The most glaring problem in need of reform in the Providence school system may be the most unlikely one to be targeted.
My weekly call-in on John DePetro’s WNRI 1380 AM/95.1 FM show, for September 23, included talk about politicians’ school choice, the state’s gambling choice, the motives for a speaker conference, the motives for an announcement, and an inappropriate put-down from a taxpayer-funded spokesman.
Ian Donnis’s article looking into the educational choices of government officials who live in Providence has received much-deserved attention. I don’t think anybody has adequately noted how telling it really is.
The upshot is that, out of 38 officials he reviewed, Donnis found only eight with school-aged children, of whom there were 13 between them. Of these:
- Four go to private schools (religious or otherwise)
- Three go to charter schools
- Six go to regular district schools
That’s not the whole story, though. One of the children in district schools went to charters before entering high school. He and one other politician’s child go to Classical, which has been ranked #1 in the state. Two more go to a particular elementary school, which Erika Sanzi implies is “on the fancy side of town,” with a lottery even for children in the neighborhood.
This scenario illustrates the essence of educational freedom that wealthier families enjoy. If they are interested in utilizing public schools, they’ll move to specific zip codes for that purpose. If that isn’t an option, or if the schools change, they apply for charter schools. If they don’t win that gamble, or if a particular school has an entrance exam and their children don’t succeed on the test, then they’ll turn to private schools. (I’ve long suggested that charter schools’ introduction was in some respects an attempt to capture those families that were escaping to private schools.)
If we consider education to be as critical as politicians like to claim, then it shouldn’t only be families of means who can make these decisions.
Right from the start, the Rhode Island media got it wrong when they criticized interim-superintendent, Fran Gallo, for making a ‘costly’ mistake in ordering motivational books for dispirited students in the beleaguered Providence school system. How dare she corrupt the minds of city youth with an otherwise uplifting book that happened to include passive “religious overtones?
The media was all over the story. But, the issue should not have been that Gallo wasted almost two-hundred thousand dollars in inappropriate books that she was forced to recall, but, rather, the critical moral question should have been ‘why’ were the books deemed unacceptable in the first place? What could possibly be so offensive about famous athletes providing motivational messages to youth about overcoming adversity, even if some of them cited their wholesome faith in God as a major factor?
But, it gets even better.
More questions are needed when summer reading lists are opened up to encourage reading but then assigned based on rigid progressive themes.
An uproar of progressive complaints led to book mentioning God to be removed from lesson plans, while the official Providence school’s summer reading list contains sexually explicit and politically charged novels including one that details a pedophiliac relationship.
The story of Providence schools’ purchase of an inspirational book took an interesting turn as a second act. Act 1 was, “We Can’t Teach Anything That Sounds Religious”; Act 2 brings, “What Are We Not Being Told About How the City Spent $187,000 on this Book?” Naturally, the reporting (and Rhode Islanders’ long, painful experience with their government) lends itself to suspicion, but an innocent explanation is still possible for details like this:
[Vernon Brundage, Jr.] published “Shoot Your Shot” last year, but it’s unclear how many copies were sold before Gallo ordered 16,510 books. Maryland business filings show Brundage didn’t establish “Shoot Your Shot Globe Enterprises,” the company Providence paid for the books, until Aug. 15.
It could be that, in the way of modern life, somebody in Providence came across this book and proposed it for distribution. The proposal might have gone around the bureaucracy a bit, gathering approvals, and then inquiry made to the self-publishing author. Upon the order of 16,510, perhaps he realized the need (or opportunity) to set up a company to handle the transaction.
This kind of serendipity happens in the entrepreneurial universe. The catch in this instance, however, is that the district’s purchasing process should at least have produced some negotiation for a better price. And (of course) there’s the reflexive anti-religious sentiment in the district (from the first link above):
Gallo said she read “Shoot Your Shot,” authored by Vernon Brundage Jr., prior to purchasing it, and the religious references didn’t alarm her. The breezy read uses stories from professional basketball stars to inspire readers to accomplish their goals.
