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Tom Ward’s Math Solution Helps Find the Problem

Tom Ward‘s sensible suggestion for parents concerned about the mathematical education of their children, presented in the first part of his Valley Breeze column from this week, touches upon what may be the most basic of disagreements in education policy…

My advice to young parents who don’t trust the math curriculum is this: Consider what we did. Whether through or many other sites, just Google search “arithmetic worksheets,” download the lessons, and get your child to work on learning arithmetic the way you might have learned it. And if a teacher worries to you that it might “confuse” your child, ignore them. It’s your child. Nobody’s brain will explode.

The general question raised by Ward’s advice is this: Are there ways to determine whether someone knows math, separate from knowing that they made it through the individual steps of a government-approved schooling process?

For those who believe there are such ways, something like the Common Core isn’t really necessary; i.e. if we already know where to turn to evaluate mathematics knowledge, we don’t really need a sweeping national initiative to tell us how to do it.

For those who believe there aren’t such ways, Ward’s suggestion is by definition a non-starter, but they have a problem of their own; i.e. starting from an idea that what’s taught in school cannot be evaluated outside of school, or even at a later time within school, how can it be claimed that anything of enduring value is being taught?

The Common Core initiative, where a single group outside of the school system asserts itself as a neutral arbiter of what is important about a field of knowledge like mathematics fails to address any of these sets of fundamental tensions, and thus has found itself with adversaries on multiple fronts.

Speaker Mattiello at the Rhode Island Taxpayers Summer Meeting, Part 1

A retro-liveblog of remarks made by Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives Nicholas Mattiello, at this Saturday’s summer meeting of the Rhode Island Taxpayers organization. The areas the Speaker touches on include education, the gas-tax, reducing regulations in RI, and some general ideas about what governing means and how it should be done.

The General Assembly’s Distorted View of Its Own Role

Even before I’ve managed to work through every bill that made its way through the General Assembly, this session, I’d have to say that legislators did grievous harm to the value of diplomas from Rhode Island public schools.  At a minimum, the General Assembly undermined even a pitiful baseline for what the piece of paper proves and catered to the teachers’ unions to limit administrators’ (already meager) leverage in trying to get them to work harder and perform better.  There’s really no question, at this point, that the brief ray of work-through-the-system education reform has effectively been blocked out.

That’s a shame, and a tragedy for students who have no choice but to go through government-branded schools in the state.

Salt in the wound is the expressed reasoning of Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston):

“I became frustrated with the waiver process,” he said. “It produced inequitable results. Depending on where you lived, some communities were more liberal than others.” …

“That’s what government is supposed to do,” he said. “In a unique way, it’s supposed to serve the most humble members of our community.”

Notice that it’s Rhode Islanders, specifically students, whom the speaker sees as “humble”; it’s certainly not the legislature, whose members apparently have the massive competence to micromanage an education system serving over 100,000 children during its six-month, part-time adventure in telling other people how they must live.

Giving communities the ability to set different expectations is exactly the way to ensure that our government is representative.  If one town wants to ensure that its diplomas are known far and wide to be proof of a mastery of knowledge and ability to learn, then families that prioritize such things will move there.  If a city wants schools that amount to thirteen-year courses in building self-esteem, then it will produce the predictable results.

The General Assembly is not an appeals board for people dissatisfied with their communities to seek a solution that applies to the entire state.  Local opposition is one of the few areas of accountability that government-branded schools actually face.

If members of the General Assembly really want to empower families to find the best opportunities for their own children, they should allow parents and guardians to choose where to direct the funds that the system sets aside for their children.  It shouldn’t only be wealthier Rhode Islanders who are able to save their children from an unaccountable system that is set up mainly to preserve the high-paying jobs of teachers and the political power of unions.

UPDATED: East Greenwich Doesn’t Get That Clearing a Bar Isn’t Barring People

Emails an out-of-state friend, when he came across this story, “What is going on up there in the Ocean State?”

