Nightmare in Providence

July 3, 2019

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

By now, everyone in the ed policy world is aware of the damning report by Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy on Providence’s district schools.  Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education, Angélica Infante-Green, called it “heart-wrenching” and admitted that she would not send her children there. When asked by Erika Sanzi what Providence families are supposed to do, Infante-Green responded, “We are going to fight and work hard to change decades of neglect.”

Decades. Of. Neglect.

Matt Ladner summarizes the report’s highlowlights:

  • The great majority of students are not learning on, or even near, grade level.
  • With rare exception, teachers are demoralized and feel unsupported.
  • Most parents feel shut out of their children’s education.
  • Principals find it very difficult to demonstrate leadership.
  • Many school buildings are deteriorating across the city, and some are even dangerous to students’ and teachers’ wellbeing.

I guess that’s what $18,000 per pupil gets you in Providence.

Some people roll their eyes when conservatives and libertarians rant about bureaucracy and teachers’ union contracts, but these things really can get in the way of delivering a high-quality education. The report finds that the collective bargaining agreement makes it “next to impossible to remove bad teachers from schools or find funding for more than the one day of contractual professional development per year.” But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Take procurement, for example. As Stephen Sawchuk noted at EdWeek, “Nothing is less sexy than procurement, and yet nothing matters more in terms of getting basic supplies, repairs, and textbooks into classrooms.” Yet the procurement process in Providence is practically strangled with red tape and bureaucratic inefficiency:

The “unwieldy” process is compounded by the fact that any request that is more than $5,000, must be voted upon by the City Council and the School Board. Every element of the process came under fire from district leaders and partners:
  • The RFP [request for proposal] process “is onerous; even the form is too long.”
    • Because of this, “it is hard to attract high-quality vendors.”
    • “There is no transparency around RFPs.”
    • “The RFPs don’t even include scoring rubrics.”
  • Small vendors are handicapped, because they don’t have the staff to attend multiple committee and full board meetings.
    • One partner noted, “It took us two years to get a contract under $20,000 approved.”
    • Another noted the outdated requirements, such as presenting proposals in triplicate binders with tabs in a specified order.
  • “[Providence Public School District] can enter into only short-term, reactive partnerships. There isn’t the long-term arc of partnership that a three-year contract would allow.”
  • The volume of paperwork that results is “stunning.”
    • “There are hundreds of contracts, hundreds of purchase orders. Even philanthropic dollars have to go through the process.”
    • “The whole process is cumbersome.”
    • “There are constant meetings.”[emphasis added]

The report even included an image of “a chart of all of the players and steps that any contract must go through before approval” that one of the district leaders had pinned up:

Screen Shot 2019-07-03 at 10.44.02 AM

It’s amazing that anything gets done at all.

One of the central problems is that there are so many cooks in the kitchen. As Sawchuk observes:

Perhaps the headline finding of this report is that there are at least five different, competing entities that are asserting power over the school system, making it difficult to proceed on any set of changes or reforms. (They consist of the mayor, the Providence city council, the school board, the superintendent, and the state department of education). It’s hard to overstate how bizarre this is, but there’s an entire appendix detailing which of these entities view the others as obstacles or competitors.

Not only do the entities get in each others’ way and slow down the process of getting stuff done, but there’s also no sense of accountability. Each entity has enough authority to obstruct the others, but none has the requisite authority to actually run the schools well. When something goes wrong, it’s not clear where the proverbial buck is supposed to stop. Each entity can plausibly point fingers at all the other entities “in charge.”

Chaos in governance is reflected in chaos in the classroom. The report details a complete breakdown of order that is severely undermining learning:

Discipline. Many teachers do not feel safe in school, and most partners and district staff concur. There is a general feeling that actions do not have consequences, and that teachers are at physical and emotional risk. One interviewee feels like “the tired, drained teachers of Providence are dragging kids across the finish line.” A few representative comments:

  • “My best teacher’s desk was urinated on, and nothing happened.”
  • “One of our teachers was choked by a student in front of the whole class. Everybody was traumatized, but nothing happened.”
  • “When we refer a student, we get zero response. Kindergartners punch each other in the face –with no consequences.”
  • “Principals are not allowed to suspend.” [emphasis added]

