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Admissions Scandal Is So Very Rhode Island

I’ve got an op-ed in today’s Washington Times, about Rhode Island’s own connection with the college-entrance bribery scandal:

When Rhode Islanders heard that the women’s tennis coach of the state’s public university had been arrested in connection with the national bribery for admission scandal, many must have said, “Wait, what?” Students can get an excellent education at the University of Rhode Island, and it’s certainly an affordable option, but it isn’t exactly an institution for which the nation’s rich and famous would have to pay the sort of premium that might attract the FBI’s attention.

When they learned the details, locals’ reaction was probably something more like, “How very Rhode Island.”

This paragraph is probably the key takeaway for Rhode Islanders:

Rhode Island’s leaders are like the parents who’ve bribed their children’s way into institutions of higher education that were well beyond their merit. Both cases exhibit an implicit insecurity and a desire for people under their care or authority to be something they’re not. In contrast, the initial questions that political leaders and parents ask should be: Who are you really, and how can you achieve your full potential, being who you are? With that more-human perspective as the starting point, parents might not set their children up for embarrassing failure (or criminal prosecution).

Read the whole thing, as they say.

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Time for Some Thought About Our Public Higher Education

Downward trends in enrollment in Rhode Island’s public institutions of higher education could be an inevitability, given demographic trends and younger generations’ (wisely) reevaluating the value of a purposeless slog through college:

Rhode Island College has seen a 4.9-percent drop in the last year, one of the greatest declines of any college in the region.

The University of Rhode Island has experienced a decline of 1.7 percent, and CCRI has dropped by 1.6 percent.

The numbers seem to fly in the face of CCRI’s success with Rhode Island Promise students, recent high school graduates who receive two years of free tuition as long as they maintain a C-plus average and enroll full-time. The college said its enrollment of Promise students has doubled since the program began in summer 2017.

One could speculate that RIC’s disproportionate drop has to do with the ability of its students to take a couple of years for free at CCRI, but the decline generally bears its own explanation.  Beyond the hypothetical inevitabilities mentioned above, an improving economy could be leading some sorts of students to make the leap to private colleges.

My eldest child is entering the time of college tours and made the long trip across the state to URI with my wife, whom I met when we both attended.  The prospective student remarked how dirty the campus looked.  The alumna indicated that the campus has packed a number of new buildings on its acres, crowding out the ruralish (or at least suburgbanish) feel it had when we were there.

Granted that this is a tough time of year by which to judge a campus, but a subsequent trip to Quinnipiac brought no such criticism.

A URI official quoted in the above-linked article notes that the drop is only down from the university’s highest enrollment ever, last year.  Still, we would be wise to come to a collective decision about what we want higher education to be, in Rhode Island.  Attempting to push people into college isn’t advisable, even if it is ostensibly free to them, while losing the character of a campus can change its makeup, sending some students elsewhere.

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A School Choice Nose in the National Tent

Presumably, this proposal would greatly enhance Rhode Island’s tax credit scholarship program:

While most of the K–12 educational-funding and -policy decisions are appropriately housed in the states, an innovative new policy idea would allow the federal government to play a constructive role in expanding educational opportunity in America. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has unveiled a proposal for Education Freedom Scholarships, with corresponding legislation introduced by Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Bradley Byrne. The plan would invest $5 billion annually in America’s students by allowing individuals and businesses to make contributions to in-state, non-profit Scholarship Granting Organizations (SGOs) that provide scholarships to students. Contributors would receive a non‐refundable, dollar‐for‐dollar federal tax credit in return for their donations. No contributor would be allowed a total tax benefit greater than the amount of their contribution, and not a single dollar would be taken away from public schools and the students who attend them.

The program would actually be administered through the state, which puts Rhode Island at an advantage because we’ve already got such a program going.  Of course, it would be even better if Rhode Island expanded its own program in the ways suggested, here, notably by allowing individuals, and not just corporations, to contribute.

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Not Seeing the Argument for Public School Protectionism

Readers of political and policy news should make it a practice to try to understand an issue from the other side.  If the other side’s advocates are making a complaint, try to understand their legitimate grievances.

I have to admit, however, that I’m having a difficult time seeing the grievances expressed by opponents of Rhode Island’s school “pathways” program as legitimate:

Warwick Supt. Philip Thornton said pathways schools such as Ponaganset are draining students away from his schools, to the tune of $1.4 million a year in lost tuition.

Tuition dollars follow the student when he or she moves from one district to another. Thornton said Warwick has “lost” 86 students to Ponaganset and North Kingstown. In a district facing significant financial challenges, that’s a lot of money.

