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Rhode Island and New Hampshire Education Trends

According to his bio line, Ron Wolk is an advocate for “performance-based assessment” in schools, so his argument in a recent Providence Journal op-ed should be considered with that in mind.  That’s a minor qualifier, though, inasmuch as one expects people typically to advocate for things they believe in.

It’s just something to keep in mind while considering his comparison of education trends in Rhode Island and New Hampshire.  The two states, he suggests, began moving toward reforms at around the same time, and with much the same plan, but then:

As the years passed, Rhode Island marched in place for a while and then retreated when most schools continued with business as usual. The commitment to multiple measures was never fully accepted, and state officials steadily increased the 10 percent limit on New England Common Assessment Program scores until a “passing score” was deemed necessary for a student to graduate. Today, the state remains mired in a system where time is the constant and learning is the variable, and where the “learning” is largely “delivered” through classroom instruction. 

Meanwhile, New Hampshire has stuck with its vision, working at ground level with principals, teachers, parents and students to make CBE successful. Much work remains to be done, but progress is steady. More students are earning credit for supervised internships and projects in communities. Research shows significant declines in dropouts, school failures and disciplinary problems. Student engagement and learning have increased. Students say their work is more challenging and their interactions with teachers are more rewarding.

It’s a distortion to say that a “passing score” became obligatory in Rhode Island, rather than just a mild improvement of a non-passing score, which is the truth.  But putting that aside, is his characterization of the states’ trends accurate?

Looking at the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s online application to compare states’ results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, I’d argue that the answer is, “no.”  If you scroll down the application and compare the two states by multiple measures, a few trends emerge:

  • New Hampshire started the millennium considerably higher than Rhode Island.
  • New Hampshire is considerably less diverse (as evidenced by the fact that the “all students” category tracks so closely with the “white students” group.
  • Looking at just white students, for a more direct comparison, and averaging grades (four and eight) and test subjects (math and reading) Rhode Island moved from a 5.5-point deficit in 2003 to a 1.75-point deficit in 2013.

The most important observation, though, is that the overall impression of the trends is actually, as I’ve written before, a more-rapid improvement in Rhode Island than elsewhere… up until the point that Governor Chafee’s administration put a stop to the reforms that Wolk laments.

“Performance-based assessment” may prove, in the long run, to be an excellent principle by which to organize education, and the specific approach that Wolk appears to advocate may prove workable, but I don’t think this particular comparison is the evidence that he thinks it is.

School choice sentiments simmer in Rhode Island as politicians go about business as usual

In Rhode Island, the school choice issue is emblematic of the insider nature of politics and the mounting public frustration with it.

Look in any direction, and the demand for school choice is clear:

  • Asked in a survey how they would educate their children if given the option, 68% would choose something other than district public schools.
  • In College Board data, Rhode Island is second in the nation in the percentage of private school students, and first, by a long shot, in religiously affiliated private schools, which tend to be less expensive.
  • Every year, the applicants for charter schools exceed the available seats by many times, and only a fraction of businesses that would like to provide tax credit scholarships are able to do so.

Yet, asked about school choice on Thursday, the day of a School Choice Week rally at the State House, the Speaker of the House, Nicholas Mattiello (D, Cranston) told a political reporter from the Providence Journal, “Even though [school] choice sounds like a good idea, it’s very impractical and something I am not going to be looking at very favorably.”

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Take It from a Teacher: Unions are Activist Organizations Doing Harm

Hopefully this petition from schoolteachers, asking the Supreme Court to decide whether teachers can be forced either to join unions or to pay them “free rider” fees is an indication that truth is dawning on the profession.  Here’s one teacher making the case that I’ve mentioned around here before:

“I don’t have a problem with unions,” she says. “I understand a lot of people want to have that collective voice. That would be ideal where you have a choice; [you’re] not coerced, but you’re also not bullied or called a freeloader or some other name-calling because you choose not to pay for that.”

In decades past, particularly after the Great Depression, Friedrichs says the idea of labor unions made more sense. But with the increased political nature of policy discussions, unions have “morphed into something very different now.”

“They’re more a political activist,” Friedrichs says. “They’ve done more harm than good.”

Wherever there’s far-left progressive activism, the unions are right in the middle.  As Allie Bidwell’s U.S. News report suggests, there isn’t a clear line between their activism on a range of progressive issues and the advocacy that they’re able to present as focused on their members.

