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A Far-Reaching Conversation on State of the State

State of the State co-host Richard August invited me on for a full hour of the show to cover a broad range of topics, from Tiverton’s recall election to broad political philosophy.

12-9-19 A Different View of Matters from John Carlevale on Vimeo.

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Political Monday with John DePetro: A Creature of Their Own Making

My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for November 25, included talk about:

  • Insider Alves and the radical caucus
  • The union view of employer responsibility
  • Gaspee versus campaign finance laws
  • Paint on the statute becoming blood on government’s hands
  • Blood on the police officer’s hand gets a slap on the wrist

Open post for full audio.

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Diagnosing the Education System’s Health

While disaster in Providence schools receives a deserved proportion of Rhode Islanders’ attention, Tim Benson of the Heartland Institute suggests that we shouldn’t lose sight of problems across the whole state:

Results from the latest version of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test—also known as the Nation’s Report Card—have been released, and Rhode Island’s scores are not good.

Only 35 percent of fourth graders tested “proficient” in reading, while just 40 percent tested proficient in mathematics in 2019. These math scores were a decline from 2017. For eighth graders, just 35 percent were proficient in reading, and only 29 percent were proficient in math. Both of these results were also a decline from 2017, with reading scores being significantly down. When accounting for demographic differences across students throughout the state and control for race, ethnicity, special education status, income level, etc., Rhode Island’s scores are even worse.

Benson offers this as an introduction to his proposed solution, which is to expand the state’s tax credit scholarship program, whereby businesses receive tax credits for donating to scholarships for disadvantaged students.  Lifting the cap on that program, opening it up to non-corporate donors, and adding provisions to provide certainty to scholarship recipients would all be great changes, but of itself, that solution is wholly inadequate to Rhode Island’s problem.

One local man here in Tiverton has been on a Facebook mission to find out what went wrong with Rhode Island public schools.  There isn’t a single reason things got to their current state, and there won’t be a single fix.  The challenges are cultural, they’re institutional, and they’re deep.  Asking what went wrong is like looking at a lonely, obese, alcoholic smoker in late middle age whose house looks like it ought to be condemned for all the hazards and asking why his health is poor.

We need broad public policy reforms that open up doors for a wide variety of individualized education plans for students as part of a cultural shift in our understanding of ourselves and of government.

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The Example the Teachers Set

“Imagine that! Teachers sending out postcards with a picture of violence to silence others in town.”  Tiverton Town Council member Donna Cook makes that statement in a new letter to the editor informing people about some facts from the recent recall election in town (which knocked me out of office).

She’s referring to one of the five mailings that the recall advocates sent to homes in Tiverton.  The return address claims that it comes from “Progress RI,” which although not registered appears to be a “doing business as” name of the state’s teachers unions.  The return address is that of a middle school teacher in town. And this is the front of the card, which Cook describes as “a violent picture similar to a kidnapping, hijacking, robbery, or a hostage situation.”

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Note that the claim at the top of the card is demonstrably false; it’s a lie.

While recording an episode of a soon-to-be-released local podcast, Cook contrasted this card with all of the talk we hear from those in the education system about bullying.  That’s an important contrast that isn’t made often enough in our world of hostile politics and toxic social media.

Imagine a high school student sending out something similar on social media about other students.  Nobody would have any trouble seeing that as inappropriate bullying, and the student would face consequences, probably including suspension.

Of course, we rightly balance freedom of speech versus the giving of offense differently for children and adults.  Grown-ups should be able to handle more, and society has less right to impose restrictions on them, at least in an official way.  Still, this card was sent out by teachers in our public schools, behind a thin veil of anonymity and the thin excuse that it actually came from their labor union.

Is that the sort of standard we want for our nation, state, and community?