Shanley, a Warwick Democrat, said the bill would require students to stay in their own school district if the home district has a similar program. …

Parents, he said, see this as a way to get their children into higher-performing school districts.

How can one respond to this except to suggest that Warwick schools should get their act together and make their programs good enough that families don’t pull their children, and maybe even so good that families from other districts move their children into Warwick schools?  And how can one possibly read Representative Evan Shanley’s bill as anything other than protectionism for school districts at the expense of students?

Yes, parents will look for ways to provide a better education for their children.  We should be looking for those ways, too — that is, if our goal really is to provide opportunities and ensure an educated population.

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Race-Obsessed Policy Generates Race-Based Differences

So, here’s a must-read research paper for legislators as they try to conform our world to the vision in their heads:

Mounting empirical research shows that race-preferential admissions policies are doing more harm than good. Instead of increasing the numbers of African Americans entering high-status careers, these policies reduce those numbers relative to what we would have had if colleges and universities had followed race-neutral policies. We have fewer African-American scientists, physicians, and engineers and likely fewer lawyers and college professors. If, as the evidence indicates, the effects of race-preferential admissions policies are exactly the opposite of what was originally intended, it is difficult to understand why anyone would wish to support them.

Basically, the mechanism that brings about this outcome, according to the paper’s author, Gail Heriot, is that giving preference to underrepresented applicants based on their non-academic qualities places students in environments for which they are not adequately prepared and matches them with students with whom they might not be able to compete.

These sort of unintended consequences arise with all sorts of politically correct policies.  One that comes to mind is the “ban the box” push to forbid employers from asking applicants whether they’ve ever been convicted of crimes.  Studies are finding that preventing employers from asking a straightforward question for information they feel they need leads them to use less-direct methods that wind up hurting racial minorities, rather than helping them.

How long until our society decides that the best route to equality is to stop writing racial distinctions into the law and to stop trying to drive racism out of our minds by banning questions that may (or may not) be correlated with it?

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RIC’s Wrong Solution for Subject Matter Gaps

This plan from Rhode Island College illustrates well how our state’s establishment is attempting to cure the symptoms of our educational problem so as to avoid solving the problem itself:

Starting this fall, students who study elementary education at RIC will also be trained to teach one of the following subjects: special education, middle school math or middle school science. …

Like most states, Rhode Island doesn’t have a generic teacher shortage. It has a shortage in certain subjects, including special education, math, science and English as a Second Language.

A new study by Bellwether Education Partners concludes that there is no overall shortage of teachers. Rather, districts face a “chronic and perpetual misalignment [between] teacher supply and demand,” according to “Nuance in the Noise.” Bellwether is a national nonprofit organization that advocates for under-served students.

The problem is our union-driven factory-worker model for education.  Districts can’t differentiate sufficiently between different teaching positions, so challenging positions are dramatically underpaid while other positions pay better than they should, given the work and the willingness of candidates to take the job.

Consequently, public schools attract large numbers of people to the areas precisely where they are not needed.  That is a problem that districts could fix through contract negotiations and that the state could help fix through changes to state law, including laws that currently give the unions an indomitable hand in negotiations.

When challenged on this sort of thing, the response of union organizers is to trot out their approved talking point:  “We want a qualified teacher in every classroom.”  That is the sentiment that appears to be behind this attempt at RIC to plug holes by forcing every teacher who wants to teach elementary school to be qualified to teach something for which there’s actually demand.

Rhode Island is still missing the point by ignoring the importance of individuals’ interests and refusing to allow the market to place an accurate value on certain skills and talents.  Giving education students who’ve shown no special interest in or aptitude for certain subjects might help around the margins, but we should be skeptical of the outcomes for students.  We should also expect that any prospective educators who discover that they have a those valuable talents will make the same calculations that are creating the shortage.

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Governor Raimondo’s Anti-Boy Consistency

Not to pick on her, but here again a reader can’t help but wonder whether Providence Journal reporter Madeleine List was entirely unable to find anybody who could explain the contrary position to her:

Gov. Gina Raimondo and Rhode Island’s postsecondary education commissioner announced their opposition on Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s proposed changes to the federal civil-rights law that protects people from discrimination based on sex.

In a letter to DeVos, Raimondo and Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier said the proposed changes would impede Rhode Island higher-education institutions’ ability to implement protections under the law, known as Title IX. …

“The proposed changes to existing Title IX guidance can only be construed as a misguided effort to reduce the reporting burden placed on educational institutions and protect the accused at the expense of the victim,” the letter says. “Sadly, the reality is that the proposed changes will further traumatize victims in the very environments that are meant to prepare and inspire them for successful careers and lives.”