How could this happen? (Paging Max Eden!) The authors of the report point to misguided policies intended to make the schools look better on paper but actually make them far worse in reality:

Some of these issues likely result from pressure to reduce suspensions. Teachers and district leaders feel that children with behavioral problems are allowed to continue, passed from one classroom and school to another. Several noted that the number of social workers in schools is too modest.
  • Said one district leader, “the data masks what’s happening. We can SAY we’re reducing suspensions, but we’re just churning middle schoolers.”
  • Several teachers note that the plan to implement restorative practices foundered because of lack of PD [professional development], but “we’re still supposed to use them. Restorative practices cannot be done unless everybody in the building is trained.”
The Student Affairs Office (SAO) came up frequently in this issue. Teachers are seldom informed when a child in their classroom has been violent, but “if an SAO student skips my class, I’m in trouble.”
  • Students are passed from one school to another; “some schools have become dumping grounds for kids.”
  • One district leader noted that principals often “bargain” about problem children, doing whatever they can to avoid taking a troublemaker.
  • One district leader said simply, “the students run the buildings.”

It must be noted that support staff, including bus drivers, share these concerns. One interviewee noted that “many bus drivers are getting injured,” but when they bring safety concerns to the district, “it falls on deaf ears.” [emphasis added]

Again: it’s amazing that any learning gets done at all.

Throw good money and good people at a bad process and the process will win every time. Providence’s district school system appears broken beyond repair. The only way to fix it is to fundamentally restructure it, but the only way to do that is to provide families with alternatives. As people flee the system, those running the system will have a huge incentive to make the necessary changes.

In the meantime, kids need alternatives to the nightmare in Providence.


“How Do You Sleep at Night?”

February 7, 2012

Just fine, thank you.

But some teachers seem determined to disturb the sleep of people who do research they dislike.  When Heritage’s Jason Richwine co-authored a study on teacher pay, he received a message from his child’s second grade teacher asking him, “How do you sleep at night?”

Note that the teacher did not ask him to describe the source of the data analyzed or defend the interpretation of results.  The teacher was just engaged in bullying, a practice that schools say they are trying to discourage.  And part of the bullying is the not so subtle reminder that the teacher has Richwine’s children all day.  Parents are (at least partially) compelled to send their children to the care of adults who may threaten you if you say things they dislike.

Imagine a doctor similarly bullying a patient who advocated for reductions in Medicare reimbursement rates.  I imagine the doctor could face disciplinary action from licensing authorities for unethical conduct.  If teachers want to be treated as professionals, then they have to abide by professional norms of behavior, including separating one’s personal feelings from one’s job.

Most teachers do behave professionally, but these outbursts are not as rare as they should be.  Unfortunately, the teacher unions and their advocates, like Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, encourage strident views and confrontational tactics that make unprofessional behavior far more likely.

Long run, it’s a bad strategy for teachers to get their way in policy disputes by threatening and intimidating parents.  It takes a couple hundred ads about teachers buying school supplies with their own funds to counter one such incident.


Is Percentage-Based Compensation Unethical?

November 2, 2009

Teacher unions aren’t the only ones who have a problem with linking compensation to performance.  The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the interest group representing the people who raise money for non-profit organizations, has declared that it is unethical. 

As the AFP’s standards of ethics puts it: “Members shall not accept compensation or enter into a contract that is based on a percentage of contributions; nor shall members accept finder’s fees or contingent fees.”  According to the AFP, paying fund-raisers a percentage of what they bring in is not just a bad idea, it is wrong.

I have been a member of three non-profit organization boards and at each one the board was told that it could not pay a fundraiser a percentage of money brought in.  Instead, we were told that we were ethically bound to pay a fundraiser a flat fee and hope that the person would raise significantly more than the flat fee.  I must also add that at each one of these organizations the fund-raiser we hired barely covered his/her flat fee and the non-profit came away with virtually nothing. 

I have never understood why percentage-based compensation for non-profit fund-raisers is unethical.  I understand that it is in the AFP and their members’ interest to declare that it is unethical.  Doing so almost always stifles discussion on boards about what is the best way to compensate fund-raisers.  It also shifts all risk to the organization from the fund-raiser and assures them a profit.