Nobody should be forced to belong to or fund an organization like that.

(via Instapundit)

Pearson’s School Construction Bill: General Assembly Still Not Getting It

The latest example of Rhode Island legislators’ not understanding the problems of the state comes via Senator Ryan Pearson (D, Cumberland, Lincoln) and his legislation to allocate a percentage point of the sales tax to school construction:

“No state has figured out how to do this,” Pearson said, referring to the financing of school construction. The Rhode Island plan is similar to one developed by Massachusetts, which dedicates 1 percent of the state’s sales tax to help pay for school facility improvements.   In fiscal 2016, this proposal would generate $81.4 million, according to Pearson. The annual increases would add an additional $5.7 million.

Another variable that Pearson doesn’t take into account, which I’ve noted recently, is enrollment.  By the Dept. of Education’s own report, Rhode Island schools already have 19% too much space, with projections for a continuing drop in enrollment.  How many millions of dollars are we going to spend maintaining schools that face inevitable consolidation?  How many more millions of dollars in economic activity are we going to forego in order to keep our sales tax rate so high?

If our state legislators really want to help cities, towns, and school districts, they should do two things.  The first is to start easing the burden that they place on the people of Rhode Island in taxes and regulations and let the economy grow, improving local tax revenue.  For example, Pearson’s plan would add $81.4 million at first, increasing to somewhere around $143 million over a decade, but the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s dynamic projections for eliminating the sales tax showed around a $149 million increase in local tax revenue with an elimination of the sales tax ($109 million if it were reduced to 3%).

The second is to alleviate the burdens that state law places on schools and on the municipalities that house them.  A huge majority of local budgets goes to labor costs that are exacerbated by laws designed to push everything in the favor of the unions.  A more fair regime of labor laws would allow cities, towns, and school districts flexibility to finance infrastructure.

Anybody who pays attention knows the score, here.  Elected officials (often elected with union support) set up regular budget processes as a battle between labor and taxpayer, with the labor side parading children and the elderly as the victims of fiscal restraint, and let capital needs fester until they reach a point of such expense that there’s no choice but to borrow the money, which simply notches the labor-taxpayer battle up to a higher and higher level of expense, each year.  That can’t go on, no matter how many gimmicks elected officials pass into law.

Involved Parents and School Choice

One of the myths thrown about to push back on calls for school choice is that parents won’t make good decisions for their children.  It’s not true.  Relatedly, excuse-makers for the government school system periodically claim that the teachers and other professionals can’t be blamed for student performance because it’s the parents’ fault (or that of the students themselves).

That one probably has a little more truth to it.  Involved parents ensure that learning never stops, and involved parents who are also reasonable hold their children accountable to the authority of the teachers, and involved, reasonable parents who are also assertive demand accountability from the schools.  It may be the case, therefore, that such parents find ways to send their children to private schools, with which they’ll have more leverage, at a higher rate.

Into the mix, throw this tidbit of research:

A new piece of research, which was conducted by Bristol University, has refuted the idea that parents from a poor background are less involved in their children than those from a wealthier background.

The findings revealed that poorer parents are as likely to help with homework, play and read with their children, as those who are better-off financially.

Next week, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will release a brief study of mine suggesting that Rhode Island parents are using lower-cost religiously affiliated schools as a means of school choice.  The number of families vying for charter-school slots, as well as survey results, reinforces the point, as illustrated in this graphic:

A strong school choice policy would merely empower parents to make the decisions that they already know are best for their children.  That’s what scares the special interests vested in a near government monopoly in education.

Fix-the-System Education Reform Hits a Ceiling in Rhode Island

Although the division between them has not yet hardened into antagonism, there are two branches of the education reform movement.

One seeks to fix the system that is currently in place, with minimally disruptive reforms to make government-run schools more accountable and responsive, prodded through competition from charter schools, over which government maintains a strong hand.  The other favors stronger competition through school choice, with the funds allocated for students’ education being directed by their parents to any schools that they choose.

For the better part of the last decade, Rhode Island has pursued reforms of the fix-the-system variety.  In both its politics and its test results, however, the Ocean State may now be proving that such reforms have a ceiling.

