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RIC’s Wrong Solution for Subject Matter Gaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Governor Raimondo’s Anti-Boy Consistency

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wagner’s Warning for Rhode Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Also:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Suspension and School Success

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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RI Senate and RIDE Leave Little Room for Hope on Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cumberland is one of them.

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

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

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

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

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Turning the Corner on Sexism in STEM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confirming a Conservative Response to Poverty

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

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

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

As he concludes:

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

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

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More Indications of No Change for RI Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In Whose Interest Is No Confidence at CCRI?

The professors’ union at CCRI has voted “no confidence” in the school’s leadership.  Here’s the claim:

The motion said that Hughes, the vice president of academic affairs, Rosemary Costigan, and Dean Thomas Sabbagh have each “repeatedly failed in their leadership roles at the College to the detriment of our students.”

So what’s the underlying problem?

At issue is a plan for a three-week winter term that would start in January. In November, the chairs of the business, social studies, math and English departments said their faculty would not participate in the winter session without including the courses in the collective-bargaining agreement.

Ah… so the “detriment of our students” thing makes a leap from the professors’ interests to the students’.  That link is debatable, but it shouldn’t be assumed.

The statement asserts that the administration is “putting our accreditation and academic reputation at great risk,” which would certainly be a concern to all of Rhode Island.  Were this more of a looming possibility than some speculative rhetoric, though, one would think there would be more evidence.  For now, this seems to be the same old story in Rhode Island — all about labor.

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Meeting the Challenge of Education Reform

The Providence Journal editorial board is (let’s just say) very forceful on the subject of Rhode Island students’ test results:

The weak and timid reforms he and Gov. Gina Raimondo have advanced, while soothing to special interests, have been plainly insufficient. It is time for a shakeup at the Rhode Island Department of Education and the state Board of Education. Will anyone have the decency to resign for having failed our young people?

Robert Walsh of the National Education Association and Francis Flynn of the American Federation of Teachers have, similarly, served Rhode Island students abysmally. Union leaders in civic-minded Massachusetts understand that an education system is about more than providing salaries and benefits for adults. We know there are many teachers who yearn for a sound, long-term plan to improve standards.

It is a shame Rhode Island cannot simply shutter its Department of Education and hire Massachusetts to run the Ocean State’s public schools as a subset of its own. It at least knows how to do the job.

I saw editorial page editor Ed Achorn pushing back on Facebook against those who respond to these sentiments by pointing out that the Providence Journal endorsed Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo. Part of the editor’s response was that the paper has also implored her to improve her record on education, which I’m not sure quite meets the challenge.

Some of the entities that should be a check on government, like the state’s major newspaper, have this problem: They formulate their solutions as if we had a properly functioning state. Under such circumstances, a governor who had received the endorsement might change out of concern that she would lose it. In Rhode Island, she knows that she has nothing to fear.

Nobody who has secured a role of significance wants to throw down a gauntlet to make any bold changes to the way decisions are made in the state.

It isn’t sufficient to suggest, in passing, that somebody should resign over abysmal test scores. That outcome has to be important enough that advocates will ensure that insiders cannot achieve their other goals unless they address education.

That, incidentally, is win-win, because the insiders’ other goals are, on the whole, corrupt and oughtn’t be achieved, anyway. They need to be made to understand, however, that their only hope of keeping any of their ill-gotten gains is by making improvements in this area.

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Where Can Non-Union South Kingstown Teachers and Students Turn?

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity makes an interesting point in a statement about the controversial election of teacher union representative Sarah Markey to the South Kingstown school committee:

As the United States Supreme Court opined in its historic Janus decision last summer, virtually every action that a government employee union conducts is inherently political, as it necessarily involves public policy or public money. On a local school committee that deals 100% on issues involving public education, and its funding by taxpayers, Ms. Markey faces a hopeless conflict of interest.

As an intellectual exercise to better understand the complications involved, here, consider this: Where can a non-union teacher in South Kingstown turn? Since Janus, government labor unions have been sending out threatening notices about the support they lose if they leave their unions, and now South Kingstown’s board of directors appears to be in the hands of the unions, as well.