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Maybe Funding Isn’t the Issue

Although any such panel’s findings should be taken with a grain of salt until thoroughly verified, a legislative task force of the RI Senate offers an important reminder not to lose perspective while contemplating Providence schools’ problems, as Eli Sherman reports for WPRI:

Sen. Ryan Pearson, the task force’s leader, has been crunching numbers to determine how well schools are being funded by both the state and the communities based on the formula, which was enacted in 2010 after years of debate over how the state should parcel out school funding. …

“Providence is not the worst-funded district in the state. Woonsocket beats them by a country mile, and Pawtucket is also badly underfunded,” Pearson, D-Cumberland, told Target 12. Those districts have 70% of the state’s English language learners, he said.

One thing this panel reminds us about is that, to some extent, all of this is a dance about money — who gets it and who doesn’t.  This further reminds us that it isn’t all about money.  At state and local levels, it’s increasingly clear that government officials in Rhode Island have long been back-filling their inability to accomplish our community’s goals with more cash.

That’s not going to work.

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Pointed Questions About the Anti-Brady URI Professor

On my post about URI professor Kyle Kusz, who became infamous for connecting Patriots quarterback Tom Brady with “white rage and white supremacy,” Joe Smith comments as follows:

Maybe URI should start with how a professor with his doctorate in kinesiology is now qualified to be a tenure track professor of English (or English and gender studies as URI website states)?

There are almost 700 kinesiology majors (Fall 18) at URI, barely 100 English, and not even a dozen gender studies majors — why is URI moving someone with a doctorate in kinesiology to English (maybe because he wasn’t really teaching, I don’t know, actual kinesiology) and not hiring English professors who are more focused on teaching literacy skills that are career focused (like how to write if you are a scientist or business person as opposed to teaching some obscure/niche topic)?

It’s one of the problems with higher education that teaching has taken second nature to publishing (for publishing sake in many cases like the Sokal Squared hoax shows). I’m sure the professor needs a book chapter to advance his tenure and/or promotion file. Maybe it will be assigned reading for his class (no conflict of interest there).

The main problem is not the counter balance of ideological representation, but that our higher education board (although isn’t URI free from that now?) never holds a discussion on — I don’t know — actual teaching and learning metrics. Like page 3 of URI’s benchmark survey of freshmen and seniors shows, URI is average to below average for effective teaching.

Maybe that’s comforting, Justin. If they are teaching ideological slanted material, it’s clearly not in an effective manner.

I’m afraid I can’t take the proffered comfort because of a sneaking suspicion that the results for effective teaching indicate that the ideological slant makes the supposed content of the courses roll off the table.  Whether students recognize that the slant is the problem or learn to take it for granted as simply true is still an open question.

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The Solution to Selective Admissions at Classical

One common observation that conservatives make about the progressive approach to solving problems is that it attempts to fix things with the most direct, immediate means possible without considering what is therefore given up.  Complaints that Classical High School in Providence isn’t inclusive of English-language learners because its admissions test is in English fall into this category:

… for the ever-increasing number of Providence students who are learning English as a second language, the barrier for entry to Classical is remarkably high. The admissions exam is offered only in English, despite nearly a third of the district’s 24,000 students being designated as English learners. …

[City Council President Sabina] Matos, who grew up in the Dominican Republic and learned English while attending Rhode Island College, said having an admissions exam that is only in one language “perpetuates the harmful stereotype that non-English speakers aren’t as capable or as intelligent as their English-speaking peers.”

“This English-only practice systematically discriminates against students who may possess a mastery in areas like math, science, or history but are barred for simply not speaking the ‘right’ language,” she said.

The first thought arising from this article is:  Why not work to ensure that students are able to take tests in English by the time they apply to high school?  That way, testing in English won’t be as much of a concern.

Of course, some portion of students won’t quite get there, perhaps because they moved to the country too recently.  That possibility, however, points to a second thought:  Why is it obviously wrong to have a school that can help students who excel without having to overcome a language barrier, too?  Maybe it is, but shouldn’t the argument at least be made, rather than falling back on assertions about discrimination?

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The Essence of Educational Freedom… for Providence Pols

Ian Donnis’s article looking into the educational choices of government officials who live in Providence has received much-deserved attention.  I don’t think anybody has adequately noted how telling it really is.