She said the book is meant to teach “grit and perseverance,” but she now sees why some teachers were uncomfortable using it.
Despite all of the claims that we have to put the students first, here’s a question that I haven’t seen anybody even hint at asking: What if a touch of religious faith is what Providence students really need? The district would implicitly be making a religious statement if it were to declare that this could not be the case.
To be sure, a political philosophy could simultaneously hold that students need religion and that government schools cannot provide or even encourage it. If that is our stance, however, then we have to question whether we should be expending so many resources on a system that can’t provide what is needed.
Everybody agrees that educating our youth is a moral obligation, and a vital basis for renewed economic growth.
Yet, very few in our political class have the courage to stand up to the special interests who want to maintain a government-run school monopoly. Look at the broken Providence School system. Parents need answers for their children today, not reforms that may help students five or even ten years down the road. Educational freedom is the answer.
During a hearing on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, WPRI’s Steph Machado tweeted the following comment from Domingo Morel, who wrote a book on state takeovers of schools and who joined the Johns Hopkins team to review Providence:
“It’s pretty unique” that the mayor, city council and school board haven’t objected to the state taking over the PVD schools
Perhaps these amount to the same thing, but one wonders whether the reason is that they know they aren’t capable of fixing the problem or want to pass the buck for the responsibility.
On most of Rhode Island’s intractable problems, especially those that manifest most significantly at the local level, one gets the sense that the strategy goes something like this:
- Try to mitigate the harmful effects of the problem while not making any difficult decisions.
- Allow the problem to get so bad that somebody has to step in, whether it’s the electorate with permission for a big bond or tax increase or the state or federal government with a takeover.
- Accept (maybe even take credit for) this manifest proof of incompetence.
- Work to limit the impact of any actual reforms to the status quo system and to siphon any increase in funds away from the problem.
- Proceed to revert to the way things were once the spotlight moves away.
Of course, this process isn’t purely a function of our elected officials. We the people, after all, allow them to bring things to this point because we’re not willing to elect and support candidates and elected officials who could turn it around.
Erika Sanzi calls out Providence Journal education writer Linda Borg both for her bias and for blocking Sanzi on Twitter. On behalf of my fellow Rhode Island subversives, I welcome Erika to the club.
It’s nice to have somebody else spotting and calling attention to the obvious errors in the pro-establishment spin. Borg tweeted that Rhode Island had moved “up to 12th in a national ranking by Ed Week on academic achievement.” Anybody who’s paid any attention to our state’s scores and trends should have done a quadruple-take on that claim, and that’s what Sanzi did:
People can certainly celebrate or quibble with EdWeek’s finding of Rhode Island landing in the 12th spot for its school systems overall. If 22nd for chance for success, 30th for academic achievement, and 5th in school finance puts us in 12th place, perhaps we should be asking ourselves the following questions:
- Why is every state in New England, except for Maine, ranked higher than we are
- Why, with such a strong score for school finance, do our achievement scores remain so low?
Dwell on that second bullet point. In any fair assessment, excess spending ought to be calculated as a negative, not a positive. (This is a common point not considered in comparisons of government activity across states.) Making a quick index of EdWeek’s “achievement” score against its “spending” score — sort of an efficiency index — puts Rhode Island at 46th in the country.
That illustrates a point that I’ve made many times in the past and that Sanzi suggests above: Being middle-of-the-pack is not very impressive when you’re spending top-of-the-line dollars. That’s especially true when you consider that Rhode Island is above average in “chance of success,” which largely depends on socio-economic conditions. In other words, our students’ achievement should be higher than average based on this factor alone.
The conclusion to which this analysis leads may be a painful one for Rhode Islanders to hear, but if we actually want to help our children succeed and to improve our state, we have to address it: Rhode Island’s education system isn’t just failing to add value for its students — holding them back; it’s actively harming them — dragging them down.