Honors Night at Cole Middle School is no more.

Parents got an email from Principal Alexis Meyer over the weekend saying some members of the school community “have long expressed concerns related to the exclusive nature of Honors Night.” The email goes on to say students will be recognized in other ways.

One student whom ABC6 goes on to quote illustrates the truth that too many people are apparently unable to understand, these days:  It’s not “exclusive” in the sense that it bars anybody from every participating.  Rather, it sets a bar, and students who want to be included can work toward the achievement, at which point, attendance will really mean something.

Something tells me this isn’t a good omen for the East Greenwich school district.


UPDATE (5/20/14 3:54 p.m.):

Well, that was fast.  John DeLuca tweets: “just found out from @MikeLaCrosse that EG School Administrators r reversing the decision on honors night. Will be held in June.”

I guess the people of East Greenwich also didn’t think it was a good omen for their much-lauded school district.

Coming up in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, May 21: One Small Step Towards Proficiency-Based Learning

2. S2950: Mandates that the RI Board of Education adopt “a competency-based/proficiency-based learning policy and a model district policy designed to increase programmatic opportunities for students to earn credits through demonstrations of competency”. (S Education; Wed, May 21)

We seem to be going through a particularly acute postmodernist words-mean-whatever-you-want-them-to-mean phase of education policy right now, largely resulting from some bad ideas about how to “market” the Common Core. With that disclaimer, “proficiency-based learning” usually means that students are “promoted” once they show they’ve mastered an area of knowledge, without being required to remain at a certain “grade level” in a curriculum area for an inflexible amount of time.

Proficiency based learning, effectively implemented, could be an effective outside-of-the-box solution for a host of education problems. It’s most significant difference from factory-model education is that very concrete incentives are created for students to learn academic material and demonstrate their mastery of it as quickly as they can, so that they can spend more time advancing in the subject areas they’d prefer to study while in school, or even complete school altogether in less time.

Big Government Is a Business Model, Not a Political Philosophy

The other day, I suggested to somebody that, from a certain perspective, charter schools (and mayoral academies) are like the government’s way of cutting into the private school market.  Funded like public schools, charters are an alternative for which parents don’t have to pay if they’re lucky enough to make it through the lottery. It’s likely, therefore, that they don’t poach students just from regular district public schools, but also from local private schools, particularly the lower-cost parochial schools.

So, it was utterly without surprise that I noted this passage in a Providence Journal article today about a hard-squeezed middle-class Rhode Island family:

Danielle herself is tiring. Awake at 6:30 a.m., an hour after Josh left for work, she managed the boys’ morning routine and drove Cade at 7:30 a.m. to Blackstone Valley Prep, with his brothers riding along. Ditto the return trip, when Blackstone Valley let out at 4:15 p.m.

Of course, given that the thrust of the article is how little financial space a working family in Rhode Island has, the Maziarzes are fortunate that taxpayers are funding schools to compete in the alternative space.  They mightn’t be able to afford even low-cost private schools, or they might have to find even more ways to squeeze their budget.

This is the circumstance of young families in Rhode Island, and it’s a good indication of why they’re leaving.  In another state, with lower costs and more opportunities, the family might have no trouble covering private school tuition… or even trusting their local public schools for their educational needs.

Instead, we patch a broken system with some schools that evade some of the more egregious of the government-imposed burdens.  The danger is that the tear will spread.  One conceivable future may find all private schools that aren’t targeted at the most elite of families going out of business because fewer families have enough disposable income and because the government is aggressively moving into their market space.

Then the interests that have shown such dedication to destroying Rhode Island will move in to kill or undermine the charters, leaving us back where we started, but without even an option for which a hard-working family can scrimp and save for an alternative.

A Testing Notification Bill Passes a Semi-Present Senate Committee

Yesterday evening, the Senate Education committee passed a high-school testing bill which, as a result of the amendment process, is substantially different from the bill originally introduced.

