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Escaping Backwards Thinking in Education

Future generations may study the education system in our day as a lesson in how difficult it is to make government do the right thing when there are entrenched interests involved.  Indeed, reading a post by Annie Holmquist on the Foundation for Economic Education site, I wondered if our progeny will think us downright backwards.

Quoting a former public-school-teacher-turned-homeschool-mom named Nikita Bush, The Monitor explains this movement:

“Despite the promises of the civil rights movement, ‘people are starting to realize that public education in America was designed for the masses of poor, and its intent has been to trap poor people into being workers and servants. If you don’t want that for your children, then you look for something else,’ she says.”

Bush is not alone in thinking that the public schools are keeping minority children from reaching their potential. According to a poll released in 2016 by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, minority parents “strongly reject the notion that students from low-income families should be held to lower standards.” In fact, “Nine-out-of-ten African Americans and 84 percent of Latinos disagree that students today work hard enough and instead believe that students should be challenged more to help ensure they are successful later in life.”

According to Holmquist’s post, black students who are homeschooled perform as well or better than the national average in reading, language, and math, and the contrast with black public school students is stunning.  (Having not reviewed the underlying research, I should note the possibility that there may be factors affecting the numbers, such as the relative income of the group.)

The thing that seems backwards, though, is that only in Georgia is it possible for parents to work together for a sort of homeschooling co-op.  How did we get to a place in a supposedly free country in which the government’s underlying assumption is that parents cannot be trusted to educate their children?  That doesn’t strike me as the proper relationship between government and the governed.

Of course, it may be an exercise in unreasonable optimism to think that future generations will have a better sense of how that relationship ought to be structured.

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Rhode Island Admits Its Diplomas Are Meaningless

Articles on Rhode Island’s education system have become downright depressing.  Here’s Education Commissioner Ken Wagner essentially admitting that his office sees diplomas from the state’s public schools as meaningless pieces of paper designating satisfactory attendance:

Wagner, who arrived here a year ago, defended his decision to drop a standardized test from the high school graduation requirements. He said it doesn’t make sense to punish students for poor test scores when “it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared” by their schools and teachers.

“When kids don’t graduate, it has lifelong consequences,” he said. 

Wagner wants to hold school districts, not students , accountable for improving student achievement….

Starting in 2021, Rhode Island will offer a “commissioner’s seal” for high school students who meet proficiency on a standardized test like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career. Instead of evaluating districts based on student test scores, the state Department of Education could judge districts based on the percentage of graduates who earn a commissioner’s seal.

Wagner’s thinking is all wrong.  Rhode Island Association of School Committees Director Tim Duffy is right that “we’re not doing students any favors by not preparing them for college or work,” but it’s more than that.  A diploma is supposed to be an achievement, not a participation trophy.  We’re supposed to hold students accountable, and moreover, they ought to be the first link in a chain of accountability:

  • If students aren’t succeeding, parents are responsible for resolving whatever problems are getting in their way.
  • If parents conclude that the school is the problem, then they hold the school accountable by seeking correction or leaving.
  • If the schools aren’t performing, then it’s the responsibility of the community that pays the bills to hold elected officials and administrators accountable.

The Dept. of Education’s role should be to facilitate this process, not to supplant it.  Otherwise, the state government is presuming to take on the role not only of every school’s administration, but also the roles of parents and of voters.  The childless commissioner’s apparent fondness for calling children who are students in pubic schools “kids” is not a good sign for the department’s perspective on those young Rhode Islanders.  (“A kid’ll eat ivy, too,” after all.)

The ideal reform would be to empower students and parents to hold districts accountable more directly, but allowing them to apply money that would otherwise to go the district to an alternative, like a private school. Until that option becomes feasible, though, the incentive for parents and students to complain has to be stronger.

The bottom line on Wagner’s ploy is that the people who are the most insulated from accountability — the unionized teachers — have a controlling hand in the state government.  The state, therefore, cannot be trusted to “judge districts” and take appropriate action.

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Central Falls Schools Literally Hiring SJWs

Anybody who’s glanced around the rightward side of the Internet and social media will have come across the pejorative acronym, “SJW.”  That stands for “social justice warrior,” and it’s pejorative because it connotes excessive and superficial self-righteousness, combined with a lack of self awareness that would be comical if the SJWs weren’t able to hurt people.

Unfortunately, in a world with an entire generation stewed in political correctness (an abyss into which college campuses appear to have fallen almost completely), SJWs are not as powerless as they would be in a sane world.  Still, it’s jarring to see a public school district in Rhode Island openly advertising jobs for them, although somehow that fact didn’t find its way into Linda Borg’s glowing article on the plan in today’s Providence Journal:

This year, a pool of 15 substitute teachers will be hired to serve the full 180-day school year. They will be offered a week of training this month and repeated professional development during the school year. They will also be mentored by certified teachers. And they will be offered a sweetener — either health-care benefits or $130 per day (typical pay is $100 per day).

The “teaching fellows” would also have an opportunity to lead after-school activities, although permanent teachers would have the first crack at these positions.

In exchange, they will be asked to learn about the school’s mission and values, to become part of a team of valued educators committed to high standards.