More significant, however, is the question of where the students can turn when their interests are contrary to those of the union.

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Bruce Waidler: S.K. School Committee – Serious Questions of Transparency & Conflict of Interest

On Tuesday, November 27, 2018, I attended the South Kingstown School Committee meeting. The recently elected Vice Chair, Sarah Markey, is also the Assistant Executive Director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI). The vast majority of the employees working in the South Kingstown School Department are represented by this labor union.

Last year, Markey attempted to get appointed to a vacant school committee position.

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School Choice: An Opportunity for Minorities, Republicans, and Conservatives

Some folks questioned whether minority school choice families put Republican Ron DeSantis over the top in the race for Florida governor.  Here’s the numerical evidence:

Of the roughly 650,000 black women who voted in Florida, 18% chose Mr. DeSantis, according to CNN’s exit poll of 3,108 voters. This exceeded their support for GOP U.S. Senate candidate Rick Scott (9%), Mr. DeSantis’s performance among black men (8%) and the GOP’s national average among black women (7%). …

What explains Mr. DeSantis’ surprising support from African-American women? Two words: school choice.

More than 100,000 low-income students in Florida participate in the Step Up For Students program, which grants tax-credit funded scholarships to attend private schools. Even more students are currently enrolled in the state’s 650 charter schools.

Most Step Up students are minorities whose mothers are registered Democrats. Yet many of these “school-choice moms” vote for gubernatorial candidates committed to protecting their ability to choose where their child goes to school.

The school choice wave more than a decade ago created a challenge for Democrats, who are dependent upon support from government labor unions, specifically teacher unions.  It’s an area in which free-market reforms actually create something like a government benefit through the loosening of government funds already (for the most part) being spent.  This opens a window of opportunity.

This creates an opportunity for Republicans to open up new cuts of the electorate and, if they play their cards right, to teach some lessons about their policy principles.

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An Important Question About School Committee Impartiality

A minor controversy in South Kingstown raises a question that Rhode Islanders across the state should consider.

Town Council member Bryant Da Cruz (a Democrat) has expressed concerns that a newly elected member of the School Committee, Sarah Markey (another Democrat), can be expected to fully engage with her new role, considering that Markey holds a $126,000-per-year job as a member advocate for the National Education Association of Rhode Island.  Markey’s response, while entirely correct, points to how inadequate our thinking is on these issues in the Ocean State:

“From reviewing the recent ethics commision advisories, I would have to recuse myself from discipline, termination, and negotiations with the NEARI bargaining members,” said Markey when reached by email on Tuesday. “No, school closures don’t apply.”

Look, if this is what South Kingstown wants, it’s what South Kingstown should probably get, but that means the people of South Kingstown should understand what they’re doing.  To my experience, people don’t realize what school committees are, often seeing them as sort of official PTOs, not councils charged with the governance of multimillion-dollar, socially indispensable organizations.  Furthermore, folks don’t fully think through the political philosophy, according to which it is essential that the school committee is on the side of the students.

On that point, recall a 2015 post in this space pointing to the simple reminder from former teacher union head Marcia Reback that, when students’ and teachers’ interests diverge or even conflict, “I represent the teachers.”  Well, Sarah Markey represents the teachers as a highly paid occupation.  This isn’t something that can truly be compartmentalized.  As Da Cruz emphasizes, closing schools reduces the number of teachers. More than that: every expense of the school district that doesn’t go toward teachers puts more pressure on their compensation.

At the very least, Markey’s presence on the committee reduces the number of people on the committee who can reliably be expected to err on the side of students (and taxpayers) when one must benefit at the expense of the other.

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School Choice and Elections

A pair of items on today’s Wall Street Journal opinion pages connect the issue of school choice with the election last week.  First a column by Jason Riley:

… most policies that effect our daily lives are generated at the state and local level, not in Washington. Nowhere is this more evident than education, where Republicans governors and state legislatures have advanced all manner of school-choice options over the past decade, to the benefit of low-income families. More than three million children now attend charter schools, and private-school choice, including voucher programs, has spread to 20 states and the District of Columbia. Education reformers are concerned that Democratic state-level gains in the midterms could now jeopardize decades of real progress.

