEA says that there are no current student tests that meet the standard for the tests allowed under the new NEA policy. Essentially, we will gladly be measured by student test scores assuming the test meets our criteria. But since no current tests do (and we assume the new ones being developed through RttT Assessment grants won't either), I guess you just can't use test scores to evaluate teachers.


June 29, 2011


Binding Arbitration Bill Made Public

Marc Comtois

The arbitration bill has been made public (PDF) along with a press release explaining the rationale. A "Last Best Offer - Final Package" model has been added:

The legislation changes the arbitration process to one in which the complete “Last Best Offer” from both teachers’ unions and management is considered in its entirety, as opposed to the current approach in which various elements of proposals are considered individually. It extends matters eligible for arbitration to wages, and changes the manner in which arbitrators are selected. Under the current system, one arbitrator is chosen by each side in negotiations, and the third arbitrator is selected from the American Arbitration Association. The new legislation proposes that the third arbitrator would be selected instead by the Presiding Justice of the Superior Court from a list of retired judges and justices.
The legislation also outlines what the arbitration panel is supposed to consider before making a decision:
28-9.3-9.2.1 Factors to be considered by the arbitration board. – The arbitrators shall conduct the hearing and render their decision upon the basis of a prompt, peaceful and just settlement of wage or hour disputes or working conditions and terms and conditions of professional employment between the teachers and the school committee by which they are employed. The factors to be considered by the arbitration board shall include, but are not limited to, the following:
(1) The interest and welfare of the students, teachers, and taxpayers;
(2) The city or town’s ability to pay;
(3) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for other Rhode Island public school teachers;
(4) Comparison of compensation, benefits and conditions of employment of the school
district in question with compensation, benefits and conditions of employment maintained for the same or similar skills under the same or similar working conditions in the local operating area involved; and
(5) Comparison of education qualification and professional development requirements in regard to other professions.
According to various reports, mayors, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns, RISC, the Moderate Party, the RI Tea Party and others are against the legislation. For example:
The bill’s opponents say they are concerned that the expansion of binding arbitration would instead place job protections for teachers ahead of sound educational policy.

“The temptation for an arbitrator to look at financial issues — to the detriment of the contract overall — is overwhelming,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

“If the union says they are willing to freeze pay and give an additional 5 percent to health care, but insist on no changes to existing language that protects, for example, 30 paid days of teacher sick leave each year, will an arbitrator say, ‘Well it’s a good financial deal?’ ” Duffy said.

“Our concern is, the unions understand the difficult environment for wages right now, so what they will use binding arbitration for is to dig in on the contract language they want to protect....We know teacher unions are worried about teacher seniority and teacher evaluations,” Duffy said. “Binding arbitration is a way of handcuffing the entire education-reform movement.”

The only apparent supporters of this legislation are teacher unions. Why?

Are pensioned and retired judges the best people to assess whether the contract proposals offered by municipalities are a result of fiscal reality? Will communities be more generous than otherwise in hopes of possibly "winning" the "last best offer" showdown? What will inevitably happen is that both union and community proposals will mean more dollars for the unions. Like I said before: binding arbitration = tax hike.

Finally, the whole concept of binding arbitration provides an "out" for our elected officials, making it easier for them to avoid really negotiating when that is a major part of the job that we elect them to do. "It wasn't us, the arbitrator made the decision."


June 28, 2011


An A Priori Ruling from RIDE

Justin Katz

Every year, for the past several, Tiverton's Financial Town Meeting has made a distinction between the amount that it was appropriating from "local funds" and the amount that it expected from state and federal aid. For fiscal year 2010, the state aid came in $367,165 less than predicted, and the school department took the money out of the town's general fund, anyway, even though it had a surplus that year.

The town treasurer at the time, Philip DiMattia, returned the money to the town, and the school committee sued. Not surprisingly, given that this is Rhode Island, the first step in such litigation is with the state Department of Education, and even less surprisingly, RIDE ruled in favor of the government body more directly under its control:

In her summary, [Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist stated that "[w]hen state aid does not materialize in the sum expected, a city or town must still fully fund the appropriation it has made."

In other words, she said, the Town of Tiverton is required to hold the school committee harmless for the total appropriation if the anticipated state aid does not materialize. The law requires a single sum ("an amount") to be appropriated, she ruled.

In a broad context, the ruling illustrates a huge problem with our modern bureaucratic system of government. The elected legislature passes laws, and the elected governor appoints bureaucrats to implement those laws, but often those bureaucrats make significant changes to those laws while acting as all three branches of government in one unelected body: legislature (by creating specific "regulations"), executive (by implementing the laws), and judiciaries (by, as in this case, ruling on disputes related to its execution of the regulations).

There are two relevant statutes containing the reference to "an amount." 16-7-23 doesn't refer to "appropriations," but to "provision":

The school committee's budget provisions of each community for current expenditures in each budget year shall provide for an amount from all sources sufficient to support the basic program and all other approved programs shared by the state.

The law goes on to say that the "community shall contribute local funds to its school committee in an amount not less than its local contribution for schools in the previous fiscal year," with certain exceptions, and to say that additional state funds cannot displace local funds already appropriated. The simple reading of this statute is that the town's appropriation of its own money must take into account revenue from other sources and then provide enough funding to meet the state's basic education plan (BEP). That this is the appropriate reading is solidified when "an amount" appears again in 6-7-24:

Each community shall appropriate or otherwise make available to the school committee for approved school expenditures during each school year, to be expended under the direction and supervision of the school committee of that community, an amount, which, together with state education aid and federal aid: (1) shall be not less than the costs of the basic program during the reference year, (2) plus the costs in the reference year of all optional programs shared by the state; provided, however, that the state funds provided in accordance with § 16-5-31 shall not be used to supplant local funds.

There's no way around the fact that the law draws a distinction between what a town appropriates and what it receives in state and federal aid. It cannot do otherwise, because a town cannot appropriate money from other, higher government entities. In the case at hand, the schools did not prove that they need that $367k to meet the BEP; it was, after all, a surplus.

So now, to force the law to be applied accurately, the town would have to appeal the commissioner's ruling to the Board of Regents, which is just as likely to be in schools' camp, and then to the state judiciary, all while paying the lawyers on both sides of the aisle. Little wonder citizens become apathetic; the law, as Tiverton's school and municipal government entities have proven repeated over recent years, is whatever you can get away with.


June 27, 2011


Teacher Union Logic... Maybe It's Me

Justin Katz

There are a number of weird statements in this article about the Providence Teacher Union's attempts to protect seniority-based hiring. First is this statement, which I'm not sure is entirely meant to say what it does but indicates a mentality that surely exists in the public school system:

The new BEP is designed to ensure that the most effective teachers are placed in classrooms of students who have the most need.

If the "most effective" teachers are serving the children "most in need," what about the other students? Somehow our system seems to favor hard cases, which is fine, to an extent, but it doesn't seem like the best strategy for building a globe-leading advanced nation.

Then there's the peculiar union worldview:

[Union lawyer Marc] Gursky says it makes no sense to talk about seniority before the state has rolled out a new system for teacher evaluations, which will begin to take place statewide this fall.

"To say that seniority can't be a factor before you have an evaluation in place is like putting the cart before the horse," he said.

Evaluations and minimizing seniority-based decisions would seem to go hand in hand. Indeed, one way to find a merit-based system that works is to let administrators begin experimenting.

But the weirdest statement may be this one, in reporter Linda Borg's paraphrase:

The PTU argument is similar to one made by the Portsmouth School Committee two weeks ago. In a lawsuit filed against the Portsmouth Teachers Union, the School Committee claims that it has final say over how teachers are assigned. The committee, in April, approved a new hiring process that diminishes the role of seniority in staffing decisions.

The Providence Teacher's Union is arguing that the state can't insist on an end to seniority, and the Portsmouth School Committee is arguing that it has a right to end seniority in contravention of contractual habits. How are those the same?


June 21, 2011


Yes, Let's Address the Problem

Justin Katz

I have to express agreement with this comment that Project Future 2000 and Beyond founder Osiris Harrell made during discussion of the proposed Cranston mayoral academy:

"Public schools can be fixed if you people focused on what's wrong with the public schools, instead of spending all this time in trying to reinvent the wheel," Harrell said.

The difference is that many of us believe that the underlying problem with public education is the unioniized, bureaucratic morass into which it's been dragged, and by layering in some degree of competition, to highlight the problems of the public school system by contrast, charter schools can at least begin to change the discussion from the well worn rhetoric of unions and other entrenched players.


June 20, 2011


Not So Much a "Skills Gap" as a Motivation Gap

Justin Katz

Count this on the list of problems that will likely never be solved unless we change our approach to solving them:

On Monday morning, about 70 people — educators, government bureaucrats, elected officials and business representatives — gathered at the Community College of Rhode Island to discuss a problem that is only expected to worsen unless deep changes are made to the national system of education.

In the keynote speech at the Rhode Island Pathways to Prosperity Summit, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education Brenda Dann-Messier said that the technological revolution over the last generation has transformed the employment environment.

"Gone are the days of the well-paying job requiring low levels of education," she said.

Although the article doesn't go into too much detail on the matter, one can infer the general character of the solutions that such a gathering would pursue. They'll seek to pour additional money into secondary and post secondary education, taking money out of the economy in order to make it as easy as possible for young adults to stumble into the jobs that they want to fill. But the underlying problem is much deeper, as one can begin to see in this quotation:

State leaders have long known of a skills gap in Rhode Island and have been working to find solutions, said Ray Di Pasquale, CCRI president and state commissioner of higher education. But, he acknowledged, the state needs to do more to cater to student needs to keep them in school.

Why should we devote resources begging people to act in their own self interest? They ought to want to pursue a path that leads them to high-paying jobs. If the route to a comfortable life is to stay in school, all that ought to be needed is for young Americans to be made to understand that — and to understand that hard work, dedication, and sacrifice on their own part is going to be required.

If we're getting a contrary message from younger generations, then clearly, we're allowing them to develop a faulty sense of life. Perhaps it's the emphasis on self esteem. Perhaps it's the rhetoric of entitlement that characterizes our public discourse. Or perhaps the eagerness of adults to make kids' path to adulthood seem easy conveys the impression that the world owes them something.

Whatever the case, what's needed are clear, direct incentives tied sharply to candidates' successes. The difficulty may prove to be that only adults will respond to such stimuli. The solution, that is, may be to let kids taste adult life and figure out that they're actually going to have to earn their employment.


June 17, 2011


The Long Reach of Educational Inadquacy

Justin Katz

Here's a little nugget of insight that deserves broader comment. Apparently, Rhode Island is having a difficult time filling the open position of Director of Health:

In a phone interview, [former director David] Gifford said that a number of prospective applicants had contacted him with questions. The salary, he said, is an issue, but not the top one.

Instead, doctors considering moving their families from out of state were concerned about the quality of public education in Rhode Island, which some found to be below par, he said.

No doubt, progressives will be chime in to declare this as evidence that people don't migrate on the basis of taxation, but that would be a distraction. The point that must be understood is that progressive policies — educationally and as a matter of civic structure — have brought us to this point. On the educational side, the emphasis of public schools has shifted toward catering to disadvantaged and challenged students to the detriment of the broader mission, and curricula have been politicized both in the content and in the amount of time that schools spend concentrating on what might be termed institutional parenting (the focus being on imparting self esteem and teaching behavior).

More significantly (and harming Rhode Island disproportionately to its competition) is the structure of the system. Centralization toward an educational bureaucracy has left municipalities less able to address the communities that they actually serve, and the unionized workforce, with the advantages that it has secured through hardball negotiations and state-government advocacy, has driven up the cost of public education to the degree that programs must be cut and schools operated inefficiently.

The pervasiveness of that problem can be observed by expanding the above quotation by another paragraph:

Additionally, continual funding cutbacks will make it hard for any director to take on new initiatives.

As a small-government type, I don't take it to be inherently a bad thing for government departments to be constrained in that way. The point is worth making, though, that limits in what they can do and the ways in which they can experiment to become more effective and efficient are sure to be imposed when an ever-growing portion of their budgets must go to labor — both current and retired.


June 15, 2011


The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform

Carroll Andrew Morse

In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had "dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time". Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion").

Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn't already heard and isn't likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that "the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools" and that students need a "coherent curriculum" instead of a "marketplace". But why a "coherent curriculum" should be posited as the alternative to a "marketplace" is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering -- especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.

* * *

Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn't want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.

However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological -- which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.

One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term "accountability" in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a "professional education paradigm" that included the idea that professional educators should be "insulated from public pressure" and was "suspicious of the intervention of policymakers". After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is "no word in the Finnish language for 'accountability'", while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.

Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…

* * *

If both markets and accountability are to be rejected, then how can parents and students gain access to an improved education, when evidence appears that the education system is not working for them or the people around them? For those who oppose accountability and market mechanisms in education, this question is without meaning. Progressives say there are no visible, definitively meaningful signs that can tell a parent if an education system is working or not. No system of student or teacher evaluation can provide a picture accurate and reliable enough to be useful, because observing authentic educational progress and aligning progress with potential are processes too "complex" for anyone uninitiated into the education profession to command, and even if an effective accountability system could theoretically exist, there is still nothing can be done with many students to improve their educational performance, because socio-economic status is unalterable destiny. There is simply no information adequate to the task of helping a parent or student determine on their own if they need to move to a new system, or make a major change in their existing system, that can lead to better outcomes than simple deference to the professionals in the education field.

If changes to the education system do need to be made, it is members of the education profession who will identify the key problems (using their methods that can't be wholly explained to those outside of the profession -- after all, if they could be explained, they could be built into a system of accountability) and who will make the necessary changes, because that's what professionals are supposed to do, and professionals must always be trusted to do what they are supposed to do. This, in turn, defines a proper role for those outside of the education system. Theirs is not to try to hold those responsible for education "accountable", or to ask for some freedom to make their own choices; the role of non-professionals is to assume that the people on the inside of the education profession are delivering the best education possible (at least within existing resource constraints), and therefore to give the people on the inside whatever they say they need.

Degeneralize this non-market, non-accountable system from the specifics of education field -- while holding on to the idea that the education of children is a critical task in society -- and you are left with a small, mostly self-identified, group of people assuming the right to take a critical role in bringing society forward in a way that they themselves decide, regardless of what the broader population thinks should be done. As a guiding principle for social and government organization, this may sound familiar to you...

* * *

Another education reformer, E.D. Hirsch, has noted the strong impact that "romantic" ideas, rebranded in contemporary dialogue on intellectual history as "progressive" ideas, have had on the American education system. Hirsch's primary interest in romanticism is on how its ideal of doing things in a "natural" way has appeared at various times and places in progressive education reform movements; one of his interesting observations is that justifying something as being "natural" takes on a role today that a justification of pleasing the divine once took in earlier ages.

But the rejection of a broad based notion of accountability makes obvious that educational progressives have absorbed romantic ideology not only in defining their goals, but also into their organizational ideas for achieving them. Romantically-influenced ideologies, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's original writings, through the tragically influential Marxist variations and into modern progressivism, have stressed that average citizens are impeded from achieving their full "natural" or "human" happiness by societies that have been fragmented by competing, selfish interests, and that the only way to bring the great mass of citizens out of their confusion is to cede sweeping powers to a chosen group who has gained a true understanding of the natural order of the universe, so that they may structure a society that presents people with the proper, though limited, set of choices for fulfilling their potentials.

Of course, in none of its historical forms has romanticism/Marxism/progressivism solved the problem of actually identifying the group of people who can wield this considerable power over others. Romantics of various stripes have tried historically to fill this gap with a secular mysticism, assuming a "first legislator" (Rousseau's concept) or a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (the Marxist concept) possessing superhuman judgment and uncorrupted motives will appear when needed. This has been a key place where romantic ideas have met the less-romantic human reality, history having shown that giving one group of people unaccountable power over another never results in a system that works in the best interests of everyone. Still, the lessons of history have not dissuaded progressive education advocates from holding tight to the core romantic social and political concepts; i.e. a public trapped by a false consciousness and likely to be deceived by false choices, needing to be saved by an elite that possesses an unrivaled and authentic understanding of the natural, perhaps even divine, truths about the best ordering of society; in order to dismiss the significance of "accountability".

Take the false consciousness to be the idea that our schools could be doing better at their existing resource levels; take the false choices to be options for charter schools or cross-district choice, and take the divine truth that only the initiated can see about the natural order of society to be that top-down bureaucracies is the only viable way for organizing a school system, and you have a pretty accurate description of the position of contemporary progressive education reformers who reject both markets and accountability.

* * *

Understanding what possibilities remain, after progressive education reformers have taken both markets and accountability off the table, helps make sense of Diane Ravitch's out-of-proportion reaction to Deborah Gist's participation in the meeting with Governor Lincoln Chafee. Dr. Ravitch was eager to take an opportunity to pass along truths that she has spent a lifetime understanding, to an earthly authority that could reinforce their application on a broad scale. But the presence during her meeting of someone from outside of the educational elect introduced confusion into the communication stream. Dr. Ravtich felt her opportunity to share secrets with a high political authority was being compromised by pedestrian ideas that she and her elite had divined were distractions from the deepest truths of education like markets and accountability, and she worried that the Governor was losing his opportunity to hear an unfragmented message about the one true and natural way he should proceed reform for the good of all in the realm of education reform. Dr. Ravtich thus grew frustrated, and wrote her blog post lashing out at Commissioner Gist.

But in the end, markets and accountability cannot be simultaneously dismissed, to be replaced by monopoly leadership who claim they just understand more than the common people ever can. And the more that romantically-inspired education reform proponents claim that the results observable by the general public shouldn't matter, and that stagnation or decline in observable measures of educational achievement must simply be accepted, the more the result is a movement that marginalizes itself.


June 10, 2011


Seniority Means Efficiency in Whistleblowing?

Justin Katz

Can't say I buy the rationale that Eloise Wyatt offers for preserving seniority policies among public school teachers:

By eliminating seniority you get rid of the protection that lets teachers speak, up and stand up when an administration is hurting children. In my time as a special-education teacher in Providence, it was common for administration to save money to shortchange or totally deny students the services they were required to have by law.

Only when students had teachers protected by seniority was there someone to advocate for those students. It is not only special-needs students who can get ground up in by administration. Often students need an advocate. Sadly, any teacher who speaks out now might find themselves without jobs.

That might be an argument for tenure (although one must then wonder why every employee of every conceivable business doesn't need such protections), but seniority? What if it's a young teacher who sees the need to advocate for students? Indeed, it seems far more likely that fresh eyes in an educational system are more apt to spot the inappropriate activities that have worked themselves into the school's culture.

Of course, even by considering the topic to this extent, I'm allowing for the sake of discussion the assertion that teachers are more likely than administrators to be students' advocates. It seems to me that, in a properly run school, the principals, superintendent, school committee, and other non-teaching personnel would have at least as much motivation to ensure that students are well served and their parents satisfied with the job that the schools are doing.


June 8, 2011


Increase Professorial Efficiency and Tuition Costs Will Go Down

Marc Comtois

Richard Vedder, an economics at Ohio University, explains that one way to cut college tuition costs would be to ask professors to, you know, teach more.

In a study for the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, Christopher Matgouranis, Jonathan Robe and I concluded that tuition fees at the flagship campus of the University of Texas could be cut by as much as half simply by asking the 80% of faculty with the lowest teaching loads to teach about half as much as the 20% of faculty with the highest loads. The top 20% currently handle 57% of all teaching.

Such a move would require the bulk of the faculty to teach, on average, about 150-160 students a year. For example, a professor might teach one undergraduate survey class for 100 students, two classes for advanced undergraduate students or beginning graduate students with 20-25 students, and an advanced graduate seminar for 10. That would require the professor to be in the classroom for fewer than 200 hours a year—hardly an arduous requirement.

Faculty will likely argue that this would imperil the university's research mission. Nonsense. First of all, at UT Austin, a mere 20% of the faculty garner 99.8% of the external research funding. Second, faculty who follow the work habits of other professional workers—go to work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and work five days a week for 48 or 49 weeks a year—can handle teaching 200 hours a year while publishing considerable amounts of research. I have done just this for decades as a professor.

Efficiency and higher education? Wonder if it would work...


June 2, 2011


Accountability in Politics and Education

Justin Katz

The conversation was of the likely accountability that RI politicians will face for a vote on raising sales taxes and on perspectives on accountability in education during Andrew's call in to Matt Allen Show, last night. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


June 1, 2011


The Diane Ravitch/Deborah Gist Meeting, and What it Tells Us About the Failure of Progressive Education Reform, Part 1

Carroll Andrew Morse

In mid-May, education reformer Diane Ravitch visited Rhode Island to speak with Governor Lincoln Chafee. We do not know precisely what she wanted to tell him, but we do know that she does not feel that she was afforded the opportunity to fully express herself. After her meeting with the Governor, Dr. Ravitch posted an item to her Education Week blog saying that an unexpected invitee to the meeting, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, had "dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time". Dr. Ravitch went as far as to demand an apology from Commissioner Gist, though she later retracted the demand. (Governor Chafee told a Providence Journal reporter in regards to the meeting that "Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion").

Meeting protocol aside, the incident invites speculation about what it was that Dr. Ravitch felt the governor needed to hear that he hasn't already heard and isn't likely to hear from anyone else. A broad outline of themes that Dr. Ravitch could have been expected to talk about can be found in a March 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed where she explained her widely noted change-of-mind regarding educational philosophy. The op-ed concluded with Dr. Ravitch offering definite positions on several big-picture areas of education-reform: that "the current emphasis on accountability has created a punitive atmosphere in the schools" and that students need a "coherent curriculum" instead of a "marketplace". But why a "coherent curriculum" should be posited as the alternative to a "marketplace" is not obvious, and the juxtaposition is worth pondering -- especially when combined with the idea of reduced accountability.

* * *

Leftist phobias aside, the features that define a marketplace are that, within its structure, transactions only occur when they are individually agreed upon by all parties involved, and outside parties do not get to veto transactions they are not involved in. Obviously, Dr. Ravitch doesn't want curricular choices to be determined by the market; she wants the choice of curriculum to be set outside of the market, and not allow other curriculums to be offered by others who might try to create one. She is not alone in this belief, and this idea not inherently unreasonable. Not everything is best delivered by pure market mechanisms.

However, simultaneously rejecting markets and accountability is problematic. When someone, or some small group, is given strong powers to limit what others may choose, mechanisms must to be put into place to make sure that the choices provided are good ones. Something must be done to guarantee that people impacted by restrictions on their choices still get access to optimal-quality choices, especially if the option-setters can compel the selection of inferior options, even when better options might be possible. You could say that the answer to this problem is to create a system of accountability for those setting the options, but that answer is nearly tautological -- which is what makes the idea of reducing accountability seem to be such an odd focus for an education reformer.

One possibility is that Dr. Ravitch is using the term "accountability" in some way peculiar to the education reform community. It is possible, for example, that the accountability she objects to in her WSJ op-ed is the specific regime imposed over the past decade by the Federal No-Child Left behind Act, but the record indicates that this is not the case. In a Policy Review article written in 2002 on testing and accountability, Dr. Ravitch described a "professional education paradigm" that included the idea that professional educators should be "insulated from public pressure" and was "suspicious of the intervention of policymakers". After her change of mind, in a December of 2010 entry on her Education Week blog, Dr. Ravitch relayed a story of being told that there is "no word in the Finnish language for 'accountability'", while praising the education system of Finland. And in the more comprehensive exposition of her current thoughts on accountability contained in her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, despite expressing support for the validity of testing, Dr. Ravitch criticizes an over-emphasis on accountability in education systems, on the grounds that education measures tied to consequences will always be gamed, no matter how accurate tests and evaluations might have a potential to be. Consistently throughout her career, Dr. Ravitch has treated the idea of accountability in its broadest possible sense, and not used the term as a shorthand for testing or a particular program like NCLB.

Alas, in opposing accountability at such a high conceptual level, Diane Ravitch -- and her union allies -- have proposed answers to old and familiar problems that are based on ideas that repeatedly have been shown to be unworkable…


May 25, 2011


Ravitch Takes a Breath & Apologizes to Gist

Marc Comtois

The ProJo reports that that reformed education reformer Dianne Ravitch had apologized to RI Ed. Commish Deborah Gist for her actions following their recent meeting (which included a demand that Gist apologize to her). Ravitch issued the mea culpa on her blog after a visit to the Franciscan-founded Sienna College over the weekend. Apparently, the sense of community and the belief that we should treat others fairly impressed itself upon Ravitch.

I was indeed moved by my exposure to Siena. And when I came home, I reflected on a blog I wrote recently about my visit to Rhode Island. In that blog, I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry.

Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.

I don't want to be part of that spirit. Those of us who truly care about children and the future of our society should find ways to share our ideas, to discuss our differences amicably, and to model the behavior that we want the young to emulate. I want to advance the ideals and values that are so central to the Siena community: compassion, responsibility, integrity, empathy, and standing up against injustice. When Father Mullen presented me with my degree, he said that I am "now and forevermore a daughter of Siena." Although I am Jewish, not Catholic, I will strive to live up to that charge.

Credit goes to Ravitch for the re-set. My major criticism of her has been her stridency and her apparent unwillingness to believe in the sincerity of those with whom she disagrees. It's a trap that many of us fall into from time to time. Some of us live there. But being nice doesn't mean being any less passionate. It's important to realize that this came about because Ravitch had the opportunity to immerse herself in a community such as Sienna (or, say, a few days at a Portsmouth Institute event) that gave her time to reflect upon your outlook. It's a lesson to us all to take a breath every once in a while.


May 24, 2011


Tight School Budgets Don't Excuse Excuse-making

Marc Comtois

National education reformer Rick Hess recently spoke to a group of RI superintendents and school district business officers about how NOT to respond to shrinking budgets. He outlined four common mistakes:"excuse-mongering"; "imagining that progress only comes with new dollars"; "thinking that any budget cut will be debilitating"; and "countenancing rather than condemning unacceptable employee responses." For each excuse, he offers real quotes from principals/superintendents and then explains their flaw. For instance, regarding budget cuts:

Quote: "It is impossible to make cuts in a district and not have it impact teachers and students. We cut a secretary and many tasks are now falling to teachers. This takes up their precious time to prepare for students. We cut a technology integration person, and now teachers are having to spend more time researching web sites and online projects. We cut a mail delivery person, and now secretaries and paras are having to do curbside pickup and drop-off of mail so the mail can travel on buses." The underlying message is lunacy. By the speaker's logic, no organization--not the U.S. military, not the postal service, not General Motors--can ever make cuts or trim personnel without compromising quality. Well, the reality is that a slew of organizations have made cuts that seemed painful but that ultimately seemed to boost productivity, strengthen the culture, and left them more effective. Obviously, cutting in dumb ways (like by zeroing out music, art, or sports to save negligible dollar amounts) has an adverse impact. But the challenge for leaders is to prune in smart ways, to use rough periods as a chance to cut back so that their organizations will emerge leaner and healthier. To deny that one can do that is to abdicate one's responsibility.
As I said, he offered similar thoughts and commentary on the other common mistakes. So now we know he told this to Rhode Island educators. I wonder if they listened.


May 23, 2011


Grading by Ideology

Justin Katz

An interesting tidbit from over the weekend is that college professors appear to grade differently based on political affiliation:

We study grading outcomes associated with professors in an elite university in the United States who were identified -- using voter registration records from the county where the university is located -- as either Republicans or Democrats. The evidence suggests that student grades are linked to the political orientation of professors: relative to their Democratic colleagues, Republican professors are associated with a less egalitarian distribution of grades and with lower grades awarded to Black students relative to Whites.

As you can see by the included chart, Republican-given grades track more closely with what one might expect: lower grades correlating with lower SAT scores and higher with higher. And I'd certainly be willing to believe that Democrats (presumed, in the study, to be liberal) are more apt to boost underachievers and resent overachievers, whom they attempt to humble.

Still, one major consideration that does not appear to have been taken into account (at least as apparent in a quick scan of the research document) is the type of courses involved. Humanities departments, to my experience, have a deeply entrenched and rigid screening process that surely keeps Republicans and (especially) conservatives out, so those Republicans whom one can find on faculty lists are likely to be teaching less mushy, more objective subjects .

Another explanation, apart from the urge to redistribute, could involve Republicans' status as a small minority. Whatever is cause and whatever is effect, professors who feel as if they exist behind enemy lines, as it were, might have a different outlook on testing and grading, making them more likely, I'd wager, to prioritize proven achievement in a competitive atmosphere.


May 18, 2011


Reform for the Difficult, Too

Justin Katz

Much has been made of the peculiar meeting of flip-flopped-to-union-friendly education writer Dianne Ravitch and RI Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist, but Ed Fitzpatrick highlighted something from Ravitch's latest book that points to a more substantive debate:

In her book, Ravitch raises valid concerns, saying, "The question for the future is whether the continued growth of charter schools in urban districts will leave regular public schools with the most difficult students to educate, thus creating a two-tier system of widening inequality."

I'm not saying it's not, but I wonder what makes Fitzpatrick so sure that concern is valid. My brief experience teaching in a Fall River Catholic school included seeing the school accept children who were struggling in the public school system because it was part of the religious mission to help those in need. Similarly, consider the following, from an article in the Sakonnet Times about former Board of Regents member Angus Davis, who was a key figure in the hiring of Gist:

... he said, the current public schools system is not designed to allow underprivileged, impoverished students to prosper, which Mr. Davis sees at nothing less than a civil rights issue. "Fundamentally, it's so unfair," he said. "Today, low-income children of color have a huge disadvantage in their public school achievement compared to their wealthier peers. If we could close that achievement gap it would be an incredible lift for our nation."

The point is that, given a less rigid system for funding and executing education, there are people who would be driven to help the "difficult students" on moral and charitable grounds. And let's not forget that difficult children can be more profitable, because they're more costly to educate.

It seems to me that Ravitch's complaint might born of fear that only children with the least motivated parents will remain in public schools if better choices become available, which (if accurate) suggests that she should devote more effort to changing the status quo than fighting educational choice. Moreover, others who share her particular concern should reassess a dynamic by which public schools running low on funds tend to attack the extracurriculars and electives that the least difficult students and their families most desire. Perhaps those funds should not be siphoned off for unjustifiable longevity-based pay and benefits.


May 16, 2011


The Labor Model Must Change with the Education Model

Justin Katz

Both sides in the debate over educational reform at Hope High School in Providence have made reasonable points. Those associated with the school note improved scores and a vitalized environment when reforms were under way. Those associated with the district cite the need to educate all of Providence's students and a need for consistency across the city. One suspects, though, that the final sticking point was money:

... Supt. Tom Brady persuaded the state Department of Education that the Hope academic model was too costly to maintain. While acknowledging that the school had made dramatic gains, he said that the reforms called for an additional 20 to 30 teachers at a cost of approximately $2.5 million annually — an expense he said the district could no longer afford.

Although governing bodies in Rhode Island have long behaved as if it were not true, the tax base is simply not a bottomless well. Even if a particular reform can be proven to improve results dramatically, the cost is not a negligible factor.

And that, to me, illustrates an underlying problem in the way we handle the education system. Insiders like to pretend otherwise, but there's no point of separation between the education model and the labor model, and the latter allows very little room for maneuvering. Even if the employees of Hope decided that the better work environment and the chance to be part of something revolutionary justified financial sacrifice, they could not have offered it, because labor contracts are district-wide documents negotiated through a statewide union that has its eye on trends and power all the way up to the national level.

If the faculty and staff who so believed in the steps that Hope had been taking had offered to meet former Supt. Brady halfway on the increased total cost, perhaps he'd have gone for it. Those employees would have certainly been doubly invested in making the changes pay off


May 10, 2011


Open Thread #3: In the Matter of Ravitch v. Gist

Carroll Andrew Morse

Education reformer Diane Ravitch (mentioned in recent Anchor Rising posts here, here, and here) is publicly asking for an apology from Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist (h/t Jennifer Jordan)...

Last week, I went to Providence, R.I., to give a lecture. Before my arrival, I was invited by Gov. Lincoln Chafee to meet privately with him. Thirty minutes before my hour with Gov. Chafee, I learned that state Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Gist would join our meeting. As it turned out, I had 10 minutes of private time with the governor, then 50 minutes with Gist and leaders of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

I mention all this because of what happened during the 50 minutes. Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman. But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, "That isn't happening here." She came to talk, not to listen. It became so difficult for me to complete a sentence that at one point, I said, "Hey, guys, you live here all the time, I'm only here for a few hours. Please let me speak." But Gist continued to cut me off. In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.

The article mentions that a request for comment from Governor Chafee -- presumably on whether he would characterize Commissioner Gist's behavior as uncivil -- had not been returned at the time it was posted.



Ranking Schools: A Matter of Data Shaping

Marc Comtois

GoLocalProv released their 2nd annual school ranking list and, setting aside the specific rankings, the fact that fairly well-off suburban communities rated at the top of the list and urban schools at the bottom is really no surprise. However, the way that GoLocal formulated their rankings by weighting expenditure/pupil and teacher/student ratio more (15% each) as compared to academic scores (10% each) is a debatable approach.

Spending more money (#1 East Greenwich, despite the stereotype, is #33 on the expenditure list) and having more teachers per student (Classical, at #10, has a second-to-worst "high" ratio of 15:1) isn't necessarily representative of kids getting a good education. (For more on this, see this by Fred Hess). Perhaps the "inputs" of expenditure/pupil and teacher/student ratio are more important in determining school quality than the test result/graduation rate "outputs." (To say nothing of that other immeasurable, parental involvement). But I don't think they are 50% more important as they were weighted by GoLocal.


May 7, 2011


Contrasting Education Reformers

Marc Comtois

Education reformer Dianne Ravitch was in town the other day. Ravitch, a reformed school reformer, claims that the reform ideas she once espoused don't work and, as a result, has risen like the phoenix and hailed by groups in favor of maintaining the status quo.

Expanding charter schools isn’t the answer, she says.

Nor is paying bonuses to the best teachers, or tying standardized test scores to teacher evaluations and certification.

In fact, she thinks American students are tested too often.

And the real problem plaguing schools is not bad teachers, she says, but the insidious impact of poverty.

In short, Ravitch soundly rejects Rhode Island’s education-improvement plan, which is supported by a $75-million Race to the Top federal grant.

The policies embraced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and by his ally state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist have demoralized teachers, says Ravitch, herself a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. Ravitch once shared their zeal for teacher accountability and market-driven incentives such as merit pay, she says, before she witnessed their damaging effects.

Now is the time to question their logic, she said, and to investigate more closely their ties to philanthropic arms of wealthy corporations that have their own agendas, in particular the Broad, Gates and Walton Family foundations that Ravitch refers to as “the billionaire boys club.”

While she raises several valid concerns, she is no stranger to hyperbole (which, ironically, is what made so many of her current allies inimical to her back in the day). She's flipped sides, but making the same "mistakes" as before. As Rick Hess once explained:
Diane Ravitch charges that accountability and school choice have been ineffective, destructive distractions from real school improvement...she is now making the same fundamental mistake, in reverse, that she made previously. Ravitch’s stance reflects the misguided premise that chartering and accountability are best seen as ways to improve instruction — like a new curriculum or reading program — rather than ways to create the conditions under which sustained improvement is possible....Ravitch is disappointed because she thought accountability and charter schooling were supposed to make schools better, and now sees that they don’t....[she's] missing the central point: These structural reforms are means, not ends. Choice and accountability can only make it easier to create schools and systems characterized by focus and coherence, where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning thrive.
However, perhaps realizing this critique, she has taken to criticizing those who would seek to work outside the system. She particularly has an ax to grind against the role that private foundations--"the billionaire boys club"--are having in education reform. For instance, she writes, how can we trust these free marketers? "This is what I don't understand. The free market nearly collapsed our economy in September 2008". I don't think Ravitch is a socialist, she just saw an opening to score a rhetorical point. That's nothing new. Her hyperbolic style is in contrast to reformers, like Hess, who take a more nuanced approach.

For example, while Ravitch has railed against teacher evaluation systems, Hess explains that the current paradigm--so called value-added--contains concepts that are important when evaluating teachers but he fears that reformers are placing too many eggs in the value-added teacher evaluation approach, explaining:

Today's value-added metrics may be, as I wrote, "at best, a pale measure of teacher quality," but they tell us something. Structured observation tells us something. Peer feedback tells us something, as does blinded, forced-rank evaluations by peers. Principal judgment, especially in a world of increasing accountability and transparency, tells us something. Well-run firms and nonprofits use these kinds of tools, in various ways, depending on their culture and workforce.

This is why I believe value-added metrics should be one useful component, but that "I worry when it becomes the foundation upon which everything else is constructed." My quarrel is not with value-added, but with the assumption that we can and should gauge the validity and utility of all other measures against today's math and ELA value-added results.

While Hess recognizes that there are multiple aspects to evaluating teachers other than test scores, he believes in their utility as a component of the whole (and hopes they don't become the end-all, be-all). Ravitch would throw any type of evaluation out the window. She offers few, if any, new ideas other than blaming the "free market" (which is like red meat for her fans) and throwing more money at the broken system. Who's the real reformer?


