A run-down of items in Rhode Island political news for the week.
The problem of getting rid of “terrible teachers” points to a problem with the incentives of government when it is used to accomplish anything that isn’t straightforward and critical.
An Illinois father’s story illustrates how policies like Rhode Island’s transgender “guidance” for schools and “conversion therapy” ban can undermine parents’ ability to help their children.
Dan McGowan’s review of some claims that have recently been made about problems in the Providence school district is worth a read. Broadly speaking, the claims about the school facilities themselves proved to have been exaggerated, while problems with management of teachers were not so much.
This item raises something that I’ve wondered about before — specifically, how much emphasis people really put on “professional development”:
Teachers get one day of professional development a year.
During a series of public forums following the release of the report, Infante-Green often asked attendees the same question: Would you go to a doctor who only received one day of training each year? While it is accurate that the current union contract only requires one professional development day during the school year, more nuance is required. Union president Maribeth Calabro and the Elorza administration maintain most teachers receive significantly more training each year. As an example, Calabro said at least half of her members have attended professional development sessions during their current summer vacation.
To be honest, I’d have no problem discovering that my doctor has only “one day of training each year.” Doctors spend every day analyzing patients and determining the best treatments for their ailments. One can expect that they are continually reviewing the latest information that might help them to do their jobs better.
The idea that they’ll simply coast along for their entire careers — doing the equivalent of handing out photocopied worksheets year after year — just seems strange. Some will be better about this and some will be worse, but the fact that a doctor dedicated more than one day to some government-approved course of study that may or may not be relevant to my health and that may or may not have focused on some medical fad or PC indoctrination would not impress me at all.
So the question, then, is why we shouldn’t expect the same from teachers. They have a 180-day work year. Why should we assume that if we don’t use up some of those days for “professional development” instead of teaching, they’ll just let their skills atrophy and knowledge become antiquated?
At a cost of approximately $888 per year for each of Rhode Island’s one-million or so residents, a typical family of four is paying over $3500 annually to support the extravagant compensation programs for government workers, while the basic needs of their own families are being ignored by politicians.
Beyond these extreme financial costs, there may be an even more corrosive impact from this kind of political cronyism.
When an institution like education is essentially under a government monopoly, changes in public sentiment can have ridiculous consequences, like the cancellation of all field trips in Cumberland.
Call me “old school,” or a fuddy-duddy, but my reaction to this story by Sarah Wu in the Boston Globe is, “Give me a break”:
Faced with mounting debt and strapped for cash, many low-income college students across the country are skipping meals, buying cheap junk food, or devoting time that could be spent learning to searching for free food events, researchers say.
A national survey published this year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 48 percent of students in two-year institutions and 41 percent of students at four-year institutions experienced food insecurity within the past month.
The problem of food insecurity — an inconsistent supply of nutritious food — on college campuses has garnered more awareness in recent years, and psychologists have started to take note.
When I attended Carnegie Mellon University, I lived off canned vegetables for a while, selling my CDs to treat myself to Wendy’s every now and then. That’s when I transitioned from my teenage preference for plain food to the enjoyment of meals with all the extras piled on — not because I discovered my taste buds, but because it hit me that the additional nutrition came at no extra cost. When I found myself at the University of Rhode Island, I woke up at 4:00 a.m. some mornings to unload fishing boats and took whatever fish or squid were going to be discarded.
This used to be considered part of the rewarding, empowering struggle to advance in life, and of course — obviously — it was a more common experience among the disadvantaged. The difference was that it was something of which to be proud; you started there, and through this dedication, you are headed somewhere different. With the label “food insecurity” tacked on, that source of pride now “disproportionately affects low-income, first-generation, international, and other minority students.”
The insinuation is that society’s failure to give you what you deserve is hindering you from getting where you would naturally transition, as if without effort, and that you can’t reasonably be expected to advance based on your own grit. Unstated is that framing things in this way takes the emphasis off of the individual and the employers who provide opportunity and moves it toward the sociologists who get grants to do the studies, the political advocates who force redistribution of wealth, and the social workers who dispense it.
