Things We Read Today (48), Post-Blizzard

That’s “post-blizzard” in the sense of having lost power for a while and in the sense of having to read through hundreds of bills submitted last week.  On the first count, though, when did we start having to expect lengthy power outages with every significant storm?

Places Other than RI Are Doing, Rather than Talking About Doing

The economic development talk in Rhode Island has hummed with the buzz of “knowledge economy” phrases. The folks who pull the government levers in Providence are stating their intention to manage the state’s way forward — they’re picking industries, and they’re going to target very, very narrow market niches to collect the best jobs that the marketplace has to offer.

What do actual Rhode Islanders want?  Well, we’ll worry about that later, by taxing them in order to retrain them in the designated professions.

But as we talk about what we’re going to do, other areas are doing what they talk about. According to Praxis Strategy Group, the Providence area is 48th of 51 metropolitan areas when it comes to “professional, technical, and scientific services.”  The Boston area comes in at 23, and Hartford at 45.

The Providence-Fall River-New Bedford region has the third-lowest proportion of jobs in this sector (versus other jobs), and it’s losing ground by several measures.  That’s “losing ground” as in actually experiencing negative growth.

The top 10 states on the list give some indication of what makes for a productive economy: Texas, Florida, California (Silicon Valley), North Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri-Kansas, Virginia, North Carolina-South Carolina, and Oregon-Washington.  There’s a high degree of policy diversity in there, but the list clearly leans toward areas that are known as “business friendly” in terms of taxes and other government policies.

One gets the sense that, if those folks pulling levers in Providence would stop talking about steering the ship of state into a narrow stream and instead free up people to pursue their own dreams according to their own abilities, we could probably expect many of them to seek after the “right” kind of jobs.  Contrary to the sense that permeates the political culture around here, the average legislator or other official isn’t any better at picking winners than the average Rhode Islander, and when people are working for their own success, they tend to make more prudent decisions and to work harder.

What Legislators Want to Penalize

“Business friendliness” isn’t just a policy proposal with some tax breaks and an agency tasked with reviewing regulations.  It’s an approach to government.

That thought came to mind as I skimmed through H5331, sponsored by Representatives Joseph Almeida (D, Providence), William O’Brien (D, North Providence), Kenneth Marshall (D, Bristol, Warren), Grace Diaz (D, Providence), and Anastasia Williams (D, Providence).

Basically, the bill sifts through the law for “petty” crimes and treats them as even more petty.  Shoplifting, for example, would have a get-out-of-a-misdemeanor-free card to be played on the first offense.  So would driving without a license… provided the perpetrator has never bothered to apply for one.

Most of the provisions of the legislation are of minor concern, but I can’t help but see them in the context of bill after bill increasing the fine for this economic violation and new license requirements for that profession.  So, we get a person convicted of shoplifting for a second time (that is, actually caught and prosecuted a second time) facing a $100 fine on a misdemeanor charge, while somebody who connects a storm drain has to buy a $200 license — plus paying for and taking a standardized test, plus buying insurance, plus buying a bond — before getting to work each year.

It says a lot about our elected officials which activities they want to penalize financially.

The Root Causes of Education Decline

This essay by retired high school U.S. Government and Politics teacher Kenneth Bernstein has been getting a good bit of play.  Its literary device is presentation as a letter to college professors “warning” them about the lack of critical thinking and writing skills among the students heading their way.  The villain?  Standardized tests.

Mr. Bernstein says that public school teachers from grade 3 up are teaching to the test, which cannot be done, he says, while also taking the time to work on an individual basis with students to help them to write and reason well.

At this point, these are familiar arguments.  Stripped of the complaints and unsubstantiated claims about “wealthy corporations that profit from the policies they help define and the think tanks and activist organizations that have learned how to manipulate the levers of power, often to their own financial or ideological advantage,” what Bernstein wants is a just-trust-us form of accountability.  Standardized tests don’t adequately capture the knowledge, progress, and needs of individual students, and we can’t possibly let schools have managerial authority to handle individual teachers in the same way that professionals are handled in the competitive marketplace, and we certainly can’t allow people who aren’t wealthy to have a broad array of education choices for their children.

I’m comfortable inferring the above point of view from Bernstein’s essay because a quick Internet search reveals a Huffington Post biography listing publication credentials as monolithic  as Daily Kos and the New York Times, as well as status as “a building representative for the National Education Association.”

The heavy union involvement relates to another response I’m inclined to make to Bernstein’s essay.  Those whose experience with education comes mainly through having acquired one may wonder why it isn’t possible to teach children good writing and critical thinking as a way of educating them so well that standardized tests aren’t a problem.  Why teach to the test?  Answers Bernstein:

Even during those times when I could assign work that required proper writing, I was limited in how much work I could do on their writing. I had too many students. In my final year, with four sections of Advanced Placement, I had 129 AP students (as well as an additional forty-six students in my other two classes). A teacher cannot possibly give that many students the individualized attention they need to improve their writing. Do the math. Imagine that I assign all my students a written exercise. Let’s assume that 160 actually turn it in. Let’s further assume that I am a fast reader, and I can read and correct papers at a rate of one every three minutes. That’s eight hours—for one assignment. If it takes a more realistic five minutes per paper, the total is more than thirteen hours.

It can hardly be claimed that the money pouring into public education has decreased over the years, so (again) one not familiar with the particulars of public education may wonder why schools can’t hire additional teachers to make the highly detailed work more feasible.  One reason is the layered, suffocating fabric of mandates that create a sort of standardized baseline of spending to which localized investments must be added.

The layers include content, building requirements, services, and more.  In my town of Tiverton, the average per-student spending for the general population was around $11,000 last time I checked.  For those requiring special education, it was over $60,000.  Surely, very few people would argue that we shouldn’t invest in the development of disabled students, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether it overextends the mission of a local school district to span from Mr. Bernstein’s AP courses all the way to students whose coursework is almost more of a medical procedure.

And then there are the unions, a central focus of which is ensuring that districts have difficulty applying funds where they are needed.  If they’ve got the same time on the job (and with a few other adjustments), a teacher with Bernsteins 129 advanced essays to correct makes the same amount of money as one with 25-30 first graders whose homework assignments are more likely to consist of fewer than a dozen multiple choice questions and some coloring.

I wouldn’t presume to claim that there are no circumstances in which an early childhood teacher couldn’t be worth every penny as much as a heavily utilized AP teacher, but the system that the unions have created presumes to claim that there are no circumstances in which they are not.

So, we’re back to the basic problem: if we disallow parents and local districts from having the flexibility to make their own schools accountable according to the subjective assessments that they make up close, then accountability has to be standardized and imposed.  Personally, I agree that the current approach does not work, but I don’t see that the prescriptions of a Daily Kos-writing union organizer will do anything but delay the day of reckoning and harm untold numbers of children in the process.

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