The way these rules have been implemented under guidance from the Obama administration has tended to make victims of young men, stripping them of due process rights.  That’s not something that can be left out of a news story… unless it’s really just advocacy.

On the substance, nobody should be surprised that a governor who hosts an annual contest that discriminates against school boys would also oppose due process rights for young men.

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Wagner’s Warning for Rhode Island

A scathing editorial in the Providence Journal takes Education Commissioner Ken Wagner to task, suggesting that he never should have been hired:

Buried in the story, on the jump page, was an astonishing revelation. “In my three and a half years, I’ve seen only four classrooms that challenge kids at the levels the standards require. We are dramatically under-challenging our kids.”

That is a shocking admission. In the entire state, with its 300-some schools, Commissioner Wagner has found only four four classrooms where students were being adequately challenged.

The referenced story is an interview with the $225,000-per-year commissioner, and the editorial rightly snarls about his insistence that “it’s no one’s fault.”  But in one respect, the editorialists might have been a little unfair, inasmuch as they missed Wagner’s lightly hidden warnings:

Wagner said Rhode Island might be ready for a test-based graduation requirement in two or three years, when educators and elected officials have a chance to dig into the latest test scores. Next year, he said, the education department will release data on students who have reached proficiency on the Rhode Island Common Assessment Program or RICAS, called a commissioner’s seal, side-by-side with high school graduation rates.

“I’m not opposed to it. Just not right now,” Wagner said. “Let everyone digest the dramatic gaps between high school graduation rates and student proficiency and then revisit it.

“If you change the graduation requirements, everyone is going to bank on (the belief) that we’re going to blink,” he said. “The legislature will step in again.”

Also:

“If absenteeism rates are high,” he said, “there is something wrong with the school … with its climate and culture. Our first role is shining a light on this. Every school is talking about this. We have named it.”

There you go.  Basically, the education commissioner is confirming that the problem is a system in which powerful labor unions create an unproductive, low-quality environment with no hope of improvement because they can make the politicians blink.  The trick those legislators and the governor are trying to pull off is to find a way to squeeze some improvement out of the system without actually naming (or fixing) the underlying problem.

It won’t work, and no one should blame Wagner if he sees escape as the silver lining of his scapegoating.  By contrast, we all should wonder what sort of person would want to take the job on the politicians’ terms, even with that six-figure pay rate.

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Roland Benjamin: Look to Mass for Both Educational Outcomes and Budgeting Approach

Last week I wrote about the constraints that Massachusetts placed on its school districts nearly 40 years ago. Under the same constraints, South Kingstown spending (since the year 2000) would have trended very differently. Each year, SKSD is spending $10mm to $12mm more than if normal inflation been applied over the last 20 years. For now, ignore the additional factor that enrollment literally dropped by a third over the same time period.

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Roland Benjamin: Why Are We Spending So Much More on Education than Massachusetts?

In 1980, the State of Massachusetts recognized the limitations and threats of relying too heavily on expanding property taxes to fund our public education systems. Proposition 2 ½ was passed to limit the increases a town could levy through its property taxes each year. Named for the enacted cap of 2.5%, any town that needed to increase its levy beyond it could do so, but only through a town wide referendum. For the last 35 years or so, Massachusetts has tamed its property taxes and runaway school spending.

Rhode Island enacted our own, lighter version, of a tax cap. Unfortunately we chose 4% as our limit and waited almost 30 years to implement it. During the lead up to the cap, can you imagine what districts did? In South Kingstown, we ramped our baseline spending up between 6% to 12% each year despite losing about 100 kids per year from our enrollment.

The chart here shows how this played out over the last 2 decades.

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Suspension and School Success

Here’s a quick question arising from Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article, “Student suspensions cloud charter’s success.”  What if this:

As a district, the Achievement First charters, a middle school and two elementary schools, were the highest-performing schools on the new standardized tests, the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System. Rhode Island public school students are tested in grades 3 through 8 using the highly regarded Massachusetts tests.

 

Is not contrasted with, but rather is connected with, this:

A charter elementary school run by Achievement First had among the highest out-of-school suspension rates in the state during the last school year, according to data recently released by the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Maybe suspending misbehaving students helps the school to achieve so highly, and maybe it doesn’t, but it’s simply weird that the article never addresses the possibility, either to propose it as a unique challenge or to explain why it isn’t the case.  The peculiarity is only enhanced when the article ends with a note that some charter schools in Connecticut have the same vexing combination of suspensions and results.

