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We Must Require a Definition of “Accountability”

Earlier today, I mentioned Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s recent appearance on WPRI’s Newsmakers program and his heavy reliance on buzz phrases and jargon.  One such term — which needn’t be jargon, but can be used that way — was “accountability.”

Wagner’s use of the word came to mind when I read an excerpt on National Review Online of a book by Eva Moskowitz, a former New York City Councilwoman and charter school founder:

While I was already convinced that the district schools weren’t in good shape, preparing for the contract hearings was nonetheless an eye-opener for me. Interviewing principals, superintendents, and teachers helped me understand just how impossible it was for them to succeed given the labor contracts, and how job protections created a vicious cycle. Teachers felt they’ve been dealt an impossible hand: their principal was incompetent or their students were already woefully behind or their textbooks hadn’t arrived or all of the above. They didn’t feel they should be held accountable for failing to do the impossible so they understandably wanted job protections. However, since these job protections made success even harder for principals who were already struggling with other aspects of the system’s dysfunctionality to achieve, they too wanted job protections. Nobody wanted to be held accountable in a dysfunctional system, but the system couldn’t be cured of its dysfunction until everyone was held accountable.

In that context, the question is unavoidable:  What does “accountability” mean?  It must have clear and predictable consequences, or it’s worthless.  As Wagner used the term, “accountability,” one couldn’t be sure what it entailed, suspecting that the idea might rely on the assumption that teachers and administrators would feel guilty about bad results and consider themselves as having been held accountable.  Or maybe the consequence would be a written-more-in-sadness-than-anger letter of disappointment from Department of Education.

Accountability should mean that people lose their jobs or that entire schools are threatened with going out of business because students are going elsewhere.  Unfortunately, that necessity goes against the sine qua non of government employment, which is job security.

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School Repairs and Where the Money Goes

So Democrat Governor of Rhode Island Gina Raimondo wants Rhode Islanders to make a “once-in-a-generation investment” to fix our substandard school buildings, and I can’t help but wonder:  Where is all the money we’re already spending going?

Rhode Island’s public schools need $627.5 million worth of major repairs to simply put students out of harm’s way, according to a major independent study commissioned by state officials.

But it would cost $2.2 billion to bring schools to an ideal condition — buildings that are energy-efficient, offer the right mix of technology and provide plenty of sunlight and fresh air.

The first thing to note is that $2.2 billion isn’t all that much higher (relatively) than the $1.8 billion that the state proclaimed a few years ago.  Suffice to say that it’s a lot of money and that this isn’t a surprise.

But again:  Where is all the money going that we’re already spending?  This whole thing has the feel of a government scam.  The first marker is that, by just about any measure, Rhode Islanders pay a great deal in taxes.  How can that not be enough to cover basic maintenance and improvement of something that’s long been considered a central function.

The second marker that raises questions about this new ask for huge taxpayer expenditures and debt is how we’re coming up with these numbers.  Tiverton, for example, is listed as having $46 million in “deficiency costs,” but the town is already paying off $54 million in debt for construction and repairs.  How did we reach the point of requiring $100 million in school repairs for a district serving about 1,800 students?

Something isn’t right with this whole pitch across the state, and Rhode Islanders should insist that elected officials figure it out before agreeing to put themselves into even more debt.

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URI Honors Colloquium’s Narrow Explication of Everything

The graphic accompanying the Web page for this year’s honors colloquium at the University of Rhode Island appears to be ironic.  It’s a sketch of a star with a face faded into it, all superimposed on a field of stars.  Given that the title of the colloquium is “Origins: Life, the Universe and Everything,” one might assume the speeches would include some discussion of philosophy or even theology, but the list of presentations would seem to suggest otherwise.  (An email to one of the coordinators for confirmation of this observation went without response.)