That such a plan seems like radical innovation may be a testament to just how rigid and averse to innovation the public school system is, but another layer becomes visible if one looks at the job ad for these positions.  Note, first, that the actual title the district has given these positions isn’t “teaching fellows,” but “Warrior Fellows” (Warriors being the school mascot).  Now consider some language from the ad:

The Warrior Fellowship will require passionate leaders to serve as education and social justice advocates and mentors in all six Central Falls schools while at the same time helping to bridge the gap between the academic and social-emotional support our students and families need in their schools and community.

Fellows are expected to “go through a rigorous training program” and “weekly and monthly workshops and seminars” that will help them develop “the courage and passion to inspire change in our schools, influence the lives of our students, and become advocates for the city of Central Falls.”  Among the areas on which they can focus is “Cultural Pride,” and we can infer that “Western Culture” is not what’s meant.  Among the job requirements (third on the list and the second mandatory one) is “commitment to social justice and urban education.”

In short, the school department in Central Falls, which is largely funded with state-taxpayer money, is literally looking to hire and train “social justice Warriors.”  Thus does Rhode Island endeavor to see just how far into the abyss it can dive.

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Support for Families More Effective than Government Co-parenting

Grover Whitehurst of Brookings has made an attempt to compare research findings concerning the effects of different programs on the test scores of young students, and the findings conflict with the progressive preference for increasingly moving responsibility away from people and toward government:

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Whitehurst suggests:

The results illustrated in the graph suggest that family support in the form of putting more money in the pockets of low-income parents produces substantially larger gains in children’s school achievement per dollar of expenditure than a year of preschool, participation in Head Start, or class size reduction in the early grades. The finding that family financial support enhances academic achievement in the form of test scores is consistent with other research on the impact of the EITC showing impacts on later outcomes such as college enrollment.

The most important takeaway from this is that it reinforces conservatives’ contention that government should not seek to displace parents, relieving them of responsibility for raising their children.  Government policy should seek to strengthen families.

Of course, the fact that this would tend to reduce the influence of government and (therefore) progressives leads me to expect Whitehurst’s research not to have a significant effect on progressive policies.  Indeed, in his subsequent discussion, Whitehurst endeavors to speculate that imposing restrictions on families’ use of the funding would be even more effective than simply improving their financial standing. However, if giving parents money is so much more effective than public funding of pre-school programs, one might question Whitehurst’s belief that letting the public funding stop in the parents’ accounts for a moment would be better than both approaches.

Note, too, the limits of Whitehurst’s consideration.  The first and irreducible assumption is that government must do something to bring about specific social outcomes.  If supporting families through broad welfare that is largely free of strings is so much more effective than building government programs, one might expect even greater rewards from getting government out of the way of families.  Let people act in the economy without the weight of high taxes and oppressive regulations; allow communities and states to determine their own economic and social policies; allow the society, broadly, to follow cultural traditions that have proven, over time, to be the healthiest for human society (such as the traditional institution of marriage).

Unfortunately, it’s much more difficult to test for and make charts of the effects of progressive redistribution on the whole society.  Researchers can’t know (to simplify) that taking EITC money out of the economy wound up hurting other families, resulting in worse test scores.  Still, taking in all of the evidence, the weight of it suggests that leaving people free is not only the most moral approach, respecting civil rights, but is also likely to prove to be the most effective system by any standard apart from the wealth and power of government.

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Testing and Accountability in Public School

Linda Borg’s article in today’s Providence Journal gives a small taste of an argument that would be much more prominent if Rhode Islanders really cared about education as much as we say that we do.  At issue is Education Commissioner Ken Wagner’s decision to end standardized testing at the high-school level.  Tim Duffy, of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, gets it right:

“If you aspire to be Massachusetts, then high school graduation requirements are going to have to have some consequences,” he said. “If there are no consequences for students, teachers or the system, we end up with improved graduation rates but we haven’t measured whether they are living up to the standards.”

One superintendent adds to that:

Chariho School Supt. Barry Ricci applauds any reduction in testing, but he doesn’t want the state to abandon tying a standardized test to graduation. Without that incentive, he said, high school students will not have any reason to take the test seriously. “I don’t want to give kids the message that we’re lowering the bar,” Ricci said.

In a word, what Wagner has diluted is accountability.  There has to be some way to hold not just students, but teachers and our entire public education system accountable.  What has happened (as I keep repeating) is that Rhode Island’s “fix the system” approach to education reform hit a political ceiling.  The adult special interests that infect our education system feared the prospect of having their failures laid bare in undeniable fashion, so they used our political system as a defensive weapon.  The repercussions of that explosion are reflected in standardized scores, with disadvantaged students (predictably) suffering the most harm.

I happen to agree with those who express concerns about high-stakes testing, but the public needs some means of measuring performance and imposing accountability.  Our children would be much better off, though, and our education system tremendously improved, if accountability derived from market mechanisms.  Let Rhode Islanders determine their own priorities for themselves and their own children and send students to the schools — public, charter, private, home — that best reflect those priorities.  Schools that cannot maintain viable student populations will have to improve or go out of business.