Does it really not occur to the writer and the people whom she quotes, or are they hoping that it doesn’t occur to the reader.

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RI Senate and RIDE Leave Little Room for Hope on Education

What’s the basic summary — from the public’s point of view — of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio’s complaint about the Rhode Island Department of Education’s response to a Senate request?

“It was the sloppiest report I have ever seen in my whole life,″ said Ruggerio as he made public a letter he sent Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner earlier in the day to express his “deep disappointment.”

The letter focused on a Senate resolution, sponsored by Sen. Ryan Pearson of Cumberland, “respectfully requesting the R.I. Department of Education to conduct a comprehensive review of the Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993 and provide recommendations to improve Rhode Island’s overall education standards and governance.” The Senate requested a response by December 1, 2018.

Of the response the department known as RIDE provided, Ruggerio asked Wagner, in his letter: “How could the department possibly issue a report [in response] to our resolution without even one mention of Massachusetts? Furthermore, the report is dated June 2017 — a full year before the Senate passed its resolution.”

In short, senators passed an inconsequential and wholly inadequate resolution buying time with a request for more information in lieu of taking real action, and RIDE couldn’t even be bothered to play along that much.

The interesting question is this:  Is RIDE just this monumentally incompetent, or did the department err mainly in thinking it could respond to the request in the manner that it probably deserved?

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The Key to Success in Rhode Island Education: A Low Bar

I guess one can’t fault the administration of Cumberland schools for casting a positive light on their standardized test scores, but a sort of tone-deafness comes through in Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article:

With all of the hand-wringing over Rhode Island’s dismal performance on the latest standardized tests, it is easy to overlook islands of success.

Cumberland is one of them.

The district, which spends less on education per pupil than any other district in the state except Woonsocket, outperformed all of its Rhode Island neighbors on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System.

“Success.”  Nowhere does the article provide the school district’s actual scores.

Overall, only 56% of Cumberland students meet or exceed expectations in English, falling just below 50% for math.  By 8th grade, those numbers shrink to 53% and 45%.

In other words, the key to Cumberland’s success is the low bar of being in Rhode Island.  Of course, it’s better to be at the front of a class than at the back, but scores like that ought to inspire a prudent avoidance of triumphal talk, and Rhode Islanders shouldn’t fall for it.

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Turning the Corner on Sexism in STEM

You know those table-top games for which you tilt a board in order to get a ball to roll through a maze or obstacle course of some kind?  They’re an excellent metaphor for the problem with using government to tilt society to achieve socially engineered outcomes.  The ball rolls, picking up momentum, and the means of controlling the board can be awkward.

To improve upon the metaphor imagine that the obstacles sometimes move around in unpredictable ways… and you’re trying to turn the knobs while wearing slippery mittens.

A century and more ago, maybe it was possible to believe in the totalitarian, yet beneficent, governance by experts, but in the intervening years, the experts should have concluded that it can’t be done.  The solution is to use cultural means to change things in the culture and structure the laws to provide a neutral playing field.

Instead, progressives have turned both knobs, as if they can get the ball to hop over all the walls.  So, we get a social standard that promotes girls and women while demeaning boys and men and a legal regime in which it is permissible to discriminate only against the latter.  The obvious question that some of us were asking decades ago was:  Even if we grant that male chauvinism is too powerful of a force, how will we know when to stop correcting for it?

That is arguably the implied question of Toni Airaksinen’s PJMedia article on some new research from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI):

Mark Perry, a University of Michigan-Flint professor, appears to be the first to discover that the “STEM gender gap” doesn’t exactly exist after all. According to his recent AEI report, women now earn 50.6 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, and are also overrepresented in graduate school.

While 50.6 percent is only a slight majority, this translates into 8,500 more female STEM graduates per year and about 33,000 more women in STEM grad school. And because college is now a woman’s domain, it’s likely these small disparities will expand over time. …

“The 60/40 gender disparity in college degrees favoring women that the Department of Education forecasts within the next decade should be of much greater concern to society than failing to achieve 50/50 gender parity in a few STEM fields, in terms of the future implications for the labor market, for family formation and other concerns.”

Returning to the metaphor above, anybody who has played those games knows that the trick is to start changing the tilt of the board before the ball has reached a turn.  Otherwise, momentum will carry it along in a direction you don’t want to go.  Well, we’ve arguably just missed the turn, and with no signs that adjustments are coming.