Basically, all 10 speakers are concerned with science of one form or another, which is fine as far as it goes, but it raises the question of what the underlying philosophy of the colloquium is.  The fact that there must be such a philosophy implied can be seen in the advertisement that the speakers will help “to shed light on our current best understanding of humanity’s place in the cosmos.”  Whatever useful information scientists might provide, that one is well outside of their purview.

Indeed, the insinuation that science can answer such questions seems like an attempt to smuggle in the academic elite’s popular variation of nihilistically tinged materialism.  The extent to which scientists can tell us our “place in the cosmos” is precisely the extent to which they can do the same concerning rocks or elements.  That is, they must first reduce us to mere things.

Worse, an institution that presumes to take up a topic such as the origins of everything without providing students some philosophical discourse as to (arguably) the most important question in their lives — not what or how, but why — does them a tremendous disservice.  Even those who won’t attend such colloquiums will pick up the institutional message that this critical question for self-exploration and human development is unimportant.

That gets to a core reason I send my children to Catholic schools, and in keeping with my theme of today, it represents a disappointing missed opportunity.

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You Will Be Made to Conform

If you need any evidence that progressive organizations like the Rhode Island ACLU, Planned Parenthood, Rhode Island Working Families, and the State Council of Churches have no intention of leaving any room whatsoever for people to hold different beliefs than theirs, consider that they are working to have the Rhode Island Department of Education to make mandatory its guidance on transgender students.  Apparently, one-quarter of Rhode Island schools have yet to implement a “comprehensive policy,” and that’s just not acceptable to the Conform Now crowd.

Mind you that these schools may follow the progressives’ beliefs in every detail without having formalized policies.  Moreover, they may have had no reason to make this a pressing issue that demands distraction from other priorities (such as overcoming the state’s abysmal record for educating children).

More importantly, keep in mind how radical, oppressive, and intrusive the “guidance” actually is.   Not only does the state Department of Education call for schools to impose reeducation on any students who might be uncomfortable with transgenderism in bathrooms and changing areas, but it actively encourages teachers to attempt to discern the beginnings of transgender feelings in students and to draw those feelings out, working to hide the process from parents if the government-run schools think that the parents might not agree.

The basic promise of the American system is that everybody has a right to form their own beliefs about life and reality and to live under a system of government that respects those beliefs.  Progressives only partially agree.  To them, you’re free to hold any belief… as long as they agree with it.

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Stunning Data Points from New York City Charters

Eva Moskowitz offers a good starting point for discussion of school choice in a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing experience in New York City:

The highest performing charter schools, like Success Academy, have actually reversed the achievement gap. Black and Hispanic students from Central Harlem’s seven Success Academy schools outperform white students across the city by 33 points in math and 21 points in reading; low-income students outperform the city’s affluent students by 38 and 24 points in math and reading respectively.

Of course, those numbers would have to be adjusted somewhat.  Picking students from one group in the best schools and comparing them with students from another group across all schools is obviously unfair.  But still, Success Academy results explode any argument that students from that area of the city just can’t learn, for whatever reason.

Now note this part:

To justify their arguments, Ms. Weingarten and others propagate the myth that charter-school successes have come at the expense of traditional district schools. But this claim has been disproved again and again. In New York City, for example, a comprehensive study found improved academic performance, safety, and student engagement at district schools with charter schools, particularly high-performing ones, located nearby or in the same building.

This is a winning formula: competition plus the ability of schools to concentrate on the shared challenges specific to the students whose families choose particular environments.  We shouldn’t limit our application of that formula to just charter schools, and we certainly shouldn’t keep delaying reform in reaction to the spooky smokescreens self-dealing advocates like union kingpin Randy Weingarten keep throwing up.

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Kids Are Stressed in School? Good.

Not to be the image of the rough old guy snarling at sensitive children, but if this, from a Linda Borg in the Providence Journal, is actually meant to be news about which we’re supposed to be concerned, then perhaps we mostly need to be concerned about the sorts of people who think that this is news about which we’re supposed to be concerned:

Half of all public high school students in Rhode Island say school is quite stressful.