That scares our state’s politicians and insiders because no political ceiling would be possible once Rhode Island families got a taste of real reform.

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Child Care Workers and Questions Never Asked

There’s that phrase again, in the following Providence Journal article by Linda Borg (emphasis added):

Research has shown that children who attend high-quality early childhood programs are more successful in school, repeat grades less often and have higher graduation rates. Children from low-income families lag 18 months behind their more entitled peers in language development.

What research?  And what specifically did it show? Because I’ve seen research show the opposite. From this unsourced paragraph, I’d say the finding was probably more of a correlation of household income with both preschool and better school results.

The embedded assumptions are much deeper than research findings, though.  Consider:

Rhode Island and Maine are the only states in New England that require preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree. A preschool teacher typically works in a school or daycare center and promotes social and emotional learning. A childcare worker provides care rather than early childhood education.

“Currently, a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education occupies the dubious distinction of the college major with the lowest projected lifetime earnings,” according to the study.

Well, maybe some significant portion of the jobs that adults with such degrees take really don’t require the expensive credentials.  Or maybe the pay for the high end of the degree (e.g., public school elementary school teacher) is artificially high, which sends a distorted signal to workers that the market needs more such professionals, who then find that they can’t get the work they want because there aren’t enough jobs and therefore flood the lower-pay end of their profession and drive those wages down even more (making it even more valuable to gain one of the artificially over-paid jobs).

We really, really have to break the pattern of implementing public policy based on feelings and then trying to patch the leaks with subsidies and mandates when our meddling distorts the market.  Prices (including wages) are just signals.  If “childcare workers are among the lowest-paid workers in the country,” we have to figure out what signal that fact is sending us and, if it’s not healthy, figure out how to change that.  Otherwise we’ll harm more people than we help every time.

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When Even a Short Work Year Is Too Long

The Providence Journal reports, today, on an Education Week study finding that 37% of Rhode Island public school teachers are absent 10 or more days of the school year.  For a little additional perspective, consider that teachers’ work year is generally only 180 days as it is, with multiple extended breaks, a large number of holidays, and full summers spent out of the classroom.

What’s more, the number appears to be conservative, inasmuch as Linda Borg reports:

The report excluded teachers on maternity leave and absences greater than 10 consecutive days.

So, the real percentage is greater.  While from an employer’s standpoint, it’s reasonable to exclude outliers in such an analysis, from students’ perspective, it doesn’t make any difference why the teacher is out of work so much.  The Education Week article, for example, points to a study finding that 10 days of an absent teacher has a measurable effect on students’ math achievement.  Table 2 of that study, by the way, makes clear that teacher absences are conspicuously heavy on Fridays and, less so, Mondays.

Because they’re part of a unionized political force, reactions from the public will vary from one extreme to the other, on this.  Some will excuse the numbers for one reason or another because they’re on the same political side, while others will take a negative interpretation to an extreme.  At the very least, I’d suggest that it’s another indication that we are not well served by an approach to employing teachers that gives them employment terms more appropriate to an assembly line.

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The End Result of a Deliberate De-Education About Our Culture

Notre Dame Professor Patrick Deneen taps into an area of thinking that I’ve been spotting with more frequency.  To my observation that we have no excuse for repeating errors that have been known for millennia, Deneen might respond (emphasis in original):

Our students’ ignorance is not a failing of the educational system – it is its crowning achievement. Efforts by several generations of philosophers and reformers and public policy experts — whom our students (and most of us) know nothing about — have combined to produce a generation of know-nothings. The pervasive ignorance of our students is not a mere accident or unfortunate but correctible outcome, if only we hire better teachers or tweak the reading lists in high school. It is the consequence of a civilizational commitment to civilizational suicide. The end of history for our students signals the End of History for the West.

During my lifetime, lamentation over student ignorance has been sounded by the likes of E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Mark Bauerlein and Jay Leno, among many others. But these lamentations have been leavened with the hope that appeal to our and their better angels might reverse the trend (that’s an allusion to Lincoln’s first inaugural address, by the way). E.D. Hirsch even worked up a self-help curriculum, a do-it yourself guide on how to become culturally literate, imbued with the can-do American spirit that cultural defenestration could be reversed by a good reading list in the appendix. Broadly missing is sufficient appreciation that this ignorance is the intended consequence of our educational system, a sign of its robust health and success.

To my suggestion that progressive government is setting up a sort of “company state” in which everything is ordered toward the business model of providing government services and making others pay for them, Deneen would add (emphasis added):

Regardless of major or course of study, the main object of modern education is to sand off remnants of any cultural or historical specificity and identity that might still stick to our students, to make them perfect company men and women for a modern polity and economy that penalizes deep commitments. Efforts first to foster appreciation for “multi-culturalism” signaled a dedication to eviscerate any particular cultural inheritance, while the current fad of “diversity” signals thoroughgoing commitment to de-cultured and relentless homogenization.

Maybe his most important addition, however, is Deneen’s glimmer of hope:

On our best days, I discern their longing and anguish and I know that their innate human desire to know who they are, where they have come from, where they ought to go, and how they ought to live will always reassert itself.