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Credibility for an Online Poll

Yes, a lot of people responded to the Department of Education’s online survey, but something about the reporting feels off — irresponsible even:

Nearly 82 percent of Rhode Islanders said the quality of public education is of the utmost importance to the state’s success, according to a recent survey of roughly 10,000 local residents.

It’s not correct to extrapolate the results of this survey as representative of “Rhode Islanders.”  This wasn’t a random sampling; it was no better than an online poll that any news organization (or blog) might post.  If anything, those surveys are probably more representative, given the narrow field of people likely to come across an online survey from a government education agency.

Providence Journal reporter Linda Borg goes so far as to play coy with the survey participants: “The majority of survey participants — more than 70 percent — said they were parents, guardians or educators.”  Parents/guardians and educators are quite different groups, so lumping them together doesn’t tell the reader much.

Looking at the survey results, 35.34% (3,003) of respondents stated that, above whatever else they are, they are “educators.”  Of course, some of the 40.01% (3,400) who said that they are “parents/guardians” may also be teachers, but consider their status as parents to be primary.  It isn’t surprising what this group chose when given the opportunity to pick three “future priorities [that] will best ensure that PK-12 schools meet future student and state needs.”

Want to guess the number 1 choice, with 4,435 votes?  You got it: “Adequate funding and resources.”  Number 2, with 3,957 votes? “Training and supporting quality teachers.”

It feels almost like a scam that this survey would be considered a guide for the state’s strategic plan for education, but it’s somewhat worse to report the results as if they aren’t shaded by the input of people who stand to gain professionally from that plan.

RI Education: Big Bucks, Small Achievement

Dan McGowan has a short summary, on the WPRI Web site, of Education Week’s review of education among American states.  Rhode Island comes in as average, overall, at C+.  Education Week considers spending on schools to be a positive factor, and Rhode Island is seventh highest in the country by that measure, but actual student achievement (27th in the nation) dragged the Ocean State down.

One paragraph from McGowan, in particular, caught my eye:

Even though it has made some of the largest gains in the country on the math and reading sections of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, Rhode Island earned a D+ for student achievement, in part because the state has some of the largest poverty-based achievement gaps in the country.

Compared with much of the nation, Rhode Island has, indeed, made slight gains on the NAEP, although the real story is that the national average has made even-slighter gains, setting a low bar for Dan’s claim of “some of the largest.”  Here’s some perspective: Averaging 4th and 8th grades and math and reading tests, from 2003 to 2013, the average state saw an increase of 6.3 points, reaching 245.  For Rhode Island, the gain was 8.8, to 244.  But other areas have done significantly better.  Washington, D.C., which began a high-profile school choice program in 2003 increased 21.5 points, to 237.  Other states that are often mentioned in conversations of school choice and reform outpaced Rhode Island significantly (like Florida and Indiana, for example).

I’m getting these numbers from a new online application on which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is working that will soon be available for the public.

Implications of the Gist Limbo

In addition to the points I emphasized here, when I was on the Matt Allen Show on New Year’s Day with Jay Martins, Jay asked me for my prediction about the pension lawsuit.

In a nutshell, I think the law will stand.  This is Rhode Island, so the legality of the thing is secondary to the politics, and the cost to the state of seeing the pension lawsuit invalidated, now, would be catastrophic.  However, there’s likely to be a backside payoff to the unions.

Seeing Elizabeth Harrison’s RIPR report that the State Board of Education hasn’t chosen to renew Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract (which only means that renewal isn’t guaranteed, but might be negotiated) makes me wonder if that’s one such backside.  Rhode Island’s education reforms under Gist haven’t been anywhere near what Rhode Island needs — or what its students deserve — but they’ve definitely been beyond what the teachers unions will willingly tolerate.

Gina Raimondo’s signature reform has a direct budget implication that will make the politicians’ lives more difficult if it doesn’t stand.  Gist’s educational reforms have no such immediate pain for politicians, so it’s possible that they may be sacrificed (along with her job) for the reform that does.

The Accountability Spin

Here’s the headline from a Rhode Island Department of Education press release about science NECAP scores, out today: “Science assessments show statewide improvement over six-year span.”  The average reader can be forgiven for taking that to be great news, and the average cynic can be forgiven for wondering what happened through those six years to make the department reach back so long for its headline.