The AFP has gone as far as proposing that Congress pass a law forbidding non-profits from using percentage-based funding for fund-raisers.  The argument about why this is such an awful practice that it needs to be outlawed is flimsy at best.  First, the AFP claims: “Percentage-based compensation sets up a conflict of interest. A consultant’s desire for personal gain shouldn’t trump the broader social interests of the organization.”  But it is not clear why paying fund-raisers a percentage of what they bring-in sets up a conflict of interest.  If anything, paying fund-raisers a percentage aligns the interests of fund-raisers and organizations by providing the fund-raiser with an incentive to raise more money, which is exactly what most organizations also want. 

If percentage-based compensation creates a conflict of interest, why should that be any more of a problem for fund-raisers in the non-profit sector than among sales-people in the for-profit sector?  As the AFP concedes: “Percentage-based compensation methods are generally legal. They are also common practice in the commercial sector.” 

Every objection that the AFP raises to percentage-based compensation could apply equally well to the profit-seeking sector.  And each of these problems can be successfully managed.  If they cannot, people in the profit-seeking sector would avoid percentage-based compensation as unproductive, but almost no one would denounce it as unethical.

Here are the objections that the AFP has that they say makes percentage-based compensation in the non-profit world unethical:

What if a consultant were to receive compensation based on an unsolicited gift or on an annual contribution that commenced before and continues after the consultant leaves? Such reward without merit would create resentment among organization staff and donors. Since many contributions are the result of teamwork among organization staff and consultants, no one person should be able to cart off the rewards of that effort. Consultants motivated by personal gain could unduly pressure a donor to make a contribution, without consideration of the donor’s wishes or timetable. And if the practice became widely known, the organization’s reputation and credibility could suffer irreparable harm.

Sales also come to businesses “that commenced before and continues after the [salesperson] leaves.”  Businesses that use percentage-based compensation devise ways of assigning responsibility for sales (some of which may be  arbitray) or they exclude certain sales.  These problems are not unique to non-profits and have been addressed in the profit-seeking sector.

It is also true that “many [sales] are the result of teamwork among organization staff and consultants, no one person should be able to cart off the rewards of that effort.”  Again, these are problems that also exist in the businessworld and solutions have been developed.

Lastly, it is also true that “[salespeople] motivated by personal gain could unduly pressure a [customer] to make a [purchase], without consideration of the [customer]’s wishes or timetable.”  This is also not a unique or intractable problem in the businessworld.

In the end, the declaration that percentage-based compensation for fund-raisers just feels like self-interested bullying.  Non-profits may choose not to pay fund-raisers on a percentage basis, but they should feel free to consider whatever way would best serve the organization without being told that they are behaving “unethically” without any valid reason.

I’m thinking about starting a new organization, “People United for Jay P. Greene.”  One of our first actions is likely to be to declare it unethical not to give Jay P. Greene a million dollars.  We’d have about as much reason for saying so as the AFP has for its “ethics.”


School Violence Declining

April 25, 2008

At least according to a post by Eduwonkette it is.  Citing data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey on trends over the last 15 years in Chicago, she reports that carrying a weapon in school has declined, engaging in fights has declined, and feeling unsafe at school has declined.  She concludes: “the long-term trends are generally positive, but the overall levels of violence are astoundingly high.”  This helps put the bullying issue in some perspective.

And Eduwonkette may need some more tutoring with Photoshop.  My head is tiny relative to the body she pasted me on.  But I look kind of like David Byrne in his big suit (if his big suit was a blue vest).  Pretty cool.


Joanne Jacobs on Bullies

April 25, 2008

Joanne Jacobs has a post today on another bullying incident in Oakland.  This one sounds horrible, as did the Billy Wolfe story (see my earlier post The NYT Bully).  Just because the Billy Wolfe story is more complicated than the NYT reported, doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a bullying problem in his case and shouldn’t cause us to doubt each new story any more than normal skepticism requires. 

Clearly there is a problem out there with violence between students in schools.  Whether that problem has become more common or more severe over time, I don’t know.  Anyone who knows of reliable statistics on this, please pass that along.  The plural of anecdote is not data, so we need more than these compelling stories to get a sense of how widespread and severe this problem is.