Instead, we can expect activists to highlight such findings as the fact that, with more choices available to women, fewer of them have gone into computer science.  This evidence of people acting according to their interests will no doubt inspire our cultural engineers to keep on pushing, even as imbalances and injustices open up and cause untold damage to our society.

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Confirming a Conservative Response to Poverty

Writing about public policy day in and day out, one can forget that not everybody follows every argument with close attention.  Broad philosophical points of view and underlying intentions can therefore be lost.

Just so, I almost didn’t bother reading a brief essay in which Michael Tanner promotes and summarizes his forthcoming book offering a broad explanation of a conservative policy response to poverty.  It’s worth reading, though, because he summarizes some conservative policies specifically in terms of their human objectives:

  • Keeping people out of jail can promote work and stable families.
  • Breaking up “the government education monopoly and limit[ing] the power of teachers’ unions” is rightly seen as an “anti-poverty program.”
  • Preventing government from driving up the cost of living, especially housing, will give poorer families a chance to get their feet on the ground.
  • Policies that discourage savings also discourage healthy financial habits.
  • A heavy hand in regulating the economy tends to target economic growth toward the rich and powerful.

As he concludes:

An anti-poverty agenda built on empowering poor people and allowing them to take greater control of their own lives offers the chance for a new bipartisan consensus that rejects the current paternalism of both Left and Right. More important, it is an agenda that will do far more than our current failed welfare state to actually lift millions of Americans out of poverty.

My only objection is that I’m not sure that the “paternalism of the Right” is a view that conservatives actually hold rather than a caricature that the Left spreads about us.  Of course, the fault is arguably ours, if we don’t often enough express our real intentions.

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More Indications of No Change for RI Education

While it is definitely not the most significant incident of the week Rhode Island, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner made a hugely symbolic gesture on Dan Yorke’s State of Mind show:

“There are coaches that believe you go into the locker room and you hold carrots until you get performance,” Yorke said to Wagner. “Then you have Bobby Knight who comes in and throws chairs and tells them the truth.

“I just want you to throw a chair once. I want people to understand that this isn’t funny, this isn’t acceptable and this isn’t true that our students don’t perform…” Yorke was then interrupted by Wagner responding to his statement.

Wagner then followed Yorke’s lead, stood up and threw his chair to the side.

“This isn’t funny, this isn’t acceptable, and it’s not true that our kids can’t do it, they can do it!” Wagner said.

The symbolism isn’t that Wagner’s going to shake things up, but that he does, in fact, think it’s funny.  Imagine, for comparison, that Rhode Island’s murder rate were among the worst in the country and Yorke offered a similar statement to the attorney general.  How would we react if he took the Wagner make-a-joke-out-of-it approach?

Along the same vein, the Rhode Island Foundation has made news this week by announcing its new initiative to bring together another discussion about education, so that unelected insiders have another forum through which to tell Rhode Islanders how a long-term plan could maybe improve results for students a generation from now:

Aside from [RI Foundation President Neil] Steinberg, other members of the committee include: Kathy Bendheim (Impact for Education); Elizabeth Burke Bryant (Rhode Island Kids Count); Victor Capellan (superintendent of Central Falls schools); Jeremy Chiappetta (Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy); Barbara Cottam (R.I. Board of Education); Tom DiPaolo (Rhode Island School Superintendents’ Association); David Driscoll (former Massachusetts commissioner of education); Tim Duffy (Rhode Island Association of School Committees); Frank Flynn (Rhode Island Federation of Teacher and Healthcare Professionals); Tom Giordano (Partnership for Rhode Island); Christopher Graham (Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce); Julie Horowitz (Feinstein School of Education and Human Development); Dolph Johnson (Hasbro); Susanna Loeb (Annenberg Institute for School Reform); Elizabeth Lynn (van Beuren Charitable Foundation); Keith Oliveira (R.I. League of Charter Schools); Pegah Rahmanian (Youth in Action); Don Rebello (Rhode Island Association of School Principals); Anthony Rolle (URI); Ken Wagner (R.I. education commissioner); and Robert Walsh (National Education Association Rhode Island).

Honestly, is there anybody on that list that doesn’t already have a seat at the table — whose views are not already represented in public debate about public policy in education?  No.  In typical Rhode Island fashion, this is a group of the same old special-interest representatives who (we should assume) are coming together to ensure that whatever reforms the state may try will not disrupt their sinecures too harshly.

In other words, it’s more wasted time and money. Rhode Islanders should brush this off as a distraction and mimic Wagner’s joke in all seriousness.  Aren’t we tired of accepting failure, deceit, and mockery?

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