A run-down of items in Rhode Island political news for the week.
Economic thinking can help us to repair broken education systems, but only if they lead us to humility in how specifically we can design something new.
This isn’t a way of thinking that I tend to encourage, but we’ve all been trained to it, and in this case, it might apply. Go back and take a look at the photos from Mark Patinkin’s interview with students from Providence schools who say that teachers have taken no interest in them. Now, click over to Dan McGowan’s interviews with five Providence teachers of the year, in which they suggest fixes.
What do you notice? The list is missing the teacher of the year from 2017, but your observation that they are all white women still applies.
Now, I believe that hiring and, especially, professional awards, should be done based on objective criteria; whoever wins, wins. And of course, the teachers of the year aren’t necessarily representative of the entire faculty, demographically.
That said, when black male students are expressing a sense that teachers in a failing school district don’t take an interest in them, and the stars among those teachers are all white women, we might reasonably ask whether we’re missing some important criteria. Consider that the student who most directly insisted that not a single teacher has taken an interest in him did concede that the dean of students seemed to care, and his mother told Patinkin that the administrators at the school “were the only ones who tried to get students on track.” At least as currently reported on Gilbert Stuart Middle School’s Web page, the administration is four-fifths male.
Our current approach to education, as well as political correctness, make it difficult to think of a fair solution that could conceivably make it through the public-policy gauntlet. Here, again, educational freedom might help. If a school could try to fill an obvious need by emphasizing male teachers, for example, then families who think that environment might help their children could give it a try, and we could all observe the results.
As it is, we’re locked in to making universal decisions within the confines of discrimination policies that have to apply across the board, and that are founded on narrow ideological views of fairness.
If you missed Mark Patinkin’s interview with four students from Providence schools last week, rewind a bit and give it a read. This may be the biggest gut-punch of the thing:
I asked Saquan if any teachers took an interest in him.
Not even one?
Then he said the dean of students did care, but not any teachers.
His mom, Sandra, agreed with that — that the administrators at Gilbert were the only ones who tried to get students on track.
Sandra had hoped teachers would provide the kind of role models she said are often lacking for kids like Saquan, but she’s been disappointed.
It’s heartbreaking for a student to feel this way, but we need to broaden the picture if we’re going to figure out a way through our current crisis. We can certainly expect teachers to do more than the minimum and to take an interest in their students, and we can hope that they’ll be role models for students in particular need of such examples. But we can’t count on their being so.
Time is just too short and human beings are too complicated. Connections between people form in unexpected, often-inscrutable ways. Therefore, children should be in as many situations where they might find healthy role models as possible. When it comes to disadvantaged students, families need to be able to be more efficient in that search.
If we accept these principles, than it’s ridiculous of us to expect public schools to fill the same purpose for every student. Different students within a community will require different settings, and the default public school in each community should be tailored to the students in that community.
This is one reason I’m skeptical of statewide curricula and that sort of thing. It’s also why I’m a proponent of school choice. To be sure, standardized testing would seem to be in contrast with this view, but that is only a necessity because a lack of choice leaves a school bereft of real accountability.
Or perhaps I should start modifying that assertion. Providence shows that if things get bad enough, accountability might … might … find its way in, but we should set our social alarms to be much more sensitive than that.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for July 22, Mayor Jorge Elorza’s self-positioning on the schools problem, Gina Raimondo’s national adventures, and David Cicilline’s impeachment vote.
Mayor Elorza’s performance on Newsmakers reinforced the notion that Rhode Island’s leaders understand the problem but aren’t really interested in solving it.
The state education board should have prepared for a larger audience to observe its meeting about Providence schools, but its failure to anticipate the need is partly the blame of Rhode Islanders, who rarely attend such meetings.
