Conclusions from Evidence in RI Science Scores


Is there anything about the science scores released by the state Dept. of Education yesterday that ought to give Rhode Islanders confidence that state and local governments are capable of improving public education or to give parents confidence that spending money on private school is not a moral obligation if at all feasible?  The state’s primary excuse is more of an admission that its foolish behavior is structural, not incidental:

In 2013, Rhode Island adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, developed by a consortium of 26 states and several science-education groups, which ask students to think like a scientist and call for more hands-on, investigative work. But the NECAP is much more focused on subject matter, so the test no longer reflects what students are learning in the classroom.

Some skepticism is justified, inasmuch as science lessons at that level of education ought to be broadly applicable, not narrowly tailored toward a specific test.  (Ultimately, we don’t pursue education simply to be able to score well on a test.)  But even putting that aside, what could possibly be the rationale for wasting time on tests that students are not expected to be able to pass?

The state’s second excuse edges into a much broader problem that nobody in public education wants to discuss:

[State Education Commissioner Ken] Wagner said there is another reason why students perform worse in high school. Research has shown that it’s much harder to retain good science teachers in high school, particularly in urban districts, because of the challenges posed by urban classrooms and because jobs are much more lucrative in the private sector.

For the benefit of special-interest labor unions, local, state, and federal elected officials and bureaucrats have allowed us to force our education system to handle employees in a way that is wholly inappropriate to an environment requiring teachers of varying skill levels to address the needs of students from early childhood to young adulthood across multiple capabilities and a large variety of subjects.  Some districts do have agreements with their unions to allow some pay difference between, say, a kindergarten teacher and high school teacher in possession of highly valuable scientific knowledge, but the cost to taxpayers isn’t part of that equation.

That is, we’re not permitted to adjust payroll; the system won’t allow, say, a district hiring both a kindergarten teacher and a high school science teacher to reduce the salary for the former in order to increase the offer for the latter.

Wagner claims that these science scores “call for urgency,” but if government agents really believed that, they’d admit that urgency would not allow for another lost decade spent denying that public education as it’s developed simply cannot perform the function that we say we want it to perform.

  • Mike678

    Does anyone doubt that “urgency” means more money?

    Cynicism aside, context is important. In some school districts, our ‘professional’ High School teachers are letting students know that the NECAP–or the newer PARCC scores do little for them (as they aren’t a graduation requirement), so why try? Perhaps the union reps can explain how this practice assists students and schools maintain standards or accountability.

    • Mike Trump

      “High School teachers are letting students know”, sure Mike. That’s very Trumpian of you. “People say…” Show us some support please.

  • Joe Smith

    Sure..if we are using PARCC and NECAP scores as the basis for judging a school, let’s have all those private schools post their PARCC and NECAP scores by gender and socio-economic status for comparisons.

    Let’s see the teacher pay scale for the private schools to see if they are implementing the cut a lower important teacher pay to boost pay for a more valued skill area teacher.

    Nothing prevents a school district from cutting *other* expenses outside of contractual ones if it wants to offer a bonus for an in demand worker – and frankly in the private sector, companies don’t often cut the pay of another worker when there is a shortage in another component of their labor force that puts upward pressure on those wages – it’s usually bad for morale. They tend to adjust other costs, pass it on to consumers (if possible), or over time adjust their capital-labor mix or production methods.

    Mike – I don’t disagree with your point, but what’s the responsibility of the student (especially at the high school level) to have and the parents to instill the do your best effort mentality? My parents taught me if I was spending time on something to do my best effort, regardless of the direct impact on me or what others might be saying..the old if it is worth doing, it’s worth doing well..(even if I didn’t think it was ‘worth’ it!).

    It’s also a bit puzzling why teachers – I get the initial PARCC snafu where it was taking a ridiculous amount of time to preach the opt out method – would want students to not do well if students are taking the test. Right – scores will NEVER be allowed (and there is some merit to that argument) to factor into pay or evaluations directly and low scores only give ammunition to the school choice advocates. Monopolies may get lax, but they rarely try to purposefully undercut their monopoly.

    • Justin Katz

      The idea isn’t that a district should be able to cut one teacher’s pay to increase another. It’s that a district should be able to have individualized pay scales. Kindergarten would just pay less than high school science. This sort of differentiation happens all the time in the private sector.
      As for the ability to cut other expenses to pay for teachers, that’s one of Rhode Island’s more substantial problems, as we see in reports about decaying buildings. Unions are forcing more and more to go to labor, harming children and communities.
      As for the ability to pass on increased expenses, that’s only a valid option when the consumer has a choice. When the unions can manipulate the political process to control the government and make it impossible, we’re not talking about market mechanisms, but something more closely resembling organized crime.

      • Joe Smith

        Districts’s just that in RI it’s either a hard and fast union stance or something school boards don’t want to tackle. There are districts in other states that have systems with differentials for school, performance (although everyone is almost highly or effective but still there can be differentials), or other factors besides the usual suspects of step and degree.

        And again, it’s common in the private sector; is it common in the private K-12 education sector? I don’t know – do you have access to the payscales? Charter schools, who aren’t unionized, could do that but the ones I’ve seen look pretty much like a common step/education system too.

        Also, you don’t answer the question – if you’re throwing out poor science scores as a reason for choice, where are the private school scores?

        if you’re for school choice on the simple principle parents know best and should have the option to make the choice, regardless of the performance of the mandated or choice school, then you don’t need test scores to support that point. If you are, then what if a school is showing 100% proficiency at a cost lower than the choice school?

        Look at the science scores. I don’t know the story, but the top Elementary School is a public (non-charter) with 34% low income, 20% special ed, and $500 per pupil lower than the state average per pupil…so is there a moral obligation for that district’s taxpayers to pay to allow kids to go to a private alternative? That’s 22% higher than the lily white (93%) Barrington elementary school with only 8% special ed and 8% higher than the lily white (97% and almost no free lunch/spec ed kids) closest charter school (that ironically touts itself as a focused on science).

        What’s the outrage is not a peep from the Commissioner to go – here are a handful of schools where (in science) we see great proficiency not in rich or high spending communities so what are they doing right?

        I’m with you for the school (public or charter) that is down in the bottom to also say close it or try vouchers, etc. But when you say “is there anything”..well sure, look at those few (admittedly) public schools not in Barrington or EG or not the demographically elitist charters that are scoring 75% or higher.. heck, if a school with 1/3rd “poor” and 1/5 spec ed (and obviously some who are in both) is getting 93% proficiency, that’s a “something” to me…

        • Justin Katz

          I think my post is pretty clear that the point isn’t the scores themselves, per se, but the ability to be confident that the educational system in Rhode Island is capable of addressing them. If a private school fails a student or all of its students, it will go out of business.