A Reporter Who Spins and a System that Drags Students Down


Erika Sanzi calls out Providence Journal education writer Linda Borg both for her bias and for blocking Sanzi on Twitter.  On behalf of my fellow Rhode Island subversives, I welcome Erika to the club.

It’s nice to have somebody else spotting and calling attention to the obvious errors in the pro-establishment spin.  Borg tweeted that Rhode Island had moved “up to 12th in a national ranking by Ed Week on academic achievement.”  Anybody who’s paid any attention to our state’s scores and trends should have done a quadruple-take on that claim, and that’s what Sanzi did:

People can certainly celebrate or quibble with EdWeek’s finding of Rhode Island landing in the 12th spot for its school systems overall. If 22nd for chance for success, 30th for academic achievement, and 5th in school finance puts us in 12th place, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the following questions:

  • Why is every state in New England, except for Maine, ranked higher than we are
  • Why, with such a strong score for school finance, do our achievement scores remain so low?

Dwell on that second bullet point.  In any fair assessment, excess spending ought to be calculated as a negative, not a positive. (This is a common point not considered in comparisons of government activity across states.)  Making a quick index of EdWeek’s “achievement” score against its “spending” score — sort of an efficiency index — puts Rhode Island at 46th in the country.

That illustrates a point that I’ve made many times in the past and that Sanzi suggests above:  Being middle-of-the-pack is not very impressive when you’re spending top-of-the-line dollars.  That’s especially true when you consider that Rhode Island is above average in “chance of success,” which largely depends on socio-economic conditions.  In other words, our students’ achievement should be higher than average based on this factor alone.

The conclusion to which this analysis leads may be a painful one for Rhode Islanders to hear, but if we actually want to help our children succeed and to improve our state, we have to address it:  Rhode Island’s education system isn’t just failing to add value for its students — holding them back; it’s actively harming them — dragging them down.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    “Why, with such a strong score for school finance, do our achievement scores remain so low?”
    Perhaps we should question how closely connected the two are.

  • Joe Smith

    Nobody is going to put Linda Borg up for an award as a reporter who “goes deep” into analysis for a story.

    excess spending ought to be calculated as a negative.. ah, so Justin, define “excess?” If you mean more spending than some benchmark to get the same results, fine – but that assumes:

    (1) spending is uniformly accounted across your benchmarks (maybe within RI under UCOA, but even then charters and traditional are not totally reporting the same type of expenses).

    (2) the outcomes are modeled correctly, taking into account the endogenous and exogenous variables that exist. For example, Barrington has a lower PPE and better outcomes than Tiverton. Would you say Tiverton is less efficient at education than Barrington?

    Hmm..well, if you mean for the same white, two parent, non-FRL, student with at least one college educated parent..I don’t know – does anyone calculate that level? But RIDE doesn’t even come CLOSE to doing that kind of analysis.

    Of course, disentangling the performance of a school from the selection and characteristics of its students is hard. But if you don’t do that, any measurement of spending and correlation to outcomes – be it for a study on school choice or just some “hey look at us we have a ranking” methodology – is problematic. Your index is just taking a bad variable and making it just slightly less bad, but drawing conclusions from it is still fraught with issues.

    You’d need to do some real let’s get serious analysis and experiments that nobody seems inclined to want to do – including school choice / reform advocates.

    • Justin Katz

      I’d love to do some serious analysis and experiments. Are you proposing to provide a grant?

      On a more-serious note, my post is clearly dealing in generalities, as in, it’s wrong simply to put spending into an index as a positive, because at some level the spending isn’t producing anything extra, or is an indication that something is driving up the costs that has little to do with education. It’s meant as a caveat to the index, not a calculable counter proposal.

      • Joe Smith

        I’d love to see those that are willing to pony up $M for studies and audits to do something like pay a charter school that would just take a random draw of students (even then you’d have to worry if it required parental approval that has a bias just like the charter lottery system introduces) and see what results compared to the *actual* school the kids would have attended.

        Heck, I’d love to see the GA eliminate the “sibling” exemption as that is a decent natural experiment because you’re controlling as best as possible for parental/home factors. Even better if you could find twins!

        I’m not disagreeing with your point – I’d love to see Linda Borg write a story on why the stupid ranking is useless, as opposed to what it purports to say.

        Then, I’d love to see Linda Borg or the other reporters using that story to call out RIDE (and state leaders) for why the state takes so much data in (at a substantial cost) and yet can’t do seemingly more than superficial analysis.

        Or why the new Commissioner has to get $300K for an audit that leaves me wondering why nobody at RIDE/Providence city government can’t do – and should have been doing anyway since RIDE collects budget and actual spending *every* year.

        I’d settle for what MA DOE does – they make datasets available for people who can actually do the research – you know, like our smart people in our public schools that crank out teachers should be able to do.

        Calling out Linda Borg is like complaining out the weather. I’d like to see people like Sanzi or the plethora of our “kids count” advocates who have a voice talking more on the need for better analytics. Although I suspect some who benefit from pushing for “reform” might be afraid of what that might actually show.