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.


Imagine No Social Mobility (It’s Easy If You Try)

January 25, 2018

economist-hereditary-meritocracy

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

As a part of Education Week’s recent series on 10 BIG Ideas, businessman Mark Barnes made the case for eliminating grades:

If you’re interested in disrupting education far more than the 3-D printer or smartphone ever could, consider schools and colleges where there are no grades. Imagine classrooms where teachers never place numbers, letters, percentages, or other labels on students’ work; where report cards don’t exist; and where the GPA has gone the way of the dinosaur.

Imagine! It’s easy if you try!

In a gradeless classroom, the perpetual lies that numbers and letters tell about learning would cease to exist. Honor and merit rolls would disappear. There would be no school valedictorian. Clubs that celebrate high performers would disband. Many colleges and universities would change how they admit incoming freshmen, and academic scholarships would need a makeover.

It’s no secret that I have libertarian sensibilities, so I certainly don’t want the state mandating that schools give grades (or not give grades, for that matter). Schools and educators should be free to pursue what they believe is the best system of assessment, and parents should be free to choose the learning environments they think best for their children.

That said, while I’m all in favor of abolishing grade levels (a.k.a., Carnegie units), the drive to abolish objective assessments of students’ work that makes it relatively easy to compare their level of proficiency to other students gives me great pause. It’s not just that competition be a great motivator for students, or that grades help students and their teachers and parents identify and correct their deficiencies, although those are crucial functions. As champion educator Doug Lemov recently explained, grades are essential for social mobility:

The problem is that when I close my eyes and imagine a world without GPAs and report cards and tests (duh, obviously we’d get rid of the tests) I don’t see Utopia. I see aristocracy.

Then I open my eyes, because even with deep breathing ideas like this strike me as more harm than good. Far more.

Among other reasons there’s the fact that there will always be scarcity, and that means not everyone will get the best opportunities. (Everyone wants their kids to go to top universities, not everyone can. Sorry.) So you have to have some way to sort it all out. 

Meritocracy is the best way to do that, and meritocracy requires valuation.

When there is no grounds to judge, the elites will win all the perquisites. This is to say that when meritocracy disappears, aristocracy returns.

The role grades and standardized assessments have played in social mobility in America, particularly for people of color, is an area where some libertarian educator reformers have sometimes had a blind spot (mea culpa). Much of the anger among black education reformers toward the opt-out movement stems from the fact that it was those very standardized tests that helped shine a spotlight on just how badly America’s district school system was failing students of color.

I still firmly believe that the unintended consequences of mandating a single test outweigh the benefits, but that’s only because I am also confident that there are less onerous means of objectively assessing students and schools (e.g., a menu of nationally norm-referenced tests) that would still reveal unjust racial gaps without the downsides of a single test. Eliminate testing altogether, however, and those racial gaps won’t disappear — they’ll just be rendered invisible again. As Lemov explains, that wouldn’t be so bad for the elites, but it would be terrible for low-income minorities:

But that is partly what’s behind starry-eyed (and immensely popular) dreams like ‘let’s imagine a word with no grades.’  An argument like this is the luxury of caste — you only propose it if you are already in the elite.

When you eliminate evaluations you eliminate mobility. When you are already in the privileged class, this means cementing your place at the top whether or not you hide that fact behind egalitarian sounding aphorisms and ideology.

Anyway, please do not be fooled. Dreamy promises of ungraded Utopias are, in the end, dreamy promises of aristocracy.


Education Freedom is…a Millennial

January 4, 2018

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So the recent closing of BAEO has me reflecting a bit. The Milwaukee Parental Choice Program passed in 1990, followed by the first charter school statute in 1991 in Minnesota. This makes the choice movement a millennial. Like many millennials, the education choice movement is still a little rough around the edges, still a little up in the air about whether she’s going to pull it all together. She does show promise, but just might be holding herself back despite some lessons learned the hard way that she does not quite, really want to confront and accept. Lessons like:

  1. It’s counter-intuitive but if you want to help poor kids with choice it is best to include everyone.
  2. Central planning efforts can and do backfire, even when your intentions are good.
  3. When you go outside and talk to normal people you learn important things away from the reformosphere bubble.
  4. Politics has some basic rules-know them.

Needless to say, there are more, which you can add in the comments. I for one am optimistic that our sometimes out of sorts millennial is going to make it after all.


I Only Know One Truth- It is Time to Discuss AZ School Letter Grades on NPR

October 20, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Yours truly did a interview with our Arizona NPR station on Arizona’s preliminary school grades.  I explain why we have school grades, why grades can be better than fuzzy descriptors, why the preliminary Arizona grades lack face validity imo, and mistakes made in other states. Oh and why technological advances and revealed consumer preference may be making the process of state determined grades antiquated.