In a surprising new national survey, members of each major American political party were asked what they imagined to be the beliefs held by members of the other. The survey asked Democrats: “How many Republicans believe that racism is still a problem in America today?” Democrats guessed 50%. It’s actually 79%. The survey asked Republicans how many Democrats believe “most police are bad people”. Republicans estimated half; it’s really 15%. …
… But what’s startling is the further finding that higher education does not improve a person’s perceptions – and sometimes even hurts it. In their survey answers, highly educated Republicans were no more accurate in their ideas about Democratic opinion than poorly educated Republicans. For Democrats, the education effect was even worse: the more educated a Democrat is, according to the study, the less he or she understands the Republican worldview.
Democrats without high school diplomas are three times more likely to understand members of the opposing party than Democrats with PhDs. That may not actually be that surprising, but one odd finding is that ignorance of the opposition’s beliefs increases as people become more politically engaged.
Of course, we should layer on the caveats. The questions by which the study collected its data deserve scrutiny, and there could be all sorts of distinctions that might correlate with party affiliation and/or education, such that neither is really a cause of the effect.
That said, the study makes intuitive sense that corresponds with conservatives’ interpretation of modern political dynamics. Working class Democrats are more likely to be conservative, which would give them more sympathy with Republicans; if you hold a particular political view, for example, you’ll be able to see that it isn’t implicitly racist. Moreover, at lower levels, occupations are less likely to be a matter of choice, so perhaps those who hold them are more likely to be thrown together with people in similar circumstances who have different political affiliations.
At the same time, education has shifted toward indoctrination, which means that it teaches and prioritizes judgment, not understanding. This, in turn, changes the nature of political engagement, as being politically active shifts away from an emphasis on addressing real problems and toward the dominance of an ideology.
Even state senators should be able to enjoy Rhode Island’s high quality of life, but when they talk about “constituent services,” they should keep in mind who their constituents actually are.
Erika Sanzi asks some key questions of the Providence Teachers Union, but the last one cuts right to the heart of unionization, at least in the public sector:
Will the union stand in the way of eliminating the arbitrary barriers to entry into the teaching profession so that we can begin to build a long overdue talent pipeline to include people who come to teaching via an alternative pathway?
The application of some simple logic finds the reason the union will likely answer “yes” to this question — meaning “yes, we will stand in the way” — until absolutely forced to moderate. The union’s primary value proposition to its members is that it will gain them privileges and security. The teachers to whom this protection is most valuable are those with the least capacity to fend for themselves and gather their own leverage.
The more talented a teacher is, and the more experience he or she has in other environments than government schools, the less he or she needs the union as leverage against management and the more independent he or she will be as a union member (or bargaining unit member if he or she does not join the union).
Imagine a flood of conspicuously competent people — driven by the mission of turning Providence around and enabled by the extremely desirable compensation packages that government unions have secured — entering the system as full participants. Not only would those new teachers refuse to stand for the union’s obstruction of the mission’s success, but they would present a stark contrast to the most dedicated union members, who should predictably be the ones with the most need for union protection.
By now, you must have heard about the scathing Wall Street Journal editorial on the Providence school system. They didn’t hold back, and it is right in line with what our Center has been saying for years. It is a total embarrassment for teachers who truly care about educating kids.
The WSJ put blame on the powerful teachers unions as a key reason why students are not receiving the education they deserve.
In a stunning decision, the Portsmouth Town Council voted 7-0 on June 24 to enter into discussions with Newport for joining the two high schools into a unified system. The proposal by Newport School Superintendent Colleen Burns Jermain had been rejected by the Middletown Council.
We have been down this road before. This decision reverses a May 2011 unanimous vote by the Portsmouth School Committee to end discussions on regionalizing all three of the Island’s districts and reject any regional approach.
Obviously, the more subjective the thing an index attempts to measure, the more subject it will be to interpretation, and WalletHub has made a cottage industry of cranking out subjective rankings. That said, the Web site’s “Best States to Live in” ranking from June has some interesting considerations for the Ocean State.