You can decide for yourself what group Governor Lincoln Chafee falls into.  Here’s his statement in the release:

“Proficiency in science plays an important role as we prepare Rhode Island students to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow,” said Governor Lincoln D. Chafee. “I am pleased to see this improvement over time in the results of our science assessments. With continued excellent instruction, our students will make progress in future years as well.”

My vote is that Chafee should receive the cynics’ crown, because he’s surely aware of the year-to-year data.  As a matter of fact, overall science NECAP scores have fallen for two years in a row, in Rhode Island.

  • 11th graders are stuck at 30% proficient, after hitting a high of 32% in 2012.  (As if that’s an acceptable percentage…)
  • 8th graders have fallen from last year’s high of 30% down to 23%, losing all gains made since 2010.
  • 4th graders managed to hit 46% in 2012, but now they’re stuck at 41%.  That’s a mere 1% improvement from 2009.

Overall, 25 Rhode Island school districts saw declines from last year’s scores.  Middle schools were particularly bad, with even Barrington’s score dropping 16.7 percentage points.  Narragansett middle school led the list of regular districts, with a 30.1 point drop, although The Compass School’s middle schoolers dropped 49.1 points.  Some high schools saw gains, particularly North Smithfield, at 19.9 points, but they were exactly canceled out by losses, such as Tiverton’s 18.2, Jamestown’s  19.3, and Smithfield’s 19.5.

It takes a cynic, indeed, to tell the people of Rhode Island that these are encouraging results.  At least Education Commissioner Deborah Gist expressed “concerns about the one-year decline in percent proficient in our middle schools,” although  one wonders why longer-term drops and stagnation at the elementary and high school levels aren’t matters of concern, as well.

School Building Costs and School Choice

An op-ed by Brown English graduate student Aaron Apps in today’s Providence Journal drew my attention to an FY13 report put out by the Rhode Island Dept. of Education (RIDE).  Here’s Apps:

 Last summer, I wrote a Commentary piece (“City’s schools require immediate repairs,” Aug. 29) describing the conditions I witnessed inside Gilbert Stuart Middle School in Providence’s West End. To reiterate: The paint is peeling off of the walls, the roof is leaking, ceiling tiles are falling down, the water is non-potable, and there is a giant curtain in the main auditorium made of asbestos. Not to mention probable mold, exposed rusty pipes, and piles of unattended-to bird droppings. …

The Rhode Island Department of Education’s 2013 “Public Schoolhouse Assessment” gave Gilbert Stuart a rating of 2 in its scale that ranges from 1 to 4, where 1 is “good” condition and 4 is “poor” condition. The report rates 304 public schools. Of these, the average rating was 2.05, meaning that Gilbert Stuart, in its appalling, unacceptable condition, is slightly better than average, according to the state’s own rating scale.

One important caveat on the study is that conditions are self reported.  That means the ratings are subject to the  perspectives and biases of the people in each district, as well as their political calculations.  A district that’s pushing for more state and local tax dollars might exaggerate its buildings deficiencies, while a district that’s truly concerned about backlash based on deteriorating schools might downplay the problems.

Be that as it may, RIDE estimates almost $2 billion in expenses to bring all schools up to “good condition.”  In contrast, it foresees a continuing drop in enrollment — by more than 13% in the suburbs, for the 2021-2022 school year (compared with 2011-2012).  That’s on top of an excess capacity already calculated at 19% (meaning that much space is available for more students).  So, that huge expense would be to maintain increasingly empty buildings across the state.

The report makes the obvious recommendation of closing schools and consolidating, which leads to the strategy of regionalization.  Whenever either of the steps of that suggestion come up in reality, however, they become the subject of push-back, both from parents and from labor unions, making them very difficult to execute.  As long as there’s a chance that other people can be made to pay the bulk of the cost, nobody wants to give up their neighborhood school or their job.

The solution (as the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity will be laying out over the coming months and years) is a broad program of school choice.  For one thing, empowering families with options changes the politics from a necessity of taking away money and local convenience to a policy of granting opportunity.  For another thing, initial estimates by the Center suggest that school choice would create billions of dollars of flexibility, both in public dollars freed up and in new private dollars invested in tuition.

The question of the near future is going to be whether entrenched interests, including unions, can explode common sense and rational policy for their own benefit.