May 6, 2011


If Supermarkets were like Schools

Marc Comtois

Imagine there was a Shaw's 1 mile away from you but that you preferred to shop at Dave's, which was 3 miles away. Now imagine the government had put a system in place that basically forced you to shop at Shaw's simply because it was geographically closer to you. What a ridiculous system:

Residents of each county would pay taxes on their properties. Nearly half of those tax revenues would then be spent by government officials to build and operate supermarkets. Each family would be assigned to a particular supermarket according to its home address. And each family would get its weekly allotment of groceries—"for free"—from its neighborhood public supermarket.

No family would be permitted to get groceries from a public supermarket outside of its district. Fortunately, though, thanks to a Supreme Court decision, families would be free to shop at private supermarkets that charge directly for the groceries they offer. Private-supermarket families, however, would receive no reductions in their property taxes.

Of course, the quality of public supermarkets would play a major role in families' choices about where to live. Real-estate agents and chambers of commerce in prosperous neighborhoods would brag about the high quality of public supermarkets to which families in their cities and towns are assigned.

Being largely protected from consumer choice, almost all public supermarkets would be worse than private ones. In poor counties the quality of public supermarkets would be downright abysmal. Poor people—entitled in principle to excellent supermarkets—would in fact suffer unusually poor supermarket quality.

And so on. Asinine, isn't it?


May 2, 2011


The Message of Union Defense

Justin Katz

A whopping 300 union teachers and organizers showed up for a weekend event at URI's Ryan Center to back the opinion stated, as follows, by National Education Association Rhode Island President Larry Purtill:

In Rhode Island, he said, many teachers distrust state Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist and her aggressive approach to changes that echoes the priorities of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

These include rigorous teacher evaluations, removing ineffective teachers, overhauling the nation's worst-performing schools and expanding public charter schools.

Message: We don't want change! Especially if it means evaluations and targeting those union members who are most vulnerable... because incompetent.

There is, however, one theme that's worth teasing out of the bunch, because it relates to a frequently made point:

Paul Taillefer, president-elect of the Canadian Teachers Federation, noted several key differences between the two countries, including Canada's more robust teacher selection, preparation and mentoring programs, the high regard society has for teachers and a stronger social safety net for students.

"We have medical and food programs that extend beyond the school walls that help students and level the playing field," he said. ...

"Her favorite refrain is, 'We can’t make any excuses,'" [North Kingstown High School history teacher Jay] Walsh said. "Well, we aren't making any excuses. When we ask these questions, we are trying to acknowledge that what we do in the classroom is connected to many other things outside of the classroom."

I don't support pursuing a government as broad as Canada's, but if the problem hindering our students' success lies outside of the education system, then we need to change the way we allocate resources to address that. If teachers aren't the key, then we should decrease our spending on them and target factors that really would help us, as a society, achieve our objectives.


April 29, 2011


Providence School Closings: Consequence of Decisions Past

Marc Comtois

The Providence School Board elected to close 5 schools last night. Parents were angry. Kids were used as props. I've seen it before. Similar circumstances occurred in Warwick a couple years ago, where a total of 4 schools were closed in two years (and everyone survived, believe it or not). My thoughts from 2009 are just as applicable to Providence now as it was to Warwick back then.

The entire problem was forged in a crucible of [Providence]'s own creation. The consequences of apathy often hit when the iron is hot, indeed.

Too many people simply don't pay attention unless they believe they will be directly affected. So the parents who are upset now need to recognize that they need to be involved in their children's education--whether in the PTO, School Committee meetings or other programs--all of the time. There's a chance that the budget shortfall could have been reduced, mitigated or avoided if more parents had attended School Committee meetings and advocated for their kids and schools by pointing out that every dollar spent on personnel costs...was one less dollar available for students. Perhaps that would have given the district more time to study and prepare for the inevitable downsizing without the added pressure they were under during this process.

So now we have kids who are going to have to adjust to new schools. I understand the anger and anguish felt by students and their parents. Perhaps there was more justification for closing other schools, but, as hard as it is to do, it's time to move on. Change happens whether we like it or not, whether we deserve it or not, whether it's right or wrong. Time for the grown-ups to remember that the kids are watching us. Instead of framing it as a loss, try to turn it into a new adventure. It's a life lesson, after all. Show them that it's OK to roll with the changes and hopefully they'll discover that change makes us stronger and, just maybe, even a little better.

To that I'd only add a couple additional observations. First, that, while this phenomena is not particular to Rhode Island, it seems that the geographic insularity characteristic of this state and its residents make the thought of closing a "neighborhood school" all the more intense and explosive. Second, I wonder how much easier such change would be if the students leaving the old school were going to an honest-to-goodness new school. As in, newly constructed, updated, latest bells-and-whistles. But that doesn't happen around here, either. Where the heck would we get the money, right?


April 20, 2011


Study: In Testing Era, Curriculum's Aren't Narrowing

Marc Comtois

There are (legitimate) concerns that student testing requirements will result in a "narrowing" of school curriculum. All math and ELA (and now a Science) and not much room for the humanities or arts. As Mark Schneider explains, the National Center for Education Statistics has released their High School Transcript Study and found that isn't happening. As Schneider summarizes:

The transcript study shows a long-term trend in which high school students are taking more courses and more academic ones than ever before—a trend that shows no sign of abating. In short, the high school curriculum, far from narrowing, is getting deeper and broader.

For example, the number of high school credits graduates took has increased by 15 percent since 1990 (up from 23.6 in 1990 to 27.2 in 2009). This increase was driven by an emphasis on academics. Between 1990 and 2009, high school graduates increased their enrollment in “core academic” courses (English, math, science, and social studies) by 17 percent and in “other academic” courses (fine arts, foreign languages, and computer-related studies) by almost 50 percent. In contrast, students took fewer “other” courses (such as vocational education and personal hygiene)....Since 2000, students took one additional credit in “core academic” courses, an additional 0.5 credits in “other academic” courses, and continued to take fewer “other” courses.

I'm not sure if it's a good thing that fewer students are taking vocational courses, given their practical, "real job" focus (and the growing belief that we're sending too many kids to college to effectively pay tuition, party and figure out that what they really want to do is work with their hands after all). But, be that as it may:
A second important finding in the study is that a more rigorous curriculum pays off with higher NAEP science and math scores. Students who took a rigorous curricula outscored students who took a below-standard curriculum by more than 40 scale points in math and science. Clearly, this is correlational and not causal. The study shows that the relationship between curriculum and performance has persistent race and ethnicity patterns. At any level of curriculum, black and Hispanic students lag, often considerably, behind whites and Asian/Pacific Islanders (chart, page 42).
The last is obviously a cause of concern (though I suspect the problems are less race-based and more economic, as usually seems to be the case). Despite the positive findings, Schneider points to areas of improvement.
While there has been progress in getting more students to take a more rigorous course of study, far too few students are taking the most rigorous curriculum. Only about 13 percent of students take the “rigorous” curriculum, up from 10 percent in 2000 and 5 percent in 1990, but still a low number. More encouraging: 46 percent take the midlevel curriculum and the percentage of students with that curriculum continues to expand.

But perhaps most disturbing is that high schools are failing to exploit emerging opportunities for students to increase their course-taking. Many critics argue that our school year and school day are too short—and clearly the evidence from the transcript study shows that exposure to more courses is associated with higher NAEP scores. The transcript study explores two ways in which students could take more courses: summer school and online education. In both cases, our high schools are dropping the ball.

The problem is that these two opportunities are utilized for remediation more than for adding value to education. Using on-line resources to supplement existing course work is a hot topic in education reform circles (just Google "personlized" or "digital" learning and have at it).


April 18, 2011


Re: Local Governments Founded in Deception

Justin Katz

Rhode Island Association of School Committees Executive Director Tim Duffy commented as follows to the post in which I suggested that pension problems are a self-inflicted wound among governments, especially local governments:

The wound is not a locally self-inflicted one. School committees are not responsible for pension debt. We do not negotiate these benefits with unions. The rates we pay are determined actuarially and that is driven by factors set in state law. How long it takes an employee to become vested, when they can retire, when they can begin to draw down a pension, what % of pay the pension is set at, how much their pension increases annually, COLAs, are all embedded in state statute. During the 1990's recession the state changed the employer contribution ratio, from 60% state – 40% local to 40% state – 60% local. So when the retirement board changes the actuarial assumption, as they should, and it results in an increased unfunded liability, locals get to bill the pay.

A lot of communities are doing less with more, but our hands are tied by collective bargaining statutes that create an unleveled playing field in favor of the unions. Teacher unions can employ work to rule as a protest against management and hurt students in the process. Illegal teacher strikes, while infrequent, don't result in any financial penalty for teachers. Binding arbitration awards for police and fire have largely ignored a community’s ability to pay and in many instances have set conditions for retirement, selected costlier health care providers, and set manning and staffing levels.

When the legislature passed 3050 lowering the property tax cap, a bill we supported, it also required the state to fund mandates passed by the General Assembly or initiated by regulations of a state agency. The FY 2012 budget, like budgets before it, does not appropriate money for mandate reimbursement. In many instances local government is failing, but not necessarily due to any fault of locally elected officials. Rather much of the failure can be laid at the feet of state leaders who have passed the accountability buck down to the locals while denying them the authority to act in the interests of their citizens, taxpayers and students.

That's a reasonable response, but it requires a certain amount of acceptance of Rhode Island's paradigm for governance. Having watched school committees play at bringing negotiations to a close while continuing to promise that any raises would be retroactive, no matter how many times the union scuttled an agreement, I'm not willing to buy into the game.

More importantly, local government has played its role in the system of unions dominating the Statehouse and the Town Hall, as well, cycling taxpayer dollars into public-sector coffers.
As the elected officials closest to the voters, school committees (and town councils) should have pushed back harder. So, "self-inflicted" may be too strong, but only if one excludes passivity.

As the General Assembly has changed the pension system detrimentally to municipalities, those local governments should have taken steps to decline participation in the system altogether. If that didn't prove feasible, they should have insisted that new costs be worked into existing personnel costs, pushing salaries and other benefits down, as well. Let the unions decide whether they'd rather take their winnings in cash, benefits, or retirements.

There are surely dozens of actions, practical and political, that school committees could have taken to fight back. To my experience, they've been content to play along, complaining about labor and the legislature, to be sure, but also observably happy to have places to which to pass blame.

And if the system had pushed back more, then at the very least, those with an investment in the pension system wouldn't have been so complacent about its being sacrosanct.


April 7, 2011


Educational Choice

Marc Comtois

There is a white paper at AEI arguing that the it's time for a paradigm shift. Instead of school choice--which accepts the current whole school, institution (or "bricks and mortar") -based educational structure--reformers should look to educational choice as the true next-generation model:

By supporting reforms to increase choice only among schools, choice advocates are appealing only to a minority of parents who want to relocate their child to another institution and are thus missing the opportunity to boost choice among nearly all parents who would want some educational choice....

In an era when technology and cultural norms have made radical customization the rule in everything from cell phones to retirement plans to web browsers, it is notable that the vast majority of school reforms are "systemwide" measures that do little to bend schools into a shape more suitable for serving students with diverse needs. Indeed, most talk of accountability, merit pay, and school choice has emphasized "whole school" assumptions that simply take traditional schools and classrooms as givens. Such a mindset is ultimately crippling because the twenty-first-century schoolhouse is less likely to be the product of some big-brained reformer devising the one best model than the accretion of advances relating to diagnosing needs, researching interventions, employing online instruction, and permitting greater individuation....

The one-size-fits-all school system has passed its expiration date. There is nothing innately wrong with the "one best system" or the conventional schoolhouse. Indeed, they represented the best practices of an earlier, more bureaucratic era. Today, however, heightened aspirations, the press of student needs, and the opportunities presented by new tools and technologies mean that old arrangements are no longer a good fit. Likewise, school-choice advocates have missed an opportunity to appeal to the vast majority of parents who are not willing to relocate schools, but would be interested in greater choice among tutors, lesson plans, or instructional approaches. In these categories, the charge is for schooling to make the same shift from the centralized, industrial model to the more nimble, customized model seen recently in so many other areas of life--and to do so by leveraging greater educational, not school, choice.

Outlets like Khan Academy or concepts like "flip-thinking" (where students watch lectures at home on the computer but attend class sessions to do the "homework") are interesting ideas that are utilizing today's technology for new approaches to education. The educational choice is nested in the homes of the students and their parents instead of the "school system" while at the same time the "school system" still provides structure and guidance and can also facilitate some of the alternative options.


April 4, 2011


Whose Voice Are We Hearing?

Justin Katz

Another interesting aspect of the article on Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's new regulations that Marc mentioned yesterday is the way in which one of the objections is answered in a separate article on the same page:

"If they gut collective bargaining, they are heading down a road to destroy public education," said Larry Purtill, executive director of the National Education Association of Rhode Island.

"Because in negotiating, you get the voice of the teacher who is in the classroom every day," he said. "And that's an important process. Without it, you take that voice away."

The other article is about negotiating difficulties between Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo and the union with which she negotiates. Gallo wishes to modify negotiations so that they follow a "streamlined compact," which would involve teachers, administrators, parents, and even students and vary from school to school:

"I think unions are an important check against the capricious actions of a supervisor," Gallo said. "But I also think unions come out more powerful [in a compact] because all 330 [teacher] voices are heard, not just the voice of the union leadership.... Dissent should be heard."

We could even bring in Julia Steiny, whose column on the facing page suggests that a rigid pension system that discourages changes in career path serve neither teachers nor students well:

When I write or speak about making pensions more portable and flexible, some teachers respond with effusive agreement. They say that they've had a great 12, 15, 20 years, but that now they're done. They want to do something else. But they can't afford to give up their investment in the teacher-retirement system, with its very attractive promises. They panic about becoming like the bitter burnout down the hall.

In general, I suspect most teachers would find much to like about life outside of the union pen, especially the best teachers.


April 3, 2011


Reshaping Education via the BEP

Marc Comtois

As reported by the ProJo this morning, the new Dep't of Education Basic Education Program attempts to implement a new way of doing business. It strengthens management rights, implements evaluations, defines a "code of responsibility" and removes seniority as the primary qualifier for job retention. All done to, as Commisioner Deborah Gist explains, to make the system "child-centered." To help explain these changes, Gist has written several advisories, including one on seniority.

Gist has sought to clarify the ramifications of these new rules by sending out “guidance memos” to districts. No longer will seniority –– the long-held practice of seasoned teachers being allowed to “bump” newer colleagues out of their jobs –– be the sole factor in determining teacher assignments, Gist says.

The new BEP aims to ensure “that highly effective educators work with classrooms of students who have significant achievement gaps,” Gist wrote in an October 2009 memo. “In my view, no system that bases teacher assignment solely on seniority can comply with this regulation.”

Obviously, teacher unions aren't happy and they're girding up for a fight. Yet, it's not just the teacher unions that are taking issue with Gist and her interpretation of the new BEP and Rhode Island law as it pertains to education. In Warwick, for example, Mayor Scott Avedisian is taking issue with school funding requirements that seek to reset the baseline back to 2009 dollars and not the prior baseline (2010/11) that had been legislatively reduced.
Gist’s memo is an answer to the hypothetical question if a community reduced its contribution for fiscal years 2010 and 2011 “is the maintenance of effort reference year FY2009 for purposes of calculating a community’s maintenance of effort obligation for FY 2012?”

In response, she says for 2010 and 2011, a 95 percent of the 2009 maintenance of effort is allowable but that for 2012 it reverts to the 2009 level. Further, she writes, if a community contributed more to schools than the 2009 amount that higher amount becomes the threshold.

I guess time will tell if this will fly.


April 1, 2011


Using Transparency to Know What Administrators Should Be Investigating

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, notes that school administrators in Tiverton appear to analyze differences between their approach and that of one of the most successful districts in Rhode Island (neighboring town, Portsmouth) only to the degree that they can formulate excuses why their own students and community in general are to blame for the disparity in results:

It's typical, among public officials, to focus on others' mystery resources and sunnier demographics and to insist on the impossibility of comparison and accountability. The fact remains, though, that Tiverton pays $1,290 more per pupil. Yes, Portsmouth's budget is 33% bigger, but its student body is 46% bigger. And even if it were accurate to suggest that Portsmouth has expenses that it doesn't report to the Department of Education, its unlisted expenses would have to amount to $3.6 million, not $300,000-400,000, for the per pupil spending to match Tiverton's.

Moreover, the UCOA shows that one needn't imagine phantom revenue, because the lines in the budget show that the "philosophical shift" is reflected in how the district spends the money that it does declare. The two districts spend about the same percentages of their budgets on regular education (73% Tiverton; 72% Portsmouth) and special education (both 24%), and Tiverton throws another 1% in for vocational and technical education. The strategies for allocating those budgets makes all the difference.

A lower median income surely has some effect on educational outcomes and the strategy used for achieving them, but it doesn't explain why Tiverton appears to focus on higher-cost employees and, say, health education over math education.


March 30, 2011


How the Game Is Stacked for the Teachers' Unions

Justin Katz

Predictably, teacher-legislator James Sheehan (D., North Kingstown) is vocally opposed to Providence Schools' attempt to save the necessary money while causing the least amount of harm to students. At bottom, Providence's approach is an attempt to keep the teachers who offer the most value per dollar, which will also allow it to keep more teachers, because the highest-paid and most-senior teachers are not necessarily immune. Sheehan thinks that the law requires Providence to raise taxes and cut services so that it can keep its most expensive teachers whether or not they're the most effective:

In the Richard Phelan v. Burrillville School Committee decision, on Aug. 26, 1991, the commissioner of education held that: In conducting our inquiry as to whether a bona fide financial exigency exists in a particular case, we will consider such factors as the money-saving measures other than tenured-teacher dismissals implemented by the school committee, and the proportion that the amount saved as a result of the school committee's money-saving measures, including the amount saved from the dismissal of tenured teachers, bears to the budgetary shortfall. In short, a school board/committee may only fire as many teachers as is necessary to cover the budgetary shortfall.

Firing all Providence teachers does not meet the latter standard of proportionality, especially when one considers that the dismissal of some hundreds of teachers, as opposed to all 1,926 teachers, would likely have been sufficient to cover the expected school-budget shortfall. Moreover, even these dismissals do not take into account the savings generated from the proposed school closings as well as other cost saving measures.

If financial exigency does not permit the mass terminations of all Providence teachers, as it appears, then Providence teachers must be dismissed according to the contract, namely on a seniority basis.

I'd argue that the district really does have to fire all teachers so that it can rehire the faculty that it requires to meet its budgetary and educational requirements. That there is likely to be substantial overlap of the new faculty with the terminated one is merely a testament to the value of district-specific experience.

Of course, the longer-term necessity is for school committees to stop agreeing to contracts that attempt to lock them into stultifying personnel practices. Unfortunately, Rhode Island's so-called leaders seem not to recognize pitfalls until they hurtle off of them. Or perhaps too many of them, like Sheehan, have a financial interest in maintaining the practices that are pushing the state to its doom.


March 29, 2011


Breaking the Mold

Marc Comtois

Just to make you think (h/t):

Now, it's a gross simplification, to be sure. I'd add a column labeled "Reading", for instance, and how much of the "classes" and "homework" laid the groundwork necessary for "perl". But the point being made is this: the basics of education are necessary, but it is often what kids do on their own time, outside of school, that helps determine their future career path. So when do we allow them to start charting their own (guided or mentored) course instead of having them wasting their time by keeping them locked into the current, rigid k-12 system? I'm a great works/western civ. kinda guy, but not everyone is. Up to a point, all students should be educated with the basics, but by...say...the 11th grade, maybe its time to break the old mold and let the kids have more flexibility and choice in their education and their future.


March 25, 2011


Gist, Education Consultants & Skeptical Radio Anchors

Marc Comtois

This morning, I listened as the new WPRO Morning News team of Tara Granahan and Andrew Gobeil went after Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for her proposal to hire up to 50 retired educators (teachers, principals, etc.) as 90 day consultants to help implement the programs funded via Race to the Top. Earlier, Granahan and Gobeil--apparently taking their cue from a ProJo story--interviewed Warwick Rep. Joe McNamara, who sponsored the legislation. I missed that part of the interview, but apparently McNamara basically explained that it was Commissioner Gist's idea. It was apparent that Gobeil and Granahan were particularly bothered by the fact that the bill would allow retired educators to make up to $500/day while still collecting a pension.

Commissioner Gist then called in to try to clear things up, but Granahan and Gobeil took a hard line on paying retired, pension collecting educators $500 a day to consult. The commissioner explained that, basically, $60-70/hr is the going rate for the expertise offered by "master educators" and that she wanted to be able to hire Rhode Island educators and this legislation enabled that. Gobeil and Granahan weren't buying it and pounded away on how $500/day seemed like an awful lot in these tough times. Further, Granahan asked Gist if the consulting fees would be subject to Governor Chafee's new 6% tax (like other consulting fees), to which Gist basically replied, "Of course."

Nowhere was the distinction made (though I think Gist may have assumed this was known) that the money to pay for these consultants was part of the Race to the Top funds. In essence, the bill was a mechanism to allow the Department of Education to hire Rhode Island based educators to perform the consulting. As Gist said, with or without the bill, she will hire the consultants--from another state if necessary--and the going rate is $500/day. I don't think she changed the minds of Gobeil and Granahan, but I'm not sure if they really "got" that the money was earmarked for that specific purpose.

I know $500/day seems like a lot, but professional consultants in all sorts of industries make that and more. I don't doubt that Gist is correct and that's the going rate (at the least!). And while Republicans like Joe Trillo oppose the measure, I think that its more of a knee-jerk reaction than anything else. One other thing: the teachers' unions apparently oppose the legislation:

Several union leaders voiced concerns again Wednesday, saying it was bad fiscal policy to have retirees drawing down the pension fund while working.

“This is bad for the pension system … and it’s bad employment practice when hundreds of teachers are out of work,” said Maureen Martin, political director for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. “We want them to use local teachers already in the school system.”

But Gist isn't looking for regular educators, she's looking for experienced and special ones. Not just the most senior ones left on the laid off list or new hires with lower pay (as Trillo suggested). She needs top-of-the-line folks to implement RTtT (like it or not). As reported by the Brown Daily Herald:
Gist encouraged available teachers to apply for the positions, but emphasized that the plan "can't be a program for jobs."

"This is not going to resolve employment," she said. "We have to make the decisions that are best for our students."

But back to the interview itself. On the surface, it seemed like Gobeil and Granahan (in particular) were aggressive and skeptical of the Ed. Commissioner's motives because they were trying to safeguard taxpayer money. That may have been the case and, while there are important, technical reasons why their apparent watchdoggedness, in my opinion, was misplaced (the money is earmarked for a particular purpose, etc.), I won't fault them for that. (Plus, to the benefit of WPRO, they successfully turned it into a "newsmakers" moment and have been covering it in the news breaks all morning).

Yet, then I remembered their interview last week with new Warwick School Committee member Gene Nadeau. Nadeau had gotten some publicity for his statement that state education dollars were going disproportionally to Providence, Central Falls and other urban core cities and he was ostensibly on the show to talk about that, which he did. Then Granahan went off-topic and asked Nadeau, to paraphrase, "Is it true that they are going to close a high school in Warwick?" Nadeau was obviously surprised by the question and explained he hasn't heard any discussion of that during his time on the School Committee. Granahan wouldn't let him off that easy and re-phrased the question a couple times. It was clear to me that Granahan, who grew up and has family in Warwick, was skeptical of Nadeau and didn't believe him.

Taken together, the Nadeau and Gist interviews have left me with the impression that Granahan in particular is, at the least, skeptical of local and statewide education administrators. Yes, "twice is a coincidence" and all that. But that's two times in two weeks I've heard an education administrator interviewed and given a tough time by Granahan. That's not a bad thing, but it's interesting to see the perspectives and biases of supposedly "straight news" personalities slowly revealed.


March 24, 2011


Hess: One Size Doesn't Fit All with Teacher Evaluations

Marc Comtois

Rick Hess offers some thoughts on teacher evaluations and the polarization that occurs whenever the topic is discussed:

[O]ur teacher evaluation and pay debates are fought between two bizarre poles. One camp insists that teachers, for some reason that escapes me, can't possibly be evaluated fairly. Any tough-minded effort to gauge teacher performance or reward more productive or talented teachers is seen as an attack that must be ferociously contested. And those who see the value of paying good employees more than bad ones aren't content with creating systems that will push schools and districts to figure out how to do this; far too many want to settle for enacting prescriptive policies that gauge teacher performance in terms of reading and math value-added and then adjust pay accordingly.
In other words, this is a false choice. Teachers aren't some unique class of worker that either simply can't be evaluated or can all be evaluated the same way. Different methods at different levels in different districts or even the same district can be found (say, whole-school a la Deming in Cranston while Bristol does value-added) The point is that there is no one, single solution, but that doesn't mean there is absolutely no evaluation solution!
To most folks in health care, high tech, sales, advocacy, or just about any other field you can name, both positions are inane. To them, the complexities of evaluating personnel and crafting sensible pay systems are pretty obvious. That's why they've been tinkering with different ways to gauge and reward employees for more than half a century. Most people recognize that a boss's judgment is inevitably subjective, but also believe that it has real value--and that a boss who's responsible for their team will take care to weigh the range of relevant factors. Bottom line: most sectors don't turn discussions of employee evaluation and pay into moral crusades, they simply tinker with what might make sense. The biggest problem in education is that our current arrangements force us to approach these questions as "policy" questions, with the presumption that a state or district will set rules that apply to every teacher in every school in that geography. In that fashion, by enforcing uniformity, we stifle opportunities for variability or creative problem-solving, and accentuate the temptations to adrenalize these debates.
While many want to make Rhode Island one district--and that is an attractive thought from an administrative cost-savings standpoint--there are also potential benefits to our current "tiny kingdom" setup whereby different methods of evaluation could be tried. That will require some cooperation, though. We're not there yet.
This has real consequences. As I've noted before, clumsily-designed value-added measures risk "stifling the kind of smart use of personnel that reformers are trying to encourage." But I guess it's easier, and maybe more fun, to rant against step-and-lane pay and promote grand solutions--or to "defend the profession" against the crazy idea that some people are better at their jobs than others, that we can distinguish among them, and that we should take this into account when setting pay.
It ain't rocket science.


March 17, 2011


Patrick Kennedy: Brain Man of Brown

Marc Comtois

(H/T Ian D.) Well, it is something he knows about....

Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy has a new title- visiting fellow at Brown University's Institute for Brain Science. He'll be spending his time advocating for advancements in the field of traumatic brain injury....Kennedy will deliver two lectures on the Brown campus during each year of his [two year] fellowship. He says the details of his day to day work are still being defined.
Bwahhahaha! "day to day work"? Right. Looks like Kennedy will be paid a nice little stipend for two 10 minute, stream-of-consciousness rambles. Regardless, it was nice of them to tell him he was a lecturer and not an exhibit.


March 16, 2011


A Lesson for the Town's Educators (and Parents)

Justin Katz

Not surprisingly, a majority of Little Compton parents would prefer to keep the town's students flowing through one of the state's best high schools, in Portsmouth, rather than move them over to Tiverton's facility right next door. I've explained why I would feel the same, were I among them, but the number of reasons that the parents gave makes for a stunning rebuke to Tiverton and its leadership:

Some factors favoring Portsmouth are its 13 Advanced Placement classes. Middletown has 11 and Tiverton has nine, respectively. Portsmouth also offers 74 extracurricular activities and sports. Middletown offers 28 and Tiverton offers 22, respectively.

Portsmouth scored 70 percent proficient on their New England Common Assessments Program tests. Middletown scored 69 percent proficient and Tiverton score 63 percent proficient, respectively.

For the 2012-13 tuition, Portsmouth offered Little Compton $9,000, while Middletown offered $9,602. Crowley said Tiverton could not provide a cost, but instead, a range of $14,187 to $15,954. For the 115 slated pupils to attend high school during that first year, with tuition at a 3 percent annual increase, Portsmouth was the lowest. Middletown's would have increased approximately $69,000 and Tiverton’s approximately $596,000. ...

Another parent said one can’t ignore Tiverton High School's 827 suspensions, while Middletown has 252 and Portsmouth has 85.

Perhaps most stinging is the impression of one Little Compton School Committee member that Tiverton High School, alone among the three, lacks a "sense of community."

Joining the most limited offerings with the highest price (by far) is not a winning combination. One wonders why Tiverton tolerates that which Little Compton looks likely to decline to accept. Yet, scarcely a word can be heard or read from Tiverton parents demanding better results from the town's public schools.



The Prayer and the Regent

Justin Katz

My patch column, this week, joins two topics related to education in Rhode Island:

The connection is indirect, to be sure, but the controversy over an old prayer banner in Cranston High School West brings to mind the Chafee administration - and not (only) because Rhode Island's new governor has me so worried that I think a school-system-wide prayer initiative might be beneficial.

Rather, what connects the items, in my mind, is an aspect of newly confirmed Board of Regents Chairman George Caruolo's not-so-surprising hesitance to embrace the reforms that Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist has been pursuing with such zest.


March 15, 2011


The Providence Substitute Situation and Demanding Negotiations to Correct a Mistake

Carroll Andrew Morse

Justin's post from yesterday mentioned that Providence Mayor Angel Tavares' decision to send dismissal notices to all current Providence teachers relates directly to the cost of substitutes. According to data available from the Rhode Island Department of Education website, Mayor Tavares has picked a reasonable area for reform, as the per-pupil costs of substitute teachers in Providence have for the past decade been significantly above the state average…

YearProv. Per-Pupil
Substitute Teacher Costs
Rest-of-RI Per-Pupil
Substitute Teacher Costs
2003-2004$356$119
2004-2005$431$124
2005-2006$366$128
2006-2007$436$132
2007-2008$503$140
2008-2009$416$137

In terms of total dollars, this amounts to between about $6 million and $9 million more being spent by Providence per-year than would be, if substitute costs were at state average…

Year Prov/RI Difference in
Substitute Teacher Costs
Number of
Providence Students
Annual Prov. Cost
Above State Average
2003-2004$23726,690$6,338,404
2004-2005$30725,497$7,816,854
2005-2006$23826,716$6,362,091
2006-2007$30426,531$8,057,344
2007-2008$36325,986$9,420,456
2008-2009$27924,664$6,870,397

Putting things into a budgetary perspective, if Providence's substitute costs had been reformed in the first year of the Cicilline administration (humor me here) and brought into line with the state average, and all other school costs were held equal, the Providence education budget could have been expanded from its FY2003 level to its FY2009 level (the last year for which data is available) with less-than-1% annual increases.

This problem is more than just fiscal. Paying two to three times the state average for substitute teachers is not an "inefficiency"; it is a mistake. It makes public services more costly without doing anything to improve their quality. A school administration shouldn't have to "give something back" in order to correct an outright error that provides no value and only costs to the public.

There can be little doubt that the repeated drawing of lines in the sand by union leaders, behind which everything about a job intransigently is placed -- including practices that in no way serve the public interest -- has contributed greatly to Mayor Tavares' decision to send dismissal notices to the entire Providence faculty. His drastic, across-the-board action is no less likely to bring about change than would an effort to get union cooperation on an isolated issue, where a union is inclined to protect its economic benefits, despite no one else benefitting in any way from the current situation.

In theory, it doesn’t have to be this way. Public-sector unions could realize that their special position within government monopoly systems for delivering public services entails some responsibility for considering the public interest when determining acceptable "negotiating" goals, and that certain options that lack discernable public value need to be closed off. But I don't know that this theory will ever match up to reality.

Stephen Beale has more information on substitute teaching policies in Providence, at GoLocalProv.



Funding Formula: Dollars per Student

Marc Comtois

New Warwick School Committee member Eugene Nadeau has been quoted in the ProJo and stated this morning on the WPRO Morning News that he is against the new School Funding formula:

Eugene Nadeau, a member of the Warwick School Committee, said the formula is a “sweetheart deal” for Providence, which he said will receive five times as much aid as his school district.

“We have to subsidize the Pawtuckets and the Providences,” he told about 30 colleagues from around the state. “We’re being short-changed. It’s an abomination.”

Based on the latest information I could gather from various sources, here is the per pupil state subsidy for Rhode Island public school students using the new formula:

DistrictTotal StudentsFY 2012 FundingPer Student
Central Falls2848$41,811,218 $14,680.91
Providence23573$182,710,182 $7,750.82
Woonsocket6110$44,999,994 $7,364.97
Pawtucket8886$63,214,367 $7,113.93
West Warwick3520$19,047,703 $5,411.28
Bristol Warren3474$18,410,883 $5,299.62
Burrillville2460$12,590,521 $5,118.10
Newport2037$10,231,545 $5,022.85
Glocester584$2,874,344 $4,921.82
Foster274$1,236,720 $4,513.58
East Providence5638$24,725,686 $4,385.54
Foster-Glocester1296$5,374,297 $4,146.83
Chariho3528$13,705,701 $3,884.84
North Providence3278$12,163,986 $3,710.79
Middletown2407$8,867,743 $3,684.15
Exeter-West Greenwich1805$6,599,824 $3,656.41
Coventry5311$18,623,507 $3,506.59
Warwick10261$33,718,511 $3,286.08
Johnston3083$10,033,085 $3,254.33
Cranston10738$33,589,074 $3,128.06
Tiverton1906$5,201,024 $2,728.76
Cumberland4846$12,654,496 $2,611.33
North Smithfield1764$4,551,639 $2,580.29
South Kingstown3527$8,579,666 $2,432.57
North Kingstown4409$10,710,031 $2,429.13
Lincoln3301$6,795,044 $2,058.48
Smithfield2467$4,812,133 $1,950.60
Westerly3098$5,975,377 $1,928.79
Scituate1628$3,081,712 $1,892.94
Portsmouth2796$5,132,335 $1,835.60
Narragansett1479$1,457,333 $985.35
Little Compton309$275,529 $891.68
Jamestown492$382,657 $777.76
Barrington3498$2,467,090 $705.29
East Greenwich2398$1,436,872 $599.20
New Shoreham128$65,960 $515.31

Here is the per student subsidy for Charter schools:


DistrictTotal StudentsFY 2012 FundingPer Student
Trinity34$708,398 $20,835.24
Met School650$12,027,542 $18,503.91
Davies C&T 816$13,960,522 $17,108.48
Blackstone Valley256$3,849,492 $15,037.08
Segue Institute140$1,746,233 $12,473.09
Times 2 Academy650$6,981,187 $10,740.29
Learning Community471$5,054,820 $10,732.10
Textron213$2,271,088 $10,662.38
Paul Cuffee559$5,904,155 $10,561.99
Blackstone164$1,589,968 $9,694.93
Highlander282$2,682,140 $9,511.13
International312$2,934,630 $9,405.87
Beacon224$1,880,544 $8,395.29
Greene School81$654,585 $8,081.30
NE Laborers218$1,728,789 $7,930.22
Kingston Hill179$727,305 $4,063.16
Compass153$616,322 $4,028.25

The state has different obligations (ie; basically foots the entire bill) for some charter schools and, for instance, Central Falls, largely because the formula takes into account a variety of factors related to the economic makeup of the district/student population (PowerPoint).

SOURCES: Providence Journal Funding Formula Chart, RIDE Statistics, Schoolfinder at Education.com (Textron and Times 2 student population), Schooldigger.com (NE Laborers Academy student population).



Like a Profession, or Something

Justin Katz

The specifics could be adjusted elsewhere, but the general attitude that Julia Steiny describes at Blackstone Valley Preparatory Charter School, although there's no revolutionary "paradigm change," as the education academics like to contrive, seems like a profound shift. Note, especially, the handling of the teaching professionals:

... at Blackstone Valley the two-teacher classroom [with more students] is the beginning of a leadership-development continuum designed to grow each teacher's responsibility, autonomy, compensation and personal goals. New or "fellow" teachers plan and teach, but also learn alongside an experienced "lead" teacher. As lead teachers become even more practiced, they might become grade leaders for common planning time, or run professional development, or research a new technique and teach it to the others. Eventually, master teachers could become a Head of School. ...

So everyone in the organization has goals. Chiappetta says, "Some of our people want to be lifelong classroom teachers, so we'll support them becoming master teachers. Others say, 'I want to go to med school in a few years and be a pediatrician, with teaching experience under my belt.' Right now, three teachers leave early to take classes for their graduate degrees, and make up the time on Saturdays. We want to help you invest in yourself and move forward."

Gone is the rigid put-in-your-time factory model of public schools in general. At least by the impression that Steiny gives, the school hires the best candidate for each position, and being human beings, they're each potentially approaching the job from different backgrounds and with different plans. The administrators keep the project on track and are accountable for their results, because if their faculty doesn't succeed, students won't sign up.


March 14, 2011


What Elected Officials Have Negotiated For

Justin Katz

Anchor Rising readers are already familiar with the explanation of the problem basic problem with public-sector unions in a democracy that Andrew Klavan offers in the following video, but it's worth a watch nonetheless:





This article describing why Providence Mayor Angel Tavares had to give teachers termination notices, rather than layoff notices, provides excellent evidence of the results of the tilted system:

If they are laid off, teachers are placed on a recall list. Those teachers who do not wind up with full-time jobs by the beginning of the school year are placed in the group of "regulars in pool." By agreement with the union, these substitute teachers have to be called in to fill temporary vacancies before any other category of teachers. ,,,

"Regulars in pool" are the most-expensive substitutes because they are paid at their full step. In addition, regulars in pool can also receive family health-care coverage, a longevity bonus and an advanced-degree bonus, depending on how many days they work. ...