More than 70 percent say they frequently or almost always worry about grades.

Sixty-three percent are really worried about things in their life.

Teenagers are living in a state of constant anxiety, according to a new survey from the R.I. Department of Education that gathered 83,000 responses from students in all grades, including 55,600 responses from grades 6 through 12.

 

School should be stressful for students — not unduly, out of proportion with the actual significance of any given matter, but as a general proposition.  Students ought to see their education as something that matters a lot and failure as something that can have real consequences.  And, moreover, failure in terms of grading ought to be a true possibility.

A central problem of our modern society is summed up very well in the apparent inclination to address stress by removing stressors rather than dealing with them.  And, no, that doesn’t mean learning how to express your feelings to a person who’s stressing you out so that he or she can change his or her behavior (or be forced to do so by some authority).  It doesn’t mean reworking a school system’s means of testing and holding students accountable so they can never feel like they’ve fallen short.

It means coming to an understanding of our lives that can accommodate stress and turn it into motivation.

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Rhode Island Motto: “Hope for Bribery to Live Here”

Kate Bramson has checked in on Rhode Island government’s “Wavemaker” program, which bribes college graduates to live in the Ocean State:

The state has selected 224 college graduates to receive personal income tax credits under the state’s Wavemaker Fellowship program, which would defray their student loan debts totaling about $868,000 while the recipients work in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and design jobs in Rhode Island. …

This year’s average annual tax credit is approximately $3,875 per student, but recipients earn varying amounts based on their education levels. Those with associate’s degrees are eligible for up to $1,000 of credit each year, while those with postgraduate degrees are eligible for up to $6,000.

The working class and underemployed in the state must be very comforted by the knowledge that they’re helping to give a $6,000 bonus to a Ph.D. in a high-paying job.  But that’s the key to living in Rhode Island: do something (or be something) that local elites like.  Otherwise, you’re out of luck.  You’re a nobody loser.

Many of us have watched in disbelief every time some government-employed or otherwise-connected schemer walks away from an impropriety scot-free, but the mystery is solved when once one understands a quirk about Rhode Island culture.  Just as many Americans romanticize mafiosi, Rhode Islanders tend to look up to those who “got theirs.”  The insider crooks are the archetypes around which we build our entire system of government.  The political message is, “Vote for me, and I’ll get you yours just like my pal got his.”

Sure, it is odd that the same folks who implicitly acknowledge that we have to pay people to live here and companies to set up shop here also tend to insist that the tax-and-regulatory burden doesn’t drive people out.  But that seeming contradiction only underscores the principle:  Doing something for insiders means you’re not a mooch, but somebody deserving of support.  If you just want to mind your own business and keep what you earn, then you’re a mooch.

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The Testing Bounce-Around on School Accountability

Readers may have come across news that Rhode Island students’ scores on the PARCC tests remain underwhelming.  This paragraph from Dan McGowan puts it succinctly:

The majority of public school students across Rhode Island still aren’t meeting expectations in math or English, according to the latest round of standardized test scores released Thursday by the R.I. Department of Education.

Of course, the problem is that our education bureaucrats change the test, wholesale, every time they’ve been around long enough to begin pointing toward actual conclusions about actual students.  One needn’t be but so cynical to suspect that the problem with the recently abandoned New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) tests wasn’t pedagogical, but that they began to allow Rhode Islanders to trace students’ progress (or lack thereof) through enough years of their schooling to begin holding the system accountable.

The best way to resolve that particular institutional friction, of course, is to change the test.  That buys the system a few years of excused “adjustment” and then another four or five years during which the test are acknowledged to be measuring something, but without enough data to draw conclusions.  Then… change the test again.

This post shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of standardized testing as an ideal mechanism for accountability.  Much preferable would be empowering parents to judge which schools will better serve their children and to direct their education resources there by some mechanism that isn’t as intrusive as changing houses.