I’m not so sure about Riley’s predictions.  As a general matter, the biggest push for school choice (mainly charter schools and voucher-like programs) came when Republicans held the White House, but before the shift toward the GOP at the state level, nationwide.  When a Democrat took the White House but the Democrats lost ground among the state, that momentum seems to have slowed.  So… we’ll see.

What’s interesting, though, is to combine Riley’s mention of school choice as a political issue across the country with an unsigned editorial on the facing page:

It’s impossible to know for certain what motivates voters, but [Republicans Doug Ducey of Arizona and Ron DeSantis of Florida] appear to have won more minority votes because of their support for school choice. A survey last month by Harvard’s Education Next journal showed 56% of blacks and 62% of Hispanics favored private-school vouchers for low-income families.

And what do you know? According to exit polls, Mr. Ducey received 44% of the Latino vote, which is significantly more than the 30% that Martha McSally tallied in her Senate bid. In Florida, 44% of Latinos and 14% of blacks backed Mr. DeSantis compared to 38% and 12% for Gov. Rick Scott four years earlier.

Liberating kids trapped in failing public schools is a matter of moral principle, but it’s nice to discover that doing the right thing can also pay off politically.

Somehow the infamous statement of former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden that Republicans would put black Americans “back in chains” comes to mind.  The opposite is the truth, and the school choice issue illustrates the point.

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Two Economic Directions for a Generation

We hear a lot of stereotypes about young adults in America today — that they’re soft snowflakes who can’t take criticism and think the world owes them ease and security.  Posts like this one by Helen Smith reinforce that view, noting that there is a 500,000-man gap of 25-to-34-year-olds who should be in the workforce but aren’t:

The colleges are hostile environments and bad fits for many of these men who know that they will not flourish there. Add in the risks of marriage for these men and the fact that many women don’t want them and leisure time playing video games seems like a better alternative, particularly if you can live at home to support a good time. It’s kind of like they are on strike or something.

Instead of punching a clock, they’ve checked out.  They live at home or collect some sort of disability or welfare subsidy.  Maybe they extend their educations (perhaps as a condition of the government’s or mom and dad’s indulgence), following up their useless four-year degrees by spending more of their youth chasing a career-specific education, or maybe they put themselves in a holding pattern, with no degrees or pursuits, just waiting for something to happen.  They’re looking for an easy path and draining their parents’ or taxpayers’ resources.

On the other hand, there’s this encouraging bit of news:

Generation Z—those who were born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s—are more often turning to trade schools to avoid the skyrocketing student debt crisis and hone skills that translate directly into jobs, from electrical engineering to cosmetology. While the power of trade unions has dwindled, and societal value still favors more elite professions, young students are finding themselves drawn to stable paychecks in fields where there’s an obvious need.

The appended podcast has the headline: “The Hot New Gen-Z Trend Is Skipping College.”  Per this narrative, young adults want to work, and their rational assessment of current conditions is finally overcoming a cultural bias for a particular direction.  More kids should go into the trades.  They provide a path with tremendous opportunity, life lessons, and fulfillment.

With a broader perspective, we can see the operation of our economy.  The young adults in the first group are spending down what their parents have earned, and the young adults in the second group are preparing to collect it, thus shifting our society’s wealth toward those who advance our economy.  This will be healthy if the government doesn’t interfere… but it will.

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Teacher Absenteeism and RI’s Gap in Accountability

Taylor Swaak on The 74 reports that the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) is beginning to use its Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan to address teacher absenteeism:

… This means the state will consider teacher absenteeism rates when gauging schools’ success and identifying low-performing schools. All ESSA plans have been approved as of last month.

The need for reform is clear in the Ocean State. It reported the third-highest rate of chronic teacher absenteeism nationwide — 41 percent — in 2015-16, according to federal data. Only Hawaii and Nevada recorded higher rates, at 48 and 50 percent, respectively.

Given the season, one thing that readers might observe is that Rhode Island is releasing its first ESSA report about our schools after the election.  Put that on the list of politically curious delays.