I Only Know One Truth-It is Time for Bossy McBossypants Testing to End

September 5, 2017

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Last spring I was on my bike and came across this in front of a local middle school. I found it striking enough to take a picture with my phone:

In case you are squinting at your iPhone, the sign says “AZ Merit Testing 4/17-5/3.” Now mind you that the test that these students take to determine whether or not they go to college, and if so what sort of college, takes 4 hours. Comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. took me three days. Somehow in the awesome logic of 2017 it came to pass that it would make some sort of “sense” to disrupt schools for two weeks to give…AZMerit.

I think we all know what tends to happen to the school year starting (in this case) 5/4.

Weeks later I had the opportunity to observe a number of focus groups held on parental choice policy. The groups were from different parts of the country, and included parents, teachers and opinion leaders. Despite the fact that the topic of the convening was never testing, everyone made their feelings on the subject clear during conversations. All groups everywhere deeply dislike the current practice of standardized testing.

I can’t emphasize the next point strongly enough: I never once heard anyone use the phrase “Common Core” or burst into a fit of conspiracy mongering. Rather what I saw repeatedly was that people feel that schooling has become overly fixated on test preparation. People have a rather strongly held belief that schooling is supposed to be more than test prep. Something has gone terribly wrong with education in their view, and they want it to stop. Across the groups I saw, the consensus seemed to be that we should drive a stake through the heart of the current system, fill the mouth with holy wafers, and then burn the sarcophagus to fine ash.

I have seen remarkably little evidence that today’s heavy-handed, standards based testing system is of much utility. There is some suggestive evidence that states that had been doing nothing on the testing front before NCLB got a modest bump in results when they started testing. They may however have received a similar bump from a system with a much lighter footprint. Moreover no less than Hanuskek and Loveless have concluded that the heavy-handed Common Core project resulted in approximately nothing in the way of improved student learning. Given that we live in a democracy, a lighter footprint system seems like a fine idea.

So here is mine:

Preserving campus level academic transparency should be the central goal of testing. The Demos would apparently be happy to sacrifice it in return for slaying the testing vampire, but it would be a terrible loss in my view. States can adopt whatever standards they want (I suggest the old Massachusetts standards) but give their students a three-hour national norm reference exam on the second to last day of school. The last day rather than last month of school can now be the write-off. Do a good job teaching the MA standards, your students will do well/show progress on the nnr test.

Some will want to have their state officials grade or otherwise label schools based on the results. Have at it-but it is worth noting that the defacto accountability system in this country has become the Greatschools rating system given that is where the eyeball traffic resides. State ratings have become little more than an obsession internal to the system. Some will want to continue on the troubled path of trying to move the number of teachers fired for low performance from 1% to 1.5%. My view is that this is an unworkable path to hold schools accountable, but if some state or locality wants to keep it up feel free.

I know some of you continue to feel motivated by the idea that standards are going to lead us to profound improvement and narrower achievement gaps.  Decades into the project it is time to ask- where’s the beef? If you are willing to impose a deeply unpopular system of testing upon American families I must ask why? The burden of proof lies with you. If you (like me) would like to preserve campus level transparency I ask what is your plan? My plan is to adopt a system that is less intrusive and prescriptive and hold for dear life to campus level data-now tell me your plan. If your plan is to hold onto dear life to a system that the public abhors, I want to suggest that you need a new plan.

In my view, voting with your feet represents the most robust form of accountability by a very wide margin. I would like to have those voting decisions informed by test scores, and a great many other things including parent reviews (score another touchdown for Greatschools). Watching the focus group discussions made me realize that the United States House’s decision to enact a deeply misguided federal opt-out was not a fluke, but rather fit with the democratic sentiments of their constituents.

Opt-outs lead to nudge outs which leads to completely unreliable and thus worthless data. They will be passing at the state level soon unless transparency supporters pull their heads out of the sand. As Corwallis wrote to Clinton before the Battle of Yorktown “What is our plan? If we don’t have one, what are we doing here?”

Perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. If so, the comment section awaits.


Bedrick BOOOOM at Bradley

May 1, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the inevitable breach between technocratic and choice reforms looms larger and larger, seems like a great moment for an ICYMI on Jason’s appearance at the 2017 Bradley Symposium. Jason argues that – well, that a breach between technocratic and choice reform is inevitable, and we ought to embrace choice fearlessly. Check it out!


Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.