Notably, the Ocean State is supposedly the 29th best state in which to live… which seems OK, considering Rhode Islanders’ expectation to come in at the very bottom of all rankings. OK begins to look not so good, though, when one zooms out on the map. WalletHub claims Massachusetts is #1 and New Hampshire #3. Vermont and Maine are both in the teens, and Connecticut comes in at #20.
Looking at the subcategories, RI’s worst result was in “affordability,” which shouldn’t surprise anybody. The Ocean State was the fourth least affordable state, after New York, California, and New Jersey. But here’s the thing: No New England states are very affordable. Massachusetts, for example, is 43rd and New Hampshire is 42nd.
So what makes the difference? Massachusetts is in the top 5 for everything else: economy, education & health, quality of life, and safety. New Hampshire only misses the top 5 in quality of life. Meanwhile, Rhode Island only breaks the top 20 on the safety subcategory (at #5). The conclusion is that Rhode Island might not be able to avoid being expensive, but that only means it can’t afford to be unattractive by other measures.
Here’s where the subjectivity of the index becomes important. Quality of life includes things that Rhode Island can’t help, like the weather, and things that depend on one’s values and interests. The importance of “miles of trails for bicycling and walking” will vary from person to person.
But quality of life also includes things like the quality of the roads, which is pretty universally valued. Meanwhile, multiple criteria that the index uses center around leisure activities that cost money, which means disposable income is a factor, as is the ease with which businesses can pop up to answer the demand.
MIT’s Living Wage Calculator states that a single Rhode Islander needs to make $12.35 per hour over a 2,080-hour workyear. However, $1.86 of that goes to taxes. For comparison, in New Hampshire, only $1.50 per hour goes to taxes.
This all suggests an unsurprising solution for improving Rhode Island’s standing: lower taxes, use the money that is collected for things that are of more universal value, and decrease regulations. We’d all have more money to spend, we’d feel better about our day-to-day life, and we’d be better able to answer each other’s needs.
In 2016, the General Assembly and Governor Raimondo hobbled schools’ ability to suspend misbehaving students; in 2019, we’re in a panic about chaos in the Providence school system.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, last week, was about the General Assembly’s budget, the million-dollar chiropractor, and the problems in Warwick’s schools.
VICTORY! For years, our Center has worked, both publicly and behind the scenes, to secure an important and symbolic freedom for Rhode Island families. During the last moments of the 2019 General Assembly session, lawmakers voted to exempt natural hair braiders from the occupational licensing requirement for hairdressers and cosmeticians within the state.
The end of the 2019 school year coincides with an important milestone: June 27th will be the one year marker since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which determined that forcibly collecting union dues and fees from public workers, including teachers, is unconstitutional.
This summer is the perfect time to ask yourself the question: What is my union doing for me?
Long involvement with Warwick Schools can leave a parent tired and confident about the solution, which won’t be pursued.
Colleges and universities may not sufficiently be considering the cost they face for virtue signaling, as Harvard did by cancelling the acceptance of a Parkland survivor.
Mark Perry, of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), notes that the University of Rhode Island has made the list of American institutions of higher education under investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for possible violations of Title IX:
The University just accepted $1 million from Karen L. Adams for single-sex, female-only scholarships that will discriminate based on sex (no male students are allowed to apply and that scholarship funding openly excludes male students from participation based on sex, and that scholarship funding openly denies male students from the benefits of that funding in violation of Title IX.
This isn’t the only discriminatory program at URI. In 2017, I became aware of a chemistry camp at the university available for free to Rhode Island middle school students, as long as they are female. The 2019 camp was in April. In fact, the week-long camp is so popular that it’s full, and participation is limited to those who have not gone in the past:
A weeklong chemistry camp for Rhode Island girls in grades 6-8. Girls will come to URI every day (transportation not included) from 9 am to 4 pm April 15-19, and take part in a full day of interactive science education. Each day has a THEME, will include lunch and snack, and will allow girls to participate in hands-on science experiments. No experience is necessary, just an interest in science and a sense of fun! We will talk with female scientists in interesting professions, travel to Mystic Aquarium, and visit the Narragansett Bay Commission. THE CAMP IS FREE; students are expected to figure out their own transportation to and from URI daily.