But here's the real reason why regulars in pool are more expensive than the other substitute teachers, according to Clarkin:

"The district calls in the most expensive [subs] because they have to pay them anyway," Clarkin said. "If you need a sub, they get brought in first."

So teachers who are laid off tend to stick around in the system at full pay even if they don't work. Typically, not enough teachers would be laid off to fill up the substitute list, but with school closings, that outcome is likely next year.

Any one of high salary, lavish benefits, or job security would be tolerable if school committees had negotiated with one of the others as a priority. But the push back against unions is occurring because they've managed to transform negotiations into a process of moderating the rate at which they get all three.


March 7, 2011


A Fantasy Compromise

Justin Katz

Earlier, I mentioned Julia Steiny's contribution to the belated march of red flags throughout the Providence Journal. Steiny's piece is interesting because she attempts to draw a line through the ranks of teachers:

... in the shrill, righteous rhetoric, sometimes screamed by both the left and the right, teachers are lumped together as if they are a homogenous group, with the same interests. Good teachers deserve far better. Academically, they're the best allies of the kids. Fiscally, they're our best buy.

Steiny elides the fact that the teachers have effectively assented to this treatment by, first, joining together into a collective and, second, failing to exhibit deep differences of opinion among themselves. It isn't really fair to fault the "righteous rhetoric" when educators present a unified face.

To be sure, Steiny notes that in "pay-to-play states, teachers can refuse to join" unions, but "payback for bucking the union can be ferocious." How much more ferocious things must be in states, like Rhode Island, in which union membership is compulsory. Indeed, I wonder whether it's possible to go from there to a "right to work" scenario in which teachers have a right to form unions but also a right not to participate in them, as Steiny suggests. In Rhode Island, the unions are already formed, which means that teachers would have to break away one by one. That sounds like a recipe for a divided workforce devoting far too much behind-the-scenes energy to the labor battle.

It's actually surprising that Steiny doesn't agree, given other observations in her article:

Unions are private-sector businesses with leaders that make fat six-figure salaries. If they do not give their teachers good customer service, state laws should not keep them in business. A pot of compulsory dues allows unions to ignore dissenting rank and file and use the money to, for example, fight much-needed reforms to professionalize hiring, or to weed out bad teachers, or to extend the school day (which every charter school has already done). Unions cling to hiring by seniority with a death grip, even though it is clearly detrimental to education.

Surely, Steiny has had some taste of the tactics that such vested interests will use against those who speak against them. Is that a battle that we want to impose on our best educators?

For their part, they've arguably already proven their disinclination for the fight by failing to speak out already.


March 4, 2011


The Union Rhetoric and Financial Reality

Justin Katz

You know, this sort of talk can only expand the sense of unreality between unions and the general public:

"Something is insane in Providence," [American Federation of Teachers President Randi] Weingarten said, standing on the steps of City Hall. "On a week where teachers and students were taking a well-deserved break, a secret plan was being hatched in Providence. They thought no one would be there to hear it. Fire everyone — that was their plan."

Maybe it's because my family hasn't been able to afford to go anywhere during vacations since my honeymoon a dozen years ago, but it strikes me as peculiar to assume that February vacation finds full regiments of teachers flying off to vacation spots around the globe. It seems, rather, that a better time to slip secret plans through would be just before they leave or just after they return.

Moreover, Weingarten manages to remind the general public that the protesting horde just wrapped up another full week off — a winter break, not to be confused with the Christmas break or the soon to arrive spring break. Let the kids decompress, by all means, but are Rhode Island's schools running so smoothly that there's no need to fill time out of the classroom with strategy sessions, evaluation of successes and failures, and professional development — all within scope of the enviable employment packages that teachers already receive?

In similar regard, this statement from a parent at the rally emphasizes the point:

"Mr. Mayor," said Maria Almestica, "we don't want 35 kids in a classroom. This is not OK. Our children should be learning, not worrying. You're messing with their futures."

The children shouldn't have to worry that the city in which they live will not remain financially solvent, and they shouldn't have to worry that their state cannot produce adequate employment to allow them to remain within its borders when they enter the workforce. The status quo of the Rhode Island public sector is not sustainable, and at bottom, that is what's messing with students' futures.


March 3, 2011


ProJo Eds Get it Right: "Reject Caruolo"

Marc Comtois

From the Providence Journal Editors:

If George Caruolo’s blatant conflict of interest as a $5,000-a-month lobbyist for a gambling palace does not disqualify him from becoming chairman of the state board overseeing K-12 public education, his dismissal of the need for serious education reform surely should....Mr. Caruolo’s view is that all [of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's reform measures are] too much, too fast. “It’s not as important to get all this work done in the next 15 minutes as it is to get it done correctly,” he said.

In truth, no one has tried to reform schools in 15 minutes and get it wrong. Indeed, this has been an agonizing process, taking years of thought and effort — often in the face of gale-force opposition from economic interests that oppose upsetting the status quo.

As the editors explain, now is not the time for "thoughtful pauses."
But exactly how long should poor and minority students trapped in Rhode Island’s badly underperforming urban schools have to wait? How long should Rhode Island parents and taxpayers put up with some of America’s highest per-pupil costs and teacher compensation, when student performance is generally mediocre, even adjusted for demographics? How many years should Rhode Islanders be happy that their students trail those of other New England states by most achievement measures? How long should the state’s economic competitiveness be damaged by graduating large numbers of students who lack the skills employers require?
I completely agree.



A Regent for One Reason

Justin Katz

Marc's already posted on the topic, and I'm admittedly playing catch-up in my daily reading routine, but having read George Caruolo's declaration of the not-badness of Rhode Island schools (and the consequent no-rushism of the probable chairman of the state Board of Regents), I have to offer additional comment. What's striking, given the prominence of the position for which he's been nominated and the time that has elapsed since he first agreed to take the position, is that he does not, apparently, feel the need to substantiate his controversial opinion:

George Caruolo, a savvy former politician who has been appointed by Governor Chafee to lead the state's top education board, has his own take on the State of Rhode Island's $2-billion-a-year public school system.

It's not that bad, he says. ...

Caruolo, the father of four children, all of whom have attended East Providence's schools, is also not convinced that the demands of a high-tech, 21st-century economy require that students be educated to higher levels than ever before. ...

Caruolo doesn't believe that the state's public schools are in crisis, despite the fact they continue to trail other New England states by most achievement measures. And, while Rhode Island claims among the highest per-pupil costs and teacher salaries, the state lands in the middle of the pack nationally.

The notion of a crisis hasn't been a quick and unsubstantiated whim of public temper. As I've put it previously, Rhode Island joins an average median income with high (budget-busting) public school teacher pay, high private school attendance, low public school SAT scores, and high private school SAT scores. Education researchers regularly give the state poor grades for a variety of reasons, and our comparison with other states on standardized tests is not commensurate with our investment, especially considering that we share many of the regional qualities of the neighboring state, Massachusetts, that regularly tops all of the rankings in which we lag.

Caruolo's one purpose, as a Regent, (and Chafee's main purpose as governor) appears to be to gum up the process of reform so that teachers' unions can find ways to lock in more advantages for themselves and turn back the clock on progress.


March 2, 2011


When the the Rules Don't Work to the Teachers' Union Advantage, Obviously the Rules Must Immediately Be Changed

Carroll Andrew Morse

In yesterday's Projo, Linda Borg reported that Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith wants Mayor Angel Tavares to reconsider his decision to formally dismiss all of the teachers in the Providence School System...

The Providence Teachers Union president offered the School Board another option Monday night: send out letters that include the possibility of layoffs and terminations....

Smith, who met with Taveras on Sunday, said the mayor offered to recall approximately 1,400 teachers, but Smith proposed another solution: including the option of layoffs in a new letter.

However, as noted later in the story, the conventional reading of Rhode Island law says that it's too late to initiate a change...
After the public comments, School Board President Kathleen Crain stressed that that board’s hands were tied by a state law that says teachers must be notified of their employment status by March 1.
Hold on though -- a group of Democrats at the State House have suddenly decided that March 1 is obviously too early a date for making decisions for the next school year, and have already proposed changing the notification date for layoffs and dismissals (House Bill 5540)...
This act would extend the notification date for the dismissal, suspension or lay-off of teachers from March 1 to May 15.
So as long as Rhode Island legislators have had the epiphany that the March 1 date isn't sacred and can be changed, shouldn't we also be considering moving the notification date past the end of the school year, and at least pretend that this change is not being proposed solely for the of benefit particular union in a particular situation?

Changing the law to create a personnel process less disruptive to education process is deserving of discussion. Changing the law to benefit a single organization in its particular maneuvers is not.

ADDENDUMS:

Last month, a bill was introduced to the RI House that would move the notification date to June 1 (H5297). It was scheduled for a hearing that was postponed at the sponsor's request (J. Russell Jackson of Newport). Does this mean that today's bill indicative of some kind of negotiation going on in the legislature about a new date, or is this a routine case of multiple bills being submitted to the RI legislature on the same subject with rank-and-file legislators letting leadership decide which one, if any, will get a vote?

Also last month, Julia Steiny discussed the early notification date and its ramifications in her Projo column, available here (h/t Marc).

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March 1, 2011


Unions: Cause or Coincidence?

Justin Katz

Thomas Russell of Barrington pushes a logical error frequently confused for an argument:

I am (unfortunately) old enough to remember the state of education before the birth of teachers unions. Teaching positions were treated as patronage jobs, and salaries were so low that many graduates only turned to teaching after they failed to find work doing something else.

It is ironic that so many people seem to want to return teachers to that status even as they proclaim themselves to be champions of education improvement.

Education has so dramatically changed in ways entirely apart from the employment arrangements of teachers that it's nearly got to be a deliberate avoidance to voice Russell's point. Most profoundly, the importance of education is much more frequently proclaimed, and for a broader cross-section of Americans than it was in those pre-union days. That is, society has come to value education (at least in the abstract) so hugely that the value of those who provide it is unlikely to decrease just because they don't periodically go on strike, work to rule, or otherwise bully school committees into signing unaffordable contracts.

Personally, I hope and expect education employment reforms to elevate teachers' status, because they will no longer be associated with such unseemly union behaviors... not to mention union characters who need not be named, here.

Of course, this accepts Russell's statement of history for the sake of argument. I, myself, am too young to remember those olden days, but the statements of respect for teachers that one frequently hears from folks who were their students suggest that his assertion is, at best, exaggerated.



Carruolo II: Pensive Philosophy or Excuse Making?

Marc Comtois

To follow up on last night's post, the full ProJo story provides more insight into the "What, me worry?" philosophy of George Carruolo. For instance:

For his part, Caruolo emphasizes cooperation among all groups — teachers, parents, students and the community — as the critical ingredient for school improvement.

“Everyone will have to make compromises on everything but this: having a system we are all proud of, and a system that works for children,” he said.

“I’ve never seen a turnaround in anything with an alienated work force,” Caruolo said. “And from my viewpoint, I don’t see a lot of talk about poverty and homelessness and family disruptions in the education dialogue, right now.”

Carruolo is correct: for a variety of reasons (often related to the effects of government social policy), families are different than they were 20 years ago. Single-parent families or two working parents are far more prevalent and parental involvement in schools has declined. This affects all the kids in a classroom as teachers have to spend more time catching up. However, I don't know of any education reformer who discounts the role that poverty and family play in education. For example, as Commissioner Gist has traveled the state, she's explained the components that comprise the new school funding formula:
Ms. Gist said that [the new funding formula has a] built in...“core instructional amount,” which creates a per-pupil spending base of $8,333. Another 40 percent ($3,333) is funded for each student receiving free or reduced lunch, an indication of additional funding needs since it costs more to teach a student living in poverty.
Sure sounds like someone who recognizes that poverty affects education, doesn't it?

As for the alienated workforce? Reform skeptics are very good at pointing at all of these outside reasons--excuses--for why reform can't work or is just too hard, too unrealistic, to implement. Yet, instead of looking at new ways to deal with these changing external dynamics, they double-down on the same, old industrial model of schooling. Why? Because even if it has proven inadequate to the task of educating today's kids--especially the poor and disadvantaged--the old system has turned out pretty beneficial for the adults who operate in it. The "alienation" they feel--stoked by hyperbole spouting union leaders--stems directly from the fact that they view reform as an "attack" on themselves and, too often, their own bottom line.


February 28, 2011


Carruolo: Hey, Why Hurry Reform?

Marc Comtois

Bah. Who needs a sense of urgency:

George Caruolo, the savvy former politician Governor Chafee has appointed to lead the state's top education board, says Rhode Island's $2-billion-a-year public school system is not that bad.

What is needed to improve the state's 300-odd public schools, he says, may not be an ambitious agenda of change but a dose of old-fashioned pragmatism -- or, as he puts it, "a realistic assessment of what's necessary to elevate results."

"It's not as important to get all of this work done in the next 15 minutes," Caruolo said in an interview last week, "as it is to get it done correctly."

Yeah. That sounds good in a platitudinous sorta way, except recent progress has been made due to a sense of urgency. Pragmatism--in our classrooms, in our administration buildings, at bargaining table--is what got RI at this point to begin with. So, yeah, I feel a sense of urgency. And so do the thousands of RI parents with kids in our public school system.



Mayor Taveras on the Notices of Potential Dismissal

Monique Chartier

Providence's Mayor Angel Taveras "blasted" the following last night to his e-list. [Note to NBC Nightly News correspondent Kevin Tibbles: painful as it may be to admit, Mayor Taveras is a (D), not an (R).]

Mayor Taveras' affirmation of a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers as well as his reminder of our collective "moral responsibility" to our children are refreshing and remarkable, especially in light of the notable silence of his predecessor on both of those subjects.

Dear Friends,

We made a difficult decision this past week to issue notices of dismissal to all of the City’s teachers, effective at the end of the 2010-11 school year. I want to share with you my thoughts on the issue, the process, and where we go from here.

The financial crisis facing the people of Providence is staggering. For too long, politicians have avoided making the tough decisions. When I took the oath of office on January 3, I made a commitment to be honest with you about the problems we face. I also promised that I would not shy away from making tough decisions to put our City back on firm financial footing. Our actions this week reflect this commitment.

Issuing notices of dismissals to all teachers was a decision of last resort. My administration has a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of Providence to address the fiscal crisis we face AND a moral responsibility to our children to make sure we manage cuts to school funding in a way that best serves our students and the community.

State law requires that teachers must be notified by March 1 about any potential changes to their status. Given the March 1 notice requirement mandated by law and where we are in the budgeting process, issuing dismissal notices to all teachers was the most prudent and fiscally responsible decision. Here’s why: We needed to retain the maximum flexibility we could to manage significant cuts to the school budget. We simply cannot have a situation next year where we have more teachers on the payroll than we can afford to pay or have expenses that exceed our resources.

This is also why we issued dismissal notices instead of layoff notices. As has been the case in the past, layoffs often come with many provisions, legally and procedurally, that could impact our ability to control costs to the degree we need to. A dismissal is different in that it enables the district to end its financial obligation to an individual completely.

Continue reading "Mayor Taveras on the Notices of Potential Dismissal "

February 26, 2011


Education Roundup

Marc Comtois

A bevy of education-related stories today. The repercussions following the Providence teacher "firings" continue, with Mayor Tavares getting attention from the New York Times. The ProJo reported that teachers fear it's the end for seniority-based retention, which is kind of a strange way to put it because, as the story also explains, that end was already foreshadowed by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist last year.

In Warwick, a review panel has recommended more transparency on the part of the School Administration, citing communication breakdowns between the City-side and School-side. According to one commission member, there was also "an air of mystery around school finances" that needed to be made more understandable. They also various scenarios for reconfiguring the make-up of the school committee. The report should be available at warwick.org some time soon. Meanwhile, the Warwick School Department unveiled an new electronic records program that will make student data available to all "stakeholders" (including parents!). Warwick also issued the contract-maximum 40 teacher layoff notices (but can only actually fire 20).

In Cranston, the School Committee is asking for $3.5 million in concessions from school unions and asked the City for more money. However, Mayor Alan Fung has already indicated he plans on level-funding the schools this year.


February 24, 2011


Providence Pink Slips II

Marc Comtois

The ProJo has more on the Providence School district sending pink slips to all teachers. Basically, it was Mayor Angel Taveras' call based on economic reality and trying to have as much flexibility as possible.

The mayor said the unprecedented move was necessary because of the depth of the financial crisis facing the city and the schools....[Providence School Superintendent Tom Brady] said the mayor alerted him about the impending crisis about two weeks ago. As Taveras became more alarmed, he asked Brady to come up with a solution that would give the city and the district “maximum flexibility” to respond to the city’s financial deficit, expected to top $57 million.
I also forgot that Providence Schools currently don't follow the traditional seniority hiring practices.
The district now fills openings based on an interview process that requires teachers to submit a model lesson and a writing sample.

It remains unclear how seniority will be used when teachers are rehired under the dismissal system, however....Supt. Tom Brady said it was too soon to say whether seniority would be eliminated in its entirety. The district is still embroiled in a lawsuit filed by the Providence Teachers Union that seeks to restore seniority, although both sides are reportedly close to an agreement.

Part of what spurred this is a loss of $14 million in stimulus money, which was used primarily to pay teachers. Additionally, the ProJo reports that an additional $11.5 million is needed to cover increases in health insurance and other benefits. It is also pointed out that Providence teachers pay 15% of their health insurance and will receive no pay raise this year. Unfortunately, they're learning what the private sector has already learned: making sacrifices for one year doesn't make you immune from making more sacrifices in subsequent years. I wish it were not true, but it's reality.


February 23, 2011


Pink Slips in Providence

Marc Comtois

Julia Steiny reminded us that it was the time of year when pink slips would rain down. Boy, did they ever in Providence where every teacher is slated to be "laid off". Well, not really--not all of the teachers will be fired. It's just a way for the Providence school district to enable the greatest amount of flexibility when it comes to budget time, as Providence School Superintendent Tom Brady explained:

We are forced to take this precautionary action by the March 1 deadline given the dire budget outline for the 2011-2012 school year in which we are projecting a near $40 million deficit for the district....Since the full extent of the potential cuts to the school budget have yet to be determined, issuing a dismissal letter to all teachers was necessary to give the mayor, the School Board and the district maximum flexibility to consider every cost savings option, including reductions in staff....To be clear about what this means...this action gives the School Board the right to dismiss teachers as necessary, but not all teachers will actually be dismissed at the end of the school year.
Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith doesn't like it:
This is beyond insane....Let’s create the most chaos and the highest level of anxiety in a district where teachers are already under unbelievable stress. Now I know how the United States State Department felt on Dec. 7 , 1941.
Nice hyperbolic analogy, there. Further, if we're to grant you that line of thinking, it would be more correct to say it's as if the "State Department" (the Providence Teachers Union) called the "air strike" (pink slips) down on themselves. After all, the union collectively bargained the March 1 deadline because it benefited them and it's a bit disingenuous to cry foul when the option is exercised. My guess is that if there were more management rights (ie; hiring/firing flexibility) within the contract, this could have been avoided.



What Hope for Education?

Justin Katz

My Patch column, this week, questions whether there's much room for optimism about educational success in Rhode Island public schools over the next couple of years:

... the 2010 [NECAP] test was to be the first on which graduation actually would depend. It was do or die for students to achieve at least "partially proficient," and 38% did not. All stops should have been pulled; the urgency among educators should have been near frantic...an extra-effort, contracts-out-the-window kind of frantic. Yet, I can't think of a single concerted example of such dedication amidst the past few years of budget battles, contract negotiations, and work-to-rule actions.

And the result? A mere six percent proficiency gain. It's as if the education establishment knew that the requirements would never hold. ...

When the tests actually count again, the state will have been guided for two years by a union-friendly governor and his hand-picked education bureaucracy. More importantly, educators have now tested the resolve of the state to allow real consequences for systematic failure, and the state proved there to be none. Gist blinked, and at this time, reforms appear to have lost political teeth, rather than gaining them.


February 21, 2011


In E.P., New "Bosses" Start Cuttin'

Marc Comtois

East Providence, you were warned. Kinda. Faced with a $6.1 million school budget deficit, the new, labor-supported East Providence school committee took action by axing School Department Chief Operating Officer Lonnie Barham and his $109,000 salary. So, they're down to $6 million! According to the new School Committee Chair Charles Tsonos:

We have more school administrators than the City of Cranston and yet we have half the students...Our point is that we need to do everything we can to watch our costs and still provide the best education possible and allocate our resources to the classroom.
But they can't just focusing on cutting the administrative costs, which comprise 2% of the $75 million school budget (according to former SC Chair Anthony Carcieri). So, at some point, other personnel are going to have to take a hit. On another front, despite the aforementioned warnings by former EP Mayor Joseph Larisa, current Superintendant Mario Cirillo has gotten the (dreaded?) "vote of confidence."



Getting to Graduation

Justin Katz

In addition to everything else on the educational plate, Rhode Island needs to increase its graduation rate, even as it requires a diploma actually to mean something:

Statewide, 76 percent of the Class of 2010 graduated within four years, up a percentage point from the previous year.

More than 2,900 of their classmates didn't receive a diploma last year, although a small number of these students stayed for a fifth year in hopes of graduating.

If these fifth-year students graduate in June, they will be counted in the state's five-year graduation rate next year.

The 2010 five-year graduation rate, which uses a formula to include both the Class of 2010 and students from the Class of 2009 who needed an extra year to graduate, was 79 percent.

The article notes some helpful activities at Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln, but it comes back to the same ol' problem:

The program added 90-minutes to the school day and cost about $90,000 extra for teaching and transportation. But, the director said, the investment paid off.

Everything costs extra money, and it's money that administrators and school committees have already spent on lucrative contract deals. Rhode Island has to change its paradigm to an assertion that school employees are paid to accomplish an objective, and they'd better do so within the resources already allocated.


February 20, 2011


Rhode Island NECAP Trends

Marc Comtois

Previously, I focused on tracking the NECAP results of one cohort of kids as the moved through the Warwick School system (to 11th grade). What I found was that reading and writing continued to improve, while math went in the opposite direction. I took this--cautiously--as good news as does Julia Steiny, with the usual caveats:

C’mon, it’s a big deal that Rhode Island’s high-schoolers pulled ahead of our two sister states in the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP). In reading, R.I. juniors kicked butt, scoring 76 percent proficient, besting Vermont’s 72 and New Hampshire’s 74 percent. In writing, our teens were 51 percent proficient, edging out Vermont’s 50 and New Hampshire’s 45....please, I know tests are not the be-all, end-all. But doing well is promising. I think of watching test scores as comparable to watching one’s weight. The number says nothing about the quality of life, talent, or character, but it’s a major indicator of overall health.

So for example, the last reports by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that all three of the NECAP states’ fourth and eighth graders made significant progress. Only one other state and Washington, D.C., also did so. So working toward success on the NECAPs helps kids learn and perform no matter what the test. That’s huge.

Steiny also mentioned the charts that show cohort trends for all Rhode Island students that the ProJo printed in concert with Jennifer Jordan's February 10 story on the NECAP results. These charts weren't in the online edition--at least not that I could find--but (again, as Steiny points out) they are available at the RI Dept of Ed. website in it's Fall 2010 NECAP Report (PDF). It's worth taking a look at them given my belief that there is just as much--if not more--value in tracking cohorts as there is in comparing them year-to-year.

necaptrend5-10-read.jpg


necaptrend5-10-math.jpg

There were no writing results because it's a newer test, but comparing the previous data from Warwick to statewide cohort tracking reveals (unsurprisingly) the same sort of trend. Basically, each cohort is improving in Reading from year-to-year and getting worse in math (remember--this is according to the NECAP test standards for each grade level). It also looks like the test scores for each grade--as one cohort replaces another at a particular grade level--have continually improved. Though it does look like Math scores seem to have plateaued, particularly at the younger levels. This comparison could be more indicative of pedagogy and show that schools may need to freshen up their approach to math so they can get over the hump.


February 18, 2011


NECAP: Following a Cohort

Marc Comtois

Most of the analysis of NECAP scores seems to focus on the year to year improvement of results at a given grade level. For instance, we'll read something like "the percentage of students at School X who are proficient and above in Math is 55% this year, which is 5 points higher than last year." Well, that's comparing two different groups of kids. What if we look at the same cohort through the years, instead?

For the first time, this last round of NECAP scores allows us to look at results for one particular cohort--the 11th graders--from the time they were first tested in 6th grade (in the Fall of 2005) until this past fall. Obviously, you can't control for the changing makeup of the cohort as kids come and go, but these changes get smoothed out over time (with the possible exception of the private school flight that occurs between Jr. High and High school).

I took a look at my hometown, Warwick, and came up with the below. I used overall numbers because, while analysis could be broken down by student race, family income, etc., I wanted to focus on the "big picture." Numbers are percent of students proficient and above for the given subject.

First, here are the overall numbers for Warwick as a whole:

Warwick Schools - 2010 Gr.11 Cohort % Proficient & Above

2005 Gr.62006 Gr.72007 Gr.82010 Gr.11
Read72%67%65%83%
Math60%54%47%31%
Write**37%54%
I then broke it down by the three sub-districts (ie; High Schools and their feeder schools). I compiled the raw numbers for the feeder elementary schools (including those closed since 2006).
Aldrich Jr. High/Pilgrim High

2005 Gr.62006 Gr.72007 Gr.82010 Gr.11
Read75%69%60%76%
Math61%51%44%31%
Write  30%53%

Gorton Jr. High/Warwick Vets High

2005 Gr.62006 Gr.72007 Gr.82010 Gr.11
Read64%58%56%73%
Math54%48%45%25%
Write  33%39%

Winman Jr. High/Toll Gate High

2005 Gr.62006 Gr.72007 Gr.82010 Gr.11
Read86%76%78%90%
Math65%64%52%38%
Write  50%68%

Analysis: Writing proficiency certainly increased from 8th grade to 11th. Without exception, reading scores for this cohort were better in 11th grade than they were in 6th, though there were some ups and downs along the way. That's the positive. The negative are the math scores, which consistently trended down. Difficulty of the subject is one reason--math just gets harder as you progress.

Overall, it's a mixed bag. Warwick has a handle on reading and it looks like writing is coming along--more kids are getting better at both as they progress through Warwick schools. But math is a big problem as kids are getting less proficient as the difficulty increases. While that may seem to make intuitive sense, it's not a good result. We need to prepare our kids to compete in the global marketplace against kids who don't have such mathematical shortcomings. I know that Warwick recognizes the problem and is trying to take steps to address it. Only time will tell.

Source: NECAP Reporting



“As much as we went up, we'll go down”

Marc Comtois

Justin believes that Education Commissioner Gist's decision to delay implementation of tougher graduation requirements until 2014 is the day the reform died. I may not be quite as pessimistic, but I can understand his reasoning. One thing for sure is that, as reported in the Warwick Beacon, Warwick High School principals expect the improvements they saw this year go down next year. Toll Gate High's Principal Stephen Chrabaszcz:

As much as we went up, we'll go down...Please stop thinking that young people don’t know what’s going on....If we have a dramatic fall [in scores] next year I don’t want people to say, ‘What happened?’
Pilgrim High School Principal Dennis Mullen:
Students did take it seriously this year because it was tied to graduation....Scores [of the current sophomore class] could tank.
Gotta have a hammer.



The Day the Reform Ended

Justin Katz

February third might be considered the day education reform ceased in Rhode Island:

Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist wants to push back the deadline for more rigorous high school graduation requirements, and is backing off her proposal that Rhode Island establish a three-tier diploma system.

Gist now says the date on the requirements to get a high school diploma should be pushed back two years, to 2014, to give schools and students more time to prepare. The tougher standards require students to be at least "partially proficient" on state math and English tests or retake the tests and show improvement, among other requirements.

A headline the day after the above suggested continued tough talk, with "Gist says R.I. schools can't postpone improvements," but with the current governor, Board of Regents, and General Assembly, Commissioner Gist is likely to lose teeth, not gain them. The fact is that statewide math scores have only gone up 6% in the past two years, to 28% even "partially proficient," and science scores nudged 3%, to 20%. If improvement continues at that rate, 2014 will still see large numbers of students unable to graduate.

RI Association of School Committees Executive Director Tim Duffy's commentary in the article found at the second link inadvertently illustrates the point:

"We need to put districts on notice that this is the last time the can gets kicked down the road," Duffy said, "because we can't afford to do that to our public school students."

Yeah, right. From participation in local governance and reading of events across the state, I can't say I've observed anything that might be considered a sense of urgency about students "unable to perform simple math problems that most people can figure out in their heads," as the article paraphrases Gist. Why would taking the pressure off them for another two years (with the union's governor in office) change that attitude?

But because so many districts have been lagging in making these changes, it is only fair to give everyone more time to adjust, Duffy said.

Fair to whom? Certainly not to children who are being given diplomas without learning critical material, and certainly not to other students whose diplomas are devalued by broad knowledge that public education in Rhode Island is "lagging."

All that's happened is that complacent administrators, unions, and school committees have bought, with their votes and political contributions, another two years to wait for a miracle change quite apart from anything they're actually doing — much in keeping with the state's budgeting strategy.


February 17, 2011


RIDE Infoworks Site Unveiled

Marc Comtois

The Rhode Island Department of Education's new Infoworks site has been unveiled and looks like it may be a valuable tool for wonks everywhere. Yes, there is student achievement data like NECAP and NAEP scores, but also some new info, like AP exam results. For instance, here are the Top 10 High Schools ranked by % of students who scored at College level mastery:

District School Number of Exams Taken # Scored at College-Level Mastery % Scored at College-Level Mastery
South Kingstown South Kingstown High School 83 72 87%
Barrington Barrington High School 422 363 86%
Exeter-West Greenwich Exeter-West Greenwich Regional High School 68 57 84%
Lincoln Lincoln Senior High School 229 179 78%
Cranston Cranston High School West 77 59 77%
Providence Classical High School 315 236 75%
Warwick Toll Gate High School 77 57 74%
Westerly Westerly High School 64 47 73%
Burrillville Burrillville High School 91 66 73%
North Kingstown North Kingstown Senior High School 234 169 72%
Additionally, there is also some basic teacher data that can be culled and studied. For instance, wondering which schools have 10% or more of its teachers considered NOT Highly qualified?
District School This School (2009-10)
Chariho RYSE (Clinical Day and Alternative Learning) 27%
Independent Charter School Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley Academy 25%
North Kingstown Davisville Middle School 23%
North Kingstown North Kingstown Senior High School 20%
Little Compton Wilbur & McMahon Schools 16%
Providence Nathan Bishop Middle School 15%
Central Falls Central Falls High School 15%
Westerly Bradford School 14%
Woonsocket Fifth Avenue School 13%
Independent Charter School Compass Charter School 13%
Cumberland North Cumberland Middle School 13%
Central Falls Veterans Memorial Elementary School 13%
Central Falls Capt. G. Harold Hunt School 13%
Burrillville Steere Farm Elementary School 13%
Cumberland Joseph McCourt Middle School 12%
Barrington Barrington Middle School 12%
Westerly Dunn's Corners School 11%
Independent Charter School Paul Cuffee Charter School 11%
East Providence Emma G. Whiteknact School 11%
Cumberland Garvin Memorial School 11%
Burrillville Burrillville Middle School 11%
Barrington Sowams Elementary School 10%
There is a lot more, like finding out graduation rates or the degree of stability in a school (how many transient students) or school funding information (various property tax comparisons). It looks like a helpful tool.


Ending the Caruolo Act

Justin Katz

This being Rhode Island, one expects it to be a long shot, but it's worth noting that Patricia Morgan (R, Coventry, Warwick, West Warwick) has filed legislation to repeal the Caruolo Act:

The Caruolo Act allows school committees to file suit against their taxpayers when they overspend their budgets. Rep. Morgan’s legislation would eliminate this costly and lengthy method of resolving funding disputes.

"Quite simply, the Caruolo Act has been a costly and detrimental policy," said Representative Morgan. "What this law has done is increase the cities' and towns' costs of education, reduce their councils' ability to control spending, and drive up property taxes. It has done nothing to promote accountability for the efficient and effective education of our children. I believe that continuing this failed policy is foolish and the time has come to repeal it."

Her preemptive reply to those who might criticize her lack of alternative is that school committees should learn to live within their budgets. I'm not sure that goes far enough. As former Majority Leader George Caruolo has argued that the law that his displaced put judicial authority on these matters in the hands of the Department of Education, which is likely where school districts would argue it should return upon repeal of Caruolo.

The current and perennial makeup of the General Assembly (not to mention the governor) likely puts Caruolo beyond reach, but raising the subject of its repeal is a start to a start of some fiscal sanity for municipalities. Another route, or perhaps a next step, would be to put the taxing and spending authority in the same hands — whether with school committees or town councils — thus allowing more direct control by local taxpayers of school budgets.


February 16, 2011


Fordham Institute Reports on the State of U.S. History Standards (Except Rhode Island)

Marc Comtois

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute has studied various State-level U.S. History Standards and come up with a report (PDF). For the most part, they didn't like what they found with a "majority of states’ standards are mediocre-to-awful." And, surprise, of all the states, Rhode Island was the only state to receive an N/A (Incomplete). Why?

As of 2010, Rhode Island has chosen not to implement statewide social studies standards....Rhode Island expressly declares its GSEs [Grade Span Expectations...for Civics & Government and Historical Perspectives/Rhode Island History] not to be general social studies or history standards, it would be inappropriate to review them as such.
Perhaps once Rhode Island implements the Common Core standard we'll have an analysis-worthy standard in place (though I think the initial emphasis is on Math and ELA). Until then, it looks like RI shares the same core problem with History standards with most of the rest of the states across the country. According to Fordham, this is the "submersion of history in the vacuous, synthetic, and anti-historical 'field' of social studies." They quote Dianne Ravitch.
What is social studies? Or, what are social studies? Is it history with attention to current events? Is it a merger of history, geography, civics, economics, sociology, and all other social sciences? … When social studies was first introduced in the early years of the 20th century, history was recognized as the central study of social studies. By the 1930s, it was considered primus inter pares, the first among equals. In the latter decades of the 20th century, many social studies professionals disparaged history with open disdain, suggesting that the study of the past was a useless exercise in obsolescence that attracted antiquarians and hopeless conservatives. (In the late 1980s, a president of the National Council for the Social Studies referred derisively to history as “pastology.”)
They also criticize "overly broad content outlines" ("isolated fragments of decontextualized history") and the practice of chopping up historical periods across grade levels, which leads to different levels of historical inquiry based on grade level. They also find that there is too much ideological pollution finding its way into History curricula.

Continue reading "Fordham Institute Reports on the State of U.S. History Standards (Except Rhode Island)"

February 15, 2011


Removing the Anxiety of School Layoffs

Justin Katz

By way of applying emphasis to Marc's post about Julia Steiny's Sunday column concerning the March 1 deadline for teacher layoffs, I'd renew a suggestion that I've made before related to this paragraph from the latter link:

But in practice, it means that school communities suffer almost four full months of stress over who does and does not have a job. They live with four months of teachers feeling unappreciated, and four months of resentment against administrators who made the layoff decisions.

School districts should just make it practice that everybody gets a layoff notice. Doing so would preserve their flexibility, and in its sheer universality, the move would lessen the degree to which teachers feel targeted. That is, it would leave only the anxiety that most people who are employees bear regarding their jobs.

While I'm revisiting the column, I'd like to highlight a paragraph that captures the Rhode Island approach to public schools very well:

... that means that the staff members are the constant, and the kids' needs must adjust to them. Job security trumps the quality of the students' education, the demands of school reform, and any brave efforts to try a new strategy.

February 13, 2011


Steiny: March 1 Teacher Layoff Notices are No Help

Marc Comtois

Julia Steiny points to an annual March right--the sending out of layoff notices to teachers who might get the ax--as a flawed practice on many levels.

In theory, the law is supposed to give teachers time to look for a new job.

But in practice, it means that school communities suffer almost four full months of stress over who does and does not have a job. They live with four months of teachers feeling unappreciated, and four months of resentment against administrators who made the layoff decisions.

Anxious teachers make for unhappy school climates, which impede student learning. Obviously.

Yes, obviously. As Steiny explains, the law is "rock solid" and attempts to change the date have failed time and again even though it seems self-evident that the agida it causes isn't constructive. So why doesn't it change? Oh, it has its purposes:
But the March 1 law is also clever. Machiavellian. The misery that layoffs cause provides a powerful incentive not to freak the staff out, and to leave the status quo peacefully in place. Cowardly school committees and administrators hope to heaven that a few retirements will give them the flexibility to accommodate changes in programming or enrollment.
The March 1 date also clashes with a key time on the school planning calendar:
March is right about when schools are starting to hone their school-improvement strategies for the following year. Most schools are under tremendous pressure to improve their test scores and graduation rates. But only with personnel flexibility can they shore up their math program by hiring coaches, or give struggling readers a double period of English Language Arts. To get that flexibility for September, they must lay off all kinds of people in March to cover their bases, until administrators know exactly what teachers and skills they need.

So seas of pink slips must flow.

As Steiny suggests, let's have them flow in June instead.