That’s a difficult longing to fulfill.  As Plato noted all those centuries ago, people once deluded in such a way “deem him their worst enemy who tells them the truth,” and powerful forces in our society will give them every opportunity and excuse not to evaluate their sense that something’s missing.

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Government-Pushed Pre-K May Be Worse than Neutral

Progressive politicians, like Rhode Island Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo, simply assume that more government support for pre-K is a good thing, and the news media doesn’t help.  In 2014, for example, WPRI reporter Dan McGowan characterized RI’s program as “one of the most successful state-funded pre-K programs in the country,” but all of the benchmarks used to determine “success” are inputs, like teacher degrees, free meals, and number of students per teacher.  “Success” in those terms is basically measured in the cost of the program — as in, “we’re successful at making people give us money and power.”

Lindsey Burke and Salim Furth, of Heritage, have looked at the research and found that government-centered pre-K programs have no measurable academic benefit and may, in fact, do harm academically and, especially, behaviorally.  Sure, it creates new union jobs and encourages more families to organize themselves around government dependency, but that comes at a cost.  Note this, for example, in Quebec:

The program has had a large impact: privately funded child care arrangements have almost disappeared, and Quebec has the highest rate of subsidized child care in Canada, at 58 percent in 2011.

One can’t help but wonder whether that was more the goal than an unfortunate side effect, but other results were surely unintentional:

Regrettably, new research has found that children who became eligible for the program in Quebec were more anxious as children and have committed more crimes as teenagers. The availability of day care clearly worsened children’s non-cognitive “soft” skills.

Why is this?

The effects could be occurring through any (or all) of three channels:

  1. Worse care for children who would have been cared for by a family member if day care were not subsidized;
  2. Worse care for children who would have gone to a less-regulated, non-subsidized day care; and
  3. Spillover impacts on children who are not participating.

So while all of the “success” benchmarks cited to push Rhode Island’s program forward were of the form “we think this must be a good thing,” evidence of actual outcomes is not encouraging.

We can predict, however, how government will respond as its programs harm the economy by withdrawing money that would have been better spent elsewhere and harm students by reshaping their early lives to put them in something resembling the public school system that we already know to be failing in Rhode Island:  Elected and appointed officials will all claim that they need more money and more authority over our lives and must put more private companies out of business in order to fix the intractable problems of our humanity.

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A Recess from the Diktats

Sometimes we can discern important principles most easily in relatively inconsequential contexts.  Take, for example, Senate bill 2669, which the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity did not consider substantial enough to include on its Freedom Index.

It mandates that “all children attending public schools… shall receive… at least twenty (20) consecutive minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free play recess each day.”  When Republican Senator John Pagliarini (Tiverton, Portsmouth, Bristol) initially stood up against the group-think and voted against it, Democrat Senate President Theresa Paiva Weed (Newport, Jamestown) chided him, saying “How can you vote against recess?”

Let’s be specific.  Voting against this bill wasn’t a vote “against recess”; it was a vote against the state government’s assuming that it is swooping in as the hero of recess to save the kids from horrid local committees and administrators bent on depriving children of unstructured play.

Just so, politicians in their vanity layer on mandates that make them feel good about themselves and give them something to brag about to voters with no strong base of information on which to make electoral decisions.  Rather than observing a problem (no recess) and investigating its causes for factors within the proper scope of their role (like eliminating other state mandates), the legislators go straight from intention (encourage recess) to command (thou must).

Sen. Pagliarini was correct in his first instinct.  His narrow-minded peers may fervently believe that children should have time to play in an unstructured way, but they can’t imagine that their neighbors can live without the detailed list of rules and requirements to which the legislature and bureaucracy add year after year after year.

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Matthew Henry Young: Proposed Budget Challenges Educational Choice, Families

The Rhode Island House Finance Committee’s proposed budget includes, among other things, a substantial cut to funding for Rhode Island’s 18 charter schools. Charter schools receive government funding, but are managed separately from the public school system, and are able to tailor their programs, hiring, and management to meet specific goals. The proposed budget would allow for municipalities to subtract certain costs from their funding for local charter schools—a move that could hamstring high-performing charter schools, and will reduce any edge that charter schools enjoy in providing a higher quality education.

Charter schools are an important part of providing educational choice and freedom to Rhode Island’s families—without the presence of charter schools, children from low-income families unable to afford private school tuition may be trapped in underperforming public schools.

Rhode Island can ill afford more setbacks to its educational system. While Rhode Island ranks 29th in the nation for educational attainment in the Family Prosperity Index, minority groups experience substantially different outcomes. According to data from the American Community Survey, African American and Hispanic youths in Rhode Island are 2 and 3 times less likely (respectively) to graduate from high school; a trend that is mimicked in college-graduation rates.

Many of Rhode Island’s most vulnerable communities are being poorly served by the public school system—the last thing we should be doing is limiting their choice of schools.

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RI Dept of Education Transgender Guidelines Continue Disturbing Trend of Government by Political Correctness

[The RI Department of Education has announced “comprehensive guidelines” with regard to transgender students, though the ProJo reports that it is not a mandate. The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity this morning issued the following statement.]