The NYT Bully

April 24, 2008

A month ago the New York Times (NYT) carried on its front page the story of “a boy the bullies love to beat up, repeatedly.”  The story was heart-breaking and appealed to everyone who’s been bullied or worried about their children being bullied — that is, almost everyone.  The piece led to appearances on CNN and the Today Show by the boy, Billy Wolfe, countless articles in papers around the country, a flood of sympathetic letters to the NYT, and outrage in the blogosphere.

Billy Wolfe lives in my town, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and some of the incidents described in the article occurred at a school my children attend (although Billy is older and is now at the high school).  The story didn’t fit with what I know about Fayetteville schools. 

Sure enough, a little more than a week after the NYT article, the Northwest Arkansas Times (NAT) disclosed the existence of a police report on Billy Wolfe that suggests that he may have been the bully, or at least played a significant part in instigating the assaults.  The NAT reporting on the police report contains allegations that Billy harassed a student confined to a wheelchair with muscular dystrophy by sneaking up behind him and screaming to aggravate the disabled boy’s sensitivity to noise, by bouncing a rubber ball against the disabled boy’s head, and by calling him “stupid” and a “retard.”  The police report provides further context on the assaults described in the NYT.  One allegedly occurred after Billy called a boy who had just moved from Germany and whose mother had just died of cancer a “”gay [expletive ] German” and then called his “deceased mother a vulgar name. ”  Another incident allegedly occurred after Billy pushed another student.  Billy was accused of picking on other kids, stealing, and intimidating those that he picked on against telling the teacher.

But the NYT article by Dan Barry makes no mention of the police report or the details contained in it.  Nor did Dan Barry’s reporting uncover any of the information from the interviews contained in the Northwest Arkansas Times article.  Instead, Barry simply writes, “It remains unclear why Billy became a target…”  He also declares, “[Billy] has received a few suspensions for misbehavior, though none for bullying.”  It seems the NYT reporter either somehow missed the existence of the police report or decided not to include its contents in his piece.  Either way, it is very sloppy reporting.  I sent an email to the Public Editor of the NYT asking if Barry had seen the police report, and, if he had seen it, why he chose not to include it in his article.  Other than a form letter I’ve received no reply.

Of course, regardless of what Billy may have said to other students, it is wrong for them to hit him.  Furthermore, even if Billy has been a bully of others doesn’t mean that he is not himself being bullied.  And Fayetteville schools deserve some blame for not being on top of this situation better.  But the more complicated picture that emerges after learning of the information in the Nothwest Arkansas Times but excluded from the NYT, is one that looks like school fighting and conflict and not necessarily bullying.  Bullying implies a relatively clear hierarchy of victim and assailant.

But a newspaper article about conflict and some fighting in a small school district in Arkansas wouldn’t have been front page news in the NYT.  Perhaps that’s why Dan Barry preferred his Lifetime Channel movie-version over the more complicated version that the facts seem to support.  Perhaps it wasn’t ambition but laziness that distorted Barry’s article.  Finding the police report and collecting all of the interviews found in the NW AR Times article would have required — uhm — reporting.  It was much easier to take the story that the Wolfes’ attorney was peddling.  And yes, the Wolfes are suing some of the other students and are planning to sue the school district.  Barry’s article may read like a plaintiff’s brief because there actually is a plaintiff’s brief out there.

Others in the blogosphere have covered this story very well.  In particular, see my Manhattan Institute colleague, Walter Olson’s post at Overlawyered.com.  Blogger Scott Greenfield is quoted there with a pretty harsh assessment:

…what is the New York Times thinking? To have its knees cut off by its Northwest Arkansas namesake is humiliating, but to be shown up as deceptive fundamentally undermines its credibility. Without credibility, the Times is just a dog-trainers best friend and a tree’s worst nightmare. …

 The failure of the New York Times to present a full and accurate account of the Billy Wolfe story is disgraceful and unacceptable. … If you’re going to put an article on the front page with a big picture, don’t blow it. The Times did. They should be ashamed.

Unfortunately, the Fayetteville School District is inexperienced with handing national reporters and they are handcuffed in responding to accusations because of student privacy issues and a pending lawsuit.  Dan Barry from the NYT was able to ride roughshod over a small town school district.  Maybe the Gray Lady is the most obvious bully here.