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.


The U.S.S. Teacher Recruitment is Sinking Fast

March 29, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So college students have lost interest in Education Majors:

ed majors (1)

Several states face very large increases in their youth populations projected by the Census Bureau:

Census

Some states are already experiencing growing teacher shortages, and some traditionally minded folks dream of spending our way out of this,  but absent some awesome spurt of sustained economic growth this seems implausible given things like this that come with an aging population:

Medicaid vs K-12

So student populations project to grow even while the traditional pipeline for teachers shows increasing spare capacity and Baby Boomer teachers retire and states face increasing fiscal strains. Did I miss anything? No? Good- that’s already gratuitous.

So rather than worry about this, perhaps it is best to view it as an opportunity. It’s not like the old-fashioned way of training teachers had much good to say for itself after all:

super chart

College students losing interest in ed majors hints at a broader need to re-imagine the teaching profession more broadly. The status quo is sinking, but a future of a smaller number of higher paid teachers leveraging technology to teach a greater number of students to higher average levels may be possible.

Keeping things the way they are now is neither desirable or possible.


I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This…

March 23, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Remember when I told you about Clark County (LV) Nevada packing thousands of kids into trailers with long-term substitute teachers some of whom even had BA degrees? Hmmm….well, in addition to explosive population growth and the ongoing retirement of the Baby Boom generation, this might have something to do with it as well:

ed majors (1)

So apparently college freshmen have started to listen to the large number of people who have been through an Ed School and found the experience profoundly unsatisfying. Or perhaps they are looking past that at a public school system that treats you like a 19th Century factory worker rather than a professional. Maybe both things are true. In any case, especially for states with booming K-12 populations, it is time for fresh thinking not on how we train teachers, but also about the deeper issues surrounding undesirability of the profession which goes well beyond compensation issues.


Cuomo to UFT: Come thou no more for ransom, you will have none I swear but these my joints

December 19, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Andrew Cuomo prepares to go to war with NY edu-reactionaries.  Governor Cuomo is not taking this course because he has been tricked into it by right winger or corporate interests (they Governor banned fracking earlier this week) but rather because his own sense of justice demands it.


Surowiecki on Teacher Training

November 10, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

James Surowiecki takes his time getting to the punchline in this sports/education analogy and makes a loose assertion or two of the journalistic sort, but is still worth a look. Cliff Notes version: sports training has vastly improved in the last 40 years, most everything has done the same, but our training of teachers still stinks.

One thought that occurred to me in reading this article. Let’s assume that teacher training is a rotten as this and many other articles assume. The former dean of Columbia Teachers College laid out in painful detail the shortcomings of American teacher training in a series of searing reports, so I can’t see much reason to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I’ve always been a bit mystified by the Finland narrative. If someone brought the Finnish Minister of Education over to the United States to run the show with the imperial power of fiat, it seems to me that the first thing he or she would do would be to close the nation’s Colleges of Education and start over. What am I missing here?

I’m all for attempting to improve teacher training, but the system we send new teachers into has plenty of other problems. It would be great to be able to train people to overcome all to often dysfunctional district systems of schooling marred by low-turnout elections heavily influenced by organized employee interests, but that sort of immunization sounds a bit far-fetched. Best to train teachers well and give them a reasonable system in which to thrive imo.

 

 

 


Tribe Joins Discommendation of Unconditional Tenure by Progressives

August 14, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Lawrence Tribe has joined the NY tenure reform lawsuit, just more evidence of:


The No-Stats All Star Retires

June 18, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Shane Battier, the man dubbed by Michael Lewis as the No-Stats All Star– has announced his retirement from the NBA at age 35 to take a college basketball analyst position with ESPN.  Battier never looked like much on the stat-sheet but when the statisticians got around to crunching the NBA they discovered that all he does is little things-like help his team win basketball games.  Battier-type “White Space” employees raise important questions about how to approach employee evaluation including teachers.

John White and I spoke on a panel together a few years ago and the topic of evaluation came up.  I sounded a note of caution but Superintendent White saw my bet and raised me by opining that we were in danger of making a fetish out of value added scores and that ultimately we should rely upon the professional judgement of administrators informed by data rather than merely the data itself. At least that is how I interpreted what White said, and if so, I agree with him.

Greg has been saying all along that ultimately this system requires choice.  Give parents meaningful choice, let Principals hire their own teams, have Superintendents evaluate Principals on the basis of the health of their school.  This strikes me as not only as the best way to do teacher eval, but also the only way to create a system to recognize the value of woefully under-appreciated highly effective instructors.  To choose another sports analogy developed by Michael Lewis, the pay of Left-Tackles took off after the advent of free-agency in the NFL.  Once a true market for players had been established, guys who had the skills to block a Lawrence Taylor found themselves in high demand, whereas the old system kept their compensation under wraps.

There are only a few states where we might be inching towards meaningful levels of parental choice, probably fewer still if any where the school leader has anything approaching a free hand to choose their own team. Mechanistic programs that attempt to identify and reward and remove instructors will be better than a unconditional tenure and dance of the lemons system but will never match a system in which trained professionals with healthy incentives exercise professional discretion. The Heat for instance hired Battier because they understood that there is a great deal more going on than the stat sheet, and won a couple of championships.

The primordial soup is slowwwwly starting to bubble…

Now imagine a burnt out and disgruntled Charles Barkley riding the bench of the Heat as a player in 2014 drawing a bigger salary than LeBron because the coaches can’t make best use of their salary cap…