February 11, 2011


Warwick NECAP Scores Up: Amazing What a Little Incentive Can Do

Marc Comtois

Warwick schools were pretty happy with the latest NECAP results, which showed improvement nearly across the board. From the Beacon

As for the improvements at the high school level where students were told for a first time that they would need to be proficient to graduate, [Warwick School Board Chair Bethany] Furtado concludes, “Students are taking it seriously. Kids need to know that that’s [school] their job. They need to do well in school.”

Principals at all three high schools agreed with Furtado, saying the fact that students took the test seriously because it counted toward their graduation eligibility was one of the major factors for improved scores.

“There was more motivation for the students to do well this time around because they understood that the scores would have an impact on graduation,” said Vets Principal Gerry Habershaw.

Habershaw said it wasn’t only the students that approached the test with a more serious attitude.

After the teachers saw what happened in Central Falls, they took the NECAP preparation more seriously,” Habershaw said. “I also rearranged the way we did advisory periods because it had become a joke. So every Thursday, during advisory, teachers would submit a NECAP practice test so the students could get used to it.”

...“I’m very, very pleased with those results,” said Pilgrim Principal Dennis Mullen. “This was the first year that students were held accountable and they knew that it really mattered, but from a school and teacher perspective, we did a great deal of professional development.” {emphasis added}

Real consequences tied to failure helped get positive results. Imagine that. They also embraced the teacher development required to get results.
Mullen said writing was emphasized throughout the curriculum at Pilgrim by having each department create writing prompts for the students to perform constructed responses, which was an area the school had fallen down on in the past. He said each department chose a different prompt, such as persuasive writing, reflective writing, or responding to information from a text, in order to ensure that students were exposed to all prompts before taking the test.

...Mullen said one of the programs to improve math scores has already been implemented in all three high schools, which allows eighth grade students who are entering ninth grade that scored below proficient in math on the NECAP test to ramp up their math skills before taking Algebra 1, which will be implemented at all levels in ninth grade.

“We’ve aligned our curriculum to state standards and our expectations remain high,” Mullen said. “I’m very pleased with where we are, but I’m never satisfied.”

Good job and good attitude. Keep it up.


February 10, 2011


NECAP: Achievement Gaps Exist, but Middle Class RI Kids On Par or Better than ME, NH, VT Peers

Marc Comtois

Progress. That's what the latest NECAP results show, though Education Commissioner Gist still correctly points out there is work to be done, particularly in closing the "achievement gaps". What are these gaps? As 7to7 reported:

Achievement gaps among minority and low-income students and students with learning disabilities and students with limited English proficiency persist. The gaps are as large as 30 to 40 percentage points when compared to white students, students who do not receive free or reduced lunch, students who do not receive special education services and students who speak English.
Commissioner Gist:
“Today’s news is not all good,” Gist said. “In terms of statewide progress, we don’t see the gains we’d like to see …. And we are very, very concerned about achievement gaps.”

She reiterated her belief that Rhode Islanders need to ramp up their expectations for students and let go of familiar arguments about why some students don’t succeed.

“We are confident and feel very strongly that students across this state, whatever their neighborhood, whatever their school, whatever their family background, can achieve at high levels,” she said. “… At the end of the day, we will not accept excuses for our children not achieving because we know that they can. Teacher effectiveness is hugely important. If students have a highly effective teacher three years in a row, we can essentially close the achievement gap.”

That is all true and there is clearly work to be done, but we always seem to focus on the "overall" scores or the scores of disadvantaged groups. I wondered how RI students who have no "disadvantages" are performing as compared to those in other states. Looking at the various data--and there's a lot of it from 4 states--I finally resolved that using data for 5th graders (who also took the NECAP Writing test in addition to Reading and Math) would provide a good snapshot of the multi-state results.

Now, the data is inconsistent in that, unfortunately, Vermont doesn't break out their scores by grade in the aggregate data. However, I included their grades 3-8 data (hence the * in the tables below) because it's close--and I provided all of RI's data for comparision, which was 3-8 and grade 11.

First, here is the percentage of students Proficient and Above who were not considered economically disadvantaged.

Grade 5 - Not Economically Disadvantaged   
 ReadingMathWriting
NH8378-
ME797352
RI847670
VT*817561
RI-All8368-

It's clear that RI 5th graders--who could be considered your average, suburban, middle-class kids--are very competitive (and better in 2 out of 3 categories; 2nd to NH in Math) with their northern New England peers. That is good news, isn't it?!

So, what about the 5th graders who are economically disadvantaged?

Grade 5 - Economically Disadvantaged   
 ReadingMathWriting
NH6557-
ME594731
RI604646
VT*364636
RI-All5639-

The 20-25 point drop (the "gap") from not-economically disadvantaged and those who are defined as such is pretty consistent across the states no matter the tested subject. This difference based on economic prosperity isn't a surprise and, to my mind, when comparing the results across these 4 states, it is a more accurate comparison than using race, for instance. To begin with, there just aren't that many minorities in the northern New England states, but also, while the poor in Rhode Island are often urban minorities, that is not the case in northern New England. To show what I mean, here are the overall NECAP results for Whites (regardless of economic standing):

Grade 5 - Whites   
 ReadingMathWriting
NH8075-
ME626244
RI817265
VT*516251
RI-All7964-

Rhode Island white students track pretty close to non-economically disadvantaged students. Contrast that with Maine, for instance, where there is a 17 point achievement gap between all whites and non-economically disadvantaged ones in Reading. In fact, in Reading the 62% proficient or above score for all whites is barely above the 59% for economically disadvantaged Maine students. Vermont shows similar data characteristics Maine while New Hampshire is actually much more like Rhode Island.

What does it all mean? To be sure, as Commissioner Gist stressed, there is much work to be done where achievement gaps exist and I'm not trying to shove those students to the side. But positive news is positive news, folks. So, based on this limited survey (only so much time, folks!) I don't think it's being a Pollyanna to take these results as evidence that middle-class and above Rhode Island students are competitive with--or doing better than--their northern New England neighbors. Obviously, there is room for improvement and we should and will continue to push for 90% and better proficiency and above. Right now, it looks like we're headed in the right direction. Faster, please (to coin a phrase).

Sources: Maine Grade 5 2010-11 NECAP results, State of NH NECAP Grade Comparison, NECAP Fall 2010 Vermont Results, Vermont NECAP Fall 2010 Grades 3-8 disagregated data, State of RI NECAP Reports, Rhode Island’s NECAP Math, Reading, and Writing Results for Grades 3-8 and 11.


February 9, 2011


Short: 2010 NECAP Results

Marc Comtois

FYI, the 2010 NECAP Results will be up shortly. They may also show up here, but right now the 2010 results listed are from May of last year, not October.

UPDATE: Here's the overall report (PDF).


February 8, 2011


The Gamblin' Regent

Marc Comtois

The news is that Twin River is lobbying to be a full-fledged casino again (which really just means making the virtual table games real). But what caught my attention is who is helping to lead the charge: George Caruolo, Governor Chafee's nominee to be the Chair of the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.

Caruolo, a one-time advisor to the Mashantucket Pequots, registered to lobby for the holding corporation that owns Twin River on Jan. 26. A week later, he surfaced as Governor Chafee’s choice to chair the Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education.

After his lobbyist filing came to light on Monday, Chafee spokesman Michael Trainor said Caruolo, a former adviser to the tribe that owns Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, disclosed his relationship with the owners of the Lincoln slot parlor “when the governor first approached him” about chairing the board that sets education policy for the state.

“The governor sees no problem with George taking on lobbying assignments,” including this one, said Trainor...

Well, I see a problem. Are we so jaded, so anything-goes as long as its "legal" that we can't see the problem with the guy in charge of educating our kids also actively lobbying for a gambling operation? This is what happens when our political leaders keep going into the same shallow pool of insider "talent" whenever a leadership position comes up (see Hunsinger, Christine). Yeah, no cronyism here.


February 4, 2011


Harvard Study: 4 Year Colleges Aren't for Everyone

Marc Comtois

This really isn't a surprise, is it?

The U.S. is focusing too much attention on helping students pursue four-year college degrees, when two-year and occupational programs may better prepare them for the job market, a Harvard University report said.

The “college for all” movement has produced only incremental gains as other nations leapfrog the United States, and the country is failing to prepare millions of young people to become employable adults....Most of the 47 million jobs to be created by 2018 will require some postsecondary education, the report said. Educators should offer young people two-year degrees and apprenticeships to achieve career success, and do more to ensure that students who begin such programs complete them, said Robert Schwartz, academic dean at Harvard’s education school, who heads the Pathways project.

“For an awful lot of bored, disengaged kids who are on the fence about completing high school, they need to see a pathway that leads them to a career that is not going to require them to sit in classrooms for the next several years,” Schwartz said yesterday in a telephone interview.

This is an area of education reform that should get more attention. The report can be found HERE (PDF).


February 2, 2011


Watching the Intellectual Weight

Justin Katz

Juslia Steiny deployed an interesting simile, a couple of columns ago, that serves the opposite point than that which she makes:

However, standardized-test scores in isolation, alongside no other measures, are a hurtful, immoral misuse of good information. Parents value many features of a school as much, if not more than, achievement. Along with their academic prowess, private schools always tout their strengths in building strong characters, developing citizenship or attending to the whole child. When it comes to evaluating schools, the public-education industry tends to turn a deaf ear to these values.

Our current use of tests is like judging my health by my weight, while ignoring my bone density, cholesterol and whether or not I'm depressed.

Certainly, test scores are not sufficient for total judgment, particularly when it comes to schools and programs that promise more than a baseline education. Nonetheless, following Steiny's analogy, one can see school as an intellectual health program, and standardized test scores (including NECAP minimums for graduation) are like bare minimum requirements that even overweight, depressed participants should achieve if the program is to be said to have any value.

Sure, fat camp might be fun and reward campers with many friends, but if it consistently fails to reduce children's weight by measurable amounts, then it really isn't what it bills itself to be. Parents and those who subsidize it should assess expenditures accordingly.



Brief Reactions to Chafee Board of Regents Nominees

Marc Comtois

I covered initial reactions to Governor Chafee's new Board of Regents appointments yesterday, so I won't repeat myself. The ProJo has more info and reaction, including the info that Central Falls School Board of Trustees Chair Anna Cano-Morales, lawyer Amy Beretta and school reform advocate Angus Davis were the Regents NOT re-appointed by Chafee. The Phoenix's David Scharfenburg has also been looking for reaction:

I've spoken with some in the education reform crowd - all strong supporters of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist - about Chafee's picks for the Board of Regents. Their official posture is wait-and-see. And there is even a glimmer of hope that Caruolo, a supporter of charter schools in the past, will give the reform push a fair shake. But the primary feeling, it seems, is one of deep concern - that Chafee is moving to check the reform movement.
Also, as if we hadn't detected the pattern already, it looks like the Governor continues to tap entrenched Rhode Island insiders when it comes to his political appointments. It's almost like he still thinks it's the 1990's.

UPDATE: Ian Donnis checked out Facebook and found Anna Cano-Morales' reaction:

Departing Regent Anna Cano Morales fumes via Facebook: “What is stunning is that I learned about [not being reappointed] by reading the paper. No call, no letter, not even a simple email. There is alot of work to do folks and because children don’t vote, don’t pay dues and don’t have access to power, I will continue to fight for THEM.”

UPDATE II: It's also important to see what these moves look like from the perspective of national education reformers, such as Tom Vander Ark (emphasis added):

Grant makers don’t like to take money back, but Rhode Island may become the first state that owes the feds a refund for [unfulfilled] Race to the Top plans.

Recently elected Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee canned state board member and reform warrior Angus Davis. Three other reform mined Regents are also leaving. Gov. Carcieri failed to make key reappointments before leaving office and, as a result, left the new governor the ability to appoint 8 new Regents (a big loose end that should have been tied up in support of RttT plans)....for kids in Rhode Island this really sucks. This is more bad news for Commissioner Gist, one of the Chiefs for Change. The new board will have a stronger labor voice, will support the governor’s ‘pause’ to reexamine charters, and could jeopardize execution of the state’s very specific RttT plans.

It’s still not clear how this will all sort out, but if they roll back the RttT plans, they should give the money back.

While I get the frustration with Governor Carcieri not filling the slots, the reality is that any of his nominees would have had to pass through the Legislature and there was no guarantee that a lame-duck Republican's nominees would have been approved by a Democrat legislature in an election year. Vander Ark thinks that the Legislature and various mayors are still on board for reform and national groups are supporting Gist.
In May, Rhode Island Mayor Academy will advance to the Regents a 5 campus proposal in partnership with Achievement First. That will be a pretty clear indication of whether the state is moving forward or rolling back reforms.

Reform groups like DFER [Democrats for Education Reform] are encouraging the governor to support one of the best chiefs in the country and a very good reform plan.

Eroding reform agendas will be a spring test for the Obama administration. We’ll see what team Duncan does when a state does not deliver (too bad they paid out all the money). As Whitney Tilson said this morning, “Here’s hoping they take a hard line!”


February 1, 2011


Breaking: Architect of "Caruolo Act" to Chair Board of Regents

Marc Comtois

According to ProJo :

Governor Chafee has in recent days asked former House Majority Leader George Caruolo to chair the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education....a knowledgable source has confirmed that the governor asked Democrat Caruolo, 58, of East Providence, to come out of political retirement to chair the board, subject to confirmation by the Senate.
Caruolo was the architect of the so-called "Caruolo Act," which annually gets called into play/threatened as RI School Committees struggle with their Town or City Councils over education dollars. Caruolo explained the eponymous act in 2009.
Prior to passage of the so-called Caruolo Act, all funding disputes between school committees and city and town councils went to the Rhode Island Department of Education. The process called for an appeal of the funding level to be heard by an “independent hearing officer” employed by the department. After both sides made their presentations, a finding was rendered by the officer and the final decision was made by the commissioner of education. Almost invariably, the schools received the additional funds they sought. As the late TV educator Mr. Rogers would ask, “Can you say stacked deck?”

The Caruolo law was conceived and passed to give cities and towns a fair shake when these disputes arose, while at the same time it sought to protect the legitimate educational needs of the students. These questions were referred to the court system to give an impartial hearing to serious public policy disputes....When the law passed, it was greeted with enthusiasm by local mayors and managers. That was not the case in all quarters, however. The teachers didn’t like it. The teachers unions didn’t like it and the commissioner of education really didn’t like it. A small indication of that were the efforts that went into branding the law the “Caruolo Act,” which I can assure you is quite unusual.

...I was never a favorite of the unions when I was in the State House. There were times I supported union positions and times I didn’t. They weren’t happy with me or my colleagues when we raised their pension contributions or expanded charter schools, and maybe they didn’t like it when we mandated annual publishing of school results, but we did what we did in the best interest of the people of this state whether students, teachers or retirees.

We'll see if Caruolo is willing to support reform.

UPDATE: Bill Rappleye tweets: "Gist here at Chafee's regents news conference!"
MORE RappTweets: "Chafee says will keep working with Gist." --- Now that sounds kind of obtuse. Keep working with her for how long?

UPDATE II: Your new Board of Regents (via ProJo 7to7):

Robert L. Carothers, former president of the University of Rhode Island.

Carolina B. Bernal, an East Providence parent who works at the Institute for Labor Studies and Research in Warwick.

And Mathies J. Santos, an outreach associate for Rhode Island at the Boston Veteran Affairs Research Institute.

The following members will remain on the board:

Colleen Callahan, director of professional development for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, a Regent since 2003.

Patrick Guida, a lawyer and vice-president Barrington School Committee; Regent since 2001.

Betsy Shimberg, an East Greenwich parent; term expires Jan. 31, 2012.

Karin L. Forbes, a retired math teacher who has served on the Regents since 2004.

The new chairperson of the Board of Governors for Higher Education also serves on Board of Regents. Chafee said he will appoint that board later this winter.

Carothers is a known quantity, but not sure where he stands on reform. Bernal may be a parent---and I know nothing about her--but she works for the Institute for Labor Studies and Research, which is housed in the same building as NEARI and is essentially the research arm of the labor movement. In addition to his current work, Santos was in the DiPrete administration (this was an interesting read). As for those kept on by Chafee, we have: one teacher, a teacher union director, a parent and a school board member.



Chafee Decision on Gist Coming Soon?

Marc Comtois

NBC 10's Bill Rappleye tweets:"Chafee names 5 new education regents today. Gist cancels presentation to Senate. 2+2 ?" We know that the former head of the Board of Regents, Robert Flanders, is out and moving over to the position of Central Falls receiver. Governor Chafee has 8 slots to fill and the ProJo identifies former URI President Robert Carothers and "school consultant" Andrew Moffit (husband of General Treasurer Gina Raimondo) as two candidates (Moffit was originally nominated by former Gov. Carcieri). Flanders thinks it would be a mistake to let Gist go as does ProJo education columnist Julia Steiny, who notes Gist's successes but also points to why she has ticked off the usual suspects:

Perhaps Gist’s most abrasive characteristic is that she dares to be specific. She and her team devised an enormous plan of action, with a dizzying array of detailed steps, changes, and initiatives. So everyone, including me, disagrees with the plan on one specific or other. Specifics inevitably step on someone’s toes.

We can either improve school quality or we can avoid stepping on toes, but we can’t do both. She gets work done. I like that about her. She can seem tin-eared at times, but she works hard at listening and making herself accessible. We’ve seen her change her mind and adjust her course, so she’s not ignoring the dissenting views. Most wonderfully, she’s made very clear that kids and achievement are her priorities. Adults need to come second. And after a certain amount of deliberation, hurt toes must heal on their own.

Like Steiny, there are some policy proposals I'm not crazy about and Race to the Top isn't a perfect vehicle for reform by any means. Yet, a perusal of Gist's Facebook page shows that she is willing to engage anyone--teachers, parents--in a dialogue. That openness and genuine interest is refreshing and encouraging and in direct contrast with what we've seen from Governor Chafee so far.

Like it or not, Gist has gotten the conversation moving in this state. There has been genuine debate with some long-called for reform ideas actually getting a look. It hasn't been--and won't be--perfect. But it's a heckuva lot better than where we were. Do we really want to start over, again?

ADDENDUM: In the comments, Ken Block calls attention to a petition at RI-CAN asking Governor Chafee to stay the course on the current education reform path. Here is the link.


January 31, 2011


If We Take RTTT Funds But Don't Implement RTTT Mandates, Isn't that a Little Shady (or Worse)?

Monique Chartier

WPRO's Dan Yorke said it outright last week. An article on WPRI's website today references it a little more obliquely.

The rumor is that Governor Chafee wishes to accept Race to the Top funding for the state without implementing all of the conditions that accompany it. More specifically, it's purported that he'd like to duck out of the charter school component. (I wonder why?) The governor's averseness to charter schools became clear in the past couple of days when he invited to the state an outspoken opponent of them.

Race to the Top money is not a no-strings-attached gift. The federal government is sending us this money to accomplish certain things. Prudence dictates that we obtain answers to some rather obvious questions before going down this (rumored) road.

1.) What are the consequences of taking federal money without implementing the attendant requirements?

2.) Doesn't deliberately taking targeted funds with no intention of implementing the program border on something close to fraud?

3.) Even if such an action is not fraud, wouldn't the federal government find out and simply debit that amount from future monies headed to the state, putting us back at square one revenue-wise? Or, framing the question positively, under what scenario do we get away with doing this?



A Paradigm Without Structure

Justin Katz

Both the content and delivery of this illustrated lecture are excellent:

I share Professor Ken Robinson's skepticism about a supposed ADHD epidemic, but when he goes on to describe studies that a shift in an education paradigm should address, the academic conclusions begin to look a bit too free-wheeling. He describes a study in which children are measured by the number of uses they can think of for a particular object, say, a paperclip. 98% of kindergarten children, apparently, score at the level designated as "genius," and the percentage decreases as they progress through school. The implication, obviously, is that school suppresses the true genius that lies natively in all children.

From the lecture, though, it appears that "genius" is essentially a measure of one's ability to come up with random connections, which seems to me to miss the point of education. It brings to mind a model for artificial intelligence that attempts to simulate creativity through randomness on a computer, matching flagging matched concepts when there are a certain number of coherent connections. The other part of actual genius, though, is the ability to reconnect those random associations into something relevant... something useful... something funny.

The Einstein, in other words, isn't the kindergartener who can see beyond the paperclip in his or her hand and assign to it all kinds of other uses were it otherwise than what it is. The Einstein can recognize that it, rather than something else, would be useful for some particular purpose.

I'm responding to a very short summary, of course, but I'd think the better test would not be to hand a kid a paperclip and ask, "What could you do with this?" The better test would ask, "How could this be used for X."

One gets the sense that academic theorists have this excited feeling that they're on the brink of discovering the key to a new paradigm for education, if only they can think beyond the boundaries of an inherited pedagogy. If only they can, in a sense, teach the kids to apply their free-range creativity to solve particular problems. I suspect that won't prove possible, because in order to solve problems, one must recognize and categorize — and thereby characterize for the purpose of modification. These are restraints.

Such is the model of creative evolution. Classical music, for one, pushed boundaries, but from within. Composers discerned the theories that their predecessors had employed (sometimes unawares) and modified them, broadened them, created new challenges for themselves from within them. At some point, though, those boundaries became so abstract that they broke free from aesthetics, which is a immobile attribute of humankind compared with theory. Once that happened, the theory was into the stratosphere of incoherence.

And so to standardized testing. It should be possible for an educated society to recognize some plain basics without which all of the free association in the world will be so much gibberish. Such are the bases of standardized scores: Basic math. Basic literacy. Basic logic.


January 28, 2011


"Surplus" Just Means They Haven't Spent It, Yet

Justin Katz

Gary Trott tries to apply too much common sense to public-sector budgeting:

What should a Rhode Island city or town do if it suddenly finds itself with a surplus of unspent funds amounting to nearly $6 million? You'd think that it would do the responsible thing and not spend those funds in order to ease up a little bit on the taxpayer.

Well, that's not what the School Committee in Warwick did during the final days of December when it voted unanimously to take the $6 million surplus from the previous year and spend it by giving raises to teachers and also by cutting the 20 percent contribution that the teachers were to pay toward their health care benefits (ProJo 7 to 7 News Blog, Dec. 29).

The problem is that this isn't just spending for spending's sake, as Trott takes it. Rather, all of the incentives push government bodies in the direction of spending everything and, in particular, spending as much as possible on raises and benefits for employees.

Obviously, the electoral threat implicit in public-sector unionization is one incentive. So is the likelihood that unspent dollars won't just be considered a windfall to be kept, but will be targeted (rightly, in my view) both for a direct return to taxpayers and for a reduction in subsequent years' budgets. When the money isn't given freely as an economic exchange, but is taken under threat of law as taxation, the emphasis shifts from claiming as much money as a consumer can be convinced that the service is worth to providing cover for the claim that so much, and more, is needed, or even required by law. The process becomes one of budget tricks.

In Tiverton, for example, the school department claims that the town is required to make up for any difference in the amount of state aid that is estimated at the financial town meeting. (Naturally, extra aid is never reduced from the local appropriation.) So, say the local appropriation is $20 million and the FTM estimates that the schools will get $5 million in state/fed aid. If the aid comes in at $4 million, then the schools take another $1 million from the town's property tax pool.

Here's the best part: for the purposes of calculating the state-imposed cap on how much additional money it can request, the school department considers the $21 million to be part of its new baseline. It then begins the performance of declarations about what it will have to cut, close, and eliminate if the town doesn't bust the cap.

The process doesn't begin, in short, with the question of what the payer will bear, but with what the payee can take. The only way to change the incentives and the outcome would be to organize enough voters to place better candidates on the boards, councils, and committees and counterbalance the corrupt symbiosis between elected officials and labor.



There's That No-Can-Do Attitude, Again

Justin Katz

My reaction to this sort of thing can't be uncommon:

Under proposed changes to the 2008 high school regulations, high schools would be required to offer support to struggling 11th graders this spring, and possibly this summer, to help them advance in math and reading, Gist said.

However, at a public meeting last week, several high school principals said they are worried they will be unable to offer adequate assistance given the short timeline and budget constraints.

Stay late. Work more. Convince the entire faculty and staff that it's necessary to take a 1% pay cut in order to hire a specialist or two. Get results, because otherwise you could be out of a job...

... oh wait. This is the public sector we're talking about.


January 27, 2011


Give Them Time... and Money

Justin Katz

Although writing from Michigan, Kyle Olson has it right when it comes to his perspective on education happenings in Central Falls:

Central Falls students deserve a high-quality education. But instead, families are told to be patient as administrators and the teachers union hold meetings and create 45-page reform plans. And now the federal government gives the district a big check, which simply buys the defenders of the status quo more time.

At the School Committee meeting in Tiverton, this Tuesday, the committee and administrators turned part of their budget discussion into a plea that they lack the resources for early interventions that might improve results, particularly standardized test results, for students down the line. They talked about revenue sources that Portsmouth has that Tiverton doesn't; they speculated as to why Portsmouth's per-student cost might be lower, including the possibility that the town has fewer special education students. (Some quick research that I did online while they talked showed that a good portion of the difference is specifically in instruction, meaning the cost of teachers.)

As far as I'm concerned, that's all beside the point. Each town and city has the tax base that it has and the student population that it has. The principle studiously ignored during such discussions is that organizations must be built to do the work that must be done with the resources that they actually have. If that means that a particular district must pay teachers significantly less in order to hire math coaches or whatever else might be needed, then so be it.

The approach to labor and salary that has become part of public school culture begins with the premise that teachers should make roughly the same wherever they work, and the unions manipulate politics and local budget processes in order to prevent any real systemic balance of price, resources, and value. Pouring more money — whether local, state, or federal — into the equation causes the price of educators to go up and when the flow of revenue ebbs, programs and services go on the chopping block so that salaries never have to adjust downward.



The Science of Test Scores

Justin Katz

Marc reviewed some of his findings with respect to the NAEP science scores on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.

Once again, I didn't go into the sales pitch, but please email or call (401-835-7156) me to pledge financial support — as subscriptions, donations, or advertising — for 2011 to help us create a full-time job within Anchor Rising.


January 26, 2011


2009 RI NAEP Science Data: Part 2 - 4th Grade Teachers

Marc Comtois

In an earlier post I looked at Rhode Island's 4th grade student demographic data for the 2009 NAEP Science assessment and how it compared to national results. Now let's take a look at how the average 4th Grade scores compare based on various teacher qualification factors.

First up are results based on whether kids are being educated by teachers who are specialists in science instruction. The results are what you'd expect--science-only teachers get better results.

Continue reading "2009 RI NAEP Science Data: Part 2 - 4th Grade Teachers"


2009 RI NAEP Science Data: Part 1 - 4th Grade Students

Marc Comtois

The ProJo reported on the results of the lates NAEP Science (for 2009) results for RI and it wasn't pretty. I went over to the NAEP website and dug deeper into the data. What follows are some of the things I found related to the 4th grade results (all I've got time for, I hope to get to the 8th grade later on). So.....CHARTS!

I used the average scores as the main data point for comparison. First, here are the overall average scores for Rhode Island (ranked 26th), the nation and includes a breakout of public/private differences. Also indicated are the national scores for Catholic schools, which, this being Rhode Island, I thought worthwhile to include (again, the average is national, not just for RI). Finally, there were 47 "units" measured, which were 46 states and Dep't of Defense schools.

Continue reading "2009 RI NAEP Science Data: Part 1 - 4th Grade Students"

January 25, 2011


Failure With or Without Tiers

Justin Katz

The idea of a tiered diploma system is causing much teeth-gnashing in Tiverton and elsewhere. My Patch column, this week, explains the effect of the proposal and points out that a related topic really ought to be the controversy to which every School Committee meeting is dedicated:

In light of that change, a cynic (or, the cynic would say, a clear-eyed observer of Rhode Island politics) might suggest that the "certificates" are being introduced to ensure that non-proficient students receive something for their efforts, with the new diploma tiers layered in to disguise the fact that Rhode Island's public educational system has failed to live up to its own standards. Those resisting both the tiers and the certificates are (by this interpretation) effectively playing chicken with the Board of Regents, holding them to their prior, more-dramatic regulations in order to force the Department of Education either to be lax in judging exceptions to NECAP proficiency or to postpone or scrap the current reforms altogether.

Rhode Island voters and parents should look beyond the blurry bureaucratic dances and focus on the truth behind all of the rhetorical agreements and semantic disagreements. When it comes to high scores on standardized math tests, Rhode Island trails the nation of Turkey.


January 24, 2011


Chafee and Charters: Thoughtful Pauses or Choir Preaching?

Marc Comtois

As Ed Fitzpatrick wrote about last week, Governor Chafee is taking a "thoughtful pause" on considering whether or not Rhode Island should allow more charter schools to open up. According to Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor, the Governor

...strongly believes Rhode Island needs a deep and healthy debate on the issue of charter schools because it represents to him a significant determinant in the future of our public school system....To help spur that healthy debate and discussion, he is going to bring Diane Ravitch to Rhode Island between now and the beginning of spring.
As Fitzpatrick explains--after noting the overwhelming support that teachers' unions had for the Governor--Ravitch was for charter schools before she was against them and has been vociferous in both roles. He quotes Arthur E. Levine, "former president of Teachers College (where Ravitch received her doctorate)"
She has done more than any one I can think of in America to drive home the message of accountability and charters and testing. Now for her to suddenly conclude that she’s been all wrong is extraordinary — and not very helpful.
Fitzpatrick, whose own children attend charter schools, believes:
It would be helpful if Chafee resisted the temptation to view charter schools from either of the polar-opposite perspectives that Ravitch has held in her career. Charter schools are not going to solve all that ails public education, but they’re also not an enemy that is going to ruin it.
That's not an opinion held by Ravitch 2.0. One solution to offer an opposing and articulate (and fair) counterpoint would be to invite Frederick Hess. Hess maintains a blog and, while attending an education conference in Boston, had guest bloggers fill in--and they didn't all agree with him. In other words, Hess is willing to look at the ideas of others. Here he is in his return post:
As you've doubtless noted, all three of our guest bloggers are as likely to disagree with me as to reflect my own views. I hope that didn't unduly confound anyone. For what it's worth, I care infinitely more about whether someone is thoughtful and interesting than whether they agree with me.

This is because--and I trust this has become obvious to veteran RHSU readers--I believe it's entirely possible for someone to be smart, informed, and concerned, and to still disagree with me on questions big and small. (I know such a stance can approach heresy, in education and elsewhere, nowadays, but there you go.)

From what I've read and heard of Dianne Ravitch 2.0, such willingness to engage in good faith seems to be absent.

And about that conference Hess attended....it was in Boston (TeachPlus) and Hess found some interesting (and heartening) things.

The sixty-odd teachers in attendance were bracingly open to questioning conventional verities governing teacher evaluation, job descriptions, and pay. Whereas those of us frustrated with current practice sometimes imply that most classroom teachers are set on holding fast to today's routines, that clearly wasn't the case with this crew.

Teach Plus used instant polling technology to anonymously gauge attitudes as we went along, and I found the results cheerfully suggestive that a huge swath of today's early career teachers are ready to rethink the shape of the profession. Nearly three-quarters of the attendees had taught three to ten years, and most of the rest were in their first two years. About a third, I think, were in charter schools--but a clear majority were in the Boston Public Schools.

Asked whether they'd be "willing to be held more accountable for student outcomes in exchange for access to differentiated roles and additional pay," 63% of this group said yes and just 11% said no. Asked how they'd prefer to be evaluated, to my surprise, the room as a whole preferred evaluation based on "measures of student learning growth" as opposed to measures based on peer observation or participation in school-wide improvement. Indeed, when asked how useful their most recent evaluation was in improving their teaching, there was no defensiveness and no apologies. Forty-four percent said "not at all useful" and just 18% said "very useful." Mostly, it was refreshing to see teachers comfortable sharing views that don't comply with the stereotypical expectation.

These teachers and I talked about specialization, rethinking the teaching job, getting smart about using technology, reassessing the assumption that all teachers need to be full-timers, and the rest. I don't expect anyone to just swallow my heterodox take on these questions, and these teachers sure didn't. But most seemed eager to consider alternative arrangements, think them through, and share their own spirited and savvy insights.

Governor, invite Hess.


January 22, 2011


Somebody Check the Temperature in Hades: Fox Approves of Gist

Monique Chartier

Exclusively in today's GoLocalProv:

... The future of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist remains unclear under Governor Lincoln Chafee, given their very public differences over such issues as charter schools. Fox readily admits that Gist is a controversial figure—which is just what he says Rhode Island needs.

“I think she’s tackling some sensitive issues, but I think somebody needs to address sensitive issues,” Fox said. “I respected her coming in because sometimes in a small state, especially like Rhode Island where everyone knows one another, you don’t really shake the tree. Probably you should shake the tree because we know each other so well we don’t want to make it personal. That freed her up to come in and some would say that was a bad thing but I feel it was a pretty good thing that she came in, decided we would start looking into some areas.”

He said her work as commissioner has all been done with an eye toward the best performance of students. “Ultimately shouldn’t that be what education is all about?” Fox said. “I’m a big believer that public education is a great creative opportunity for people and it’s a great equalizer and so we need it. And so for that reason, plus many more, I’m a big supporter of hers.”




An Odd Reason to Give a Diploma

Justin Katz

Marc's post about "teaching to the test" reminds me of a peculiar line of reasoning that emerged when the Board of Regents heard from Rhode Islanders regarding a proposed tiered diploma system:

Ken Fish, who worked at the state Department of Education and helped to develop the 2003 regulations, lashed out at the plan to weigh test scores more heavily.

The original vision for improving high schools rejected high-stakes testing. Instead, schools had to prove they had made a series of required changes by 2012, such as ensuring that all students has access to high-level classes and effective teachers.

But as of 2011, many school systems are lagging in making these changes. And thousands of students remain unable to reach proficiency.

"Why are we willing to hold students responsible for an education they have not received?" Fish asked the regents.

If the students haven't received the education that they should have, on what grounds do we give them diplomas? Perhaps that sounds cruel, but it's a reasonable question and should point blame where it belongs. After all, the more productive question, in my view, is why we aren't willing to hold educators and administrators responsible for failing to provide the education that Rhode Island has promised to its students.


January 21, 2011


Teaching to the Test: It just might Work

Marc Comtois

The idea of "teaching to the test" is something that is viewed undesirable by just about everyone. But a new study shows that there may be something to it.

The research, published online Thursday in the journal Science, found that students who read a passage, then took a test asking them to recall what they had read, retained about 50 percent more of the information a week later than students who used two other methods.

One of those methods — repeatedly studying the material — is familiar to legions of students who cram before exams. The other — having students draw detailed diagrams documenting what they are learning — is prized by many teachers because it forces students to make connections among facts.

These other methods not only are popular, the researchers reported; they also seem to give students the illusion that they know material better than they do.

In the experiments, the students were asked to predict how much they would remember a week after using one of the methods to learn the material. Those who took the test after reading the passage predicted they would remember less than the other students predicted — but the results were just the opposite.

Read the whole thing for more particulars, but the test-review-test method "beat" the official concept mapping method. They are still not sure why:
Why retrieval testing helps is still unknown. Perhaps it is because by remembering information we are organizing it and creating cues and connections that our brains later recognize.

“When you’re retrieving something out of a computer’s memory, you don’t change anything — it’s simple playback,” said Robert Bjork, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved with the study.

But “when we use our memories by retrieving things, we change our access” to that information, Dr. Bjork said. “What we recall becomes more recallable in the future. In a sense you are practicing what you are going to need to do later.”

It may also be that the struggle involved in recalling something helps reinforce it in our brains.

Maybe that is also why students who took retrieval practice tests were less confident about how they would perform a week later.

“The struggle helps you learn, but it makes you feel like you’re not learning,” said Nate Kornell, a psychologist at Williams College. “You feel like: ‘I don’t know it that well. This is hard and I’m having trouble coming up with this information.’ ”

By contrast, he said, when rereading texts and possibly even drawing diagrams, “you say: ‘Oh, this is easier. I read this already.’ ”

Interesting stuff.


January 10, 2011


What School Choice Is Already Telling Us

Justin Katz

For several generations, Little Compton, RI, has been practicing a community school choice by sending its teenagers elsewhere for high school. The obvious choice should be Tiverton, just over an indistinguishable border, but at least since the '70s, the kids of LC have been traveling to Aquidneck Island. My Patch column, this week, looks at the probable reason and suggests that the implied changes would benefit local kids, too:

In his presentation to the Little Compton School Committee, available on his district's Web page, Tiverton Superintendent William Rearick made the case that Tiverton has the excess capacity to accommodate its neighbors. He noted that the high school is in compliance with state requirements. And he pointed out that Tiverton's students outperform the state average on all four of the New England Common Assessments Program (NECAP) tests - albeit, just barely in math and science.

Tiverton's advanced placement course and SAT data, Rearick presented without comparison, leaving no context by which to understand whether the results are admirable or unimpressive. The absence of competitive spirit only highlights the presentation's avoidance of the choice that Little Compton actually faces.



A Certified Experiment

Justin Katz

Responding to last-week's post about his press release critical of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist for not cracking down on the Democracy Prep charter school in Cumberland on the matter of uncertified teachers, state senator James Sheehan (D, Narragansett, North Kingstown) writes:

Please allow me to explain why certification matters. First, the notion that the problem with education/low test scores is poorly performing teachers is blatantly false. The greatest factor in a child's education is not a motivated or competent teacher (although they should be), it is motivated and involved PARENTS. This is a fact that Commissioner Gist and I disagree. Surely, folks of a politically conservative mindset should understand this point.

