Education Establishment Defending the Indefensible

Editorial commentary can get away from a writer when the urge is not to mince words about the respect due to those who would deceive the public to the detriment of children.  Put differently, I’m going to watch my language in what follows because the goal ought to be to persuade the persuadable, rather than to drive them into a battle station. I’ll simply say that I found Gregg Amore’s Providence Journal op-ed, over the weekend, to be… objectionable.

Amore, who is a Democrat state legislator and a public-school history teacher in East Providence, accuses those incensed at the state’s horrible results on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests of pulling “a page out of the failed corporate education reform playbook by drawing hyperbolic conclusions from the results of a single test.”  Rhode Islanders should take careful note how this union teacher with a vote in the General Assembly thinks we ought to respond to the truly unacceptable results on PARCC:

No one doubts that Rhode Island public schools can do better, and Rhode Island has made great strides over the past decade to move from the bottom third in NAEP testing results to the middle. To declare a “crisis” on the basis of a single new measure without establishing context is irresponsible and unfair.

We do have a crisis in Rhode Island, and it is highlighted by the fact that nearly 20 percent of our children are living in poverty, we lag the nation in public early childhood education opportunities, and we have dilapidated buildings and scant resources in many of our urban districts. Address these issues and give educators and students more time to absorb the new standards, and the test scores will rise.

Amore’s essay deploys a number of the standard tricks to hold the public off of insisting on accountability and to keep teachers feeling as if the public would be irrational to complain.  The first is muddying the purpose of the tests.  The PARCC tests aren’t meant just to be a tool for comparison of students — like a placement exam.  They’re intended to test whether students are where they are expected to be.  If the schools were doing their job all along, switching standardized tests shouldn’t be a decade-long disruption of test scores.

A small dip in results might be defensible, as the state transitions from one test and set of standards to another, but around two-thirds of Rhode Island students don’t test at the expected level in English, increasing to three-quarters in math.  If the standards are that different, then what were the schools teaching before?

The second trick is to distort other evidence.  Contrary to Amore’s soothing tones, Rhode Island’s NAEP scores are not evidence of a balanced view, but are themselves more evidence that the state’s education system is in crisis.  Even accepting that we should be relieved that we’ve moved from the “bottom third” to the “middle,” our NAEP scores have been flat, at about the level of the average state, for four years, now.

That’s the amount of time it takes a typical student to work all the way through high school.  How many more full classes of Rhode Island children do we have to watch struggling out the door before we can call it a crisis?  Amore notes that Massachusetts has been working off of its standards for “a full K-12 cycle,” suggesting that Rhode Island can expect results when we’ve got that amount of time invested in PARCC.  Waiting another 12 years might be dandy for a guy who’ll make a great living as a teacher for 20-30 years and then retire with a generous pension for another 20-30 years, but what about the Rhode Island children who will be attending and graduating from these schools?  If your child is in a Rhode Island public school right now or preparing to enter the system, isn’t its failure right now a crisis for you?

And as for Amore’s reference to “dilapidated buildings and scant resources,” Rhode Island’s per-pupil spending has been around the same as Massachusetts’s for a while.  Where has all this money gone?  Nobody is better situated than Gregg Amore and his fellow teachers to answer that question.

The third trick is to blame other factors.  Amore mentions poverty, but his unique spin is to emphasize parental education:

There is also the significant advantage that Massachusetts students have over Rhode Island’s in levels of parental education and income — factors that clearly impact educational achievement in our schools. Massachusetts parents are the most educated in the country, with nearly 40 percent possessing a bachelor’s degree, compared with 29 percent in Rhode Island. Furthermore, 8 percent of Massachusetts parents have not attained a high school diploma, compared with 14 percent in Rhode Island.

The history teacher doesn’t cite a source, and U.S. Census data isn’t specifically concerned with “parents,” but the numbers are close enough for argument’s sake.  According to the Census, 40% of all Massachusetts adults (over 25) have bachelor’s degrees, while 10% lack high school diplomas.  For Rhode Island the percentages are 29% and 15%.

Because he picked his statistics carefully, that seems to support Amore’s argument, but bringing in other comparisons makes it not so clear.  Every other New England state beats Rhode Island’s NAEP scores, and every other state has a higher percentage of high-school graduates in its population, but there’s no correlation.  New Hampshire tests almost as well as Massachusetts, but its diploma rate is actually better.  Connecticut’s diploma rate is the same as in Massachusetts, but its NAEP results are significantly lower.

As for rates of bachelor’s degrees, Rhode Island does better than Maine, but has lower NAEP scores.  New Hampshire isn’t much better than Rhode Island for degrees, but again, it nearly matches Massachusetts on NAEPs.

The bigger point, though, is that Rhode Island’s last-in-New-England percentage of high school graduations is not a defense, it’s an indictment.  Think about it:  Teacher-legislator Amore wants to use his state’s relatively low education rate as an excuse for poor student test scores, but if anything, it’s more evidence that the school system of which he’s a part is in crisis.  It isn’t surprising that a state whose students are less able to keep up in math and English are less likely to follow through to graduation.

Meanwhile, RI’s NAEP results have stagnated with the teacher unions’ victory over education reform, but Gregg Amore turns around and tells us that it will be unreasonable to be upset about poor results for another 12 years.  Those years may not improve results, but they’ll give the adults who live off the system time to come up with more excuses, or maybe to change the tests and the standards once again so they can go back to complaining that they haven’t had time to adjust, yet.

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