While professing to protect students from bullying and to respect all students, the RI Department of Education (RIDE), via its June 2016 Guidance Document on Transgender Students, itself appears to have been bullied by the federal government; seeks to bully local school districts into conformity; and openly flaunts its disrespect of of other students.

In perpetuating a disturbing trend of ‘government by political correctness’, RIDE has succumbed to federal pressure and has adopted a one-size-fits-all position that may not be compatible with the morals held by many public school families. There may never be a more obvious reason to empower parents with additional choices to escape an increasingly politicized government school system that does not respect their personal values.

The repeated emphasis in the document on laws dealing with “discrimination” can only be seen as a heavy-handed threat to local school districts, who may choose not to conform, by elitist bureaucrats who believe they know what’s in our family’s best interests.

The open and blatant disrespect (page-9, paragraph-2) for the comfort level of the majority of students, in favor of the comfort of a tiny minority of students, along with the disdain for the rights of parents and the sanctity of the family (page-7, paragraph-2), is particularly alarming.

The Center maintains that no single statewide or federal dictate can possibly satisfy the varying sentiments among Rhode Island’s diverse array of local communities.

Related: Video commentary by CEO Mike Stenhouse on The Ocean State Current following release of federal “guidance” document in May of 2016.

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A Teacher Calls Out Teacher Seniority

Whoa. Exactly right, dude. (From an op-ed in yesterday’s Providence Journal.)

Is putting such emphasis on seniority really in the best interests of the teachers? We, as teachers and professionals, look foolish showing the door to a rising superstar while retaining the services of “Mr. Deadwood” upstairs in history.

If I’m clearly an underperforming teacher why am I not on the short list to be shown the door? What can we possibly tell students who lament losing that rising superstar when they sincerely ask, “Why is the abysmal Mrs. Do-Little still here?” Good question, kids. Unfortunately, the answer has nothing to do with what’s best for you. Sad.

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Hassenfeld Poll

There are some interesting results in the Hassenfeld Institute poll that’s floating around Twitter (but somehow not yet mentioned on its Web site):

  • 50% of respondents think the state is headed in the wrong direction.
  • 52% would grade Rhode Island’s public schools at a C or worse, although that drops to 31% when parents are asked about the schools that their own children attend.
  • Respondents were pretty evenly split on the question of whether the state Dept. of Education has too much, too little, or just enough oversight, although 67% think there’s too much emphasis on standardized testing.
  • Nonetheless, 87% think it would be important for schools to have higher standards.
  • Although the phrasing and context are different, the poll found even stronger support (78% somewhat/very important) for school choice than did the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity’s poll, with the Friedman Foundation, a few years ago.

If there is an overall summary, I’d say that Rhode Islanders know the state needs a change, but they’re not sure what it should look like, even in the relatively narrow field of education.  At the most simplistic level, those who want to effect change have to do two things:  1) Cut through the distractions and noise of the powerful people and groups who benefit by keeping intact exactly the structures that are harming the state, and 2) make people believe that change can happen — not just little bits of obvious correction here and there, but big change.

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Lack of Higher Ed Diversity an Existential Threat

Multiple folks around the Internet have highlighted a remarkable column from progressive writer Nicholas Kristof.  After observing on Facebook a conspicuous difficulty for would-be academics who are conservative, and being surprised by the viciousness of his “friends,” Kristof writes:

To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion.  My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.

The stakes involve not just fairness to conservatives or evangelical Christians, not just whether progressives will be true to their own values, not just the benefits that come from diversity (and diversity of thought is arguably among the most important kinds), but also the quality of education itself.  When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.

Well, yes.  Anybody who was a vocal conservative in a college classroom any time within at least the last quarter century knows what that echo chamber sounds like.  Anecdotally, though, it seems as if things have gotten far worse; at least when I was a college upstart, the professors seemed to appreciate having a foil, and although some would notch down grades or demure from the writing of grad school recommendations, they at least gave the impression of mutual respect.

Those unwritten recommendations appear to have worked their magic, though, and all but emptied campuses of conservative professors precisely in areas in which having a diversity of worldviews is most important.

Kristof cites a study that seems to suggest that conservatives/Republicans engage in similarly biased behavior when it’s available, but such a finding should raise questions.  After all, it’s entirely possible that liberals exclude conservatives in academic settings for malicious reasons while conservatives would (at least in an experimental setting) exclude liberals because they know their fellow conservatives need all the help they can get.

Until evidence suggests otherwise, I’m inclined to return, for an explanation, to the ideological insecurity I mentioned earlier today and add in the deliberate (if often subconscious) “march through the institutions.”  This is how the Left has undermined a strong, culturally confident civilization: by infecting and overwhelming the institutions that allowed it to transmit its confidence and to build upon the virtues that gave it something to be confident about.

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UPDATED: A School Musical and Pushing the Envelope with Your Children

The focal story in this week’s Sakonnet Times begins by noting that Tiverton High School’s now-running student musical marks the first time any high school in the entire state has performed Hair in the half century since it was released.  There’s a reason for that, and it’s the same reason the school felt the need to put a disclaimer on its fliers, warning in bolded all caps: “FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY.”

Younger brothers and sisters of the performers… sorry, you’re out of luck.  The public high school is apparently no place for children in Tiverton.