Democracy Prep hired uncertified teachers in violation of the law. The end does not justify the means if it requires breaking the law. Public charters may operate more freely of unions, but still must adhere to the law and regulations of the Department of Education. If there are aspiring teachers at Democracy Prep, they have to show that they meet some standards that the Department of Education (Commissioner Gist involved?) sets, not the standards that Democracy Prep imagines for itself. If these uncertified teachers are as good as they say they, surely they would have no problem acquiring certification, especially if it is as easy many say it is!

More importantly, there needs to be SOME standards. Take lawyers and doctors, they need to be Board certified. Are there some bad lawyers and docs out there, sure. Is the solution to eliminate Board certification altogether? Further, even the Commissioner agrees with me on this one as she has sought to STRENGTHEN, not eliminate, teacher certification standards.

I continue to be intrigued by teachers' protestation that they are not the "greatest factor" in education. If they truly believe that, then there should be no contest when budget battles come down to their raises versus tax increases. As income and property taxes grow, parents must either find additional income or trim their expenses, neither of which is conducive to involvement with their children's education.

Rhode Island already has a high proportion of private school students (which I learned when looking into SAT scores), and private-school teachers aren't legally required to be certified. One could argue, therefore, that involved parents are motivated to seek schools that don't necessarily boast certified teachers. Leaving them more money, after taxes, would surely do more to improve education results in Rhode Island than, say, binding arbitration for public-school teachers.

On the point about the law, well, Mr. Sheehan is a legislator, and inasmuch as Rhode Island ethical standards don't prevent him from introducing legislation that will affect him directly as a union-member and teacher, he could change the requirement for certification in charter schools. The law, in other words, is a subsequent consideration to my point, which was that charter schools are generally presented as laboratories in which to test approaches to education, and if they are able to attract students and educate them better and/or more inexpensively than public schools in general without necessarily hiring certified teachers, then that's surely an experiment worth conducting.

In the meantime, considering that teachers like Mr. Sheehan like to compare themselves with doctors and lawyers, it arguably makes sense to strengthen the requirements for them to acquire those lucrative positions in public schools. If, however, highly motivated parents would still rather place their children in the classrooms of teachers who have not run that gauntlet, then it would be clear that our assumptions must be off.

ADDENDUM:

It begins to drift from the limited topic under consideration, but the notion of needing highly motivated parents has interesting repercussions for other education debates. If parental motivation is so critical, then sizable portions of public-school budgets ought to be devoted to involving them... perhaps by funding their children's sports programs and promoting such extracurricular activities as are often first on the chopping block when work-to-ruling teachers push for greater raises and preservation of unsustainable benefits.


January 6, 2011


Happy New Year, Commissioner

Justin Katz

We may look back at the fifth day of January as the first instance of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's changed work environment, thanks to a press release by Sen. James Sheehan (D, Narragansett, North Kingstown):

"If good teachers are the most important element to education, the Department of Education shouldn't allow uncertified individuals to teach at Democracy Prep school in Cumberland, says Sen. James C. Sheehan.

"It's a contradiction to say that qualified teachers are critical to each child's education, but then allow exceptions at one school. The students at Democracy Prep are just as deserving of certified teachers as other students around the state. To allow a group of uncertified teachers to teach at that school is to put the education of the students there at risk," said Senator Sheehan, a Democrat who represents District 36 in North Kingstown and Narragansett.

"If we truly believe qualified teachers are important, the state is putting the students at Democracy Prep at an educational disadvantage by allowing them to be taught by uncertified teachers," he said, "and the Education Commissioner's actions are a contradiction of her own terms and stated educational goals."

Anybody who wonders why an elected official from Narragansett/North Kingstown would be especially concerned about a charter school in Cumberland needs only to check the Senator's bio page, which notes his occupation as a teacher in Warwick (specifically, high school history), which makes him a dues-paying member of the Warwick Teachers Union, a Rhode Island Federation of Teachers affiliate.

As we hear so frequently, the objective of charter schools is to act as "laboratories of excellence" (or any such catch phrase), operating under loosened rules compared with the public school system generally. Of course, that notion has been under constant assault, with labor restraints still existing, most of the time, and repeated questioning of whether offering the same education at a lower cost counts as a successful experiment. It would certainly be against Sheehan's professional and, presumably, union-mindset interests for an experiment of hiring teachers without regard to official certification to succeed. Rather, for it to succeed without permitting the obfuscations that typically meet such success among private schools.

Unfortunately for Gist, it appears unlikely that she'll have the same strong backing that she enjoyed from Governor Carcieri... and just wait until Governor Chafee turns his attention to the Board of Regents.


January 3, 2011


Hess: An Important Voice on Education Reform

Marc Comtois

I've mentioned The American Enterprise Institute's Rick Hess before and how he has a lot of interesting and, to my mind, good things to say about education reform. In short, if you want to stay up on the current EdReform movement, Hess is a good resource. For instance, he has recently explained how school reformers have been led to "oversell ideas as miracle cures" in the face of critiques from those such as Dianne Ravitch, how "for schools, one size does not fit all" in modern (some would say post-industrial) America and how it's time to re-think teacher pay.

Regarding this last, he makes several crucial points and distinctions.

Do you think that employees who are good at their work ought to be rewarded, recognized, and have the chance to step up into new opportunities and responsibilities? I do. If you're with me on this, you embrace the principle of merit pay—whether you know it or not....First, endorsing this principle doesn't mean signing on to the raft of slack-jawed merit-pay proposals that would-be reformers have championed in recent years. Merit pay is only useful if it's done smart, which entails using it to help attract, retain, and make full use of talented educators.

Second, understand that there's no proof that rewarding talented, hardworking folks "works." You can comb through decades of economics journals and issues of the Harvard Business Review without finding any proof that paying and promoting good employees yields good results. The premise just seems like a reasonable assumption; you either buy it, or you don't.

To be sure, Hess thinks there is value in using student test scores for evaluating teachers, but it shouldn't be a component comprising over 50% of the total "score." He elaborates further:
Merit pay should reward performance, value, and productivity. We can measure these in many ways—by scarcity of individuals in the labor market, annual evaluation by peers, professional observations, supervisor judgment, and so forth. The contemporary obsession with student test scores as the only metric of interest has been an unfortunate distraction.

Student achievement must be an important factor, but we should employ it deliberately, with an eye to a teacher's actual instructional duties and responsibilities. Too often, we rely on test scores simply because we don't have anything else. That's not a problem specific to merit pay; that's our peculiar failure to import widely employed practices and tools from other professions.

Continue reading "Hess: An Important Voice on Education Reform"

January 1, 2011


Baron re Chafee and Gist

Monique Chartier

Yesterday, Jim Hummel, filling in for WPRO's Dan Yorke, played excerpts from his interview, to be released in Tuesday's Hummel Report, with Governor-Elect Chafee. In it, the gov-elect confirms that he remains steadfastly non-committal about the continued tenure of Ed Commissioner, Deborah Gist.

In his "Politics As Usual" column a couple of days earlier, the Pawtucket Times' Jim Baron, one of Rhode Island's gem reporters but by no means right leaning or pro management, had an interesting suggestion for the gov-elect.

Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee could kill a lot of birds with one stone if, sometime before he officially takes office, he threw his arm around Deborah Gist and said, “she’s my commissioner!”

One, he would be making a positive step toward retaining the services of someone who – by almost everybody’s reckoning – is a terrific commissioner: bright, energetic, full of ideas and absolutely unafraid to charge ahead with any plan she thinks is in the best interest of school kids.

Two, it would shut up all those people who insist that Chafee is hopelessly in the pockets of the teachers unions. O.K., it wouldn’t shut them up, nothing probably will. But it would make it harder for them to make their case to anyone except each other.

Three, once Gist and the unions get a few more confrontations under their belts, they will probably come to understand one another and be able to work with one another. I have see this in many cases of what seemed to be intractable disputes between labor and management, eventually, the two sides learn to live with each other, even if they never become bosom buddies. Gist staying doesn’t mean the unions are going to lose every battle, they will win their share, they’ll just have to fight a bit more vigorously on some.

Four, even if the unions, don’t like the move, they will have four years to get over it.



December 28, 2010


Let Imbalances Correct Themselves

Justin Katz

One hears in this op-ed by David Mabe the thinking behind centralization's inevitable failure over time:

Even in these times of high unemployment, forecasts of labor shortages are becoming more prevalent. New England has long boasted a highly educated population relative to other parts of the country, but the retirement of Baby Boomers and net loss from population migration suggest that the demand for skilled workers will increasingly outpace the supply. These and other looming demographic shifts threaten to hamper regional recovery efforts. ...

Universities, and especially community colleges, according to Modestino, should focus on degree-completion initiatives, increased financial assistance for students, and greater opportunity for career training and professional collaboration to fill looming workforce gaps; such areas of focus would produce a "win-win-win" for employers, for the regional economy, and for the students themselves.

Where the "win-win-win" inevitably falls apart is a mismatch of incentives. When the mandate comes from the government to "do something," taxpayers end up funding the sorts of education that young students prefer (light and easy to pass) and the courses that educators, on the whole, prefer to offer (subjective and difficult to quantify). The result is another cost layered into the economy with inadequate translation into economically productive jobs.

Let private industry work independently with educational institutions to finance the aid and courses that they specifically need, then let students choose those subsidized paths... or not. "Degree-completion initiatives" will move students toward that piece of paper, but not necessarily toward the skills that they actually need.


December 27, 2010


More than You Ever Wanted to Know About the Cranston City Council Leadership Dispute (But Also How It Might Tie Into the Big Picture of RI Education Reform)

Carroll Andrew Morse

I sat down last night to write a brief post explaining how the politics of the Cranston City Council is tied to the politics of education reform in RI, discovering in the process that it could not be done briefly.

Here's what should be (and will be) the last paragraph, explaining why readers beyond Cranston may have a stake in this subject...

Expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?
If you have further interest in the subject (for instance, on who Anthony Lupino is) read on...

Background of the leadership dispute mentioned in the title: The current Cranston City Council President, Councilman John Lanni, could not seek reelection this year because of term limits, meaning the Council must choose a new President for its term beginning in 2011. Initial reports that came from the post-election Democratic caucus indicated that Democratic Councilors were going to unite behind Ward 2 Democratic Councilman and current Finance Committee Chairman Emilio Navarro. However, it was reported a week ago that city-wide Democratic Councilman Anthony Lupino had actively obtained the votes to become the new Council President, supported by a combination of Democrats and the three new Republicans elected to the City Council this past November (James Donahue and Leslie Ann Luciano, elected city-wide, and Michael Favicchio elected from Ward 6).

To understand the implications of this unexpected leadership kerfuffle, it helps to know a few details about recent Council history...

  1. After Republican Allan Fung was elected Mayor of Cranston in 2008, Councilman Navarro spearheaded an effort to replicate the RI Statehouse governance model in the Cranston City Council chambers, i.e. the City Council Democratic leadership, backed by the numbers needed to pass or kill any measure on a straight party vote, would be the ones who "really" ran the city. The immediate test was a police union contract negotiated by Mayor Fung. Navarro led opposition to the contract, demanding that the Mayor get additional concessions from the police that would provide better "structural reform" for the city's finances -- despite the Council having approved previous contracts without anything resembling "structural" changes under the administration of the previous Democratic Mayor.

  2. The initial police contract was rejected by the council 6-3, with Councilman Lupino voting in the majority against the contract along with Councilman Navarro. One of the 3 votes in favor of the contract was Ward 4 Councilman Robert Pelletier -- who, according to MSM reports, is the key Democratic Councilman now supporting Councilman Lupino's leadership bid. (Eventually, a revised version of the police contract was passed 9-0, the political side of the equation being the City Council coming to realize they were going to get the lion's share of the blame for the consequences of not passing one.)

  3. Over the course of 2009-2010, the City Council considered two resolutions that put members on record on important statewide issues. In 2009, Mayor Fung sponsored a resolution opposing state-mandated binding arbitration for resolving teacher contract negotiations. The City Council voted 7-2 in favor of the resolution, with Councilmen Navarro and Lupino as the only two votes against. In 2010, the Council voted on another resolution, also supported by the Mayor, asking the RI legislature to repeal the "Caruolo Act", the section of Rhode Island law that allows RI school committees to sue their municipalities for more money in the courts. This resolution failed by a vote of 5-4. Once again, Councilmen Navarro and Lupino were united on the same side, voting against asking the legislature to repeal Caruolo, while Councilman Pelletier voted in favor.

  4. Combining the results of the 3 votes above (police contract take-1, Caruolo and binding arbitration) shows Councilmen Navarro and Lupino voting together on three issues of significance and Councilman Pelletier voting in opposition to them in each case.

  5. The odd-couple leadership alliance between Councilmen Lupino and Pelletier seems to be related to the rift in the Cranston Democratic Party involving State Representative and Majority Leader Nicholas Mattiello, City Chairman Michael Sepe and State Representative Charlene Lima. This is the rift that made the news several weeks ago, when it reportedly led to a House leadership decision, where Mattiello presumably had some say, to fire Chairman Sepe's son and Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria from full-time legislative staff positions. In accounts of Cranston politics, Councilman Pelletier is mentioned as an ally of Rep. Mattiello; for example, the story linked to earlier in this paragraph says that Rep. Mattiello was unhappy with Chairman Sepe for not supporting Councilman Pelletier for Council President.

  6. Stepping away from the backroom politics and towards the stuff that happens in public view, Rep. Mattiello has been a part of House Speaker Gordon Fox's group of Democrats that have advanced a set of meaningful education reform measures in recent legislative sessions, including the lifting of the charter school cap and establishing Mayoral Academies.

  7. And Mayor Fung is part of a group of RI education reformers who would like to bring a Mayoral Academy to the West Bay.
So let's assume for a moment that Councilman Lupino becomes Council President with Councilman Pelletier's support, that on big issues Mayor Fung starts 2011 with 3 Republicans as his base of support, and that Councilman Pelletier continues his reasonably sane voting pattern that sometimes puts him in opposition to the City Council Democratic majority (and is also politically compatible with Ward 4, the section of Cranston by Route 295 and beyond, which isn't exactly master-lever Democratic territory).

Who then becomes the potential fifth vote on the Cranston City Council for innovative education reform measures, like creating a West Bay Mayoral Academy?

  • The fifth vote for ed reform is not going to come from citywide Councilman Anthony Lupino. Whoever his other political allies are, Councilman Lupino isn't going to vote for anything that teachers' unions oppose -- Lupino, for example, was the only vote against a resolution asking the Cranston School Committee to negotiate a freeze in step increases in their next contract -- and in Rhode Island, things that teachers' unions oppose usually include any changes to geographic-monopoly district management of public education.

  • I will believe that Ward 2 Councilman Emilio Navarro's decision-making involves some consideration beyond take-down-the-Republican-Mayor, when some evidence of a different motivation shows itself in the public record, e.g. voting for "structural reforms" like repeal of the Caruolo Act or opposing binding arbitration even when Mayor Fung supports these positions too.

  • How about Ward 5 Councilman Richard Santamaria? He made the party-discipline "it's Dem-Councilors, and not the Mayor, who run this city" vote against the initial police contract, but also voted against binding arbitration and in favor of repealing Caruolo -- but that was when he was connected more tightly than he is now to the statehouse leadership. How he votes now that the party has changed its position on him is a bit of a question mark.

  • Newly-elected Ward 1 Councilman Steven Stycos earned a reputation for giving the issues serious study and a fair hearing while serving as the School Committeeman from Ward 1, but he has already expressed skepticism about supporting a Mayoral Academy, suggesting that, at least initially, he is being guided by the "progressive" policy biases which tend to marginalize any structure for public education other than direct operation of schools by traditional district-level bureaucracies.

  • Finally, there is Ward 3 Councilman Paul Archetto. He voted yes on the police contract, yes on opposing binding arbitration, but no on repealing Caruolo. He certainly doesn't seem to be playing the same political game that the other Democrats are playing (for instance, he has proposed himself as a leadership alternative to either Navarro or Lupino), and could be convinced to support ed reform policies on their merits.
The point of all of this is that expanding the education reforms that have begun to be implemented in Northern Rhode Island via the Mayoral Academies to the West Bay now depends, at least in part, on the politics of the Cranston City Council (and of Cranston in general). But how committed to educational reform can the Democrats in power at the state level be, if they see Anthony Lupino as an ally? Is there a plan to continue advancing the reform measures that have started, in spite of some unexpected political quirks that may be arising, or are statehouse Dems not as concerned about policy outcomes, as much as they are about doling out the rewards and punishments that may be meaningful within the inner circles of political power, but that are not so productive for the surrounding society?

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A Due Respect for Political Patronage Job Holders

Justin Katz

Looking out the window prior to work, today, brings to mind this article about truants that I've been meaning to note for a few weeks, now:

For years, magistrates for Rhode Island Family Court's truancy program have imprisoned students who misbehave during hearings on their attendance, despite a state law created to keep the government from locking up juveniles for noncriminal offenses.

The magistrates, who run the weekly truancy court in classrooms, cafeterias and school offices around the state, have declared youths as young as 12 in criminal contempt of court for not answering their questions, swearing, slamming a door on their way out of the room or otherwise showing "total disregard for authority," according to court documents and interviews.

Once inside the state's juvenile correctional system, the youths are forced to undergo strip searches, urine and blood tests. They wear prison uniforms and, for a night or two, mix with teenagers accused of drug dealing, robbery, weapons possession, assault and other violent crimes.

All of this without legal representation. Moreover, as we note from time to time (here and here, for two), magistrates are tainted by the fact that they are not appointed by the same process as judges, but by the Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court and by other magistrates.

Imprisoning kids for disrespect is certainly the sort of thing that the holder of a political patronage job would talk him or her self into believing to be in the best interest of all involved. Perhaps people acting as judges who aren't judges at all, but mere politically connected lawyers, come to believe that they're above the law. Or perhaps they feel like they've got something to prove.


December 23, 2010


The NEA's Penchant for Bad Analogy

Justin Katz

Another RI Blogger has caught an interesting bit of the education debate:

Ok, I can understand why the assistant executive director of the teachers’ union would be upset, for one [Teaching for America teachers] are not dues-paying NEA members. If additional teachers are needed, of course he will want more full time, dues-paying teachers employed. Second, many of the numbers and results that these TFA teachers are showing are making his members look bad. TFA injects energy into the schoools that even they admit isn’t sustainable by the same people long term. Yet we keep the teachers in the classrooms for 20 years or more.

One other aside that is wrong with Crowley's analogy is teaching is an art and being a surgeon is a science. Do we require painters to get an education so they can be professional painters? Do we require singers and other musicians? No. Those are arts that you either can do or can't do. Either you can teach, or you can't. An education can get you better at it, but skills in the arts is something that you have.

He's reviewing an article about the innovative teacher-recruitment organization by David Scharfenberg in the Providence Phoenix, and the comment is from National Education Association Rhode Island Assistant Executive Director Patrick Crowley, who predictably is sour on the notion of expediting the teacher-certification of college graduates from other fields:

To contend that a college graduate with no formal training is qualified to teach, he suggests, is to contend that teaching is something less than a profession; a task worthy of amateurs. It is an attitude, he says, that would seem absurd in other fields.

"I know how to use a knife and I went to college," he says. "That doesn’t mean I can be a surgeon."

I'd suggest that Crowley's analogy is actually flawed in a way that doesn't require any such distinctions between art and science. Indeed, the art-science duality is an overstated factor in general, since most professions contain elements of both. Even a painter does well to understand the science of art — the theory and history behind the craft. The art of a profession comes in finding a way that one's own proclivities can be leveraged for maximum benefit of the end goal — whether that is creating compelling canvases or conveying intellectual concepts to children.

To return to the surgeon-teacher comparison, one could argue that teacher education programs are akin to curricula that give would-be surgeons in-depth review of the use of scalpels and patient-relations as their main focus, while a hypothetical Surgeons For America takes biology majors and allows them expedited lessons in the practice of working with an actual human body. Put differently, the question is whether it's better for a surgeon to know how to manipulate the organs or to know what the organs actually do and where they actually are.

Both routes will work, but in certain subjects, at least, it's not unreasonable to expect a content expert to be able to master the practice of teaching more effectively than an education-theory expert could master the content. After all, even those educated in the science of teaching have to learn the practice over time.


December 22, 2010


Call in the Gov

Justin Katz

This'll be a useful test case for Governor-elect Chafee:

On the snowy steps of the high school, Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said he had called Chafee Tuesday morning and asked him to convene a group of teachers, school and district administrators, union leaders and state education officials to "move this school forward, because the students of Central Falls deserve nothing less."

The governor-elect indicated he would help, Flynn said, although no details have been settled yet.

The image comes to mind of Chafee in a vintage campy Batman costume running to a special phone in his office. It will be interesting to see how quickly the new governor implements the union-friendly changes that we're all expecting.

Step one, most likely, will be for him to step forward and bring everybody "to the table" in a one-sided equivalence that turns the notion of transforming Rhode Island's school system right around. The question is how quickly those intransigent bureaucrats and administrators who insist that reform must mean reform will be pushed out of their seats.


December 21, 2010


Setting Up the Failure

Justin Katz

Although the majority of the teachers probably just wanted to keep their jobs, observers with a cynical (I would say "realistic") opinion of labor unions likely foresaw the Central Falls teacher absences issue back when Superintendent Fran Gallo unfired the high school faculty back in May. There is no way union organizers want the transformation model of reforming the school (or any model, really) to work, particularly as it's been initiated from the education commissioner down, and I'd suggest that the employee attendance record at the school proves that enough teachers are willing to pull the union rope to cause problems:

The high rate of teacher absenteeism has sparked a new wave of outrage and fed the ongoing debate about how to improve the nation’s worst-performing schools.

Bitterness remains over the mass firing of all the school’s teachers in February, jobs that were eventually won back through a compromise agreement in May. In exchange for their jobs, the teachers agreed to a list of changes administrators said were necessary to turn around the school, which has among the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the state.

Some teachers resent the new requirements, which include tutoring and eating lunch with students each week, attending after-school training sessions and being observed by third-party evaluators. In all, about 15 teachers resigned between June and November; two others retired. One position remains unfilled, according to school officials.

As you may recall, the other alternative was the "turnaround model," by which the entire teaching staff would have been fired, and no more than 50% could have been rehired. One suspects substantial overlap among three groups:

  • The retirements and absentees
  • Teachers who look to the union playbook for ensuring the failure of reform
  • Central Falls High employees who would not have been rehired under the turnaround model

The lesson for Rhode Island administrators and commissioners is clear: Making those who oppose reform integral to it is not likely part of a formula for success.

ADDENDUM:

And let's not allow the issue to slip into the background without marveling at this deal:

According to the contract, teachers receive 15 sick days a year at full pay and are allowed to accumulate up to 185 sick days — which takes slightly more than 12 years of service to accrue. They also receive two personal days each year.

Veteran teachers with at least six years of service are also entitled to 40 days of extended sick leave at full pay; teachers with 15 or more years are entitled to 50 days, also at full pay.

If I'm reading that right, in a (give or take) 180-day school year, a Central Falls teacher can theoretically have 237 available paid days off. Presumably, there are procedures in place to review extended sick leave, but by the numbers, a teacher could work just six weeks a year for two years.


December 20, 2010


Two Senators and a Rep (with Correction)

Justin Katz

Last Tuesday, when I summarized some points that two state senators and a representative made to the Tiverton School Committee, I misstated something that Democrat Rep. Jay Edwards said, and he corrected me in the comments to the post. At the meeting, Edwards mentioned meetings with the House speaker (Gordon Fox) and the Democrat majority leader (Nicholas Mattiello), saying that the latter is relatively conservative on matters of teachers' unions and education. Because Edwards referred to them only as "speaker" and "leader," I mistakenly conflated the two and said that he'd characterized the speaker as conservative.

For those interested in the content of the delegation's visit, here's the video:




December 14, 2010


New England Patriots: School Reform Model

Marc Comtois

Wanna turn a school around? Frederick Hess points out that quick fixes won't work in and of themselves:

When we talk about SIG turnarounds, the four models include things like replacing half the staff, handing control to a charter operator, or "transforming" the school by replacing the principal and embracing instructional reform. All of these have promising elements, but all are likely to disappoint absent a more relentless, ruthless, deep-rooted willingness to create self-sustaining cultures of excellence where mediocrity once ruled.
Hess looks to the NFL--and our very own New England Patriots--as a model:
In the NFL, unlike Major League Baseball, teams are limited in how much they can pay their players. So owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick couldn't simply outbid other teams in building their 11-2 team. Instead of chasing players who are stars elsewhere and hoping their skills translate, Belichick has specialized in finding overlooked players who can excel in a particular role. Rather than high draft choices or big-dollar free agents, he has built team after team with cast-offs and low draft picks, and by taking full advantage of the skills that his players have. Thus, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls with a quarterback who was chosen 199th in the NFL draft and lineups studded with players who had been cast aside by other teams, frequently because they were deemed too small or too slow.
How does this translate?
It's not about replacing half the staff with teachers with high value-added scores. That may be a useful jump-start, but nothing more. Sustained success requires building schools that constantly seek and sift talent, bending routines and teaching assignments to fit the strengths of school faculty and the needs of the kids, and transforming culture so that it changes the attitudes of new staff and students before they can change it. Today, I fear that most transformation efforts feel short on all these counts.
Some of the ideas are good, but only as part of a holistic approach. Yes, implementation often relies on dramatically ripping barriers down, but that isn't enough. Real school reform is a long term project that requires constant attention. There is no panacea.



The Teaching Professionals at Central Falls

Marc Comtois

The ProJo editors got it right in their criticism of the 15% absentee rate of Central Falls High School teachers so far this year, which led to over half of the students receiving at least one "No Grade" on their report cards. Why?

Administrators said they could not grade those students for the first quarter because they did not receive two months of solid teaching.

The problem arose after several teachers took indefinite leaves of absence and administrators were unable to fill all of the positions with highly qualified replacements.

As a result, multiple classrooms were placed in the hands of day-to-day substitute teachers, long-term substitutes or colleagues who tried to cover some classes.

Most of the students (around 400) affected by this teacher absenteeism were enrolled in Spanish or English as a Second Language class, English classes and a reading intervention class. Something seems wrong with that department--according to the ProJo story, four teachers were "absent for a significant portion of the term from Sept. 1 to Nov. 8. Two other teachers also went out on long-term leave..." Weird how it centered around that particular department, but maybe it really is just a strange confluence of coincidental illnesses centered in one department. It's probably happened before.

The teacher absences got the attention of Commissioner Gist and a meeting was held yesterday. Union president Jane Sessums seemed positive after the meeting, though she did say, "Some teachers at the high school have had concerns for some time, but were fearful of expressing them because they are afraid of retaliation.” Or they just didn't show up to work.

The problem with the supposed benefit of union solidarity is that the good workers end up carrying the water for the bad. Worse yet, it's the bad who become the face of the group. It's not just unions, either. Sports teams, businesses and even volunteer organizations (like youth sports leagues) become defined by the bad actors, not the good.

Pressure plays a big part of this. Too often it seems that union leadership is quick to apply pressure to support those who don't really deserve it, which ends up hurting the reputation of the good teachers who do their job or go above and beyond. But the good teachers could change this all if they really wanted to: it is their union. They could apply a little peer pressure to get the bad actors in line for the sake of the whole. Remind them that professionals don't act this way and that their bad actions are tarnishing the profession. For you see, if the public doesn't see some sort of change for the positive it will be left to conclude that this is really the way teachers want it. That they prioritize the benefits they receive for being professionals over the actual work that defines their profession: teaching the kids.

ADDENDUM: A new report (h/t) from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute:

This study from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute finds that low-performing public schools—both charter and traditional district schools—are stubbornly resistant to significant change. After identifying more than 2,000 low-performing charter and district schools across ten states, analyst David Stuit tracked them from 2003-04 through 2008-09 to determine how many were turned around, shut down, or remained low-performing. Results were generally dismal. Seventy-two percent of the original low-performing charters remained in operation—and remained low-performing—five years later. So did 80 percent of district schools.
Commenting on the report, Tom Vander Ark explains:
The most important aspect of the political consensus around NCLB was the good school promise, a basic framework for school accountability that was supposed to address chronic failure in a progressively more aggressive fashion until the school is better or closed. It is obviously politically difficult, and sometimes logistically difficult, to close bad schools, but it is very disappointing that state and district leaders continue to allow chronic failure.

This report underscores the difficult trifecta of 2000-2010 edreform, 1) fixing struggling schools is hard, 2) we know how to open good schools, and 3) we should close bad schools and open good schools. The example of trading bad seats for good seats may be Joel Klein’s most important legacy.

Maybe Commissioner Gist should have kept Central Falls closed after all. There's something to be said for a fresh start, no?


December 13, 2010


Where Higher Ed Money Comes from and Goes

Justin Katz

It's been a recurring theme, in the news, that Rhode Island's public institutions of higher learning need more money, and those interested in that outcome pick careful examples. Certainly, we all want to invest in thriving campuses, but too few of us wonder where the money goes. Consider:

After two years in collective bargaining negotiations, the University of Rhode Island's part time faculty staff have unionized and created a tentative contract that is set to be officially ratified next week. ...

The new contracts will institute a gradual pay increase based on a system of three levels that increase by approximately $100 per level, capping at $3,861. This pay increase is also set to be retroactive as of this past July, meaning that part-time faculty members, will be able to receive salary increases of $350 for each course they are teaching this fall. In a letter to its members the PTFU says this salary reimbursement will bring Kingston part-time faculty members on par with wages offered at the Providence campus.

The sources for the article are as yet unable to offer a total cost of the contract; it appears that most of the affected employees teach one course per semester or so. Still, in a time of tight budgets and struggling taxpayers, on what grounds does the university offer raises? I'm sure the great majority of recipients are deserving, but the reality is that they've been willing to take the work at their prior pay, and nothing has changed in the equation that has left excess funds in the budget.

This letter by student Joseph Higgins raises similar questions from a very different angle:

Putting the school's money into building a new building for the GLBT members doesn't seem like the right choice when there are so many other things that should be built instead of this building. It's nothing against GLBT students or their lifestyle; it's just that they already have the Rainbow Diversity House on Fraternity Circle and Adams Hall's first floor south wing for the GLBT center. Yes, this campus has a Women's Center, a Multi-Cultural Center and, most recently, the Hillel Building for the Jewish faith, but to spend money on a completely new building just isn't where our school's money should be going. Tuition rates could be raised even higher than they already are with the new Pharmacy Building in the works, a new Chemistry Building being planned, another dorm building replacing the demolished Terrance Apartments, landscaping being done in-between Ranger Hall and Green Hall and a new fitness center that will take the spot of the Roger Williams Center.

Frankly, it ought to be hard for Rhode Islanders to believe tales of financial stress when we hear such testimony. In what other world than the public sector are folks talking about substantial raises and new buildings for narrow special-interest groups?


December 6, 2010


America, the Below Average

Justin Katz

Amanda Ripley considers the results when one compares high-end test scores in math:

We've known for some time how this story ends nationwide: only 6 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced-proficiency level in math, a share that lags behind kids in some 30 other countries, from the United Kingdom to Taiwan. But what happens when we break down the results? Do any individual U.S. states wind up near the top?

Incredibly, no. Even if we treat each state as its own country, not a single one makes it into the top dozen contenders on the list. The best performer is Massachusetts, ringing in at No. 17. Minnesota also makes it into the upper-middle tier, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and Washington. And down it goes from there, all the way to Mississippi, whose students—by this measure at least—might as well be attending school in Thailand or Serbia.

One intention of researcher Eric Hanushek was to determine the validity of the diversity excuse: whether America's diversity explains its poor results, on average, because our best and brightest have a much broader spectrum holding down comparisons with other nations. Sadly, even our most privileged students don't do very well. I'd argue, as the article mentions, that American education is far too mired in a "no child left behind" mentality that places the focus on bringing up the bottom, with no provision for the brightest students to reach their own potential. (Did somebody say, "school choice"?)

Even so, Massachusetts proves that, while Americans can't hope to match Singapore, Japan and Chinese Taipei are at least within reach:

Is it because Massachusetts is so white? Or so immigrant-free? Or so rich? Not quite. Massachusetts is indeed slightly whiter and slightly better-off than the U.S. average. But in the late 1990s, it nonetheless lagged behind similar states—such as Connecticut and Maine—in nationwide tests of fourth- and eighth-graders. It was only after a decade of educational reforms that Massachusetts began to rank first in the nation.

What did Massachusetts do? Well, nothing that many countries (and industries) didn't do a long time ago. For example, Massachusetts made it harder to become a teacher, requiring newcomers to pass a basic literacy test before entering the classroom. (In the first year, more than a third of the new teachers failed the test.) The state also required students to pass a test before graduating from high school—a notion so heretical that it led to protests in which students burned state superintendent David Driscoll in effigy. To help tutor the kids who failed, the state moved money around to the places where it was needed most. "We had a system of standards and held people to it—adults and students," Driscoll says.

Rhode Island parents with children in the public school system should come down like a ton of bricks on Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee if he attempts to roll back Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's efforts in that direction. Just go ahead use an interactive tool that accompanies the article to compare Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Pick RI first and then be prepared to gasp upon bringing up the results for MA.

When it comes to math, our little state is in the league of Alabama and, internationally, Turkey. Only an electorate dominated by the constituencies to blame for those results would be content to let them continue for a single additional year.


December 2, 2010


Twice-Paid Sports and Free Tax Collectors

Justin Katz

Yes, of course there's a big difference between taxation and fundraising, but this quotation, from an article about Rhode Island residents' having to raise money to keep public school sports going illustrates where poor management and skewed priorities are leading school districts:

All the fundraising can be exhausting. "It's like a second job for everyone that's involved," said [President Paul] Shatraw of the Northmen Athletic Club, a conglomerate of the individual booster clubs in North Smithfield.

In the opinion of Joanne Forti, a Northmen mother of triplets who helped organize the golf ball drop and the repacking of all those golf balls into egg cartons in numerical order, "It's very hard raising this much money."

We're not talking a few hundred dollars per team for new uniforms. The North Smithfield group is looking for $110,000 to keep the program going, and it's not as if the district has cut its budget to shift more of the burden to voluntary activities. Like school systems across Rhode Island and the United States, it's just promised away so much additional money to adult employees year after year and allowed such a rigid, unionized culture to seep into the profession that services that once were considered part of the educational and community-building mission of public schools no longer fit in the budget.

Once again, important things that make people willing to pay their taxes are front and center among cuts, because those who plan budgets expect that they'll be paid for somehow.


November 29, 2010


Deciding What School Is For

Justin Katz

Debates concerning what to do about the deterioration of public education appear to be honing the matter down to an essential question: What is elementary and secondary education for?

Retired founding editor of Education Week Ron Wolk appears to take what might be seen as the establishment side of that question:

Is a rigorous high-stakes standardized test appropriate to assess all children? How does treating all students alike accommodate the enormous diversity of students in their interests, their socio-economic background, their cultural differences and their learning styles?

The answer to Wolk's first inquiry, I'd suggest, might best be phrased as a return question: "Assess all children" on what? Standardized tests may not "accommodate" the diversity of qualities and interests, but that doesn't justify changing the practical import of a diploma, which does and should have a specific meaning. Graduation from high school is an academic achievement, not a statement that the system was able to find some redeeming quality in the student.

In keeping with the creeping mentality of secular statism, we seem to be elevating school to status of comprehensive development. Writes Wolk:

Yet we treat young people as if the only thing we need to know about them (or care about) is whether they meet rigorous standards in math and English. We seem to care very little about their character, their habits of mind and behavior, how hard they work, what social skills they have, and what they aspire to be.

That may or may not be true, but it's wholly appropriate for those who interact with children in an academic setting to address them mainly in terms of academics. Teachers, administrators, counselors, and coaches should never lose sight of the fact that students are human beings, and therefore more than the sum of their classroom and athletic achievements, but their total development as human beings is not, should not be, and cannot be the responsibility of a universal education system.

This conceptual error may be at the heart of more problems than just our waning academic prowess as a nation.


November 27, 2010


Laid Low by Higher Education

Justin Katz

This is becoming a growing wave of like opinion:

"We have too many college seats," [former Keene State College instructor Craig] Brandon, a Surry resident, says in an interview. "We don't need that many college graduates. The reality is that we overeducate people, which would be OK if it were free, but it's not free." Parents lose years of careful savings. Students go into debt. Opportunity costs are immeasurable.

The alleged wage premium -- the extra lifetime money college graduates make compared to those who stop at high school -- is both exaggerated and shrinking. One student graduates high school and goes straight into the work force. Another starts college, but drops out after a few semesters. A third takes the actual average of five years to get a four-year degree and graduates with the average $25,000 student loan debt. Even if the college grad has a better-paying job -- an outcome not at all guaranteed -- years of tuition, living expenses, deferred income and now student loan payments put her in a deep hole. Five or even 20 years after leaving high school, which classmate is furthest ahead?