But there has to be some way for communities to judge how well the schools in their communities are performing, and without a market dynamic, the waters are too easy to muddy.  Parents don’t want to feel as if they’ve made bad decisions for their children, and when the decision is limited to uprooting your entire life and moving, the incentive is to make the best of what you’ve got.

With that framing, the handling of standardized testing is simply an extension of the strategy.  The game is to bamboozle each generation of parents to keep the corrupt union-driven system going.

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San Miguel and Our Education System

Providence Journal reporter Jacqueline Tempera’s use of the term “social justice” might be a red flag to conservative readers, but the San Miguel School is a poster project for school choice:

When Wolf first worked at San Miguel School, in 1997, he said it was a bit like “the wild west.” The teachers, Wolf included, were young and in their first years on the job. The four middle school classrooms at its original Carter Street building would fit into the gymnasium in the current school on Branch Avenue.

“Most young teachers coming into urban core have an intense and great desire to heal all and save the world,” said Wolf, reflecting on his own ideals as a 20-something leading classrooms of at-risk children. “Most of us come to this with open eyes and open hearts so wide you’re a little naive.”

When they aren’t restricted with bureaucratic strings, political mandates, and labor contracts, teachers and schools can focus on their areas of passion and experiment with ways to reach the students who are actually in their classrooms in ways specific to those students.

As I’ve said before, we should think of our society’s education system as all of the ways that we educate our children, not as a franchise of government-branded schools.  And if we understand our education system in that way, then it’s an injustice to discriminate against children and families just because their interests and needs don’t match the mass-production requirements of a regular district school and force them to pay for education twice, once through taxes and once through some other means.

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Not Virtue Signaling a Bigger Education Problem than Not Educating

Yesterday, I pointed out that Providence appeared to have given up on trying to make college readiness a baseline criterion for its degrees.  Well, that was fast.  Dan McGowan reports at least a partial reversal of its changes.  Unfortunately, the stated rationale is from the alternate reality of progressivism:

“We have heard loud and clear the public’s concern that any change to our current world language requirement may inadvertently signal a reduced commitment to multilingual studies,” the district said in a prepared statement. “That is not the message we wish to send to our community or to our students.”

 

Acknowledging that Providence schools cannot accomplish the goal that the public generally expect from them is not the outrage, apparently.  Rather, a reduction of virtue signaling is.

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Diluting Degrees in Providence

It’s possible I’m misreading the import of this Dan McGowan article on WPRI, but it sure seems like Providence is just admitting that its schools can’t fulfill the mission everybody expects from it:

Providence parents will need to affirm they understand the city’s minimum standards for a high-school diploma may not fulfill college admission requirements under a new policy announced Thursday. …

A revised diploma policy being considered by the Providence School Board would reduce the amount of credits students are required to earn during their high school career from 21 to 20, removing an existing foreign language requirement in favor of more elective courses. Superintendent Chris Maher said this week the goal of the changes is to give schools more flexibility.

To be fair, McGowan notes that “many of the state’s largest school districts do not force students to take a foreign language course in high school,” which colleges in the state tend to require, but I’d wager most Rhode Islanders believe it to be a central premise of our public schools that graduating students will be able to move on to college, if that’s their plan, and to do so without putting in their two now-free years at the Community College of Rhode Island to cover any lingering minimum requirements.

I should note that the school choice system I advocate would allow space for some districts and private schools to specialize such that not every student will graduate college ready.  Different students need different things and have different futures ahead of them, and forcing them into curricula that serve the needs of other students isn’t helping them.  But that’s not the organizing principle claimed for our public schools.

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About the Legislators’ Conditions on “Free Tuition”

This morning, I expressed some reservations about free community college as a program that meddles with young adults’ decision-making process.  A wonkier concern is what Linda Borg’s Providence Journal article says about legislating in Rhode Island.  Here’s the red flag:

Once they enroll, students must maintain a 2.5 GPA. There is no longer a requirement that CCRI graduates remain in Rhode Island, although college officials said about 90 percent of their students wind up staying here after leaving CCRI.