When I first noticed the program, I contacted the professor who runs it, Mindy Levine. She acknowledged that “research that [she had] read on boys’ education indicates clearly that current educational models are designed for girls and the way girls learn, and that all children (but especially boys) would benefit from more extensive hands-on, experiential learning.” Professor Levine said she would be willing to work with somebody on a program for boys, but I’m not able to find any that have been developed.
This is the seventh year of the girls program, funded by Pfizer, and it accommodates 40 girls (or boys who identify as girls).
It was to be expected that even inadequate, sound-good education reforms from Rhode Island’s General Assembly would come at a cost, as reported by the Providence Journal’s Linda Borg:
The Senate Finance Committee last month asked Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green what she would need to take on the new responsibilities included in this package of legislation, which, among other things, calls for instituting high-quality civics instruction, expanding world languages statewide, improving instruction for students with dyslexia and giving principals more authority.
“To fully support the requirements of these legislative priorities and to transform the department to focus more on supporting educators, students, and the community, RIDE needs additional expertise and capacity across a wide range of areas, such as implementing high-quality curriculum and supporting school leaders,” said Rhode Island Department of Education spokesman Pete Janhunen. “The request contains a list of proposed positions that align with the priorities of both the commissioner and the General Assembly.”
The ask is for $1.9 million, mostly to hire new personnel. One question remains unasked, however. If this is a “shift” in the nature of the department, are there no roles that no longer need to be filled?
This is another $1.9 million for the state’s education bureaucracy, so it can edge in on the territory of local decision makers. Actually, it’s fig-leaf spending and reorganizing in order to avoid addressing the actual problem: Our public schools have insufficient accountability and are structured for the benefit of the adults who work in them, rather than the children who attend them.
Until Rhode Islanders have had enough and are willing to force elected officials to address that problem, every proposed solution will amount to merely more or less wasted money and time.
Linda Borg reports in the Providence Journal that the Chariho regional school district has been permitted to continue in its suit against the State of Rhode Island for allowing additional career and technical centers in the region, allegedly in breach of their agreement:
… Chariho filed suit in Superior Court alleging that the education department had breached its contract by approving similar vocational programs at Westerly and Narragansett High Schools. Chariho also sought a permanent injunction to prohibit the state from authorizing other career and tech centers in the region.
Chariho has long complained that Wagner’s efforts to expand school choice have hurt preexisting vocational programs. Wagner, in an effort to promote Gov. Gina Raimondo’s support for career and technical education, has encouraged traditional high schools to open their own career and tech programs.
The outcome of the lawsuit is probably going to hinge on whether a program opened at an existing high school counts as a “center.” Chariho cares, as Superintendent Barri Ricci makes clear in the article, because the district must pay another district if students within its boundaries choose to cross those boundaries for a particular program. Though more difficult to track, the district also loses revenue to the extent students from other districts decide to stay within their own boundaries for similar programs.
Contract provisions aside, the case illustrates a broader point about government services. Chariho is claiming a contractual right to a monopoly on career and technical training within the public school system in that area. If families want to pay extra to send children to private academies, the district has little say. It is only because we’ve set up this system of schools for which we insist students’ families can’t be expected to pay that this is an issue.
Most within-government school choice — notably charter schools — takes the form of the public sector competing with the private sector. Taxpayers are simply forced to pay for the education services for which families would otherwise have had to pay, giving government schools a massive advantage in attracting customers.
When the competition is between government schools, however, choices become subject to the political process. The state government gets to decide what choices families have and what government agencies get the monopoly advantages.