Brandon describes the vast majority of colleges as "subprime," which he defines as any school that has lowered its standards to the point at which almost anyone can pass. There's a college for every student at any price point, regardless of ability or career goals. At subprime schools, Brandon estimates, only 10 percent of students are really interested in academics. The rest are there for mostly social purposes.

I've been thinking that the push for college has become like a much broader, and more legitimate, version of little league parents' dreams of scholarships and professional sports careers for their children or the obsession that one can observe during the audition episodes of American Idol. What's lost in the cultural messaging is that it is college, of itself, is a guarantor of nothing except, as Fergus Cullen puts it in the quotation above, lost savings, debt, and opportunity costs.

Of course, students can extract an excellent education even from "subprime" schools. As the quality of the institution declines, the self-direction required from the student increases. After all, a truly motivated young adult could learn a degree's worth of knowledge simply with four years off and a library card. And if degrees are designed to be acquired, rather than earned, then they don't really tell potential employers whether its holder took the downhill or uphill route.


November 26, 2010


The Careful Language of the Union's Governor

Justin Katz

Ted Nesi is a bit too credulous about statements from Governor-elect Lincoln Chafee's spokesman, Mike Trainor:

... Chafee spokesman Mike Trainor told me in a phone interview a few minutes ago. "I just spoke to the governor-elect about this, and with all due respect, you may be jumping to conclusions that are not necessarily accurate," he said. (Who, me?)

"Gov.-elect Chafee does not have any plans for a wholesale replacement of the Board of Regents," Trainor explained. "He's going to look at each of the members in light of their experience and their relationship to his education philosophy. But it would be wrong to speculate that the entire board is going to be replaced."

So, Chafee doesn't have plans to replace every voice of education reform in Rhode Island government, but he has yet to determine who will be willing to conform with "his education philosophy." I'd say it's fair to expect to see either capitulation by the appointed office holders or a conflict after which we'll hear from Trainor that some board member or commissioner was entirely out of sync with the governor's expectations for education in Rhode Island... yadda yadda.

Nesi also points to some profiles of Diane Ravitch, who apparently has contributed much to Chafee's "education philosophy." Ravitch's may be a familiar name as somebody who has switched from the choice-and-accountability movement to... well, to whatever the opposing side is. I've addressed her conversion here and here.


November 18, 2010


Even in Reforms, Central Planning Rears Its Head

Justin Katz

Maybe I'm getting crotchety in my middle age, but this sort of intrabureaucracy debate strikes me as precisely the species of meaningless and unnecessary noise that obfuscates public discourse while raising doubts about public management of anything:

What is the point of a charter school — to be a laboratory for educational innovation and provide families with school choice, or to be the best school in its community?

This question takes on urgency as Rhode Island prepares to double the number of these alternative public schools, buoyed by millions in federal funds and a commitment by Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist to expand charter schools "with a proven track record of success." ...

In the meantime, the state's education leaders can't seem to agree on the purpose of charters.

Are they meant to take risks, try novel approaches and create strong communities? Or must they be "centers of excellence" that outperform traditional public schools even as they serve low-income, at-risk students?

The first problem with the faux debate is that it glosses entirely over the concept that a charter school that achieves the same result at a lower cost is an unmitigated benefit in the short term (by saving money) as well as in the long term (by freeing up resources for other purposes, as effective strategies permeate public education). A second problem is that it ignores the central point of school-choice, which is to put pressure on schools system wide by making it possible for parents to redirect resources away from those that they find undesirable.

A third problem is that it gives unelected state bureaucrats the authority to determine what communities must value. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist argues that, "If their performance isn't where it should be, it's an indication that the model they are using didn't work." With multiple criteria of what constitutes "performance," the proof that a school's model hasn't worked should be that it's unable to attract students.

And a final problem is that charters are being worked into the corner by establishment organizations like labor unions set up reforms to fail:

Nora also said that holding charters to a higher standard falsely "assumes we have complete autonomy."

Apart from Democracy Prep Blackstone Valley, a mayoral academy charter school that is not required to pay its teachers the prevailing wage, offer tenure or pay into the state retirement system, the state's 14 other charter schools all must adhere to those requirements.

We can only expect so much out of "experiments" that can't adjust some of the larger costs and restraints that hinder the system.


November 15, 2010


Opportunity... to Succeed or to Fail

Justin Katz

Conservatives should rightly be skeptical about national education initiatives like Obama's Race to the Top. Short of violent coups, government would never expand — and totalitarians would never take power — if their promises weren't attractive. And we shouldn't forget that those who would collect power to themselves must do so within the social context that they find. If there's a popular movement toward school choice, for example, the government will find it more beneficial in the long run to co-opt and steer that movement, rather than striving to squash it.

That said, moments of adjustment offer real opportunities to turn the wheel in directions that the central planners hadn't intended. Such is the case with Providence public schools, where administration and union officials — duly acknowledging the pressure from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist — are actually working together, leading to such phrases in news reports as this (emphasis added):

No longer will the teachers’ contract stand in the way of school reform. If a school decides to adopt a longer school day or a Saturday academy, that overrides the collective bargaining agreement. ...

[Providence Teachers Union President Steve] Smith and [Superintendent Tom] Brady are working closely with the ABC School District near Los Angeles because that school system has figured out a way to work collaboratively with the union, and to invest principals and their staff with a lot of authority. In fact, Brady and Smith, accompanied by a small number of teachers and principals from the four schools, spent several days meeting with members of the ABC district during a recent trip to California.

If these changes result in the sort of reforms that we've been encouraging on Anchor Rising — giving administration real authority to pursue and responsibility for results in their schools — perhaps the public school culture will change in a positive direction. Time will tell, however, just how big an "if" that is. The chain of accountability is not clear. If administrators have authority but inadequate repercussions, the concerns of employees could be further cemented above the outcomes for students.

Without a school choice component — empowering parents to judge their children's schools, with the money allocated for those children in the balance — the hopeful reforms that we observe could turn out to be little more than delay tactics until the public eye looks elsewhere or, worse, a means of rerouting momentum toward further entrenchment of the approach that has so dramatically failed in Rhode Island and across the country.


October 21, 2010


Misperception of Need or That Old Budget Game?

Justin Katz

So Education Commissioner Deborah Gist is placing the protection of the funding formula above all else in education, and I can't help but wonder why she believes it to be so critical. I suppose it's a compounding component of the state's budget for education, and allowing it to come up shy at the beginning bodes ill for its chances of persisting to fruition. Still, there's either a complete lack of insight to what works or hackneyed budget bullying techniques on display in this:

Other savings would be achieved through shifting some department positions to federal funds, eliminating non-public school textbook aid by $240,000, and $250,000 from the Physics First Program and $98,000 for science kits.

Eliminating textbook aid to private schools would be little more than an additional tax on parents, many of whom are struggling to pay a tuition on top of that which they already pay through property and other taxes because they are not satisfied with the school system under Gist's charge. Potential also exists for such a move to backfire, to the extent that increases in private school tuition could drive up the number of students in public school, straining budgets.

The subsequent part of the above block quote is the more astonishing. Physics First has been credited with bringing the Portsmouth school district to the top of the list when it comes to science proficiency on the state NECAP tests. (Albeit with the barely tolerable proficiency rate of 52%.) Would the education commissioner really be looking at scaling back a rare program that appears actually to be working in order to maintain the purity of an unproven method of shuffling money around?

I suspect this is just more of the typical government routine of threatening absurd cuts in order to preserve funding for programs that voters might not support financially in isolation. Politics as usual with our children, once again.


October 20, 2010


Warwick School Committee Chair Calls for End of School Committee

Marc Comtois

Testifying before the Warwick Charter Review Commission, current Warwick School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel has come to the conclusion that the Warwick School Committee has outlived its usefulness and should be integrated into city government.

Traditionally, school committees were responsible for establishing curriculum and adopting educational standards and policies within their respective communities. The school committee’s traditional roles have all but been eviscerated by both the federal and state government who have, through federal legislation such as No Child Left Behind and through the implementation of various state mandates, assumed the responsibilities once under the control of local education bodies. The local school committees have largely been relinquished to handling fiscal as well as personnel matters....

Having served upon the Warwick School Committee for the past six years, I do possess a unique insight into the operations of local government, and more particularly, those of the school department. While I respect the roles that school committees have played in this country for over 200 years, the continuing centralization of education at the state level has, to a large degree, rendered them irrelevant, and has simply resulted in duplication of functions at the local level. Therefore, if the Charter Review Commission for Schools is to make a recommendation to the City Council to change the role and authority of the Warwick School Committee, I would respectfully suggest that anything short of this proposal would simply be shifting, not solving, any problems.

Friel believes that integrating the management of the schools under the Mayor and moving its budget under the direct oversight of the City Council would streamline operations and remove a lot of the bickering and finger pointing that goes on between the Committee, Council and Mayor.

Retiring School Committee member Lucille Mota-Costa disagrees with the idea and believes the current bad economic times could be clouding long-term judgment:

I believe our school age children and their families need direct representation to keep the issues clear for them (good or bad) as well as all taxpayers of Warwick.

The present system affords them that distinction. The students in our city number 10,505 [and] their direct voice is limited to 5 publicly elected officials (nine would make more sense). These officials are also directly responsible to the parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles and general supporters of education which total number could easily represent 40,000 of the 52,000 (Beacon 2006) active registered voters/taxpayers in the city of Warwick, an obvious majority. And also given that the school department expenses represent 58 percent of our total municipal budget, the present system makes good sense to me.

Mota-Costa further would accept the idea of the School Committee sending residents a separate school tax bill, but a major change in the Warwick charter would have to be made:
Warwick and North Providence are the only two remaining districts with legislative charters in the state of Rhode Island. All the rest have home rule, which affords the local resident the opportunity to approve or disapprove annual municipal budgets. Therefore I have deep concerns about a charter commission that wants a school committee to respond to gaining taxing authority that neglects to discuss the primary issue first, which is home rule and greater voter representation during the budget process.
Personally, I can't imagine not having a School Committee and think its very important that voters elect people who will be advocates for the education of city's children--even expanding the committee as Mota-Costa suggests. But I'm also intrigued by the idea of consolidating collective bargaining and budgeting under one entity, if for nothing else than that it helps to clarify which entity would be responsible for property tax increases!



October 13, 2010


When Advocates Evaluate Evaluation

Justin Katz

News that Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist is working alongside the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers (aptly, RIFT) sets off my scam alarm, and it's not just the fact that the smarmy Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D, Ocean Drive) is at the front of the line heralding a "firm belief" in "true reform." Mostly, I'm suspicious that massive federal and foundation grants are going to the union to develop and evaluate the system:

Buoying the effort, the RIFT has received multiple grants — including a $5-million federal innovation grant shared with the New York State teachers union — to help create the evaluation system, money that will be used to hire testing experts and consultants who have created high-quality evaluations in other states.

About $700,000 will go to the American Institutes of Research, which will conduct a four-year study of the evaluation system, determining whether it improves teacher effectiveness and student achievement, said Colleen Callahan, director of professional issues for RIFT. ...

... the Rhode Island Foundation announced it, too, would give a $200,000 grant, the only time in the last 20 years the foundation has given to a teachers union.

Initially, the system will become operational in seven districts, and it sounds as if its backers are planning a four-year evaluation. Moreover, the use of standardized test scores is still a matter of contention. There's plenty of time and wiggle room, in short, to make sure that the system isn't so rigorous that it raises the ire of union members. There's also money to "train" everybody on the system, and no doubt compliance will turn out to require more state and municipal money once federal dollars dry up.


October 12, 2010


The College Money Game

Justin Katz

Look, higher education is important to the state of Rhode Island, and it would be even more so if the state were institutionally capable of creating an environment that created jobs that would attract our highly educated temporary visitors to stay in the state. But colleges and universities should start considering how their mixed message comes across to the folks struggling to make ends meet. Consider:

There are 2,400 Rhode Islanders who planned on attending the Community College of Rhode Island this fall but never enrolled because they couldn’t come up with the tuition.

The University of Rhode Island may also be in danger of becoming too expensive for out-of-state students when they compare its cost with similar institutions elsewhere, according to Ray M. DiPasquale, the state commissioner of higher education.

And more:

For the cost of two or three visits a year to Dunkin’ Donuts, about $9 for every Rhode Island taxpayer, the University of Rhode Island could build a critically needed chemistry building, President David M. Dooley said Monday.

And for another $2.52 a year, Rhode Island College could have a new arts facility to replace a 52-year-old building that has outlived its usefulness and has several fire code violations.

The leaders of post-secondary education in the state want our money-strapped government to up its contribution to their cause and are asking taxpayers to take out loans on their behalf on top of it. Yet, there's apparently money to add and accelerate new staffing positions for the cause of diversity.

This is the same game that governments play when they ensure that slush funds and wasteful programs persist while roads crumble. Expecting those expenditures that are clearly worthwhile investments to stand on their own, the people controlling the check book spend the funds already invested in them on items for which few taxpayers would agree to pay were they given the option. (To that, we could add the deal that university and college faculty and staff get.)

Sorry, but Rhode Island needs to allocate every penny possible to reducing taxes, eliminating mandates, and slashing regulations. If the spokespeople for the college crowd want a greater portion of the pie — and state-to-state comparisons suggest that they have a strong case — then they should add their voices to those calling for reform of our corrupt and wasteful system.


October 11, 2010


Teacher Salaries Around the Country

Justin Katz

I recently found a Web site of teacher salaries by state, alongside other statistics. The Web site provides charts comparing teacher salaries to such things as median house price, median household income, and cents of benefit per dollar of salary, but expanding the data set a bit to include a representative standardized test result led to the following intriguing result:

The figure is sorted by math results, from lowest to highest, and the dotted red lines are trendlines for the respective measures. Notice that there appears to be a negative correlation between teachers' total compensation (as a percentage of median household income) and math scores.

All sorts of considerations arise. There is a positive correlation between a state's median household income and its students success on the math tests, and a (less significant) correlation between results and per-pupil spending. The obvious rebuttal to my chart, therefore, would be that as household income goes up (along with test scores), teachers earn less as a percentage thereof, thus creating that negative correlation. However, further examination shows that teacher compensation and NAEP math scores both go up with median household income, while the teacher compensation in absolute terms has almost no effect on test scores.

Put differently, wealthier populations see better results on the tests and pay their teachers better, but paying teachers more does not remedy demographic disadvantages. Not surprisingly, given all of this, Rhode Island is tenth highest in total teacher compensation and ninth highest in per-pupil spending, but thirty-sixth in NAEP math scores.

For your reference, each state's data is available via these links: teacher salaries Alabama | teacher salaries Alaska | teacher salaries Arizona | teacher salaries Arkansas | teacher salaries California | teacher salaries Colorado | teacher salaries Connecticut | teacher salaries Delaware | teacher salaries District of Columbia | teacher salaries Florida | teacher salaries Georgia | teacher salaries Hawaii | teacher salaries Idaho | teacher salaries Illinois | teacher salaries Indiana | teacher salaries Iowa | teacher salaries Kansas | teacher salaries Kentucky | teacher salaries Louisiana | teacher salaries Maine | teacher salaries Maryland | teacher salaries Massachusetts | teacher salaries Michigan | teacher salaries Minnesota | teacher salaries Mississippi | teacher salaries Missouri | teacher salaries Montana | teacher salaries Nebraska | teacher salaries Nevada | teacher salaries New Hampshire | teacher salaries New Jersey | teacher salaries New Mexico | teacher salaries New York | teacher salaries North Carolina | teacher salaries North Dakota | teacher salaries Ohio | teacher salaries Oklahoma | teacher salaries Oregon | teacher salaries Pennsylvania | teacher salaries Rhode Island | teacher salaries South Carolina | teacher salaries South Dakota | teacher salaries Tennessee | teacher salaries Texas | teacher salaries Utah | teacher salaries Vermont | teacher salaries Virginia | teacher salaries Washington | teacher salaries West Virginia | teacher salaries Wisconsin | teacher salaries Wyoming


October 6, 2010


Rhode Island Still Knee Caps Its Students

Justin Katz

So, test scores for the science NECAPs are out, and the main topics of conversation have been:

  • That Portsmouth leads the pack, with 51.7% proficiency in grade 11, after having rearranged its science curriculum dramatically.
  • That demographic gaps in scores have increased.
  • That scores overall have nudged up.

Of course, by nudging, I mean about 4%. And if we look specifically at the critical test — that of 11th grade children approaching graduation — the increase is all of 1.1%. It's interesting to note something for which I've got no explanation: Reviewing the charts that compare the three states that issue the NECAPs (Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Vermont), it seems that up and down trends repeat across state borders. That fact raises questions about whether increased resources for public education will repair the underlying problem. I certainly don't think funding is the issue in Rhode Island, and we trail the pack, of course.

Of particular interest to me, naturally, is the fact that Tiverton's 11th graders have lost ground by 4.4%. That's after a drop of 4.7% from 2008 to 2009. In the first year of science NECAPs, Tiverton students were 30.5% proficient; now, they're 21.4% proficient. These results obtained despite the fact that the number of students taking the test in Tiverton, a stand-in for enrollment, decreased by nearly one-fifth. One would think that a significantly smaller class would receive more individual attention and therefore achieve higher scores. Given the fact that, from 2008 to 2009, the number of students actually increased by one, yet the scores dropped by about the same amount, the proper conclusion appears to be that the Tiverton school district is just incapable of teaching science to the students that it is tasked to educate.

Oddly, this isn't a topic of conversation around town, that I've heard. It certainly wasn't audible beneath the din of the school committee and administration threatening to close elementary schools at the FTM in May.


October 5, 2010


Merit Has to Be Intrinsic

Justin Katz

One begins to feel that those testing merit pay for teachers are deliberately missing the point — at least by the time their findings filter down through the mainstream media. Here's the latest:

Offering big bonuses to teachers failed to raise students' test scores in a three-year study released Sept. 21 that calls into question the Obama administration's push for merit pay to improve education.

The study, conducted in the metropolitan Nashville school system by Vanderbilt University's National Center on Performance Incentives, was described by the researchers as the nation’s first scientifically rigorous look at the effects of merit pay for teachers.

It found that students whose teachers were offered bonuses of up to $15,000 a year for improved test scores registered the same gains on standardized exams as those whose teachers were given no such incentives.

In absorbing the implications of these results, we must first absorb the relevance of this factor, offered at the end of the article (and not printed at all in the Providence Journal reprint, by the way):

Only about half of the 300 teachers originally in the Nashville study were left at the end of the three years because some retired, moved to other schools, or stopped teaching math. About 40 teachers got bonuses each year. Overall, the researchers said, test scores rose modestly for both groups of students during the three-year study, suggesting that the financial incentives made no difference.

Now, let's ignore the possibility that the results of a study that loses half of its participants is of questionable validity. And let's put aside practical questions that arise from that datum, such as:

  • Did teachers from both groups exit the study at equal rate?
  • If not, could the possibility of receiving a bonus have helped to retain teachers, or the probability of not earning a bonus have inspired exit?

Let's also take off the table the possibility that teachers in the control group, in keeping with their unions' strong and frequently stated distrust of merit-pay systems, tried especially hard so as to disprove the thesis that they'd try harder if it meant a bonus (thereby effectively confirming the thesis in an unmeasurable way).

At least some of us who support them see merit pay as the palpable incentive at the end of an entire reworking of the system to increase accountability up the education and administration chain and as a long-term process of changing the way in which teachers think about their jobs.


October 1, 2010


Missed Economic Cues in Teaching

Justin Katz

Two articles in last Sunday's Providence Journalhere and here — describe circumstances with which my family is very familiar. With the exception of math and science, teaching jobs are difficult to come by in Rhode Island, yet institutions of higher education continue to churn out graduates.

The initial problem, in my estimation, is that an artificially inflated standard of compensation makes teaching an extremely attractive option even for those without a particular vocation. Jointly with that, tight union control of the system prevents the job market from adjusting appropriately to market realities. That inflated pay remains no matter the number of candidates and no matter the success of the workforce. Consider how painfully slow is movement toward education reforms despite the fact that employers in education really ought to have massive leverage in an environment that finds credentialed teachers working as substitutes sometimes for a decade, and that without promise of a full-time job. Current teachers ought to feel under tremendous pressure to perform and to put in extra effort to prove that they're better than job seekers who'd jump through hoops to finally land a stable, full-time position doing what they initially set out to do.

Compounding the issue is that the high cost of each teacher — uniform regardless of the position held — translates directly into fewer jobs:

This has been a particularly bleak year for teacher hiring. Across the state, districts are cutting back — eliminating foreign language instruction, music and gifted programs while increasing class size.

So, not only does the employment dynamic create a glut of candidate, but it restricts the number of slots that they can fill. Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that teacher jobs become prone to patronage (as people looking for positions for years on end can testify), and those already ensconced who might otherwise be unable to compete have even greater incentive to push for increased strength of the unions that protect their mediocrity.

We end up, therefore, with an expensive, failing education system that leaves many teachers not even teaching, but bartending and working menial jobs while on the imbalanced roller coaster of multiple towns' sub lists, even as they strive to build lives and to pay off college debt.


September 23, 2010


Re: Chafee Just Doesn't Understand....Race to the Top

Monique Chartier

The bottom line of Race To The Top, as was No Child Left Behind ('fess up, leftie friends who oppose NCLB, that program name is you and you'd have supported NCLB if it hadn't been proposed by a Republican president) is an effort to increase academic achievement in this state. Whether, as Marc wonders, the former senator is "wary" of RTTT on its merits or to score targeted political points, does he have an alternative proposal to boost academic achievement in Rhode Island's public schools?

One hint: adding ever more money to our education budgets - more specifically, to contracts - won't get the job done. Rhode Island has decisively demonstrated this, with teacher pay in the top 20% nationally [page 37 of this PDF], student achievement in the bottom 20% and the lowest (51st) ratio of students enrolled to teacher [page 35 of this PDF].


September 22, 2010


Chafee Just Doesn't Understand....Race to the Top

Marc Comtois

"I'm wary of Race to the Top." So says Lincoln Chafee, as he vaguely expresses concern over the long term state and municipal obligations that he implies could be generated by federal Race to the Top money. Except there really aren't any because the goal of Race to the Top is to accelerate current (ie; already underway) education reform by helping pay for studies, computer systems, etc. that will help with such things as new teacher evaluation programs and the like. These reforms are intended to replace, not add onto, existing programs.

Chafee is simply playing a political game here. His spokesman, Mike Trainor, was on with WPRO's Dan Yorke trying to spin this as Chafee expressing merely "cautionary" concerns, not criticism of RTTT. As Yorke explained, though, such expressions of "caution" are meant to be taken as criticism. Yorke calling it a "trial balloon" is spot on. The target? Most likely those within the education establishment with concerns about RTTT. Especially given that Chafee also lumped RTTT with No Child Left Behind, a favorite talking point of anti-RTTT folks.


September 19, 2010


Okay, It's Beyond Me: Should the Curriculum of Any Public School Include a Class about "Enduring Beliefs in the World Today" - a.k.a., Religion - that Includes Field Trips to Religious Services?

Monique Chartier

... though in the case of the Wellesley Middle School, the field trip in question inexplicably included student observation (which turned into something more for some of the boy students; thus, generating keen attention from outside of the school district to this field trip and an apology [PDF] from the superintendent) of the service of only one religion. I have e-mailed the teacher to ask why this was and whether the program would be modified to include observation of the services of the other religions studied in the course.

But for the sake of this discussion, let's stipulate a hypothetical course that includes observation of the service of all religions studied. Should such a course even be taught at a public (k-12) school?

My initial reaction was "no", in part, because it strikes me that religion is the primary purview of the parent and mainly because of what happened on this field trip: participation was invited and supervising teachers were too lax or too misguidedly polite to intercede. But is this hindsight casting an unwarranted negative pall on an otherwise good course idea?


September 15, 2010


Back to Issues: Education

Justin Katz

While we all follow the horse races of election season, it's worth turning our eyes now and then to the issues that our elected representatives will decide. Toward that end, consider Bill Costello's argument against the government monopoly of education:

The current public education system is not preparing Americans to succeed in the increasingly competitive global economy. In the U.S., this will lead to growing unemployment rates, a decline in Gross Domestic Product, unsustainable levels of national debt, and reduced military capability. ...

Those who argue that the solution is more money for public schools have had three decades to test their theory. Increased spending has not led to improvement. American test scores have remained flat since the early 1970s even though per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, went from $4,489 in 1970-1971 to $10,041 in 2006-2007 -- an increase of 124 percent.

No public motivation could outstrip parental incentive to ensure better lives for one's own children. In other words, individual parents are better positioned and more motivated to choose particular schools and ensure that they provide desirable, beneficial educations. At the very least, parents who choose private schools should receive refunds of that portion of their tax money that goes to public education, with that loss coming directly from the public schools that would otherwise educate those children.

I'll return to my local example: During this year's budget battle in Tiverton, the School Committee strove to frighten parents into voting for a massive tax increase by threatening to close one of our brand new elementary schools. The insider rumor mill worked over time choosing the school that was in the target hairs for maximum political effect, transforming a general statement that closing a school "might be an option" to a public sense that it would be unavoidable that a particular school would become an empty building if the district's budget request failed. Parents began to turn their eyes to private school, and some broke away from the public system even though the schools ultimately got the money they demanded.

The point is that the threat of parents to withdraw their children from public schools is not a threat at all. Until it reaches the point of giving budget hawks political ammunition, if anything, fewer children helps a public school district's bottom line. They profit by losing customers.

Worse still, under such circumstances, it is sure to be the most motivated parents, who put the most emphasis on and are willing to get most involved with their children's education, who leave first. That is not a model for success.


September 8, 2010


More Education Money Is Not the Answer

Justin Katz

According to Providence Business News's Alyssa Foley, Rhode Island is precisely the middle of the country when it comes to student performance, and its reform efforts don't encourage those who grade such things:

Rhode Island came in at No. 25 in student performance in a ranking of all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Meanwhile, the Ocean State's education reform policies earned a "D" grade on the A to F grading scale, according to ALEC's Report Card on American Education: K-12 State Performance, Progress, and Reform.

It's interesting to place the results in the light of this interactive map of per-pupil spending by state, presented online by the National Science Foundation. At $13,453, Rhode Island has the sixth highest spending in the nation. By contrast, ALEC's number 2–ranked state, Massachusetts, spends $12,857, while the number 3 Florida spends $8,567, and the number 4 New Hampshire spends $11,037. Vermont, however, does outspend Rhode Island, with $13,629, and ranked number 1 in performance.

Turning to ALEC's own interactive map of student performance, there does not appear to be much (if any) correlation between per-pupil spending and performance ranking. I should also note that the cost data does not include "school construction and other capital outlays, debt service," or (it appears) teacher retirement costs. It would be interesting to see what effect inclusion of those factors would have on state rankings. I suspect it wouldn't help Rhode Island.


September 7, 2010


Cutting to an Engorged Bone

Justin Katz

The headline is "Districts Cutting to the Bone," but the interesting item comes at the end:

Like many districts, West Warwick has been bringing back students with special needs who previously were sent to private schools in an effort to both save money and better serve students.

"We've brought back about 90 kids in the past two years," he said. "But when you don't have an assistant special education director, even though you have 900 children in the district with special needs, and you don't have an assistant superintendent or a curriculum coordinator or any assistant principals at the elementary schools ..... The point is, we are beyond the point where you look at the budget and are cutting. We can't even cut the crayons any more. There are no more crayons."

Nine hundred special needs students? In 2009, the district had 3,657 students total. That means exactly 25% of all students are "special needs." I'd suggest that either the town of West Warwick would do better to spend its money on investigating environmental toxins or special education has become an inflated measure.

Our state pays nation-leading money for its education system, and it's only ever gone up, across time. Maybe the bone to which we've supposedly just cut is just cartilage. Or maybe it's a tumor.


August 30, 2010


The Mystery of Good Teaching

Justin Katz

Monique has already mentioned the headline revelation of an article reporting statements of the states' two teacher union heads before the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (that they've recognized the advantage of regionalization to them), but I'd like to highlight an unrelated statement from Rhode Island Federation of Teachers President Marcia Reback:

"[Education] Commissioner [Deborah] Gist said it earlier," Reback said. "You know good teaching when you see it. You can't test it."

The only way such a statement can be otherwise than total bunk is if we restrict the meaning of "test" to a written document that seeks to quantify without the need for human judgment. Even then, I'd dispute the conclusion, but at least it would be a real matter of debate. Many grades throughout my schooling were based on "tests" that involved a panel reviewing, for example, my piano playing. Many steps and sidelines in my adult employment have been related to managers' judgment of my work. One can test teachers by the success of their students and their contribution to schools, generally.

Of course, such a test has too many variables for some distant test author to incorporate. It is not, however, beyond the capacity of parents and principals, which is why public education is suffering for lack of two qualities:

  • Parents' ability to easily move their children from one school to another, with an actual consequence to the losing school when the move is made.
  • Principals' ability to manage their teachers as employees rapidly and easily enough to correct problems before they become institutionalized, which also has the effect of reducing the degree to which we can hold those principals accountable for institutional failure.

August 28, 2010


Some Sacrifice

Justin Katz

Sometimes people have to say what they have to say, I suppose, but this comment out of Cumberland really points to the different world in which some Rhode Islanders live:

School Supt. Donna A. Morelle stated that the committee and the administration "are greatly appreciative of the sacrifice made by the teachers."

So what "sacrifice" are the teachers making? Giving up a vacation week or two? Higher health insurance payments? More realistic retirement expectations? Not quite (emphasis added):

Teachers this year will defer half of a 2.5-percent salary increase, half of an increase that comes with a new salary step and half of the payment teachers with credits or degrees beyond a bachelor’s degree receive, according to Roderick McGarry, president of the Cumberland Teachers Association. ...

Also in the agreement, announced Monday after the Cumberland Teachers Association and School Committee approved it Wednesday, is waiving a 2.5-percent salary raise in the academic year that begins September 2011.

The new accord adds another year to the contract, which the union president stated would give teachers additional security through the 2012-2013. Teachers will get a 1-percent salary increase in the first half of that year and an additional 1.5-percent salary increase in the second half, McGarry said.

So payments expected during the coming school year will be deferred until the future (when, the school committee inexplicably assumes, finances will have improved), raises next year will be eliminated (although the teachers will presumably see an actual increase because the deferral will end), and their guaranteed raise in the subsequent year will be less than expected. In effect, the contract uses accounting gimmicks to downplay the fact that union members will be receiving 1.25% raises (on top of step increases and other remunerative opportunities) during an era of crippling government deficits, high unemployment, and general economic malaise.

That, in the public sector, is called "sacrifice."


August 26, 2010


Regionalization? You May Want to Consider Who is Standing With You

Monique Chartier

As Andrew highlighted in his signature coverage of the Rhode Island Republican Assembly Endorsement Convention, the campaign platform of Republican gubernatorial candidate Victor Moffitt includes regionalization.

Audience Question: Unions and union contracts are out of control. What can we do to give more autonomy to the communities?

Answer: "I'm actually going to say that I think the problem is the opposite of that. As most of you know, I've been talking about regionalization and consolidation services since 1998....How good would Rhode Island be if we could replace 36 teacher contracts with 4? If we could replace 80 fire contracts with 5? Do you think that would be a little improvement for the state of Rhode Island?"

But OSPRI outlines the pitfalls; inter alia,

When comparing fully regionalized districts to similar size town districts we find that regionalized districts have the highest per pupil costs. One example is the Chariho Regional School District which was put together from three towns to make a school district whose student body is the same size as neighboring Westerly. But, the supposed economies of scale are nowhere on display in Chariho where administration costs per pupil are $825, forty percent more than the $589 spent in Westerly. Indeed, when it comes to administration costs, the supposed venue for obvious savings, they are well above the median in ALL the regionalized districts.

More alarming (... or not, depending upon your perspective), in yesterday's Providence Journal, Linda Borg reports on two other individuals who support regionalization.

The leaders of the state’s two teachers’ unions said that they would not be opposed to consolidating Rhode Island’s 36 school districts into one big district.

Although they cautioned that they were speaking as private citizens, Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, and Robert A. Walsh Jr., executive director of the National Education Association, Rhode Island, offered the most radical suggestions about how to fix public education. The two made their remarks at a morning-long forum in Smithfield sponsored by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council.

Non-special interest supporters of regionalization like Mr. Moffitt (not to pick on him; he is not the only person to propose regionalization as a way to control costs but is one of the higher profile people to do so recently) presume that the hands into which thirty six contracts would be consolidated will act/negotiate/execute in the fiscal best interest of the taxpayer. Clearly, special interest advocates have determined that, on the contrary, it is they who would benefit from such an arrangement. Especially as it is the paid professionals representing that special interest who have reached this conclusion, I'm inclined to defer to their judgement


August 25, 2010


Sometimes "Investment" Is Just an Expense

Justin Katz

In a recent article, John Kostrzewa describes a study (partially funded by RI's Poverty Institute) by Jeffrey Thompson, Assistant Research Professor at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. As it happens, circumstances lately have put me in a position to agree with some of the professor's conclusions, particularly those decrying one-company-narrow special deals described as "economic development." But this part is some of the same-old-same-old:

On education, Thompson argues that investing in education attracts business, raises gross state product, increases employment in metropolitan areas and raises personal income. He claims that every million dollars spent by Rhode Islanders on education creates between 26 and 33 jobs for teachers, aids, custodians, nurses, professors, bus drivers and others.

I agree that education is a key to developing the talent, skills and entrepreneurs on which to build a knowledge-based economy and fill the needs of traditional companies. But I shudder at the idea of simply spending more money without controlling or targeting where it's going, and measuring improvement.

The first point to make is that monetary investment isn't proving to be the shortcoming in Rhode Island education and will not translate into any benefits beyond the direct funding of school-related jobs. As Kostrzewa writes:

Already, Rhode Island ranks among the top 10 states nationwide for per capita spending on primary and secondary education. Yet national test scores show Rhode Island stuck in the middle of the pack, and lagging behind its neighboring states in New England. Also, Rhode Island’s dropout rate of about 30 percent is one of the highest in the country.

And all of that money has to come from somewhere, ultimately from consumer spending that creates jobs indirectly and direct business activity, which creates jobs almost by definition. That brings us back to the point that I always make in this context: Even if we succeed in educating the fabled Workforce of the Future, unless we have jobs into which that workforce can move — because education doesn't necessarily mean entrepreneurialism — that workforce will move to another state that does, taking our investment in academics with it.

I'd argue that the key reforms — basically, increasing accountability, refocusing education on students and their parents, and tying revenue to success, rather than government whim — would cost less and improve outcomes. In other words, we could leave money in the economy for investment in job creation and simultaneously improve our children's marketability as employees.



"Rhode Island is a winner!"

Justin Katz

That's the subject line of an email from Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist announcing that Rhode Island came in fifth in the U.S. Dept. of Education's Race to the Top competition. Frankly, I find the presentation of the entire give-away creepy.

If we begin with the belief that public education is a states' rights matter, what we have here is an unelected federal bureaucrat using billions of our own money to elicit eager willingness of unelected state bureaucrats to give his office authority to judge and shape the education ultimately provided, and largely funded, at the municipal level. As I've opined before, the particulars may sound good, now, but they will dilute and expand until it's just a matter of assumption that the local men and women whom we elect to school committees just have to do whatever the executive branch of the federal government says. And as I've also noted before, quoting Education Policy Director for the American Enterprise Institute Frederick Hess, the selling points of the "reform" are not as prominent in reality as they are in the headlines:

A few of the 19 priorities rewarded states for moving on measures such as charter schooling and merit pay, with states earning 40 points (out of a maximum total of 500) for supporting high-performing charters and 58 points for using student-achievement results to improve teacher and principal effectiveness. But the vast majority of the points are awarded for compliance with often woolly federal criteria: 65 points for articulating an agenda and securing local buy-in, 10 points for prioritizing education funding, 20 points for providing effective support to educators, and so on. If you're not entirely sure what these categories entail, welcome to the club; they reward states for procuring signatures of union support, for spending more on schools, and for adopting impressive-sounding professional schemes.

And again, this is all being done with billions of dollars from an entity that's trillions of dollars into deficit and will either have to pull the financial rug out from under its promises or increase our taxes heavily for us to maintain the privilege of doing what it says.


August 24, 2010


If Teachers Are Professionals, Their Performance Should Be Measurable

Justin Katz

Veronique de Rugy points to an L.A. Times article analyzing students' test scores — against their own prior achievements — to determine the educational value added (or not) by third- through fifth-grade teachers. Here are two findings that give a pretty good flavor (which, overall, Anchor Rising readers will find unsurprising):

* Although many parents fixate on picking the right school for their child, it matters far more which teacher the child gets. Teachers had three times as much influence on students' academic development as the school they attend. Yet parents have no access to objective information about individual instructors, and they often have little say in which teacher their child gets.

* Many of the factors commonly assumed to be important to teachers' effectiveness were not. Although teachers are paid more for experience, education and training, none of this had much bearing on whether they improved their students' performance.

Where the school matters, I'd suggest, is in its ability — and structural motivation — to ensure that teachers succeed in their mission. That means a stronger hand in dealing with employees, on the one side, and a direct and rapid relationship between the school's success and its revenue.