The sentence about remaining in Rhode Island is not correct.  According to the language of the legislation that passed with the state budget, “to be considered for the scholarship, a student”:

Must commit to live, work, or continue their education in Rhode Island after graduation. The Community College of Rhode Island shall develop a policy that will secure this commitment from recipient-students.

Via email, Borg states that CCRI’s Vice President of Student Affairs/Chief Outcomes Officer, Sara Enright, told her that the requirement had been removed.  If Enright is expressing actual policy, then CCRI and, by extension, the Raimondo Administration intend to simply ignore language that our elected representatives had insisted be in the bill.  This point is underlined by the fact that the governor’s initial version of the legislation did not include this provision.  In other words, this is a condition that the legislature decided was necessary in order to put the program into law.

It would be one thing for CCRI to implement “a policy that will secure this commitment” that tacitly has no enforcement mechanism, but the administration apparently doesn’t even intend to pretend that students have a moral obligation to honor a commitment.  That’s not how the rule of law is supposed to work in Rhode Island, and the legislature should take steps to enforce its prerogative on the administration.

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Tuition Benefit for a Few

Perhaps the most surprising finding of Ted Nesi and Tim White’s follow-up article on the matter of Frank Montanaro, Jr.’s free college tuition is that only two other Rhode Island College employees have received tuition waivers while on unpaid leave from work in the last decade.  The obvious headline news, however, is that Montanaro received much more and was the only one who needed some sort of special approval.

But documents obtained by Target 12 show Montanaro was in fact the only member of the PSA union who received free tuition while on leave in the past decade, and that he obtained it thanks to a special “administrative authorization” by top college officials. RIC and Montanaro refuse to release the documents showing how the arrangement was structured and who approved it, though they have acknowledged former RIC President Nancy Carriuolo was involved and that the union reached “a negotiated settlement” with RIC over the matter in 2016.

Unfortunately, the key data point isn’t included, and may not be possible to find: namely, how many other employees took leave and were denied the benefit or didn’t even bother applying because they knew they shouldn’t be eligible.  That Montanaro was the only one receiving special permission and one of only three to receive some free tuition while on leave may only tell us that there are few employees who are similarly situated.

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UPDATED: Raimondo’s Got Nothing to Say About Mercy

Ethan Shorey of The Valley Breeze is having a hard time getting an answer from Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo about a charitable dental effort that the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) shut down this year:

On June 28, Gov. Gina Raimondo sent out a mass email denouncing Trumpcare, calling it “immoral” and saying it would bring “disastrous ramifications” for “Rhode Island residents at risk of losing health care coverage.” The use of the word immoral got me to wondering about Raimondo’s thoughts on the Community College of Rhode Island’s decision to end the Mission of Mercy, an annual volunteer event giving some of Rhode Island’s poorest residents access to free dental care. …

It’s now July 12 and I still haven’t heard back from [spokeswoman Catherine] Rolfe. Perhaps my email was lost again?

Shorey’s background article gives the details.  CCRI didn’t technically kill the program.  The college just kicked the volunteers out of the campus’s dental facility and told them they’d have to set up in a field house, promising to kick in $10,000 toward the estimated $70,000 cost of setting up a mobile clinic each year.

CCRI may have a perfectly reasonable explanation for the decision, but it’s difficult to imagine one, and it’s impossible if government officials won’t even attempt to explain.  Shorey’s right, too, to wonder how rhetoric about reform of broad national health policy can be called “immoral” for removing mandates for insurance coverage and seeking to reform a welfare program when Raimondo’s extended administration directly removed access to actual health care.

ADDENDUM (4:01 p.m. 7/13/17):

I’m struggling to understand Ethan Shorey’s complaint about this post, but he seems to want some clarification to be made in this space.

His apparent insinuation in the text quoted above is that if one considers Trumpcare “immoral,” then the term could reasonably be seen as applying to CCRI’s treatment of Mission of Mercy.  This observation, of itself, does not tell the reader anything about Shorey’s own moral view, although one might infer from his attempts to get a comment from the governor that he finds the Mission of Mercy issue less ambiguous, if anything.