The upshot is that, out of 38 officials he reviewed, Donnis found only eight with school-aged children, of whom there were 13 between them.  Of these:

  • Four go to private schools (religious or otherwise)
  • Three go to charter schools
  • Six go to regular district schools

That’s not the whole story, though.  One of the children in district schools went to charters before entering high school.  He and one other politician’s child go to Classical, which has been ranked #1 in the state.  Two more go to a particular elementary school, which Erika Sanzi implies is “on the fancy side of town,” with a lottery even for children in the neighborhood.

This scenario illustrates the essence of educational freedom that wealthier families enjoy.  If they are interested in utilizing public schools, they’ll move to specific zip codes for that purpose.  If that isn’t an option, or if the schools change, they apply for charter schools.  If they don’t win that gamble, or if a particular school has an entrance exam and their children don’t succeed on the test, then they’ll turn to private schools.  (I’ve long suggested that charter schools’ introduction was in some respects an attempt to capture those families that were escaping to private schools.)

If we consider education to be as critical as politicians like to claim, then it shouldn’t only be families of means who can make these decisions.

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Societal-Corruption Of “Political-Correctness” Reaches into Providence School Reading List

Right from the start, the Rhode Island media got it wrong when they criticized interim-superintendent, Fran Gallo, for making a ‘costly’ mistake in ordering motivational books for dispirited students in the beleaguered Providence school system. How dare she corrupt the minds of city youth with an otherwise uplifting book that happened to include passive “religious overtones?

The media was all over the story. But, the issue should not have been that Gallo wasted almost two-hundred thousand dollars in inappropriate books that she was forced to recall, but, rather, the critical moral question should have been ‘why’ were the books deemed unacceptable in the first place? What could possibly be so offensive about famous athletes providing motivational messages to youth about overcoming adversity, even if some of them cited their wholesome faith in God as a major factor?

But, it gets even better.

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A Progressive Summer (Reading List)

An uproar of progressive complaints led to book mentioning God to be removed from lesson plans, while the official Providence school’s summer reading list contains sexually explicit and politically charged novels including one that details a pedophiliac relationship.

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An Unaskable What If in Providence Education

The story of Providence schools’ purchase of an inspirational book took an interesting turn as a second act.  Act 1 was, “We Can’t Teach Anything That Sounds Religious”; Act 2 brings, “What Are We Not Being Told About How the City Spent $187,000 on this Book?”  Naturally, the reporting (and Rhode Islanders’ long, painful experience with their government) lends itself to suspicion, but an innocent explanation is still possible for details like this:

[Vernon Brundage, Jr.] published “Shoot Your Shot” last year, but it’s unclear how many copies were sold before Gallo ordered 16,510 books. Maryland business filings show Brundage didn’t establish “Shoot Your Shot Globe Enterprises,” the company Providence paid for the books, until Aug. 15.

It could be that, in the way of modern life, somebody in Providence came across this book and proposed it for distribution.  The proposal might have gone around the bureaucracy a bit, gathering approvals, and then inquiry made to the self-publishing author.  Upon the order of 16,510, perhaps he realized the need (or opportunity) to set up a company to handle the transaction.

This kind of serendipity happens in the entrepreneurial universe.  The catch in this instance, however, is that the district’s purchasing process should at least have produced some negotiation for a better price.  And (of course) there’s the reflexive anti-religious sentiment in the district (from the first link above):

Gallo said she read “Shoot Your Shot,” authored by Vernon Brundage Jr., prior to purchasing it, and the religious references didn’t alarm her. The breezy read uses stories from professional basketball stars to inspire readers to accomplish their goals.

She said the book is meant to teach “grit and perseverance,” but she now sees why some teachers were uncomfortable using it.

Despite all of the claims that we have to put the students first, here’s a question that I haven’t seen anybody even hint at asking:  What if a touch of religious faith is what Providence students really need?  The district would implicitly be making a religious statement if it were to declare that this could not be the case.

To be sure, a political philosophy could simultaneously hold that students need religion and that government schools cannot provide or even encourage it.  If that is our stance, however, then we have to question whether we should be expending so many resources on a system that can’t provide what is needed.

