September 27, 2009

Failing Our Students, Once Again

Justin Katz

It is unequivocally unacceptable that a mere fifth of Rhode Island's high school students can achieve proficiency on the science version of the NECAP test. I'm especially incensed by the fact that Tiverton was one of only two districts in Rhode Island to lose ground at every grade level. Johnston was the other, and while Johnston's scores are worse, Tiverton's declined more severely (PDF).

The question that begs to be asked is whether the result is further evidence that the raises that the Tiverton school committee dished out in January were ill considered or it is an indication of union members' inability to maintain and improve the quality of their work while they're agitating for unaffordable increases in pay.

Turning back to the state level, Julia Steiny's got an interesting column today making the observation that the problem is much deeper than just an inability to lead students to grasp scientific concepts:

In the spring of 2008, Greg Shea, physics teacher at Mt. Hope High School, was proctoring the 11th-grade New England Common Assessment Program science test.

As he wandered among the test-takers, he was blown away by the number of kids leaving the open-ended questions blank. They seemed buffaloed by having to explain their thinking in writing. His heart sank.

Sure enough, when the test results came in, an anemic 19 percent of the kids were "proficient." (State average: 17 percent.) Shea says, "The biggest driver of the science NECAP scores was the students' inability to respond to the extended-response questions. We dug into the issue by asking the kids what happened. They told us we hadn't given them enough opportunity to develop the [needed] skills."

Steiny presents the story as an ultimately hopeful illustration of what can happen when professional educators work together and try comprehensive approaches. In a darker frame of mind, one could point out that we aren't merely failing to provide students with a body of basic knowledge, which is bad enough, but are unleashing them into the world unable to learn, think, or express themselves in practical ways, which is nigh upon criminal and brings into doubt the very argument for funding public education at all.

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Steiny's column was a positive one. And as I often argue, it shows the success teachers can have when the union leaders and bureaucrats get out of the way. Rather than allowing school communities to make decisions based on the needs of their kids, bureaucrats and union leaders are fighting for greater control and are responsible for our public schools' failure. As long as a majority of teachers allow unions that control, they are equally responsible.

The truth is that charter schools succeed because the decisions are made by those who directly work with the kids and their families. The unions and bureaucrats are, for the most part, cut out of the equation. How I long for that at my school.

Posted by: mikeinri at September 27, 2009 7:25 PM

"a mere fifth of Rhode Island's high school students can achieve proficiency on the science version of the NECAP test."

" the raises that the Tiverton school committee dished out in January were ill considered "

As were the raises negotiated by every school committee in Rhode Island for the last fifteen + years. It has been all about labor for most Rhode Island school committee members and not about the children. This is evident in teacher pay and student achievement, which are on opposite ends of the scale.

We're not asking for the world. How about making it about the kids even just fifty percent of the time?

Posted by: Monique at September 27, 2009 10:16 PM

The problem is that good teachers are often prevented from being able to do their jobs by the bureaucratic processes. In Providence, we had a problem with a toxic practice called "bumping" that made it impossible for supposedly site-based managed schools to hire and keep the best teachers. When layoffs came, a teacher with more years of experience in the district could force a teacher with fewer years in the district out of his or her position based only on longevity and not performance. So, a principal might hire a fantastic teacher who connects well with the kids and knows his/her stuff only to have that person bumped by one of the worst teachers in the district the following year. Unions should focus more on helping to make the educational process successful and positive for teachers, students, and families and should stop supporting the practices that are detrimental to all and only protect people who should not be protected. In all honesty, why should an incompetent teacher have job security? It is an insult to good teachers everywhere. It is no wonder that so many good teachers leave systems where they are needed most.

Posted by: Tabetha at September 28, 2009 2:16 AM

The ProJo should do an expose about the type of teachers that get hired. Too many people get hired as teachers based on political patonage. The sad thing is, many of the teachers who get their jobs through political patronage have no aptitude for the job. Others don't have the substantive knowledge of the subject which they are expected to teach. A few have pre-exisitng mental impairments--a surprising number of teachers have longstanding anxiety and panic disorders- which result in long periods of disability when these conditions are "aggravated" by the normal stresses and strains of doing the job If you can't stand the thought of public speaking, why did you take a job as a teacher?

Posted by: JosephD.Barber at September 28, 2009 8:53 AM
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