Given political incentives, I was definitely interested to see Ted Nesi report that “twice as many young workers in Rhode Island need adult basic education compared with their counterparts in Massachusetts and Connecticut.” Obviously, if one is out there asserting the moral urgency of school choice, the fact that the system as it exists (with a public school near-monopoly) is failing to teach students even to an eighth grade level would be a powerful point.
Unfortunately, the picture isn’t that simple.
The factoid comes from this “data story” on RI DataHub, a service of various state agencies. (The phrase “data story” ought to raise red flags.) The underlying source data appears to be a regular report from the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education (NCSDAE).
On the shocking chart comparing Rhode Island with its neighbors, it’s important to assess what it’s actually showing. The size of the columns — where Rhode Island is twice Connecticut and Massachusetts — is actually the percentage of all young adults who are enrolled in adult education programs who require basic education (up to eighth grade lessons) as opposed to secondary education (high school lessons) or English as a second language. So, specifically, Rhode Island’s mix of young adult learners skews basic, but a number of factors could account for that.
Adjusting the data for population, Rhode Island does have more adults (of any age) in basic education than any other New England state other than Maine, at 2.4 per 1,000. On the other hand, the Ocean State has the least in secondary education, at 0.4 per 1,000. Combined, Rhode Island’s 2.8 per 1,000 adults in either of those two groups is the third lowest of the six states.
Expanding the DataHub chart to include all ages and adjusting it for population produces the following result.
One important note: While a pop-up chart on this slide of the “data story” gives an age breakdown for Rhode Island, similar data was not easily available for Connecticut and Massachusetts, so this chart is for all age groups. Younger participants, as shown in the original DataHub chart, might be different.
Observing from the source data that a larger percentage of Massachusetts’s participants are employed raises the possibility that Rhode Island’s performance is more of a jobs problem than an education problem. If MA is producing more low-end jobs, then those residents won’t feel as compelled to enter adult education — in part, perhaps, because they won’t be as likely to have case workers encouraging them into work-readiness programs.
As stated, I don’t currently have a way to compare this across states, but if we assume an even distribution of the 16-24 year olds across nine grade levels, then around 200 adults per year are in either basic or secondary adult education. That’s between 1.5% and 2.0% of a typical Rhode Island grade level.
The goal of leaving no child behind is an admirable one, but we can’t just assume that those who slip through the cracks would be better served by a focus on education rather than on jobs. After all, a few years of menial labor can educate young adults both to some of the habits that they may have lacked in school and to the consequences if they remain uneducated.
Of course, to the extent that we are able to better reach those 1.5-2.0% of young Rhode Islanders while they’re in school, I’d argue that increasing options and expanding overall investment in education through a strong school choice policy is the way to go.