On a more-procedural note, though, consider what weak sauce this measure of accountability is.  First, the state includes the information in its report.  Next, the community has to begin making noise about it, pressure administrators, and elect new school committee members (or city/town council members where they handle contracts).  Then, those newly motivated decision-makers have to fight unions for changes in contracts.

As Swaak notes, teachers are absent so often because they are permitted to be.  Even with their 180-day school year, they still get a disproportionate number of extra days off — typically 20 sick days, plus a couple personal days, plus sabbaticals, plus leaves for various reasons, including union business.

With that as the origin of the problem, Swaak is correct to point out that the state doesn’t negotiate the contracts.  However, the state does set the conditions under which the local committees must negotiate.  If education really is a priority for Rhode Islanders, we have to begin tilting that balance back toward the officials who are supposed to be the people’s route to accountability.

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Learning That Providence Labor Unions Aren’t Divine

The headline of a Linda Borg article in the Providence Journal a couple of weeks ago might be “Parents air worries over student safety in Providence schools,” but it’s mostly about the problems that labor unions cause for students.  Asked, for example, how the city intends to avoid bus strikes in the future…

[City council member Sam] Zurier promised that there will no longer be language in the contract that includes bus strikes as “an act of God,” which allowed the bus company, First Student, to avoid responsibility for getting students to school.

Therein we see the basic lesson that one should always call things what they are.  The proclamation of a strike by a union is not an “act of God” and, even if one can’t foresee the consequences, should not be treated as such.

If the city is finally acknowledging its unions’ lack of divinity, members of those unions appear to be learning that they can’t wield their power omnisciently:

[Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth] Calabro also described a heated conversation with a parent who was furious that teachers would no longer be writing letters of recommendation for high school seniors. Calabro thought about how she would feel as a mother. Then she told her members to write those letters because, “This is a kid’s dream — to go to college.”

“If we don’t write the letters,” she said, “who are we hurting? Not the mayor. The kids.”

How is it that a teacher required soul searching to realize that harming children in order to hurt a politician would inevitably… harm the children?  And how is it that the practice ended only because the union president issued a decree, rather than bending in the face of pressure from the rank-and-file union members?

These aren’t lessons that should have to be learned.  They should be understood already.

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What to Expect from the PARCC Scores

The other day, I put a spotlight on the suspicious delay in the state’s release of results from public schools’ standardized PARCC tests.  In the days since, the two challengers facing incumbent Democrat Gina Raimondo have picked up that theme and drawn a response from the state Department of Education (RIDE).  If anything, Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s explanation only reinforces the suspicion:

“This is the first year of the new test,” Wagner said. “We’ve never released them before. People don’t know what it is.”

“Colloquially, it’s a harder test,” he said of the RICAS. “Massachusetts has a more rigorous standard. We have to figure out how to explain [to Rhode Island parents] the comparison with Massachusetts. We have to figure out how we help parents to understand the change in their child’s test scores.”

Wagner said that with the new tests, Rhode Island students, in order to reach proficiency, have to get more questions right than they did on the previous tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

Wagner also said that student scores typically drop with any new test, which was the case when Rhode Island adopted PARCC several years ago.

In short, the state expects there to be score-shock from parents and the public because the harder test is producing results even worse than the earlier version, which was already producing shockingly poor results by some lights.  The only question, now, is the motivation for the delay:  Is it to figure out how to explain the setback in a way that will tamp down outrage, or is it to keep that outrage from affecting the election?

To formulate an answer, readers should ask themselves a somewhat different question:  If the results came in surprisingly fantastic, would RIDE have held back the good news until after the election?  Of course not.

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A Curious Delay in Test Scores

Wouldn’t it be good for Rhode Islanders to know how our education system is faring prior to next week’s election?  Apparently, Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo would prefer that you wait until after for information:

Last year, the Department of Education released its PARCC scores in August. This year, the scores on the new test won’t be released until late November, after the Nov. 6 midterm elections.

Of course, they’ve got the excuse that “the department needs more time to pull together the data” because it’s a new variation of the test, but the intervening election makes the claim suspicious.  One wonders how many discouraging facts are in the queue for release after the political contests have been decided.

We can’t have accountability in public education if government times information to affect political outcomes.

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