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.


Arizona Republic: Wet Streets Cause Rain

May 2, 2019

Image result for wet streets

The Republic’s crack team of reporters have determined that the above streets caused a major rainstorm.

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Brother Matt’s takedown of the Arizona Republic’s absurdly erroneous and biased reporting reminds me of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, a concept identified by author Michael Crichton:

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them. In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The Republic had its own “wet streets cause rain” moment recently when it claimed that Arizona copied its education savings account (ESA) legislation from model legislation at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In fact, as Ladner points out, the reverse is true: ALEC’s model legislation was based on Arizona’s law.

Indeed, as Ladner details, the Republic’s “reporting” on “copycat legislation” suffered from several other flaws, including but not limited to the following:

  • The Republic portrayed the use of model legislation as unusual and nefarious when actually it’s commonplace and banal, a tool used across the political spectrum since the late 1800s.
  • The Republic portrayed the use of model legislation as a particularly right-wing plot but excluded all the model legislation from the older and larger left-of-center National Conference of State Legislatures.
  • The Republic hid the fact that only 1% of the bills they analyzed were based on model legislation.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the Republic’s “reporting” is that it wasn’t really reporting. Had they any real interest in ascertaining the truth, there are any number of individuals and organizations in Arizona that could have provided them with accurate information had they asked. But they didn’t.

Indeed, their “Gaggle” podcast did not interview anyone from the pro-school choice side. They repeatedly used inferences to determine their “real” motives instead of just, well, asking.

Sadly, this is a part of a longstanding pattern. When the Goldwater Institute’s Matt Beienburg detected some serious flaws in the Republic’s award-winning “reporting” on charter schools, he brought it to their attention but they ignored him. He then wrote about it publicly and one of their most vociferous anti-choice advocates, Craig Harris, personally attacked him rather than engage in any substantive defense of their advocacy piece “reporting”:

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 6.25.55 AM

Screen Shot 2019-05-02 at 6.26.03 AM.png

As I noted to Harris, if you add two green apples plus two red apples plus two oranges and get six apples, the math is right but the answer is wrong. Beienburg wanted to know if the Republic had inappropriately included certain schools in its data set when calculating graduation rates (e.g., a school that only serves students through grade 9, or another school that had been closed for two years), but Harris merely insulted him, claimed his math was wrong (without offering any proof) and then stonewalled any public debate.

For weeks afterward, Harris simply ignored any public questions about their reporting — though I know that privately, his team has admitted that they had done exactly what Beienburg had suspected. However, they have still refused to publicly correct their error, demonstrating a complete lack of intellectual honesty or journalistic integrity.

The Republic’s Gaggle podcasters also let their journalistic mask slip with numerous biased statements posing as neutral facts. For example, they claimed that Arizona lawmakers filed at least three ESA “expansions” that all “clearly went against the will of the voters” who rejected Prop 305. First, only one of those bills (making ESAs available to victims of bullying or abuse) was a clear expansion. The others were mere clarifications of existing eligibility categories that would have had a tiny effect on ESA enrollment. For example, students with disabilities are eligible for an ESA if they are entering kindergarten, but the Arizona Department of Education denied children who were age 6 (reading the law the allow only 5 year olds) so the legislation clarified that incoming kindergarteners could also be age 6. To call that an “expansion” is ludicrous, but the anti-ESA group Save Our Schools declared it such and advocates posing at journalists at the Arizona Republic and elsewhere took their side.

Moreover, it’s not at all clear what the “will of the voters” was. They rejected Prop 305, which expanded ESA eligibility to all students but also imposed a cap of about 30,000 ESA students. Some pro-school choice groups that support ESAs, like the American Federation for Children, opposed Prop 305 because it would effectively set the 30,000-student cap in legislative stone (requiring a supermajority to change it due to the Voter Protection Act). Is it the “will of the voters” that they want a universal ESA without a cap? And even if the majority of “No” votes opposed universal expansion, that does not at all imply that the majority of voters oppose, say, expanding ESAs to victims of bullying. To pretend that we can know the true “will of the voters” is sophistry at best. To make such claims as a supposedly neutral journalist is laughably absurd.

It’s time to stop treating the Republic as a neutral journalistic institution. They are openly advocating for one side, and they aren’t even letting the truth get in the way of their agenda. Let’s not let media amnesia make us forget it.


The Future of School Choice: Bickering about Words!

July 25, 2017

Logomachy

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Will Flanders is right that school choice is not welfare (you heard it here first) and more broadly that school choice has not benefitted from appropriating the Rawlsian language of fairness (ditto). But he is wrong to think we would be better off making big investments in the free market movement’s language of markets and competition. I’m as big a fan of Milton as anyone (proof) but that language has all the wrong non-cognitive associations for the present moment. Flanders cites Jonathan Haidt but doesn’t seem to have learned the biggest lesson Haidt has to teach, which is that the non-cognitive content of language is more politically important than its cognitive content.

What we need is a new language of justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom that both Rawlsianism and the free-market movement used to have, say, fifty years ago, but that neither currently has in a very robust form. Much, much more about that here.