Consider charter schools: Those representatives of the public school establishment who support charters will agree that one of their benefits is as "laboratories for best practices," as the jargon goes, but they clearly aren't controlled experiments. That is, the school doesn't have to explain what practice it intends to test, with the state requiring it to keep all other practices (such as union contracts) intact, and with a plan to transmit successful strategies to the broader education system. Rather, the "laboratories" are meant to sink or swim and, if they swim, to increase the pressure on unions and administrators to reform.

It's a fool's project and a delay, as indicated by the fact that nobody should be surprised that some L.A. teachers are better than others and that the quality of the teacher affects the advancement of the student. That such experiments are a delay to necessary reform is evident, first, in the fact that parents flock to these more-accountable schools when given the opportunity and, second, in the fact, noted by de Rugy, that California teacher union thugs are boycotting the L.A. Times.


August 19, 2010


Integral Government Strings

Justin Katz

Upon reading of the $9.4 million or so in federal money coming to Rhode Island for the purpose of expanding charter schools, I couldn't help but wonder about the strings that must be attached even to such a piddling sum, by current government standards.

Reviewing the U.S. Dept. of Education's onlne materials related to the program, I couldn't find any explicit strings, though. That leaves a cynic like me with general complaints about big government. Charter schools are popular among Americans, and by offering even a little bit of money toward their growth, the feds begin to insinuate themselves into their operation. (Specific office holders may also be interested in purchasing some cover for the billions of dollars that they've been devoting to preventing local school districts' having to reform in ways, during this recession, that might affect unionized labor.)

It's probable that many people involved in such initiatives, right up to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the president himself, honestly wish to improve public education and see charter schools as a mechanism for that purpose. Politicians and bureaucrats are no doubt sincere in their good intentions for a great number of big government programs. What they have to learn, though, is that good intentions are only as valuable as the individuals who hold them, and centralizing American life will ultimately give power to people more intent on exploitation.


August 17, 2010


Let Them Play

Marc Comtois

So now it's recess. Well, as a former high-energy boy, I'm not sure what I'd done if I had been forced to while away all the hours of the school day in a structured environment. Back in my day, we had a morning and afternoon recess (plus a lunch break!). The promise of those pending breaks are what got me through the hours spent in class. I knew that after math, I'd be back playing kickball or whatever else. And yeah, I'd have to go back into class, but the physical energy spent somehow helped to focus my young mind on the task at hand. Funny how that works.

But now we're told there just isn't enough time in the day to meet all of the requirements demanded by government and, implicitly, parents. So traditional recess of the free-form variety is being done away in favor of a more structured version. Just what our kids need: more structure in their already too-structured play time.

My wife, a member of our school's PTO who is at the school most days, has told me how she watches the kids at recess and that they have no clue how to play by themselves. For instance, soccer games quickly devolve into anything goes free-for-alls where the ball is usually carried (more like rugby). That's why there are programs in some schools that are actually teaching kids how to play. How sad. But at least these programs are aimed at giving the tools and ability to play on their own. A shorter, more structured "recess" will do just the opposite.

The problem is that we've raised--and continue to raise--a generation that thinks it needs adult supervision to play a game. Self-organizing doesn't happen. Kids are over-scheduled in their free time, whether it be dance or sports or karate or whatever. Too often, instead of fostering an interest, these organized forms of recreation end up being the only kind that kids get. Recess is one of the last places where they can just do what kids are supposed to do: play.



A Bubble in the Making

Justin Katz

The talk has been growing — especially around the blogosphere — that higher education is the next major bubble. With access to loans and all sorts of civic and cultural incentives to attend college, the actual value of a degree is inflating. Of course, education is different from housing; as far as I know, no derivatives market has grown up around the asset of knowledge (as interesting a proposition as that might be for smart individuals).

On the other hand, education affects the job market, which is what made the topic of boosting college graduation rates sound like a matter of civic urgency — as opposed, say, to industry insiders' strategizing to expand their market — among attendees of a State Higher Education Executive Officers conference last week in Providence:

Without improvements in secondary and post-secondary education, only 21 out of every 100 Rhode Island teenagers about to enter the ninth grade will graduate from a two-year or four-year college in the next 10 years.

But research indicates that about 62 percent of entry-level positions will require at least a bachelor's degree by the end of the decade.

What percentage of those entry-level positions actually "require" a degree because of the skills involved, rather than as a method of easy candidate screening, I won't hazard to guess. Based on personal experience, though, I'd say it's quite substantial. As more young adults enter the job market with degrees, more employers will require them, without reference to the ostensible value of the knowledge that they've gained.

Note, especially the four bulleted suggestions in the article linked above:

  • Reorganizing class schedules into blocks of time that allow students to plan jobs and family responsibilities.
  • Individualizing remedial work and including it in courses for credit, while limiting separate catch-up classes to the summer before the freshman year.
  • Establishing uniform academic requirements from one school to another, so students may more easily build on one- and two-year programs to transfer to four-year institutions.
  • Making sure that up-and-coming high school students graduate with college-ready skills.

The emphases here are twofold: getting students to where they are supposed to be at the end of high school, and making it easier for them to fit higher education into their lives. Conspicuously absent is emphasis on the regimen for ensuring that students learn something useful and relevant to their future careers, including strategies for helping them to discern what those careers should be.

Honestly, I think that might be a bit much to expect of college, because it's a bit much to expect people straddling age twenty to figure out the next sixty years of their lives. In other words, if secondary schools can do a better job of getting students where they need to be upon high school graduation, then there is no great need for them to attend college unless (1) they can afford it, (2) their interests are broad and intellectual, and/or (3) they are driven strongly toward a particular, identifiable career. Beginning with that perspective, colleges and universities would be better able to hone their offerings.

I'd suggest that educational and economic benefits would accrue to a system that in some way expanded high school on a case-by-case basis to the duration necessary to adequately educate each individual student. When college degrees become too scarce and the differences between job candidates with and without them become too minute, employers will adjust their expectations.


August 16, 2010


No Dilemma. An Accurate Accounting.

Justin Katz

It looks like the effort has begun, in earnest, to invalidate pending graduation requirements, rather than acknowledge that Rhode Island's current way of doing elementary and secondary education isn't working:

Thousands of incoming high school juniors may be unable to graduate in June 2012 because of tougher graduation requirements, and state education officials are beginning to grapple with the consequences of their new high standards.

Starting with the Class of 2012, high school seniors must have scored at least "partially-proficient" on the state tests in English and math in order to graduate. The tests are administered during their junior year.

If the new diploma system had been in full effect the last two years, nearly half of the state's juniors would have been at risk of not graduating because of poor performance on the math portion of the state tests. Forty-five percent of juniors scored in the lowest possible category, "substantially below proficient."

Let's be clear: These aren't "the consequences of new high standards"; they're the consequences of a failure to meet any standards at all. If the great majority of students were just barely missing adequate performance, then the aggressiveness of the standards might merit some adjustment. That's not the case. Half of Rhode Island's juniors aren't even close. And this explanation only brushes the underlying issue:

State education officials acknowledge that making these changes has been daunting, given the nature of the work and the scarcity of resources.

Scarcity of resources? Rhode Island devotes top-quintile amounts of money to education. The only reason resources for reform can possibly be said to be scarce is that they are locked up in personnel costs for a workforce that is unable or unwilling to perform to expectations. Our entire education structure is built in such a way as to put the compensation and employment satisfaction of adults first on its list of priorities.

As long as Rhode Island tiptoes around the union issue — with all of the legal binds for which unions and other insiders have labored over the decades — our students will continue to suffer. Making it easier for them to graduate will only paper over the problem, exacerbating the harm done to the young adults of Rhode Island.


August 5, 2010


The Kids'll Respond to Good Points and Respect

Justin Katz

One wonders how the side of the culture war that proclaims itself "pro-science" will adjust its thinking in response to this finding (emphasis added):

The participants' mean age was 12.2 years; 53.5% were girls; and 84.4% were still enrolled at 24 months. Abstinence-only intervention reduced sexual initiation (risk ratio [RR], 0.67; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.48-0.96). The model-estimated probability of ever having sexual intercourse by the 24-month follow-up was 33.5% in the abstinence-only intervention and 48.5% in the control group. Fewer abstinence-only intervention participants (20.6%) than control participants (29.0%) reported having coitus in the previous 3 months during the follow-up period (RR, 0.94; 95% CI, 0.90-0.99). Abstinence-only intervention did not affect condom use. The 8-hour (RR, 0.96; 95% CI, 0.92-1.00) and 12-hour comprehensive (RR, 0.95; 95% CI, 0.91-0.99) interventions reduced reports of having multiple partners compared with the control group. No other differences between interventions and controls were significant.

Having followed this sort of research over the past decade, I'll confirm that this result really isn't surprising. Only a smokescreen of spin and obfuscation makes it seem so. Abstinence-only education teaches children to think of sex in terms that should lead them to have less of it. "Comprehensive" sex education teaches them how to have sex. Moreover, it has nowhere been the case that abstinence represents the sum total of the lessons that children receive.

As Joseph Bottum puts it:

While the study emphasized that the abstinence-only classes "would not be moralistic," there was an underlying assumption in those classes that the children themselves were moral beings—a striking difference between the abstinence-only and safe sex–only interventions. In the abstinence-only program, it was emphasized that "abstinence can foster attainment of future goals." In contrast, the safe sex–only intervention concentrated on education about sexually transmitted diseases and condom use—that is, it focused on the present only. The first program assumed that children look forward, anticipate, and hope. The second assumed that, like the lowest animals, they are aware only of the here and now.

Conservatives — especially religious conservatives — tend to believe that treating children as moral beings who can rise above their lusts is a worthwhile practice, even if it has no measurable effect on their present behavior. That the other side is loath to acknowledge that it does have a measurable effect suggests that they, for some reason, prefer that children learn to indulge their basest instincts, perhaps because it makes them riper for dependency.



Topics Local and International

Justin Katz

Last night Monique and Tony Cornetta talked, on the Matt Allen Show, about Iran, teachers' unions, and partisan ethics. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


August 4, 2010


Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path

Marc Comtois

Faced with an insurmountable $13 million cut in state and local funding, the Warwick School Committee voted to freeze pay and impose a 20% health care co-pay for all of its employees last night.

Before the vote, School Committee Chairman Chris Friel stressed that these are not actions the district wants to take but it has no choice faced with insufficient funding for its budget of about $161 million for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

He said the district did not want to cut programs that directly affect students, such as sports, gifted classes, mentoring and all extracurricular activities.

Unions are not happy.
The action is in apparent violation of the School Department's contract with its roughly 1,000 teachers represented by the Warwick Teachers Union, with teachers slated to lose a 2.75 percent raise this year....The leaders of the two unions that represent almost all school employees - the teachers union and the Warwick Independent School Employees union - vowed that they will respond with swift court action.

"I feel stabbed in the back," teachers union president James Ginolfi said, noting that the first he and other union executives heard of the School Committee's plan was less than an hour before it took action in executive session.

"We listened to what they had to say and said we'd get back to you," Ginolfi said, adding that the school board is sending a public message that it has no regard for a legal agreement. "I am shocked," he said.

The union has been playing the "we'd get back to you" game or the "we're willing to listen" game for some time now. The School Committee is obligated to have its budget finalized shortly after the City Council approves the school budget and was already late in doing so. They couldn't wait any longer. The situation called for urgency and the unions seemed to be content with playing the same collective bargaining games that worked in the past (see the "Addendum" in the extended post for a timeline). That isn't working any more. It's apparent that the Warwick School Committee felt like there wasn't much expeditious movement occurring on the other side of the table and felt like the only path left open--a tough one--was to unilaterally make these cuts and changes. That's something that the Warwick City Council backed away from. Whether the solution is viable depends on the next stop in the process: the courthouse.

Continue reading "Warwick School Committee Chooses the Tough Path"

August 2, 2010


The Tone of the Ad

Justin Katz

To be honest, I don't follow help wanted ads for teaching positions closely enough to know whether this is really unique, but something about the wording of this one, printed in last Sunday's Providence Journal, caught my eye:

RI Certified Teachers, to Substitute per diem for growing K-9 public charter school.

The idea of advertising the growth prospects of the school strikes me as somehow refreshing. It gives the sense that something is being built — that effort and perseverance can improve everybody's lot. Of course, it's probable that any school seeking highly educated people for drudgery like substitute teaching would want to convey a probability of advancement. Still, I think public education in general would inspire more confidence among those who fund it were that attitude brought to bear in a systematic way.


July 29, 2010


Re: Federal Money, Federal Guidelines; and Local Control?

Justin Katz

It may be that I'm just more cynical than Marc, but with respect to Race to the Top, I can't help but muse that government reforms always sound good — otherwise, politicians wouldn't try to sell them. Suppose that the goal of education policy, at the national level, is to increase the federal government's role in that critical area of social development, while offering short-term political advantage to those who implement it.

The trick on the latter count would be to persuade those who want substantive reform that the new policy is not just talk — therefore, support for charters and standards for presumed accountability of educators — while comforting those invested in the broken system that they won't be harmed — therefore, the requirement that states' Race to the Top applications garner teacher union support. The trick on the former count would be to build the program in a way that allows the tendencies of growing government to finish the job quietly — as if natural and inevitable. Two points that Marc makes bring that trick into focus:

If something fails, stop doing it. If it looks promising but may need some modifications, tweak it.

The problem is that government (especially large, centralized government) is less inclined toward such modifications than the average group or individual. Somebody with political power is already invested in the something that is failing, and with the long process of accountability in a national bureaucracy, it takes quite a bit for general dissatisfaction with government services to overcome such investments and stop the failure.

However, a Common Core is just that--a "core" of educational standards, not the end-all, be-all. It is the baseline standard that should be met. It's not the ceiling, it's the floor. ...

Federal help only undermines local control if reformers view federal standards as the ultimate goal and not the jumping off point.

In a gradual federal takeover of education, the floor is enough (and too much), to start. It will henceforth be available to the political process to layer in all those "critical" baselines that statists and social engineers find much more interesting than basic math and English. First science enters the field — not just the basic facts of what we know about the interaction of particles and waves and such, but bleeding into the inevitable metaphysical questions. No doubt health and all of the behavioral implications thereof — sexual, dietary, and so on — will come up for application to the core. Perhaps civics and history will be next, with even more opportunity for government spin.

Every government program proposed will have attractive points, because human beings do have the capacity to work together intelligently toward common goals. Individual incentive for corruption is the limiting factor, though, and eroding the government structure that seeks to empower society to work cohesively while protecting it from invidious encroachment by those with tax and police authority will never end where our hopes declare that it might.



Borders, National and Educational

Justin Katz

Marc and Matt discussed (independently) immigration and education on last night's Matt Allen Show. Stream by clicking here, or download it.


July 28, 2010


Federal Money, Federal Guidelines; and Local Control?

Marc Comtois

So, in the Race to the Top sweepstakes (Round 2), Rhode Island has made the final 19, which is sorta like making the NHL or NBA playoffs where about half of the "regular season" competitors qualify. Some of the key components included in RI's application include recent reforms like the passage of a school funding formula, the raising of the charter school cap, an increase in the teacher exam "cut" score, and the integration of Teach for America teachers into RI schools. Prospective reforms include the development of a new teacher evaluation system and formally adopting the Common Core national standards (Rhode Island has already signed off on the concept). The recent actions taken in Central Falls and Providence (and perhaps East Providence) probably also help make the case that the state is ready to tackle reform head on.

If Rhode Island should "win" the $75 million up for grabs, that money will go towards implementing some reforms and helping the educational infrastructure in the state. In other words, it'll help pay for the development of a teacher evaluation system and a new bunch of state standards based on the national Common Core standards being formulated.

Concerns and debate about the Common Core are bubbling up. As Frederick Hess writes:

Fordham Institute honchos Checker Finn and Mike Petrilli argued last week in a thoughtful National Review Online column that the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) fueled an explosion of mediocre state standards, undermining accountability and reform. They see the Common Core as a remedy. University of Arkansas professor Jay Greene responded that there's good reason to believe that the Common Core won't deliver on its promises and that it will impose real costs.
That's where it gets tricky, of course. A pile of money that can be used on potential good stuff is different than a pile of money spent on programs that missed the mark or didn't get properly implemented, ie; No Child Left Behind. Hess thinks the points are all valid.
The Common Core standards are superior to those in place in most states, and transparency and market efficiency can benefit dramatically from a clear, rigorous national standard. Uniform standards and performance measures can help us test new educational techniques on a level playing field, so that we can deliver useful tools and techniques to more schools and students. These are all things that conservatives can embrace....But this "state-led" effort has been aggressively driven by the Obama administration, there's a huge chance that it will dramatically boost federal control of K-12 schooling, that teachers' unions and other status quo interests will make their influence felt, and that state and local control will be undermined.
However, a Common Core is just that--a "core" of educational standards, not the end-all, be-all. It is the baseline standard that should be met. It's not the ceiling, it's the floor. Unfortunately, getting people to shoot higher than above the minimum--whether their education bureaucrats or students--is always a challenge. And as Hess explains, while the big picture stuff is easy, it's the all-important small stuff that gets short shrift because, well, it can be boring.
Past experience teaches that the odds aren't great that states, funders, vendors, and the feds will maintain their stride when it comes to making the tedious, small-bore, and potentially costly--but critical--revisions to assessments, accountability, curricula, professional development, teacher education, and instructional materials....the aftermath [of No Child Left Behind] reminded us that grand political projects (conservative or liberal) tend to look best in the early days.
Follow-through and keeping the feedback loop flowing are critical towards implementing reform and maintaining reforms. Nothing is static; things change. If something fails, stop doing it. If it looks promising but may need some modifications, tweak it. If it works, do it more often and in more places. Easy to say, harder to do in today's arthritic and stratified 20th century industrial age education system. But that's the point of reform: to change what we've got into something better.

I have reservations about allowing the Federal government's foot, ankle and possibly knee into the local education door. But I'm hopeful that Race to the Top will be an effective means to implement much needed reform (we can agree reform is "much needed", right?). As Education Secretary Arne Duncan pointed out, just competing for the money has resulted in many states implementing reforms to be more competitive. That's certainly been the case in Rhode Island.

Yet, simply winning the RTTT isn't victory and piecemeal implementation won't work. It will only be a success if the RTTT funds are used wisely in the implementation of systemic changes tailored to Rhode Island's education system. It is possible to use federal money and abide by federal standards while also maintaining local control and setting our own educational priorities. Federal help only undermines local control if reformers view federal standards as the ultimate goal and not the jumping off point. Let's hope Rhode Island's education policy makers keep that in mind. Like I said, I'm hopeful (which is different than optimistic).


July 19, 2010


Some States Help Residents to Achieve Potential; Some Do Not

Justin Katz

Each year, Newsweek publishes a list of "America's Best High Schools." Their criterion is rather limited, having to do with the number of students at public schools who take Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or Cambridge (AICE) tests, but it is a reasonable snapshot of the emphasis that a school places on excelling. The baseline for making the list at all was one test (taken by a junior or senior) per graduate, which includes about 6% of high schools.

I probably shouldn't have been surprised, but was, that Rhode Island can't boast a single school on the list of 1,735 across the United States. In that dubious distinction, we're joined only by Hawaii, North Dakota, and Wyoming. The success of each state (plus the District of Columbia) is represented in the following graph; the greener the state, the more "Best High Schools" a state has per 1,000 of school-age population, the redder, the fewer. (Bright green signifies 0.1 schools per 1,000 students, and bright red signifies 0.)

The top ten states by this measure were:

  1. District of Columbia, 0.105
  2. Maryland, 0.101
  3. Virginia, 0.076
  4. New York, 0.054
  5. Florida, 0.049
  6. Delaware, 0.048
  7. California, 0.045
  8. New Jersey, 0.044
  9. Colorado, 0.039
  10. North Carolina, 0.038

The top ten states by actual number of high schools were:

  1. California, 302
  2. New York, 172
  3. Florida, 139
  4. Texas, 136
  5. Virginia, 99
  6. Maryland, 98
  7. New Jersey, 66
  8. North Carolina, 61
  9. Georgia, 61
  10. Illinois, 55

The top ten states by the number of schools in the top quartile of list — the best of the best — per 1,000 of the school-age population were:

  1. District of Columbia, 0.053
  2. Virginia, 0.028
  3. Maryland, 0.023
  4. Florida, 0.022
  5. New York, 0.019
  6. North Carolina, 0.014
  7. Colorado, 0.013
  8. Texas, 0.009
  9. California, 0.009
  10. Georgia, 0.009

One can infer that states that make this final list, but not the first, have pockets of excellence. One can also infer — and Rhode Islanders can testify — that states that don't make the full list at all are not oriented toward helping people, especially students, to achieve their potential.

It digs a little more deeply than I'm inclined, just now, to tie the bright greenness of the Washington, D.C., area to recent talk about a "ruling class."

ADDENDUM:

On the "ruling class" question, Anchor Rising contributor Marc Comtois followed up with a post noting that the D.C. area is a "boom town" in the midst of recession.


July 7, 2010


Can Schools Replace Teenagers' Jobs?

Justin Katz

Her column is cast in terms of preventing summer "learning loss" among students, but Julia Steiny's subject is really the degree to which schools have conflated "schooling" and "learning" — making children with an aversion to the former avoid activities that are explicitly the latter, whether during the summer or school-year off hours.

... institutions have an evil tendency to become more important than their missions and their clients. Health-care systems can compromise health. Schools can become antithetical to learning.

[Ivan] Illich says, "The pupil is 'schooled' to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence. ..." This is sad, but too often true. He further notes that schools "discourage both the motivation and the financing for large-scale planning for nonschooled learning."

It's peculiar, therefore, that she would head in this direction:

Why don't schools teach kids about themselves and their immediate environments? What could be more interesting? Harness kids' narcissism by helping them figure out where and who they are, investigate what their community wants, audit the school's energy use, promote recycling, learn to do minor repairs. These skills need academic support, and kids could use them tomorrow at home. Treat the immediate world as a learning lab, so kids get a big hit of the pleasure of mastery.

At the very least, leveraging schools as the hub connecting children to the world around them risks tainting an even broader swath of activities with the "schooling" feel of imposed work. Indeed, we're back to Robert Whitcomb's suggestion, which I mentioned the other day, that imposed community service in high school might sour students on voluntary service once they claim the freedom of college.

In general, I agree with Steiny that schools could do much to make learning more fun, but part of the reason that young adults are disengaging from civic activity is that, as a society, we allow school to be their one responsibility. "Investigating what their community wants" and pursuing practical skills sounds an awful lot like the role of a summer job. To increase that activity, we'll have to focus on factors that sap the marketplace of such gigs (a slow, business-unfriendly economy) and that direct them away from young adults when available (labor laws and illegal immigration).


July 6, 2010


Kansas Tries Grouping Kids by Ability, not Age

Marc Comtois

Seems like an idea worth trying:

Instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, schools are grouping students by ability. Once they master a subject, they move up a level. This practice has been around for decades, but was generally used on a smaller scale, in individual grades, subjects or schools.

Now, in the latest effort to transform the bedraggled Kansas City, Mo. schools, the district is about to become what reform experts say is the largest one to try the approach. Starting this fall officials will begin switching 17,000 students to the new system to turnaround trailing schools and increase abysmal tests scores.

"The current system of public education in this country is not working" said Superintendent John Covington. "It's an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills."

Here's how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it's needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren't bored and struggling students aren't frustrated.

But backers acknowledge implementation is tricky, and the change is so drastic it can take time to explain to parents, teachers and students.

I don't think it will take time to explain...more like time to accept ("we fear change"--especially in our education system). But this method seems to work:
Education officials in Kansas City, Maine and elsewhere said part of the allure is the success other districts have after making the switch.

Marzano Research Laboratory, an educational research and professional development firm, evaluated 2009 state test data for over 3,500 students from 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado, and Florida. Researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation.

Now, he said if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent. He's proud of that accomplishment and said teachers love it.

"The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because, especially the ones who were back with us before the change, they saw where things were then," he said. "They see where things are now and they don't want to go back."

Like I said, seems like it's worth a shot.


July 5, 2010


Cutting the Cultural Meat Out of American Education

Justin Katz

I wonder how Providence Journal columnist Julia Steiny would feel about the observation that she's moving ever closer to an Anchor Rising point of view. In her column, last week, she drew from her summer reading list to suggest that political correctness is gutting the aspects of American education that made for good, devoted citizens:

[E.D. Hirsch Jr.] observes that in the 1980s, people began to draw away from our commonality and into constituencies — gender, race, religious and national origins. While culturally important, Hirsch calls the era of ROOTS the "neo-tribalism," that eventually grew into the shrill partisanship now dominating modern public discourse. Cynicism grew like mold around the pie-in-the-sky ideal of the common good. ...

By scrubbing the curriculum of anything that does not meet political correctness, we fail to teach our children about the democratic faith. And by doing so, we invite them to take our freedom and heritage for granted. American children need to understand that cultivating the common good allows each of us to thrive as a unique, even eccentric individual.

Using Thanksgiving lessons as an example, Steiny describes how it ceased to be acceptable to certain factions for schools to teach a sunny version of the story of the pilgrims and native Americans to young children and add in the darker side later. Meanwhile, parents didn't want their holidays ruined by "an Indian-oppression story." Given the insinuation of this dynamic across the curriculum, public schools have just become employment-training facilities.

Perhaps after another year of columns, Steiny will move toward agreement with many of us on the right that she's currently providing the sunny version of the politicization of our schools. It's not that political ideals have been scrubbed from public education, but that the ones being taught are often antithetical to the founding principles and culture of the United States.


July 1, 2010


Warwick Teachers Union Balks at Talks

Marc Comtois

The Warwick Teachers Union (WTU) leadership continues to look for and (surprise) find reasons to not meet with the Warwick School Committee to help resolve the district's $8.9 million budget deficit. As reported by Russel Moore in the Warwick Beacon, the School Administration had proposed to consolidate and eliminate some department head positions in the City's schools (estimated savings of $300,000), which "infuriated union members." Enter WTU President James Ginolfi:

"We were more than willing to sit down and talk until they took that unilateral action. It's like they want to talk right after they violate our contract," said Ginolfi....[U]nion members...wanted to address the budget deficit through negotiations. Ginolfi said it would be illegal to eliminate the department heads without the union's consent because the positions are contractually protected. The union has since filed a grievance....Meanwhile, the school committee had scheduled a meeting with the union's executive board last Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting was quite open-ended, Ginolfi said.

"[School Committee Chairman Christopher Friel] said that we were going to talk about everything. What does that mean? I wanted to set some parameters before we met," said Ginolfi.

Ginolfi then notified the school committee that unless they rescinded their plans to eliminate department heads — there would be no meeting, at least so far as the union was concerned. No progress was made and neither side would budge. The school department wouldn't rescind the notices and the union didn't show up. Tuesday came and went without a meeting.

Apparently, the WTU leadership isn't able to multi-task. Ahh, that's not really true. It's all about perception and rights and contracts, you see. Gotta save face, show power, get your agida up over being "insulted" or slighted. Ginolfi was also upset that the Administration had publicly stated that all school employees should have a 20% health care co-pay before coming to the WTU. It's not exactly a newsflash that co-pays are on the horizon, whether you've been officially informed or not. Grow up and get in the room and talk. Sheesh.

Meanwhile, there still doesn't seem to be any negotiation movement between the School Deparment and the Warwick Independent School Employees Union (WISE), whose members have been working under the old contract for 4 years, which means no raises but also no health care co-payments. Makes me wonder if the East Greenwich model is being looked at for implementation in Warwick.


June 30, 2010


Again: Change the Focus to Students and Parents

Justin Katz

A subscription is required, but Reihan Salam's recent article in National Review on education is worth a read:

Earlier this year, the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform published a study assessing Milwaukee's School Choice Demonstration Project. For many voucher enthusiasts, the results were sobering. Students enrolled in choice schools performed no better on reading and math tests than students attending conventional public schools. Critics such as Kevin Carey, a leading center-left education reformer, suggested that the Milwaukee experiment is therefore a failure.

Yet as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) noted, students enrolled in the choice program are educated more cheaply than district-school students. As of the 2008–09 school year, the maximum amount Milwaukee's choice schools received per student was $6,607. In contrast, the Milwaukee public schools spent approximately $14,520 per pupil. While these numbers aren't directly comparable, it certainly seems that the district schools are considerably more expensive than the voucher program. Moreover, parents were more satisfied with the quality of education at choice schools, which suggests that some of the schools' positive aspects were not captured in reading and math scores.

In 2006–07, we spent $562 billion on K–12 public education, or 3.9 percent of GDP. Let's be generous to the education industry and assume that we could trim its costs by only one-fifth. This would save taxpayers over $100 billion.

Salam goes on to suggest retaining that money in education in order to fund:

  • Targeted summer programs, because part of the problem that economically and socially disadvantaged students face is that their families habits don't help them maintain their gained knowledge throughout the summer, as wealthier families' habits do.
  • Add separate instruction for children who represent discipline problems, to allow teachers to focus on students who are eager to learn.
  • Student-centric technology that allows, for example, online courses on and off of school grounds.

The overall theme is one on which I've been focusing increasingly: Public schools' priorities must be adjusted to shift the focus to students and their parents — ensuring that they accomplish what society needs them to accomplish, but putting feedback from them (such as their actual desire to attend a particular school) ahead of the bureaucratic feedback in the form of expenditures of tax dollars and union feedback in the form of labor unrest.


June 29, 2010


Ever More Money Still Leaving Students Unprepared

Justin Katz

A recent article on Rhode Island education and the high-tech sector ends with this discouraging testimony:

Prof. Edward Bozzi, coordinator for the biotechnology manufacturing program at the University of Rhode Island, said high school students need to learn physics, chemistry and biology, in that order.

He also said high-tech business is increasingly international, and that foreign language skills are important.

"I've talked to people who have taken foreign languages in high school here, and they can't speak a sentence," he said.

One notable differentiator between private and public schools in Rhode Island, that I've noticed, is that the former often begin teaching languages in the very earliest classes. Another is that grades are more reliably tied to performance; when children's report cards are exactly the same every quarter, parents should be suspicious that the method of tracking their abilities isn't functioning properly.

So, I'll admit that Education Commissioner Deborah Gist's talk of teaching methods leaves me unconvinced that she's correctly identifying the problem:

"Classrooms with rows of desks, and the teacher says turn to page 138, do the odd-numbered problems, and don't make any noise — that doesn't work anymore," she said. "Kids are living in an interactive world."

Sure, the odd numbered problems ought to be homework, leaving plenty of time for interactivity — which we used to call, simply, "teaching." Schools shouldn't have much trouble identifying teachers who think class time should be used for tasks better suited to the dining room table and encouraging those teachers to rethink their methods. But we've been hearing about the changing educational needs of America's children for decades, and still results do not manifest.

Blanket statements about what does and doesn't work should raise red flags. Rows of desks and rote work are entirely appropriate for some subjects, at some grades, with certain students, and particular teachers. It speaks no disrespect to suggest that Ms. Gist's Providence office is not the most appropriate perch from which to discern when that is and is not the case.

The fundamental problems with Rhode Island education are twofold: First, regulatory and financial incentives from the federal and state governments take the focus off students' individual potential and place them on improvements among below-average students. (It simply isn't possible for large government bureaucracies to address student performance on an individual basis.) Second, labor practices shape decisions to an unhealthy degree.

Basically, if we are to improve our schools, school systems must behave as if satisfying involved parents is the key to success. As it is, curricula are shaped to attract money (or, perhaps more accurately, to avoid loss of money on which districts are already reliant), and policies center on minimizing union unrest. Schools require the leeway to decline money that comes with tripping strings, to increase programs as student need dictates, and to modify employees' practices with sufficient rapidity to address the actual student bodies that arrive at their steps each year.


June 26, 2010


Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Patrick Reilly

Justin Katz

According to its Web site, the Cardinal Newman Society works to "renew and strengthen Catholic identity in Catholic higher education." To that end, the organization's president spoke on "Newman and the Renewal of Catholic Identity in Higher Education" at the Portsmouth Institute's 2010 conference, here introduced by Portsmouth Abbey Headmaster James DeVecchi:



(The remainder of Mr. Reilly's speech is available in the extended entry of this post.)

Reilly began with some statistics from a recent survey showing that students at Catholic universities still tend to drift toward the views of the secular political left on social issues (most prominently abortion and same-sex marriage), although as I recall, religious schools do mitigate the effect somewhat and also preserve the connection to the Church (among its adherents), presumably easing a future return to Catholic ethics. Still, Reilly's argument is sound that Catholic institutions of higher learning have some readjustment to do when it comes to the balance between their religious mission and their educational mission.

Notably, following on Newman's view of the university, Reilly emphasizes the environment. In Newman's conception, the experience of college life was as important as the subject matter, and Reilly points out that many Catholic colleges put aside the Catholicism of faculty and staff in order to improve standing and educational product. As I said, there is an appropriate balance to be struck, but if professors and other institutional leaders are to be advisers and role models, it's hardly reasonable to expect those who do not believe in the Church's teachings to model them.

Reilly suggests that the control of campus life has been reduced to an administrative function that separates the intellectual and moral formation of students from their college experience. In other words, he believes that Newman's view of such institutions as an opportunity for holistic life training has fallen out of fashion. I think he's incorrect, here. The actuality — and the actual complaint that those who share our worldview should make — is that the training has become adverse to Catholic principles, in favor of those of the secular left. There is no void; the gap has just been left to non-Catholic — even anti-Catholic — forces with an interest in college-age adults to fill.

On the matter of education, Reilly argues in line with Newman that universities cannot remove the existence of God from other topics and still present it as something possible. If believers' concept of God is true, then every intellectual pursuit is ultimately a subset of knowledge of the divine. Religion, in other words, cannot be made a secondary elective to fill out students' schedules in a subordinate way to "important" topics like science, math, and art, because the foundations of those subjects necessarily rest in existential questions, and they all continually run into ethical choices that they cannot answer by their own discipline.

This isn't to say that every professor should be required to incorporate religion into the teaching of their courses. Rather, the claim is that a university cannot present its offering as comprehensive education if it dismisses a central topic of existence as unworthy of required research and debate.

An interesting moment came when Professor Paul Griffiths, who remained throughout the conference after his own lecture, ran into some disagreement with Reilly over the degree of concern that active Catholics should have regarding the Catholicity of Catholic schools. The Duke professor suggested, by way of argument, that the Catholic segments of non-Catholic schools are often stronger and more faithful to the Church's teaching.

It's an exchange worth considering in greater detail, but my initial thought was that parents and students should have the option between public and Catholic institutions, but insofar as they desire a Catholic one, it should be fully as advertised. Reilly's premise, it seems to me, points in the direction of emphasizing Catholicity as a differentiation of Catholic universities rather than something to be de-emphasized.

In any case, it mightn't be a bad idea for the Cardinal Newman Society, or some other organization, to rate all Catholic programs in all colleges and universities with respect to their fidelity to Church teaching and the opportunities that they offer for participation in a Catholic campus culture.

Continue reading "Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Patrick Reilly"

June 25, 2010


Knowing the World

Justin Katz

In a brief review of Alasdair MacIntyre's God, Philosophy, Universities: A Selective History of the Catholic Philosophical Tradition (try here without a subscription), Ryan Anderson makes a point that echoes in a Portsmouth Institute speech by Patrick Reilly that I'll be posting tomorrow:

Scholars once sought unified knowledge of all being, in pursuit of which philosophy and theology played central roles, tying together findings from the various disciplines. But the modern university has largely eliminated theology, relegated philosophy to one technical discipline among many, and abandoned the quest for integrated wisdom about the cosmos.

I look back on my academic days bemused that I was both agnostic on matters of religion and impressed by the way underlying concepts seemed to stretch across all subjects that I studied, from physics, to music, to literature, to sociology, and so on. Students can't possibly form a comprehensive understanding of reality — and the major questions that they must answer for themselves — without studying and understanding the thought about God and philosophy that has drawn Western Civilization toward its current position.

To be sure, one can learn all sorts of useful facts and processes simply studying discrete subjects without delving into the meaning of any of them, but then, college is merely a training facility, and frankly, it leaves most students only generally prepared for the work that they'll be doing. If we've decided that young adults oughtn't enter the workforce, into career-type gigs, until they're in their mid-twenties, we'd do better, I think, to graduate them with a stronger concept of the world in which they'll be acting.

Of course, that brings us back to the question of whether college is really necessary or helpful to all of those who incur debt to attend, and from a broad view of reality, I believe that it is not.


June 24, 2010


What Kind of Choice and Accountability?

Justin Katz

Mary McConnell starts off a recent book review with an excellent anecdote. (If you don't subscribe to First Things, try here.)

"Catholic schools reap one benefit from poverty," the high-school principal hiring me commented ruefully (I'd just glimpsed my pay package). "By the time we've scrounged up money for the latest educational innovation, everybody else has figured out it doesn't work."

Only systems in which money is ultimately no object (indeed, in which failure often leads to more money) could tolerate public education's oddly combined tendency to leap on fads and to reform slowly. The factor that makes sense of the paradox is a desire for more public dollars and for less accountability. A new method of teaching math, for example, requires money for training and materials, while also creating the perennial excuse of adjusting to a new system.

This observation is in keeping with the subject of McConnell's review, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. The title of the review is "Apostasy Sells," because Ravitch is a former advocate of "school choice" and "accountability" who has changed her mind.