Drama director Gloria Crist notes that she modified the nudity scene, replacing the potential child pornography with something involving glow sticks.  She also notes that there won’t be any depictions of drug use actually on the stage.  As for the script’s profanity, Crist says she took some out, but “kept the rest in, with taste of course.”

Those familiar with the musical — and I had the soundtrack memorized at one point — might question the judgment of taste by somebody who would choose this play for a school production involving children as young as 14 or 15.  I’ve requested from the district a song list and the libretto but have not yet received any reply.

According to Crist, Tams-Witmark Music Library, which owns the rights to Hair, refused to let the school cut the nudity scene, but allowed the glow-stick creativity.  One wonders whether the school was permitted to cut some of the songs, like “Sodomy” (“Masturbation can be fun/Join the holy orgy Kama Sutra everyone”); “Initials,” in which LBJ takes the IRT and sees “the youth of America on LSD,” or “The Bed.”  If individual parents want to validate this sort of content for their own children, that’s one thing, but for a public high school to be giving it a seal of approval is wholly inappropriate.

No doubt much of the most objectionable content has been removed or softened, but even so, “clever work-arounds,” as the article puts it, for content that goes too far even for radicals have a tendency to invite curiosity, especially among children with access to the Internet wherever they go, carrying the implied approval of the public school system.

Even edited, there’s simply no way to tease out the glorification of sex and drug culture in Hair.  Rhode Island is the sixth-highest state in the nation for drug overdose deaths, according to the CDC.  Addressing the counterculture of the ’60s in an academic setting is appropriate, to be sure, but Hair revels in it, promotes it.  Indeed, Crist seems to intend the explicit propagandizing of the town’s children: “It has been so powerful to watch them get it. But they do. They understand what freedom of choice is, social justice…”

This sort of decision by the school department certainly affirms the decisions of many parents who choose private schools for their children, but parents who lack the resources are stuck.  Frankly, if public school is now about pushing the envelope in this way, the case is even stronger for allowing parents to use the funds set aside for their children to make better decisions.

UPDATE (5/19/16; 8:11 a.m.)

Given a resurgence of attention to this post, I should note that the school administration did send me a song list, and I have watched the performance (although the video on YouTube has since been switched to private).  Busy days and other priorities combined with indecision about whether it would be appropriate to publicize an unofficial video of the performance led to the delay of this update.

The songs “Sodomy” and “The Bed,” described above, were removed from the script, but “Initials” was kept, as were other inappropriate songs, like “Hashish,” which lists drugs and ends with “s-e-x, y-o-u” and a euphoric “wow.”  Much of the sexual content of the musical remained, the anti-Catholic parts were actually more aggressive than I would have expected.

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Where Do the Numbers Come from for Public Union Negotiations?

Don’t get too caught up in the conflicting claims about negotiations over the Warwick teacher union negotiations.  Even if it’s completely true that the union countered a relatively reasonable offer from the school department with an outlandish joke, that fact is most significant because of its illustration of the fact that they’re really just throwing darts at a board:

On April 20, members of the union and the School Department met with mediator Vincent F. Ragosta Jr. Thornton says that the School Department offered a 2-percent raise every year for the next three years. The union disputes that, stating that the initial offer was no raise for the first year, and 2 percent raises in each of the next two years.

Thornton stated that the union countered with a demand for a 10-percent raise each year for three years. He added that the request would result in most teacher salaries reaching $100,000 by 2018.

Three sequential 10% raises is obviously outrageous, but what makes three 2% raises not outrageous, except for the fact that the union wants even more?  What are these numbers based on?

Is Warwick’s enrollment growing?  No.  According to the state’s data, Warwick’s enrollment has fallen every year since the turn of the millennium, with an average annual drop of 2%, with 3,125 fewer students starting the 2015-2016 school year as started the 2000-2001 school year in the district; that’s a 34% drop.

Are the residents of Warwick substantially wealthier, such that they can pay for increases in the school budget despite decreases in students?  Not really.  Sure, according to the U.S. Census, median household income increased from the $46,483 in the 2000 Census to $62,803 for 2014 (a 2% annual average increase), but employment fell from 63.6% to 62.1%, and individuals living in poverty increased from 5.9% to 7.3%.

Are Warwick residents gaining wealth on their homes?  No.  From 2010 to 2014, according to the Census, the median home value fell from $234,300 to $198,200 (-15%).

Are the schools preforming at very high levels? It wouldn’t seem so, considering that not a single one is recognized as “commended” by the state.

So, again:  By what criteria can a smaller population with many fewer children, more poverty, and falling home values afford any increases in teacher pay at all?  If a business or other private organization were contemplating raises (especially contracted out for three years), it would have to base them on experienced and expected sales or other revenue, as well as productivity and the ability of the employer to replace employees who feel they deserve more money than the employer is willing to pay.

In the public sector, by contrast, we see the very different dynamic that one might expect when the negotiation is a bit more like: “How much can you and I take from that guy over there?”

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Whose Diploma and What Accountability?