Keep the Education Scandal on Your Radar

As we pay justified attention to attempts to infringe on our property rights and to take our money to pay for a government healthcare system, let’s not lose track of the travesty that is our education system.

Specifically, I have in mind Linda Borg’s recent Providence Journal article:

About 98 percent of Rhode Island’s teachers in their latest evaluation were rated as effective or highly effective by their principals, a number at odds with student performance in a number of districts. …

“If everyone here was at 98 percent, Rhode Island would be leading the nation” in student achievement, “not Massachusetts,” said Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees.

Let’s put it plainly: The evaluations are a fraud designed to ensure that government schools and their employees have no real accountability. A few data points in the article reinforce this aggressive conclusion:

“Central Falls and West Warwick have high percentages of teacher effectiveness but student performances that lag behind state averages.”
“The Blackstone Valley Prep charter schools in northern Rhode Island report less than a third of their teachers are highly effective yet they show the most growth in student achievement.”
In last year’s edition of the review, a survey reported the embarrassing findings that fewer than half of teachers thought the evaluations were measuring anything, and two-thirds of principals admitted rating teachers too high.
So according to the evaluations, schools that are performing poorly (or even more poorly than the rest of Rhode Island’s government schools) ought to be doing well, and schools that are performing relatively well ought to be doing poorly. And if evidence emerges that the evaluation system is being gamed, well, they just stop asking the questions that had the embarrassing results.

The conclusion, here, is that government cannot evaluate itself, mostly because it doesn’t have any make-or-break incentive to improve. In education, it’s a veritable monopoly that has a huge amount of emotional leverage and political power to continue taking more and more resources on the premise of solving problems that are never fundamentally addressed.

Question #4: In-State Employment Rate of URI Engineering Grads Does Not Justify $125 Million Tab for Taxpayers

This Tuesday, Rhode Island taxpayers will be asked if they are willing to pay an eye-opening $125 million, excluding interest, to construct a new building and renovate existing buildings at URI’s College of Engineering. Proponents claim it will improve Rhode Island’s workforce, but how many URI engineers are actually staying to work in the state, right now?

Government School Enrollment Over Time

Somebody asked me, recently, whether there’s any way to know how many students leave Tiverton High School for private schools. It’s an interesting question, and the short answer is “yes,” but in a sense, “no.”

The RI Dept. of Education (RIDE) keeps records of the students from each district who attend private schools, including the schools that they attend. The problem is that the way the state keeps the numbers makes it time consuming to pare them down to a usable form.  Even when that work is done, though, I don’t think such records go back for a very long time.  Since what we really need are cohorts (tracing grade levels from year to year), and because factors like the economy can affect the data, all of the work cleaning data might produce useless results if they only cover the last few years.

Nonetheless, I thought the question interesting enough to kick off a new feature on Tiverton Fact Check, for which readers can email us questions about Tiverton (about statistics, about process, about the law, or about whatever) and we’ll do our best to answer them.  In this case, I looked to RIDE’s October enrollment data, which goes back to the 1998-1999 school year.

Specifically, I compared Tiverton to North Smithfield (because similar) and Barrington (because dissimilar in a way that Tiverton should work to change), and found:

To answer the reader’s question as directly as this data allows, for the twelve years that we can compare the number of students starting eighth grade in Tiverton with the number starting twelfth grade, the average number of students lost is 30.  That’s an average of a 17% drop in high school seniors from the start of eighth grade.

For comparison, North Smithfield lost an average of 20 students, or 13%, while Barrington actually gained an average of 8 students, or 3%.

David Brussat Diagnoses a Source of Opposition to the Common Core

In today’s Projo, David Brussat explains the intellectual roots of at least one major strand of opposition to the common core (the one coming from the political left) and to school testing in general…

During the 1970s and ’80s, deconstructivists in schools of law, departments of literature and other academic fields sought to use [Jacques Derrida’s] ideas to undermine legal, literary, sociological and other knowledge. If better social and political systems were to be built, they claimed, society’s intellectual structures had to be dealt with first. The main method was to destabilize meaning.

What’s that you say, Brussat’s column is actually about architecture? Well, the ideas he describes have deeply impacted education too.

After all, how can students be expected to pass basic reading and math tests, when there is no common meaning to anything that anyone can be expected to learn?