The original bill placed a permanent prohibition on the use of standardized testing as a graduation requirement. The amended bill assumes that a “state assessment requirement for graduation from high school” will be in place, and defines procedures for notifying parents and students that assessment requirements are in danger of not being met, and for informing the governor and the executive branch of various test-related results.

The bill passed by a 6-0 vote of the Education Committee with 6 members absent, but only reached 6 votes with the help of the Senate President and Majority Leader adding their two ex-officio “yes” votes to four “yes” votes from regular committee members — to state the obvious here, this means that only four of ten regular committee members showed up to vote on a potentially important bill.

I will point out here that you cannot come to the conclusion that a quorum was present at the committee hearing with a simple answer of “ex-officio members do count towards a quorum” [only 6 of 12 members present] or “ex-officio members don’t count towards a quorum” [only 4 of 10 members present]; you only get to a quorum for last night’s vote by saying that ex-officio members do count when determining how many members are present, but don’t count when determining how many people need to be present.

For reference, here what Roberts’ Rules has to say about ex-officio committee members and quorums

If the ex-officio member is under the control of the society, there is no distinction between him and the other members except where the president is ex-officio member of all committees, in which case it is evidently the intention to permit, not to require, him to act as a member of the various committees, and therefore in counting a quorum he should not be counted as a member.

Like most parliamentary procedure rules, this one is grounded in solid principle; the principle to consider here is whether committees should be passing bills, dependent on ex-officio votes, when a majority of regular members can’t be bothered to show up or may have decided to avoid a difficult issue.

Coming up in the Relevant House and Senate Education Committees: Banning Standardized Testing as a Graduation Requirement Forever*

Other 1. H7672/S2185: Prevents a standardized assessment, and possibly any statewide assessment, from ever* being used as a graduation requirement. (H Health, Education and Welfare; Wed, Apr 2 & S Education; Thu, Apr 3)

S2185 was heard in the Senate Education Committee last week, as one of three possible alternatives for postponing/prohibiting standardized testing as a graduation requirement. It’s definitely the prohibit-not-postpone bill, and is the only bill of the three that’s been called back. It’s listed on the Education committee agenda as “scheduled for consideration”, which means there is a very strong likelihood it will be voted on.

If it is eventually passed by the entire Senate, the question will of course become what will the new House leadership (including new House Majority Leader and old Providence Teachers’ Union legal counsel John DeSimone) do with it.

The Disparity of Spending and Results in Education

This morning, I took a look at a chart whose creators seemed to see something sinister in the fact that productivity would go up at a steady pace while inflation-adjusted median income stagnated. This afternoon, I’ve come across a chart with an even more dramatic comparison, and it’s one in which the causes may be more sinister.

From page 45 of a new report from Cato:

Note that the spending is inflation adjusted, so it’s actually significantly less of a leap than the absolute spending would show.

A quick skim through the report suggests that Rhode Island has worse results than the average, but it would be fair to say that most states have some variation of the increase in spending and decrease/stagnation in SAT scores. It would also be fair to argue that SAT scores may not be the best measure of success, for one reason or another.

But those are both arguments that have to be made. Faced with this sort of evidence, the burden should be on those who want to continually increase the resources that our state and our society direct to public education to prove that the problem is not the way the system is set up.

Until such arguments are made, the public is justified in seeking new alternatives and reductions in the money that they spend on a failing school system.

Coming up in Committee on February 11 and 12: The Worst Institutional Design in Education History?

1. S2265/Bud. Art. 20: Completion of a full Dilbert cycle of Rhode Island’s education bureaucracy, where one board that was created by merging together two previous boards is re-reorganized into one board with two “councils”, each council being given basically the same responsibility as one of the original boards. (H Health, Education and Welfare/H Finance joint meeting; Tue, Feb 11, as Bud. Art. 20 & S Education/S Finance joint meeting; Wed, Feb 12, as S2265)

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust?