Unfortunately, as even occasional followers of the choice and accountability debates should have observed, those who oppose such reforms tend to attack the principle on the basis of a particular policy's results. Consider:

Enter choice. Ravitch contends that voucher programs and public charter schools have failed to demonstrate measurable educational gains. Putting aside the surprising reemergence of test scores as the preferred standard of performance, I wondered what she would say about Catholic schools. The data on charter-school performance is perhaps mixed, but a half century of research proves, as Ravitch acknowledges, that "minority children in Catholic schools are more likely to take advanced courses than their peers in public schools, more likely to go to college, and more likely to continue on to graduate school."

Claiming that she initially supported vouchers to "help Catholic schools," Ravitch now contends that charter schools are forcing Catholic schools to close. A strange complaint. Eight hundred of the 1700 poor children who receive District of Columbia vouchers attend Catholic schools. If, now that Congress has killed the program, their parents flee to charter schools, "choice" will not be the culprit.

The allusion to "the surprising reemergence of test scores" refers to McConnell's prior explanation that "accountability" has become synonymous with "standardized testing," which (whatever its merits), Ravitch finds herself using again and again as necessary evidence for her other arguments.

Those of us who support reforms in the mold of "choice and accountability" can only continue restating that we're not talking about "charters and tests." We're talking about a systematic rethinking wherein families can use at least some portion of the tax money allocated to the education of their children in order to help send them to any school that they would pick were money not an issue (although they'd remain responsible for whatever cost exceeded the program, of course).

Then, school districts need to be reworked to ensure that public schools can hold their own in the ensuing competition, which requires teacher pay and promotion based on individual merit, not seniority, and administrators' reclamation of the authority to make significant decisions and responsibility to accept the consequences when results are negative. You know, sort of like the working world that most of us in the private sector encounter.


June 22, 2010


Highlander School Gets 3 Year Extension

Marc Comtois

As reported by ProJo

The public outcry over the fate of popular Highlander Charter School registered with state education officials, who Tuesday reversed an earlier recommendation to close the school next year unless it showed dramatic improvement and instead granted the school a three-year extension.

Highlander supporters said after the meeting that they were relieved the original recommendation was abandoned, but were disappointed the K-8 school was not granted the customary five-year extension permitted under state law.

The arguments made by the school's supporters swayed the Board of Regents and Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
"We really listened to the feedback that we got, not only from the families but from the leadership of the school and from each of you," Gist said. "I met with the League of Charter Schools and ... with Rose Mary and her board chair and through all of those conversations, really got a better understanding of some of the things people had concerns about in the original recommendations."
I'm glad they extended. Based on Andrew's analysis, it seems like Highlander is getting some things right and deserves more time.


June 19, 2010


Breaking the Cycle of Expensive Education and Poor Economic Development

Justin Katz

The news hook was local, so I posted it over on the Tiverton Citizens for change Web site, but the topic applies to the whole state, so here's the upshot:

... if our investment in education — and let's put aside Rhode Island's and Tiverton's questionable results — leads to policies that drive up the cost of living in the state and the difficulty of doing business, here, it can only be self-defeating. In the first stages of pulling Rhode Island out of the dry well into which it's fallen, our attitude about businesses' importing workers has to be, "so what," followed by, "let's do better from here forward. An active economy will provide the revenue to invest in education without making a disincentive of our town and state cost structures. Moreover, an influx of success-oriented (non-public-sector) residents, many of whom will bring families with them, can only improve voter input to better shape our school system.

Claiming that our inflated costs for education — secondary and above — is a matter of economic development is a union-approved cop-out, and it will remain so until Rhode Island has excess jobs looking for workers... or at least until it's clear that business want to set up shop here but note the lack of skilled employees to be a lone hindrance.


June 11, 2010


A Formula, but It's Just Numbers

Justin Katz

It looks like the General Assembly actually did get around to passing a state aid formula for Rhode Island's schools. As we've been pointing out all along, folks at the local level have seemed to assume that a "fair funding formula" would be one that gives them, specifically, more money, and this legislation does acknowledge some districts as "over funded," therefore reducing their aid.

From a taxpayer perspective, though, this is a critical component:

Besides correcting inequities in state aid distribution, the legislation would help local communities by providing predictability for school district and local budget planners. Without a predictable formula, school districts and municipalities have been forced to guess at the amount they will receive when they are preparing their budgets each spring. Their budgets must be created in time for the start of the fiscal year on July 1, but the amount of state aid they can expect to receive is in flux until the General Assembly passes the state budget, which usually happens in late June.

In Tiverton, for example, the School Committee predicted a low aid number and frightened parents into believing that schools were going to be closed and every program cut. As it turns out, our 8% tax increase could have been almost to the state cap of 4.5% without a change in the practical outcome. Now, ostensibly, school districts will have to find other ways of creating doomsday scenarios to shake down property owners for money to keep up with the promises of inadvisable contracts. In particular, it will be more difficult for districts to compensate for losses in "restricted" — about which they tend to be less vocal — without acknowledging that they are doing so.

There is a reason for concern, though. The current system hasn't been unpredictable because the General Assembly has heard pleas from individual districts and shifted money around on a whim. It's been unpredictable because the state is in perpetual deficit and long-term economic decline, leaving the state government ever in need of places to cut. Although the existence of a big scary formula might make legislators a little more timid about reducing aid to cities and towns, it will hardly prevent them from doing so, whether on a permanent or this-year-only basis.


June 9, 2010


Socializing the Missing Link

Justin Katz

Maybe it's just my sense of the underlying humor of humanity, but I had to chuckle when reading a recent article about an RI Kids Count event. The piece starts out with RI Federation of Teachers and Allied Health Professionals head Marcia Reback advocating for a massive wave of unionized public-sector early-childhood workers. Then it moves through Ed. Commissioner Deborah Gist and others talking about the need for "serious money" devoted to younger children... because (I guess) the serious money that we're allocating for children over five years old hasn't been able to produce the desired results. With all of the pining for taxpayer dollars, the last paragraph seems to come from out of nowhere:

Everyone agreed that parents are the missing link in early childhood education. Community groups need to do a better job of explaining the importance of getting their children to school no matter how nasty the weather. Educators also need to offer literacy-rich summer programs so children do not lose ground between June and September.

Actually, it seems as if everyone agreed that the missing link is more money and more union jobs. The rejoinder, of course, would be that uninvolved parents come first and the need for public resources is a response to that, but the nuance leads in a different direction than the assessment.

That is to say that draining money from the private sector to filter through the government in order to purchase union-inflated child care will weigh down the economy and make it even more difficult for parents to afford time with their children (much less to foster one-income households). Moreover, removing the burden of child care from parents will lower the pay rate that they require before both working makes financial sense, thus expanding the workforce, suppressing wages, and adding yet more difficulty for those who'd like to be more involved with their children.

Of course, the alternative path requires more work to be done, culturally — encouraging marriage and the self-sacrifice of gadgets and modern life's trappings as part of parenthood. Even those who oppose further government intervention in citizens' lives bristle when a conservative, like me, so much as suggests considering whether the Freedom of Perpetual Adolescence oughtn't be reevaluated and adjusted in the social sphere.



Warwick Tea Party Budget Analysis

Marc Comtois

At the Warwick School Committee meeting last night--in a virtual repeat of Monday night's City Council meeting--residents and students voiced their dismay over the idea of cutting school activities, including sports, to make up looming budget deficits. Perhaps the most insightful, eloquent and forceful defense of sports was given by former Pilgrim standout and Syracuse University football player Emerson Kilgore, who is now an assistant Principle in Providence. All will get another opportunity to let all of the entities hear it at 6 PM on Thursday night, when the City Council, Mayor and School Committee will meet over the school budget.

In anticipation of the meeting, the Warwick Tea Party has provided their analysis of the 2011 Warwick City Budget (Download file). According to their research, since 2004 Warwick taxes have continued to increase with the majority (57%) of the increase going towards city-side (municipal, fire, police, etc.) spending, not schools. In 2011, 91% of Mayor Avedisian's proposed cuts are from the school-side of the budget. Overall, if memory serves, schools account for approximately 63% of the city budget.

That being said, the WTP's analysis also confirms what we all know: most of the area ripe for cutting is in employee salaries and benefits in ALL departments, by far the largest line-item in ANY budget--private or public sector. That doesn't necessarily mean firing anyone, just pay freezes, step freezes and implementing fiscally responsible health care and pension plans NOW, not in 2012.



Is the Highlander School Doing Well Enough to Have its Charter Renewed?

Carroll Andrew Morse

According to Jennifer D. Jordan of the Projo, the Highlander school, a K-8 charter school located in Providence, is in danger of having its charter not renewed by the state's Board of Regents for education...

[State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist] said she is concerned by a weak curriculum and uneven test scores that continue to trail state averages.

"I don't have confidence they are on the right track because their performance declined last year," Gist said in an interview.

However, according to the most recent New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) data available, Highlander appears to have been on a definitively positive track for a while now. At the most basic level, NECAP results show that over the past two years, more Highlander' 8th-grade students have scored proficient-or-better in both reading and mathematics than did Highlander 5th-grade students from tests taken three years earlier.

Highlander Reading Math
# of 5rd-Graders, Prof or Better
2005 & 2006 NECAP
18 14
# of 8th-Graders, Prof or Better
2008 &2009 NECAP
34 20
Change in # Students Prof or Better +16 +6

An improvement in the number of students proficient has also occurred in the last two classes of Highlander 7th graders, as compared to 4th-grade results from three years prior; and in the last two classes of Highlander 6th graders, as compared to 3rd grade results from three-years prior.

Highlander Reading Math
# of 4th-Graders, Prof or Better
2005 & 2006 NECAP
22 16
# of 7th-Graders, Prof or Better
2008 &2009 NECAP
48 23
Change in # Students Prof or Better +26 +7

Highlander Reading Math
# of 3rd-Graders, Prof or Better
2005 & 2006 NECAP
18 13
# of 6th-Graders, Prof or Better
2008 &2009 NECAP
24 14
Change in # Students Prof or Better +6 +1

But how does the degree of improvement compare to what is happening elsewhere in Rhode Island?

To begin to answer this question, we can employ a method outlined a few months ago here at Anchor Rising, based on expressing changes in numbers of students in a district who demonstrate proficiency in a subject in terms of...

  • The percentage of students who began as less-than-proficient, in cases where the number of students proficient-or-better increases, or
  • The percentage of students who began as proficient-or-better, in cases where the number of students proficient-or-better decreases.
This metric is a better means of comparing results between districts (or between schools) than are single-moment-in-time comparisons of proficiency levels, because considering the change over time begins to incorporate the fact that different school districts are working with students who are beginning from different achievement levels, and a school that has 50% of its students proficient now when only 30% were proficient three years ago (28% of less-than-proficient students improved) might be viewed as doing as well or better than a school that has 80% of its students proficient now and had 80% proficient three years ago (0% of less-than-proficient students improved). More of the rationale and some caveats and limitations of this method as applied to NECAP data is discussed here.

Making the usual disclaimer that comparing NECAP results from different years is only an approximation to results describing a true cohort of students, because the publicly distributed NECAP data doesn't contain the information needed to adjust for student mobility in and out of a districts over a multi-year score-comparison period, the change in Highlander's proficiency percentages, as compared to other Rhode Island school districts over the same three-year period, shows that the percentages of students at Highlander who moved to proficiency relative to the number of students who began the three-year stretch as less-than-proficient 1) are significantly higher than the district-average changes in most RI urban communities and 2) are often comparable to results in suburban districts.

The details are displayed in the tables below. 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading and math results from the NECAP summed over the last two years and compared to results from three-years earlier are included for Highlander, 4 urban districts (Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls, and Woonsocket), and the two districts which would rank immediately above and immediately below Highlander, according to the metric described above, if Highlander were a district unto itself.

Rank Community # of '08/'09 8th-Graders, PoB at Reading # of '05/'06 5th-Graders, PoB at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, between 5th and 8th Grades # of '05/'06 5th-Graders, LtP at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, as % of '05/'06 5th-Graders LtP(+) or PoB(-)
7 Narragansett 216 195 21 57 36.8%
- Highlander 34 18 16 48 33.3%
8 Bristol-Warren 399 351 48 149 32.2%
23 Pawtucket 718 689 29 730 4.0%
25 Providence 1368 1338 30 2240 1.3%
32 Central Falls 192 208 -16 315 -7.7%
33 Woonsocket 390 433 -43 517 -9.9%

Rank Community # of '08/'09 8th-Graders, PoB at Math # of '05/'06 5th-Graders, PoB at Math Change in # PoB at Math, between 5th and 8th Grades # of '05/'06 5th-Graders, LtP at Math Change in # PoB at Math, as % of '05/'06 5th-Graders LtP(+) or PoB(-)
10 Smithfield 307 291 16 121 13.2%
- Highlander 20 14 6 52 11.5%
11 Jamestown 76 72 4 35 11.4%
29 Pawtucket 519 619 -100 820 -16.2%
31 Central Falls 139 184 -45 355 -24.5%
32 Providence 922 1236 -314 2412 -25.4%
33 Woonsocket 244 372 -128 587 -34.4%

Rank Community # of '08/'09 7th-Graders, PoB at Reading # of '05/'06 4th-Graders, PoB at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, between 4th and 7th Grades # of '05/'06 4th-Graders, LtP at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, as % of '05/'06 4th-Graders LtP(+) or PoB(-)
5 Lincoln 478 399 79 139 56.8%
- Highlander 48 22 26 46 56.5%
6 Johnston 407 317 90 189 47.6%
24 Woonsocket 534 480 54 513 10.5%
26 Pawtucket 732 662 70 719 9.7%
28 Providence 1431 1278 153 2409 6.4%
30 Central Falls 231 223 8 295 2.7%

Rank Community # of '08/'09 7th-Graders, PoB at Math # of '05/'06 4th-Graders, PoB at Math Change in # PoB at Math, between 4th and 7th Grades # of '05/'06 4th-Graders, LtP at Math Change in # PoB at Math, as % of '05/'06 4th-Graders LtP(+) or PoB(-)
6 Exeter-West Greenwich 216 201 15 108 13.9%
- Highlander 23 16 7 52 13.5%
7 Little Compton 53 51 2 24 8.3%
21 Central Falls 147 161 -14 385 -8.7%
24 Pawtucket 509 566 -57 833 -10.1%
27 Providence 933 1073 -140 2690 -13.0%
31 Woonsocket 329 397 -68 603 -17.1%

Rank Community # of '08/'09 6th-Graders, PoB at Reading # of '05/'06 3rd-Graders, PoB at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, between 3rd and 6th Grades # of '05/'06 3rd-Graders, LtP at Reading Change in # PoB at Reading, as % of '05/'06 3rd-Graders LtP
8 Chariho 411 386 25 136 18.4%
- Highlander 24 18 6 33 18.2%
9 Narragansett 173 166 7 39 17.9%
14 Pawtucket 705 669 36 709 5.1%
15 Providence 1465 1367 98 2408 4.1%
16 Central Falls 231 220 11 310 3.5%
18 Woonsocket 501 497 4 546 0.7%

Rank Community # of '08/'09 6th-Graders, PoB at Math # of '05/'06 3rd-Graders, PoB at Math Change in # PoB at Math, between 3rd and 6th Grades # of '05/'06 3rd-Graders, LtP at Math Change in # PoB at Math, as % of '05/'06 3rd-Graders LtP(+) or PoB(-)
15 Pawtucket 614 551 63 847 7.4%
- Highlander 14 13 1 37 2.7%
16 Johnston 269 271 -2 230 -0.7%
24 Central Falls 154 162 -8 386 -4.9%
31 Providence 967 1088 -121 2742 -11.1%
32 Woonsocket 365 413 -48 635 -11.6%

The initial conclusion is that, over the most recent three-year stretch, Highlander and Highlander students seem to have shown an improvement in both reading and math that is comparable to districts not usually considered to be in crisis, at least within the intra-Rhode Island world of education policy (with the results from 3rd-to-6th grade math being on the bubble). But as always, when giant charts of numbers are presented at Anchor Rising, the floor is open for commenters to offer their own analysis and suggestions for refinement...


June 8, 2010


"The fight is about who is going to run public education"

Donald B. Hawthorne

New Jersey Governor Christie

The fight is about who is going to run public education in New Jersey. The parents and the people they elect or the mindless, faceless union leaders who decide that they're going to be the ones who run it because they have the money and the authority to bully around school boards and local councils. So, listen, I know I don't make myself the most popular guy in the world by having this fight, but [if] we don't win this fight, there's no other fights left. This is the fight we have to fight, this is the fight we have to win for the kids.

Watch the video.

ADDENDUM

Remember 2007 in East Greenwich, RI? Anchor Rising was the first to break the news about a teachers' strike in East Greenwich, beating both the newspapers and TV stations. The NEA was arguing that the teachers were being asked to take a pay cut, using that as a public relations hammer to mislead and manipulate town voters in order to maintain their extreme contract terms. So, I sat down with the school administration's Finance Director to get actual and publicly available information as well as reviewed the contracts, did the analysis, showed the NEA claim was a lie, and visibly posted it all on AR. And then dared the NEA to quit whining about pay cuts and actually prove their claim. Which, of course, they could not do and never did.

Here is a sampling of blog posts from that time -

Excuse me, but this is NOT how to win friends & influence people in East Greenwich

There are more earlier blog post links at the bottom of that post.

Several subsequent ones -

"Pay Cut" Analysis Hostage Day Count: Day 2

NEA "Pay Cut" Analysis Hostage Day Count: Day 9


June 2, 2010


When Management Acknowledges Its Own Cards

Justin Katz

Two factors are obvious in making Rhode Island school committees behave as if authority over the jobs is ultimately a weak card in negotiations: Some members see giving as much money as possible to teachers as one of their rightful objectives (whether they're teachers, themselves, or have some other reason for alliance), and other members are people who see their positions as a matter of community service, and they entered them not expecting to have to stand against organized, bare-knuckle negotiators.

Of course, Rhode Island has also set up a series of implied rules and what one might call "legal insinuations" that have led motivated school committee members to hesitate. That's why it took East Providence's challenging those insinuations — and winning — before its school committee could arrive at this point:

While it seems one-sided, the pact secures teachers' salaries and benefits. The School Committee imposed its 2009 salary and benefit cuts after the previous contact expired.

Read the article for the details, but the point that I wish to highlight, here, is that running the school system is not exactly a powerless position, when it comes to negotiations. It's well past time for Rhode Islanders in positions of authority to stop shirking their responsibility to think and act independently of the deadly, draining illusion drawn for the benefit of the state's public sector unions.


May 26, 2010


A Freeze Would Preserve Everything

Justin Katz

Well, it's certainly not rocket science, but it's nice to know that New Jersey's Governor Chris Christie and I have come to the same conclusion when it comes to schools' supposed funding problems (subscription required):

In the last three years, state and local government-employee compensation grew 9.8 percent, compared with 6.9 percent in the private sector. That’s $1.43 in compensation growth for public employees for every $1.00 in compensation growth for private employees.

Those raises cost money, at a time when state tax revenues have taken a hit because of falling incomes and less consumption. For a time, states were able to close much of the gap with stimulus dollars. In New Jersey, now that the stimulus is running out, teachers' unions are urging the extension of a "temporary" tax increase inflicted last year upon residents making over $150,000 annually, and the elimination of the school-funding cut.

As Christie noted, this tax increase (as well as teacher layoffs and cuts to spending on classroom supplies) can be avoided by means of enacting a pay freeze. An April Rasmussen poll found 65 percent of New Jersey voters support a teacher-pay freeze. But while a handful of local unions agreed to accept one, the vast majority balked at the governor's demand. In return, Christie urged voters to reject proposed school budgets in elections on April 20. (In New Jersey, school budgets must be approved by voters annually.)

It has amazed me that school committees across Rhode Island have been talking school closures and the elimination of extracurricular activities. Requiring public-sector staff to experience even just a small amount of the economic pain makes all the problems go away. Of course, that's assuming that there really are problems. A frequent complaint about school departments is that their budgets are entirely their own concoction, and it's clear whose side school committees and administrations are on, for the most part, when it comes down to it.



The Subtle Tactics of the NEA

Justin Katz

In an article about securing union approval of Rhode Island's application for federal Race to the Top education funds:

[NEARI President Larry] Purtill also said he is carefully monitoring the acrimonious situation in East Providence, where the School Committee last year unilaterally cut teachers' wages, forced teachers to pay more of their health insurance costs and recently threatened to cut wages again. East Providence is a NEARI local.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals had their Central Falls problem resolved, and the NEA wants its sweetener, too. Race to the Top is looking more and more like a poison pill.


May 24, 2010


When the Focus Is on Results, One Way or Another

Justin Katz

The title of Julia Steiny's Sunday column, "Test results don't accurately write a school's story," doesn't really reflect the theme of the essay. Sure, she does say that the efforts that Beacon Charter School put forward to improve its reading and writing scores on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) would have been well worthwhile and successful even if the students had not performed as well as they actually did. But what Steiny's really talking about is summed up here:

So the story of Beacon's reading triumph is twofold. On the one hand, it's about how the staff treats the kids generally, as illustrated by the TLC they doled out on the test days. Lots of schools resent the statewide testing program and communicate that resentment to the kids. Beacon nurtures its kids.

Secondly, the triumph reflects what a whole-school collaboration can accomplish in a year when every adult is on task.

The kids were given incentives and perks of the sort that a coach might give a successful athletic team — tools for relaxation, the necessary equipment, candy. And the teachers worked together, often outside of their areas of focus, to come up with a school-wide strategy to attack the target (namely, reading and writing scores). In other words, it was what one might expect in an environment in which the success of the students actually and truly comes first and negotiations and work rules for adults is subsidiary.

That's really the question that our society has to answers: At bottom, are schools meant to educate students or to employ teachers?


May 23, 2010


A Familiar Drum

Justin Katz

I'm keeping up the posting over on the Tiverton Citizens for Change Web site, including the observation that the drum that the Tiverton School Committee beat prior to our financial town meeting are now being played in West Warwick:

Sports programs and part-time employees join the list of recommended cuts school officials hope will compensate for a $1.2-million hole in the School Department’s proposed $47.8-million budget. …

Topping the list of cuts is the closing of the Maisie E. Quinn Elementary School, a move that will save the district $750,000. …

The School Committee is still discussing this budget, Chairwoman Lindagay Palazzo said Thursday. The committee will review the proposal at the June 8 public meeting, and likely will vote to have a budget ready for the Financial Town Meeting, now scheduled for June 22.

How long, do you suppose, until parents and taxpayers learn that there's a template in play, here.


May 21, 2010


Race to the Cash Crop

Justin Katz

I'm not sure one has to be a conspiracy theorist to think that government policies have become little more than a series of scams perpetrated on the American people. Take Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's Race to the Top concoction. Sure, there's some favorable nods in the direction of reform and school choice, but those nods may be easily dispersed when eyes turn away. And even up front, as Frederick Hess points out, they aren't really the meat in the stew:

A few of the 19 priorities rewarded states for moving on measures such as charter schooling and merit pay, with states earning 40 points (out of a maximum total of 500) for supporting high-performing charters and 58 points for using student-achievement results to improve teacher and principal effectiveness. But the vast majority of the points are awarded for compliance with often woolly federal criteria: 65 points for articulating an agenda and securing local buy-in, 10 points for prioritizing education funding, 20 points for providing effective support to educators, and so on. If you're not entirely sure what these categories entail, welcome to the club; they reward states for procuring signatures of union support, for spending more on schools, and for adopting impressive-sounding professional schemes.

Andy Smarick, a Bush Education Department veteran who has painstakingly reported on RTTT, recently observed, "All this talk about revolutionary state change has really been overstated." While RTTT enthusiasts talk of states' lifting caps on charter schooling or removing "firewalls" that prevent student-achievement data from being linked to teachers, he noted that "the full story of states' legislative changes is more complex and less exhilarating." No state that previously prohibited charter schooling has enacted a new charter law to attract RTTT funds, and while Wisconsin technically relaxed its data firewall, it still prohibits student achievement from being used in teacher evaluations. Smarick explained this resistance to major changes as a consequence of union influence: "The problem is how much states had to give up to get that union support and buy-in."

Take away the catchy buzz words meant to disarm natural opponents of schemes implemented by and for big, centralized government and what you've got is a huge bundle of money being used to persuade state and local officials and bureaucrats to seek special-interest buy-in.


May 20, 2010


Teachers Skeptical Over Race to the Top

Marc Comtois

As we've learned, the state American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union has decided to support Race to the Top (RTTT). It isn't too much of a leap to see the link between the recent Central Falls agreement and the AFT sign on, but there also can be little doubt that rank-and-file teachers remain skeptical about RTTT, particularly the teacher evaluation component. Education Commissioner Deborah Gist was in Warwick last week to speak about RTTT and it was clear that the prospects of a new evaluation system seems to be causing the most heartburn in the teacher ranks.

What teachers wanted to know Thursday evening was how they would be evaluated and whether such measures would be fair.

Toll Gate English teacher Darlene Netcoh asked if she would be held accountable for the performance of teachers who shaped students since they entered the system in kindergarten?

"What are these hardworking teachers not doing," queried Toll Gate history teacher Kate Rauch.

Netcoh's concerns are valid, which is why any student performance component of a teacher evaluation system has to account for the "raw material" the teacher is starting with. In other words, each student will have a baseline performance score (or something like that), which will be used for comparison at the end of the year to determine progress.

Teachers and union leaders have also complained that there haven't been enough details given out regarding a new teacher evaluation system. As Gist explained, it hasn't been developed because RIDE wants to include teachers in the development process. As she said, if she had developed an evaluation system without teacher input, she would be accused of forcing a system on them. More fundamental is that the reason she hasn't started that process is because she hopes to use RTTT funds to develop that system. However, as she has said, whether or not RI gets RTTT funds, a new statewide teacher evaluation standard will be developed by 2011.


May 18, 2010


Gist on Central Falls and the Importance of Evaluations

Marc Comtois

Rick Hess at EdWeek interviewed RI Ed. Commissioner Deborah Gist in light of the recent agreement between Central Falls teachers and Superintendent Frances Gallo. Hess' focus was on the importance of a good evaluation system for making reform work.

Rick Hess: The deal turns critically on the teacher evaluation component that'll be introduced next year (with unsatisfactory teachers targeted for termination). How will we know whether the evaluation is sufficiently tough, or whether it becomes a fig leaf for backing away from more painful measures?

Deborah Gist: There are a couple of ways that we'll know. One is that the administration has the complete authority to put the evaluation into place. The agreement says the evaluation will be put into place solely by the management. And the Board of Regents passed regulations that define what the evaluations have to look like in this state. The guidelines are good and strong, and everything that we're doing is based on those.

RH: Okay, but suppose that, at this time next year, we see that just five or six of the school's 93 teachers are removed. Would observers be right to be skeptical that the process was toothless?

DG: It's not about removing any particular percentage of teachers. It's hard to know what the proper percentage would look like. But I strongly encourage people to be skeptical. We should be skeptical. I want people to take a hard look at us, and I'm going to do the same with the district and with my staff. But it's not about the percentage of teachers we remove. It's about the quality of the evaluation and about performance. I expect there will be turnover, but how much there is remains to be seen....

RH: What do you say to critics who might ask how you can leave the faculty intact for another year at a school that you've identified as profoundly low-performing?

DG: We don't take this decision lightly. We take it very seriously. But there are some great teachers at the high school and, because teacher evaluation is so poor around the country and in the state, we don't have good evidence as to who should stay and who should not. This deal gives us the opportunity to make those decisions in a more informed way and gives folks the opportunity to be a part of the reform movement. There are examples of groups of teachers coming together to turn their schools around in various communities, and there's no reason to assume it can't happen here. We're going to give teachers that chance. Our expectations are high. We'll be watching carefully. If they're not ready to deliver results, we'll act upon that rapidly.

As research conducted by The New Teacher Project (TNTP) has shown (outlined in their report, "The Widget Effect" -- PDF and website), the teacher evaluation process is woefully inept nationwide. The TNTP's "Widget Effect" is largely a by-product of the industrial era/collective-bargaining system whereby school districts and unions have come to view and treat teachers as identical widgets in the educational machinery. The operating assumption is that the vast majority of teachers are all equally effective. In the districts that TNTP studied:
All teachers are rated good or great - In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory"), more than 99 percent of teachers receive the satisfactory rating. Districts that use a broader range of rating options do little better; in these districts, 94 percent of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1 percent are rated unsatisfactory.
That's simply impossible and unrealistic. While such a flawed system clearly overstates the effectiveness of the average teacher (and being a teacher of "average" effectiveness isn't a net negative, by the way), worse is that they diminish the real effectiveness of those who truly are superior educators. Further, these evaluation systems are not fair to new teachers and teachers who are average or good but still have areas that need improvement.
73 percent of teachers surveyed said their most recent evaluation did not identify any development areas, and only 45 percent of teachers who did have development areas identified said they received useful support to improve....Though it is widely recognized that teachers are least effective in their beginning years, 66 percent of novice teachers received a rating greater than "satisfactory" on their most recent performance evaluation....Despite uniformly positive evaluation ratings, teachers and administrators both recognize ineffective teaching in their schools. In fact, 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher in their school who is performing poorly, and 43 percent of teachers say there is a tenured teacher who should be dismissed for poor performance.
But instituting an evaluation system won't be easy thanks to the culture that has developed in which, teachers--even novice teachers--expect to be given the highest rating. And why not? They've never been evaluated any differently (everybody wins)!
Our research reflects that there is a strong and logical expectation among teachers that they will receive outstanding performance ratings. While the vast majority of teachers receive the highest rating, those teachers who do not receive it tend to believe that the higher rating was warranted....Even teachers who are just beginning their careers believe they deserve the highest performance ratings and are dissatisfied if they are rated good, not great. This inflated sense of performance is evident in the self-assessment ratings of novice teachers. In a subset of districts where teachers were asked to assess their own instructional performance on a scale of 1 to 10, 69 percent of novice teachers rated their instructional performance an 8 or higher.

In a system where negative or even less than perfect performance ratings are given only rarely, teachers naturally develop an expectation that they will be among the large majority considered top performers. In this context, teachers perceive low or negative ratings not in terms of what they communicate about performance but as a personally-directed insult or attack. The response is understandable in the context of the current system, where so few teachers get critical feedback of any kind. When their evaluation does include criticism, they feel as though they have been singled out while other examples of poor performance go unaddressed.

This creates a culture in which teachers are strongly resistant to receiving an evaluation rating that suggests their practice needs improvement. Schools then find themselves in a vicious cycle; administrators generally do not accurately evaluate poor performance, leading to an expectation of high performance ratings, which, in turn, cause administrators to face stiff cultural resistance when they do issue even marginally negative evaluations. The result is a dysfunctional school community in which performance problems cannot be openly identified or addressed.

That's why teacher "buy-in" is so important to effect change. Of course, that doesn't mean that change requires that the current teachers buy in, just that you find teachers who will.

There's much more good stuff in "The Widget Effect" report, but the bottom line is that implementing a robust and fair evaluation system is extremely important for moving forward with school reform.

ADDENDUM: Writing elsewhere, Hess is supportive of the Central Falls deal, noting:

The Rhode Island story is a truly encouraging development....this story shows how leaders with backbone can eventually force union leadership to accept a new reality. Yes, Gallo walked back the bold action that won her many education reformers' approval, but good management is about discipline, not bloodlust. The point of school turnarounds is not to count scalps, but to win necessary changes, force out lousy teachers, and reset the board.


May 16, 2010


Central Falls: Tomorrow's News Today

Justin Katz

The press releases are coming out concerning an administration-union deal in Central Falls. First in the emailbox was the union's take:

The Central Falls Teachers Union and the Central Falls School District reached a tentative agreement Saturday to implement a transformation plan for Central Falls High School for the 2010-11 school year in a way that involves all stakeholders—administrators, teachers, students and parents—to create a pathway toward excellence for everyone at the school.

Both the school district and the union agree that while this has been a difficult process for everyone involved, the negotiations resulted in a newfound appreciation for shared responsibility, and a solid commitment to bring lasting solutions that will improve teaching and learning at Central Falls High School.

As part of that agreement, which is pending ratification, the current staff will return to the school without having to reapply for their jobs. Teachers will need to recommit to their jobs and interview with the new principal. The agreed upon plan would also incorporate important changes designed to increase student achievement. These include a longer school day, more after-school tutoring, a new evaluation system designed to inform teaching and learning, and targeted and embedded professional development, among other changes. Details of the agreement will be released following a ratification vote by Central Falls teachers at a meeting Monday. A press conference is scheduled at the high school at 3:30 p.m.

Followed, just now, by two cents from Education Commissioner Deborah Gist:

I am really pleased that the Central Falls School Department, under Dr. Frances Gallo’s leadership, and the Central Falls Teachers Union have come to a tentative agreement about a plan to transform Central Falls High School, and that they will do that work together. The ideal situation is when we can do this important work collaboratively, and that's why this agreement is so promising. ...

From the outset, I have said that my one commitment is to ensure that we provide the best possible education for the students of Central Falls High School. The tentative agreement reached today is evidence that all parties can put aside their differences and work in the best interest of our students. Now it's time to move forward and work together to make Central Falls High School one of the best schools in Rhode Island.

We'll see who got what, but I have to think that the teachers have become increasingly nervous as the applicant pool to replace them has approached the 1,000 mark.


May 11, 2010


Best Rhode Island Public High Schools

Marc Comtois

New (Citadel?) media site GoLocalProv has compiled a ranking of the Rhode Island Public High Schools. The top 10 comprise some of the usual suspects and some that may surprise:

1) East Greenwich
2) Block Island
3) Narragansett
4) Barrington
5) South Kingstown
6) Classical
7) Exeter-West Greenwich
8) Lincoln
9) Middletown
10) Mt. Hope

Their methodology:

HOW WE DETERMINED VALUE: Our rankings were computed by a statistical method created at Babson College and utilized by Boston Magazine in its annual rankings of schools. We gathered data on area schools by consulting school officials and Web sites, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. With this information, we calculated mean scores for each data category and then ranked schools based on their distance from the averages.

For schools that did not provide figures, the average was used as a placeholder when computing the rankings.

Public Schools Category Weight Breakdown
* Student/Teacher Ratio 15%
* Per Pupil Spending 15%
* NECAP-English 10%
* NECAP-Math 10%
* NECAP-Science 10%
* SAT-Verbal 10%
* SAT-Math 10%
* SAT-Writing 10%
* Graduation Rate 10%


One quibble I have is with their weighting of Per Pupil Spending at 15%: at some point going too far above the state average isn't necessarily a good thing, is it? That could also apply--if less so--to the student/teacher ratio. For example, Narragansett came in third overall, but with the exception of Reading SAT (5th), it is no better than 9th in the other academic categories. But it is fifth in per pupil spending ($17,587) and second in student/teacher ratio (7.5/1), which, thanks to the positive weighting that fewer students, more teachers and more cost GoLocalProv has assigned, put it in the top 3. Is that cost effective or an adequate return on investment?

On the other hand, East Greenwich was middle-of-the-pack in both the student/teacher ratio (a little better than average) and per pupil spending (a little below average) categories, but in the top three in each of the academic categories. Finally, Coventry was the average RI High School--average scores, average student/teacher ratio--though they spend a couple grand less/student than average, which could be viewed as getting more than you paid for, I suppose.



Everything's Negotiable in the Race to the Top

Justin Katz

I'm not a fan of saying, "How high?," when the federal government says, "jump," and waves around a bunch of money. It's also detrimental to begin seeing federal dollars as some sort of cost-free windfall.

That said, the Race to the Top matter has brought forward the true face of labor unions and highlighted their strategies and motivation:

Recently, union officials have told Gist they want her to intervene in union-management strife in Central Falls and East Providence. While those two disputes continue, they said, they can't support the aggressive reforms Gist says are needed to fix failing schools. Gist and other state officials have said repeatedly that they cannot intervene. In Central Falls, the union local is fighting plans by Supt. Frances Gallo to terminate the entire teaching staff of the low-performing high school and hire back only 50 percent. In East Providence, the union is outraged the local school committee unilaterally cut teacher salaries and forced teachers to pay more into their health insurance. Both cases are currently in the state's courts.

"You want that $75 million? Well, make these two little problems go away. Make it clear who runs the show around here." (Not an actual quotation, by the way.)

Rhode Island's educational system is failing children and costing residents far too much — to the point that, in combination with other factors, it's strangling the state's economy. The law will decide what local remedies are allowed. To unions, though, that's not good enough. Any chance to extort for the result they want is legitimate, in their eyes.

And that, in case you needed further example, is why it's so dangerous to look toward consolidation and the movement of governing authority to higher tiers of government.


May 10, 2010


Ed. Commissioner Gist Speaks Directly to Educators

Marc Comtois

In a video posted today (at the previously-unknown-to-me RIDETV website), RI Education Commissioner Deborah Gist speaks directly to educators regarding Race to the Top (RTTT) and how, regardless of whether or not RI wins this round of RTTT, there will be a new teacher evaluation system implemented.

The system will be used to evaluate all educators--teachers, superintendents, etc. She also explained that specific details were unknown because the current plan is to design the evaluation system with educators from across the spectr