In paraphrasing Shorey’s sentiment at the end of my post, I kept the same structure, only adding more details about what partisans like Raimondo assert is “immoral” about Trumpcare.

Perhaps Shorey is worried that people might think he agrees with my broader views, which aren’t part of this post.  That would explain the “we both know” language in our tweeted exchange.  If that’s the case, I apologize for any detrimental effect that my approving citation of his work has on his social standing.

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When Teachers Choose Their Children’s Schools

Count it among the saving graces of Twitter that one periodically overhears a snippet of conversation that opens an intriguing topic.  Such was the case for me this morning when OSTPA retweeted Citizen Stewart’s assertion that public school teachers use private schools for their own children at a higher rate than the general public.  The thread provides no source for the assertion, though somebody did ask.

So is it true?  Yes, and it appears over many years and multiple sources.  The most recent to come up quickly through an online search comes from EducationNext:

School teachers are much more likely to use a private school than are other parents. No less than 20% of teachers with school age children, but only 13% of non-teachers, have sent one or more of their children to private school. Teachers are also just as likely to make use of a charter school or to homeschool their child as other parents.

A 2004 Thomas B. Fordham Institute study found almost the exact same results: 20% for public school teachers versus 13% for the general public.  Of course, public school teachers tend to be very well paid, so they’re significantly more likely to be able to afford private school.  Indeed, the Fordham study found that teachers with household income between $42,000 per year and $84,000 per year were almost exactly as likely as their economic peers to utilize private schools.

This caveat only goes so far to mitigate the lesson, though.  At the least, they’re still signaling that inside knowledge doesn’t undermine the general sense that private schools are preferable.  Moreover, teachers with household income under $42,000 are about 50% more likely than their own peers to use private schools, suggesting that they do indeed know something everybody else doesn’t.

The Fordham study also looks regionally, at 50 urban areas.  In the Providence-Fall River-Pawtucket region, 31.3% of public school teachers utilize private schools versus 16.5% of all families.  That differential is the sixth biggest that Fordham found.

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Rhode Island’s “Overpriced” Public Colleges and University

Preston Cooper, of AEI, has an interesting short study up that could enable one to argue on both sides of the “free tuition” debate in Rhode Island. Basically, he adjusted the advertised in-state tuition at public four-year colleges and universities for regional cost of living. Doing so, he finds that many New England states overprice their public higher education even when taking into account the high cost of living. Rhode Island, by this measure, has the ninth-most-overpriced system. (Vermont and New Hampshire are highest and second-highest, respectively)

This is a quick analysis, as Cooper acknowledges, not even adjusting for state-government subsidies and such. He appears to have done some digging in that area but for some reason doesn’t present the information. I’d note, though, that Rhode Island spends a large percentage of its budget, relative to other New England states, on higher education.

And of course, there are deeper, more-subtle market factors that might play a role. In a high-cost area, the value of a degree is arguably greater, because one needs more income to get by. It may also be the case that an area with a large number of high-prestige, high-cost colleges allows more-standard schools to adjust prices up based on comparison. Vermont and New Hampshire may be high (I’m guessing) in part because they are low cost, relative to the area, but institutions of higher education compete regionally on price.

For the interesting question, put aside these critiques and ask: If we take the data at face value, what does that mean for the governor’s “free tuition” proposal? She would probably say that it shows the need to provide young adults with more assistance, to cover the costs. I’d argue that it is further evidence that the governor isn’t solving the real problem. Making it easier to afford college makes it easier for colleges to charge more, which makes no sense if they’re already overcharging. That money is going somewhere that it doesn’t have to, and we need to figure out where. Naturally, those who agree with me suspect that an unwillingness to do that drives much of the motivation of the other side.

It’s fascinating, though, how a data point can serve opposing sides of an argument.

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