A run-down of items in Rhode Island political news for the week.
In the past couple decades — especially the first decade of this century — Rhode Island’s public school districts have lost grades’ worth of students. In Newport, it is as if an entire high school were standing empty; Providence has fared better, losing between one and two grades’ worth of students. Yet, budgets have continued to climb.
Rhode Islanders should think of all of those empty classrooms when they hear somebody make the point that Democrat state Senator Ryan Pearson articulates here:
The reasons why costs are projected to soar are nuanced, but Pearson points to Cumberland where education expenses grow each time a student moves from a traditional school to a mayoral academy.
The per pupil price tag stays the same, he said, but because overhead costs at the traditional school – such as teachers and classroom expenses – don’t simultaneously disappear, the net cost to the town grows overall.
Yes, costs don’t necessarily disappear on a per pupil basis, but when 7-28% of students are no longer enrolled, surely there are savings to be found.
The more salient point from the Eli Sherman article linked above, however, is stated by a charter school advocate:
“If we’re talking about saving a district to enable them to operate in perpetuity – even if means generations of education are sacrificed in the process – we have our priorities wrong,” said Mary Sylvia Harrison, a longtime educator who most recently served as vice president for programs at the Nellie Mae Foundation.
Consider this chart from Sherman:
Over the time span in the chart, demand for charter schools has grown 25%, but the number of available seats has gone down. For the 2019-2020 school year, 8,494 students would like to attend a charter school but can’t. If they were all in Providence, that would be more than four whole grades. That’s a bigger number than all of Cumberland and Lincoln school districts combined. It’s almost a full grade’s worth of students across the entire state.
Numbers of that magnitude don’t indicate a small leak of students that doesn’t allow districts to reduce their costs. They indicate a mandate for a systemic change to the way we do education in Rhode Island.
A run-down of items in Rhode Island political news for the week.
When Rhode Islanders read an article reporting that about 25% of all Providence teachers were marked absent 18 times during a school year, we tend to think that’s a lot. That’s especially true considering that the teachers’ 181-day work year is already one-fifth smaller than the 230 days private-sector workers typically work after they’ve taken all of their allowed paid time.
But there’s another way to look at this question. As the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity points out, today, the Providence teachers’ contract allows them to take many more days off than they do. In fact, in a standard year, every teacher could be out of the classroom 26 days, for various sick, personal, and other reasons.
On top of that, life events requiring time off — weddings and deaths — are counted neither as sick nor personal time, but are additional. If the teacher gets married and experiences deaths in his or her the immediate, in-law, and extended families, the total would be 11 days.
That doesn’t happen all the time, of course, for which we can be grateful, but teachers could also rack up another 11 days out of the classroom for various activities related to their labor union. And even this doesn’t count the equivalent of 36 and 72 days that a union coordinator and president do not have to do classroom work.
These totals also do not count longer-term absences, like sabbaticals or time off for being injured on the job, or the years Providence teachers can take off without pay.
A table on the Center’s report lays it all out, with references to the contract. And again, this is all in addition to the fact that public school teachers who don’t take a single additional day off would still work about five fewer workweeks than somebody in the private sector who used up all of his or her time-off benefits.
So, maybe the takeaway shouldn’t be that Providence teachers are abusing their time off allowances, but that they aren’t even using them to their fullest. It’s the entire system that is abusive.
(Of course, one caveat in our compliment to teachers’ diligence is that they get to carry over all sick days they don’t use, up to 150, and then receive a portion of that pay as a bonus when they leave the district.)
Educational Freedom changes lives. How many Rhode Island families have been forced to move away? How many other American families have chosen not to make our state their home? Rhode Island students and families suffer, because of a lack educational opportunity and economic prosperity. The die has now been cast: School choice is all about expanding educational freedom for families.
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.