Watching the center-ring clowns of Rhode Island’s education establishment blow reform bubbles at each other provides numerous opportunities for incredulity from the watching public, but this statement deserves to be on the big-top’s central screen:

[RI Education Commissioner Ken] Wagner says he is trying to maintain rigorous standards without sacrificing students. To do that, he wants to offer two commendations beyond the traditional diploma: one for high academic achievement, the other to recognize individual expertise, say, a concentration in the arts.

“Students told us, ‘This is my diploma. Let me show you what I’m good at,'” he said.

If the state’s top education bureaucrat echoes that particular student inanity, I’d recommend anybody with the means should flee the public education system in this state.  (Rather, I’d re-up my recommendation to do that.)  A high school diploma is worthless if it’s little more than a marker that a child has occupied space for a minimum amount of time and proven that he or she is capable of finding something at which he or she doesn’t fail.

In a crucial way, it isn’t a particular student’s diploma.  It’s the system’s diploma.  It is a signal that the student has fulfilled the requirements of the education system, and those requirements define the value of receiving their final approval.  Moreover, inventing new levels of higher achievement (because we lack the guts to devalue participation awards) will be a Rhode Island quirk that most individuals, colleges, and employers will glance right over.

And then there’s this (likely) meaningless talking point:

Wagner wants to eliminate the state’s latest standardized test as a high school graduation requirement. The state would continue to test students but the districts would be held accountable, not the students.

How exactly is the state going to hold districts accountable?  Take away money?  Contractual pressure and economic reality make that little different than placing the consequences on students.  Do something that ensures that administrators and teachers receive some sort of professional or financial penalty?  The unions and their elected puppets would never let that go through.  Let parents take their kids out of the district and send them to private school using the money set aside for them?  That move would have to come straight from brave, determined elected officials (who don’t currently exist in sufficient numbers).

These are all smoky promises and hollow threats, and Rhode Island’s children deserve better.

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Governor Raimondo’s Education Commissioner Wants to Further Erode Student Achievement

… that can be the only conclusion from his stated intent, as reported in today’s Providence Journal.

State education Commissioner Ken Wagner wants to remove a controversial new standardized test as a high school graduation requirement for students.

For the most part, Governor Raimondo has only paid lip service – lots and lots of robotic lip service – to her campaign promise to create jobs and improve the state’s economy. Will she permit Commissioner Wagner to do the same with regard to improving K-12 education in Rhode Island?

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Charter School Demand Isn’t Surprising; Narrow Vision Is

It just isn’t surprising that demand for charter schools far outstrips available seats in Rhode Island, but I’m not sure the Providence Journal editorial board draws the right lessons.  After all, charter schools are — or at least people’s perception of them is that they are — tantamount to free-to-the-family private schools, and parents don’t have to be but so motivated as advocates for their children to seek free private schooling for their children.

The peculiarity is that the Projo editors won’t consider the possibility of modestly helping families afford actual private schools, even just a little.  Given the editors’ advocacy for charter schools, they can’t really turn around and argue that real school choice would take money away from schools, because charter schools do that even more.

One plausible argument, I guess, would be that the public maintains some level of control over charter schools, because they’re still public schools, but then it isn’t obvious why the editors would see legislation giving local taxpayers some leverage when it comes to charter schools as an unjust attack on them.

Now throw this into the mix:

The combined hit [of budget and leverage reforms] “would force the majority of Rhode Island’s highly successful independent and district charter schools to shut their doors in a matter of years,” [Timothy Groves, executive director of the Rhode Island League of Charter Schools,] warned.

So, these free-to-the-parents, private-like public schools can’t survive without total subsidization arguably beyond the very-high level of public schools.

One wonders what the demand for charters would be if parents were required to pay some nominal fee to make up the difference.  The Projo complains about Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s intention to reduce district funding of charters by about $700 per student, but $700 per year would be a very low tuition for parents, compared with existing private options.

Frankly, the underlying logic spins the head.  We need “public school choice” so the public has some control, but we can’t let the public make decisions about the schools.  We’re impressed by the demand, but we can’t let parents pay some small tuition.

One gets the impression that, proclamations aside, the advocacy places more emphasis on whatever it is that makes the word “public” magic rather than on whatever it is that makes school choice beneficial for children.  Either that, or it’s more of a statement of “we like these schools and the people who run them, and we think everybody should have to pay for them without much by way of accountability.”

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Religious Faith at URI and Intellectual Diversity

The blind spot and contradiction in Lynn Arditi’s Providence Journal article, yesterday, about the religious beliefs of University of Rhode Island President David Dooley are so huge that Rhode Island progressives would feel the chill of its shadow if they were able to conceive of it.  Start at the end of the article:

One of the best reasons to go to college, Dooley said, is to explore one’s beliefs and ideas about the world in a safe environment. And a public university like URI, he said, is the best place to do that exploration.

“You don’t find the diversity” at religious institutions or small private colleges, he said, as you do at a large public university. “There’s an understanding of what the acceptable boundaries are of faith. The best place to get an education is when you’re in the midst of a place where people don’t think like you … where people have the ability to build bridges and find common ground.”