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Education Freedom: Our Children Need Opportunity Today

Everybody agrees that educating our youth is a moral obligation, and a vital basis for renewed economic growth.

Yet, very few in our political class have the courage to stand up to the special interests who want to maintain a government-run school monopoly. Look at the broken Providence School system. Parents need answers for their children today, not reforms that may help students five or even ten years down the road. Educational freedom is the answer.

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The Lamentable Process of Rhode Island Reform

During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:

“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools

Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.

On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:

  1. Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
  2. Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
  3. Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
  4. Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
  5. Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.

Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials.  We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.

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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.

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The Magnitude of Charter Demand

In the past couple decades — especially the first decade of this century — Rhode Island’s public school districts have lost grades’ worth of students.  In Newport, it is as if an entire high school were standing empty; Providence has fared better, losing between one and two grades’ worth of students.  Yet, budgets have continued to climb.

Rhode Islanders should think of all of those empty classrooms when they hear somebody make the point that Democrat state Senator Ryan Pearson articulates here:

The reasons why costs are projected to soar are nuanced, but Pearson points to Cumberland where education expenses grow each time a student moves from a traditional school to a mayoral academy.

The per pupil price tag stays the same, he said, but because overhead costs at the traditional school – such as teachers and classroom expenses – don’t simultaneously disappear, the net cost to the town grows overall.

Yes, costs don’t necessarily disappear on a per pupil basis, but when 7-28% of students are no longer enrolled, surely there are savings to be found.

The more salient point from the Eli Sherman article linked above, however, is stated by a charter school advocate:

“If we’re talking about saving a district to enable them to operate in perpetuity – even if means generations of education are sacrificed in the process – we have our priorities wrong,” said Mary Sylvia Harrison, a longtime educator who most recently served as vice president for programs at the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Consider this chart from Sherman:

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Over the time span in the chart, demand for charter schools has grown 25%, but the number of available seats has gone down.  For the 2019-2020 school year, 8,494 students would like to attend a charter school but can’t.  If they were all in Providence, that would be more than four whole grades.  That’s a bigger number than all of Cumberland and Lincoln school districts combined.  It’s almost a full grade’s worth of students across the entire state.

Numbers of that magnitude don’t indicate a small leak of students that doesn’t allow districts to reduce their costs.  They indicate a mandate for a systemic change to the way we do education in Rhode Island.

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Maybe We Should Say, “At Least It’s Only 18 Days”

When Rhode Islanders read an article reporting that about 25% of all Providence teachers were marked absent 18 times during a school year, we tend to think that’s a lot.  That’s especially true considering that the teachers’ 181-day work year is already one-fifth smaller than the 230 days private-sector workers typically work after they’ve taken all of their allowed paid time.

But there’s another way to look at this question.  As the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity points out, today, the Providence teachers’ contract allows them to take many more days off than they do.  In fact, in a standard year, every teacher could be out of the classroom 26 days, for various sick, personal, and other reasons.

On top of that, life events requiring time off — weddings and deaths — are counted neither as sick nor personal time, but are additional.  If the teacher gets married and experiences deaths in his or her the immediate, in-law, and extended families, the total would be 11 days.

That doesn’t happen all the time, of course, for which we can be grateful, but teachers could also rack up another 11 days out of the classroom for various activities related to their labor union.  And even this doesn’t count the equivalent of 36 and 72 days that a union coordinator and president do not have to do classroom work.

These totals also do not count longer-term absences, like sabbaticals or time off for being injured on the job, or the years Providence teachers can take off without pay.

A table on the Center’s report lays it all out, with references to the contract.  And again, this is all in addition to the fact that public school teachers who don’t take a single additional day off would still work about five fewer workweeks than somebody in the private sector who used up all of his or her time-off benefits.

So, maybe the takeaway shouldn’t be that Providence teachers are abusing their time off allowances, but that they aren’t even using them to their fullest.  It’s the entire system that is abusive.

(Of course, one caveat in our compliment to teachers’ diligence is that they get to carry over all sick days they don’t use, up to 150, and then receive a portion of that pay as a bonus when they leave the district.)

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