How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. Segregation, to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, substitutes an “I-it” relationship for an “I-thou” relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things. Hence segregation is not only politically, economically and sociologically unsound, it is morally wrong and sinful. Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? Thus it is that I can urge men to obey the 1954 decision of the Supreme Court, for it is morally right; and I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong.

– From “Letter from Birmingham Jail“, by Martin Luther King, Jr.

RI’s High Cost, Low Results Schools

Another report gave RI schools a bad grade for their schools, relative to spending. WPRI’s Dan McGowan covered it today and wrote that Educacation Week gave Rhode Island a D+ for student achievement. There are a couple places where RI students have improved in the last 10 years, like math achievement and advanced placement scores. But […]

Could Talking Curriculum Instead of Standards be More Agreeable to Conservatives?

I know the idea of a “common curriculum” in the United States will raise some immediate hackles, but if advocates for let’s-call-it a national movement for curriculum reform want to win over a few conservatives, they should try following the lead of CitizenshipFirst Executive Director Robert Pondiscio; it could even awaken some pockets of enthusiastic conservative support…

You [Deborah Meier] write that the struggle to define democracy and liberty continue to evolve and that schooling “ideally prepares us to join in that struggle.” I strongly agree, but here again I must insist on specificity. Do you expect children to absorb what they need to know to contribute to this discussion by osmosis? Through patient and persistent modeling of democracy in our schools? Or do you wish, as I do, for children to learn the story of America’s founding, study the American Revolution, read the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, and become familiar with major historical events and movements of the past 250 years, warts and all, so that they might understand, in your excellent phrase, “precisely what protects other rights such as fairness, liberty, equality, privacy, and happiness.” Yes or no?

The civic virtues we both prize are empty platitudes without history to make them meaningful. Why is it so difficult to say—loudly and proudly—there are things all Americans should know to be competent citizens, so there must be a common curriculum

My sense of how we got to the current moment in education policy, dominated as it is by the “Common Core”, is that a group of establishment-type education reformers thought that a national focus on “standards” would be less acrimonious than a national focus on “curriculum”, but that this turned out to be a horrible strategic misstep.

As Mr. Pondiscio has argued in other places (and I agree with him) the focus on doing education right and making it better should be on imparting knowledge. You may find it surprising that this point is contentious, or maybe you won’t, but splitting the discussion over “standards” apart from the discussion over “curriculum” seems to raise the level of contention more than it ameliorates it.

Experts and many non-experts both understand that knowledge to be taught is contained(?) (<< have to think some more if this is right verb) in the curriculum, meaning that trying to discuss “standards” apart from “curriculum”, and hyper-emphasizing a discussion of standards first, has had the unintended consequence of suggesting that there are more important parts to education than imparting knowledge. Proponents of the Common Core don’t help their cause when they try to argue that conservatives should be in favor of standards, because the idea of standards is supposed to be a conservative one, when in other discussions, “standards” are regularly used to mean something very different from a guide to the specific knowledge that students are expected to possess, which is the idea of “standards” that conservatives might be predisposed to support.

Ultimately, if the curriculum reformers who believe that imparting knowledge is the essence of education want to successfully bring conservatives on to their side, they need to enthusiastically make the case that knowledge exists which is worth having — as Robert Pondiscio does in the above excerpt — and make clear what that knowledge is. Debates about standards and curriculum, and testing and accountability, and most of everything else about education cannot fall into their proper place until this basic issue is resolved.

So the “Dual Role” Has Become An Excuse to Give the President of CCRI A Hearty Raise?

This week, GoLocalProv‘s Kate Nagle shined a multi-part spotlight on various spending items at CCRI, the Community College of Rhode Island, one of three state colleges/universities and, accordingly, annual recipient of many millions of state tax dollars. We have yet to hear why, for example, it is prudent and appropriate that college funds are used […]