So a large public university is a place where faith is kept in the box that the (largely left-wing and secularist) academics believe it belongs.  Now flip back to the beginning of the article:

The president of the University of Rhode Island on Thursday publicly addressed a topic rarely broached by leaders of secular academic institutions.

How much diversity can there really be and how much exploration can students really do when a major part of anybody’s intellectual foundation (a belief system) is shoved beyond “boundaries” that universities’ “leaders” seldom cross — particularly when the Christian perspective that has informed the development of Western civilization and that still undergirds the beliefs of most Americans is targeted for special dismissal?

Toward the end of my own time at URI a decade and a half ago, when I was still an atheist, I attended some sort of honors colloquium event at which leaders from various faiths presented an audience-participation-heavy discussion.   An organizer later told me that the priest and rabbi who led the discussion were surprised by the hostility of some of the students, but I think that slightly misses the real atmosphere.

The problem was that there was no counterbalance to the few students who were actively and arrogantly hostile.  One could have picked those students out of a line up simply by having been told what their attitude had been.  But the religious authorities in the room were clearly timid about imposing their views (that is, defending their beliefs).  As for the students, any strong believers must have learned to keep their religious beliefs within their “acceptable boundaries,” and all of us who fell somewhere between them and the hostiles simply had not learned how to integrate religious topics into an intellectual discussion, except as targets for shooting straw men with secularist guns.

I don’t think it extrapolates too much to suggest that that atmosphere at a large public university at the turn of the millennium explains quite a bit about our current problems and the collapse of intellectual life.

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RI Elite Approaches Jobs and Education from the Wrong Angle

I agree with the Providence Journal editorial board that:

Rhode Island needs a dramatic, game-changing, long-term plan to raise the bar in its public schools if the state is going to be in a position to supply the talent that 21st century businesses are looking for.

I’d say that means full school choice through education savings accounts (ESAs), while the editors likely mean another attempt at “fix the system” reforms, which have proven to be mildly effective and to have a political ceiling.  But let’s put that difference of opinion aside for a more relevant, and probably deeper, one.  The editorial is most useful in the direct way in which it approaches the idea of economic development from exactly the wrong angle:

There was a time when businesses chose locations for their proximity to raw materials such as lumber or copper. But “today, people are the natural resources,” Meredith Amdur, an analytics expert at the advisory firm CEB, told the newspaper. Indeed, finding the right labor pool can be the most important factor in choosing a location. Not surprisingly, regions “with fewer degree holders could struggle to attract big corporations,” the report warned.

The Projo’s approach is one in which human beings are a stationary resource akin to the natural qualities of an area and, worse, one in which it is appropriate for state government to use public schools and other programs to reshape the population to fit the interests of corporate executives.

As is usually the case, inaccurate and immoral conceptualization leads to practical difficulties.  To wit, even if we train young Rhode Islanders to fit the bill of the aforesaid executives,  employees remain more mobile than companies, especially young employees.  For the company to move, the cost of moving to or starting up in Rhode Island would have to be less than the premium necessary to draw an expert Rhode Island workforce away.

And that’s assuming technology doesn’t shift ever so slightly in a way that makes all of that taxpayer-funded technical instruction obsolete.  In other words, the assumption must be that the state’s public education system can be nimble enough and the state’s leaders sufficiently prognosticative to predict the future of the marketplace.

The basic problem is that Rhode Island’s elite, which includes the Providence Journal editorial board, doesn’t want to give up the heavy hand it has in determining what the state and its people should be like.  If we’d just lower the cost and difficulty of doing business here, and if we’d just give our neighbors maximum flexibility to make decisions for themselves, including in education, then businesses for which Rhode Island makes sense for other reasons will set up shop within our borders, and those of our neighbors attracted to those industries will rush for the opportunity.

Freedom and economic health go hand in hand, and the opposing option is aristocracy and stagnation.  One can only conclude that those who insist on aristocracy are actually just fine with the stagnation.

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ProJo Editorial Endorses RIPEC Education Findings

Many of us were shocked and bewildered when the Providence Journal’s editorial board inexplicably went all in on Governor Raimondo’s highly damaging tolls. We haven’t either forgiven or forgotten that the board pretended to fall for the patently lame reasons put out by the Governor to get her completely unnecessary, politically selfish toll program passed. The result since then is that some of us look askance and even skeptically at the ProJo’s editorials.

But credit where credit is due. In an editorial yesterday, they echoed the conclusions and brook-no-excuses sentiment of RIPEC’s recent report on education. For that, the ProJo’s editorial board should be applauded.

The data shows Rhode Island public schools generally plod along near the national average, while Massachusetts students consistently outperform those in most other states on national tests, and its schools overall are among the best in America. …

The RIPEC report stands as a useful guide to the differences of Massachusetts and Rhode Island education reform. We hope key policymakers read it, absorb it, and follow its key recommendations to move the Ocean State along.

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Whoa: RIPEC Report Says State Policy, Not Funding, is Reason RI Schools Lag Far Behind Mass

WPRI’s Dan McGowan covers. Thank you, RIPEC.

In a 57-page report released Thursday, RIPEC makes the case that state policy – not funding or socioeconomic factors – is one of the key reasons Rhode Island lags far behind its neighbor to the north when it comes to student performance.

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