Against Federal School Choice (Even Tax-Credit Scholarships)

May 16, 2017

img_1358

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective has posted the second of my two articles making the case against any federal school choice program that goes beyond D.C. schools – or other legitimately federal jurisdictions (other territories, military bases, etc.). This is only my own opinion; I recognize the reasons why others, including at EdChoice, are supportive of federal choice or are at least fed-curious. But I’m here to make the case in opposition.

Having already argued against federal vouchers, through Title I or by other means…

If we want to continue living in a democratic republic and not in a technocratic oligarchy, we should be fighting tooth and nail to resist the process of federal takeover, not strengthening it…[Moreover,] it would be the states, not the federal government, which would create systems for parents to access choice through Title I portability. And not just the states, but the education bureaucracies of the states. So the bureaucrats most directly threatened by school choice would be the ones designing the programs. In other words, these programs would be designed to fail.

…in my latest article I argue against federal tax-credit scholarships:

The idea behind federalism is that governance should be kept as close as possible to local communities. That is partly because big, distant legislatures and bureaucracies are not likely to serve people well if they’re not directly connected to them. And that’s still going to be a problem even if you do find a clever way to circumvent the Constitution’s legal barriers to national education policy…

I never thought I’d live to see freedom-loving activists demanding to have the future of school choice put into the hands of the IRS. I feel like Rip Van Winkle. What did I miss here?

Federal choice of any kind also involves a sacrifice of moral legitimacy, which is destructive for any policy and fatal to a reform movement:

Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk from my conservative friends about how wrong it is when distant, powerful elites who are culturally alienated from the population at large shove laws down our throats that we regard as unjust. The question is, do we dislike that because we would rather it was our distant, powerful elites imposing our preferred laws upon populations from whom we are culturally alienated, and who view those laws as unjust? Or because elites shoving things down people’s throats is inherently wrong, whoever does it?

I also canvas the danger we run of a high-profile, national political loss should the bill fail, and other fun topics.

The school choice movement has gained enormous ground by focusing on the states. Let’s stick with what works and not sell our birthright for a D.C. mess.


Illiberal Education Is Not a Public Good

March 10, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

University education isn’t a public good deserving taxpayer subsidies if it’s going to actively undermine our democratic and republican form of government, I write in OCPA’s Perspective in light of recent events at OU. Among other examples, this one stands out:

Recently, OU expelled students for using racial epithets, in flagrant violation of long-established First Amendment law. Six months later, the university paid $40,000 for a performance by a hip-hop artist who uses the same derogatory epithets. He also insults homosexuals, brags about physically abusing women in their genitals (hello, Donald Trump supporters!), and calls for the murder of police officers. Respect and toleration for others apparently go only one way at OU.

The question here is not whether the people targeted by OU in these cases are right or wrong. The question is whether OU believes that wrong ideas are best corrected and right ideas are best vindicated through open discussion and debate in a social atmosphere of free inquiry for all sides. The particular merits of the speech acts at issue in these controversies are, here as always, irrelevant to the question of whether everyone ought to have free speech.

Today, there is no longer a unique need for universities because they produce technical knowledge. Two hundred years ago, that may have been a key argument for institutions of higher learning; today, it is the universities who are constantly striving to catch up to Google and other leading technical innovators.

If universities are a public good, it can only be because there is an inseparable connection between truly liberal education and political freedom – because liberal education inculcates a respect for the integrity of the human mind that is the only possible justification for political freedom.

A hundred years ago, educator J. Gresham Machen summed up the connection between liberal education and political freedom: “Reasonable persuasion can thrive only in an atmosphere of liberty. It is quite useless to approach a man with both a club and an argument. He will very naturally be in no mood to appreciate our argument until we lay aside our club.” Machen even testified to the U.S. Congress against a scheme for federal control of education on grounds that it would remove freedom for diverse ideas in education. (The more things change, the more they stay the same!)

Because I’m not a university administrator, I welcome your free thoughts in reply!


When “Helping the Poor” Means “Keep Out”

February 3, 2017

sterling-castle-202103_640

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my latest on the unwisdom of means-testing school choice programs:

Sometimes the worst thing you can do for the poor is “help the poor.” What we want to do is tear down the walls that prevent poor people from making themselves into non-poor people. That’s what “helping the poor” ought to mean. But all too often, it really means building walls between poor and non-poor people, reinforcing the divide rather than tearing it down.

Throwing middle- and upper-income people out of school choice programs is a classic example of hurting the poor by “helping” them. It creates a sharp, government-enforced division between two separate and very unequal populations. On one side of the wall are poor people, who receive school choice; on the other are non-poor people, whose tax dollars provide them with school choice.

This division shuts down educational innovation, greatly weakens the political coalition in favor of choice (and of protecting private schools from government interference, which is clearly going to become a threat whether there are school choice programs or not) and in the long run creates an us-versus-them power competition between the poor and the non-poor that the poor are going to lose.

As always, your thoughts are welcome!


Trump and School Choice

December 14, 2016

img_1358

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.