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:

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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.


Nine Lemons Dancing

December 24, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Via Byron York, this delicious datum from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel regarding the Milwaukee teachers’ union:

After Act 10’s passage, the 4,500-member Milwaukee union took a hard look at the local’s work and found that 85% of its time went toward litigating disputes and misconduct cases involving 2% of its members.

But remember, the unions are all about delivering a better education to your kids, rubber rooms and lemon dances are a myth, and voluntary unionism is a threat to the republic.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!


Charters Are a Halfway House: Union Slip-Up Edition

September 8, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

America’s Last Education Labor Reporter proves once again why America needs to have at least one education labor reporter. He points out that a recent bureaucratic victory for the blob, in which the NLRB declared charter schools subject to unionization under federal labor law, also implies that if teacher unions attempt to organize charters they will be subject to financial disclosure and other restrictions under that same federal labor law:

If you think this would be a small price to pay, remember that when the Bush Administration’s Labor Department tried to reinterpret the LMRDA to include 32 NEA state affiliates, the union filed suit, calling the revision “unfair” and “motivated by an ill-will toward unions in general, and NEA and its affiliates in particular.”

A mixed victory for the unions, but it’s also a reminder of the problem built into the design of charter schools.

Charters are, in the final analysis, government schools, and thus can never be more than a halfway house to real (i.e. private as well as public) school choice.

As Reagan said in Berlin: “A bird on a tether, no matter how long the rope, can always be pulled back.”

It’s a thought that Common Core supporters would also do well to ponder.


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:

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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.


Toddler Technocracy

July 27, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

OCPA’s Perspective carries my article on why the endless expansion of government’s role in childrearing, at the expense of the family, is something we ought to be concerned about:

Rounding up toddlers into the nurseries of the all-providing, all-benevolent state is certainly good for public employee unions, but is it good for the state and its children? Fully 76 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are in government pre-K. The average U.S. state has only 23 percent….

The whole idea of pre-K, like the idea of Kindergarten before it, is (as the Germanic name suggests) a product of the technocratic European social welfare state….Believing he could use his superior scientific understanding to improve the early development of children, Friedrich Froebel created the world’s first Kindergarten in 1837. He theorized that children would develop better if given more opportunity to socialize with peers rather than with their families and others. American admirers of the European technocratic experiment were quick to follow suit; in 1856, the first U.S. Kindergarten was founded less than an hour’s drive from where I live in Wisconsin.

I argue that the technocratic view of the world that makes endless expansion of pre-K seem like a step forward is dangerous – dangerous not only to social equality but to the moral foundations of the social order. Not that pre-K by itself will destroy these things, but it is a symptom of a deeper problem.

As always, I welcome your thoughts!


Senators to Emperor Weingarten: What is thy bidding my master?

July 14, 2015

“If we confuse the Senate with populist rhetoric, they could become a powerful ally against state reform efforts…”

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Not content to let the House have all the fun in gutting state testing data and creating perverse incentives for schools to sweep their low-performing students under the rug, the Senate is getting ready to join in as well. The civil rights community is up in arms-they should be, and we should all be with them.

If you are nursing the hope that school officials would not do such a thing, let me direct you to the following table on the % of schools that actually wound up being including special education students as a part of their accountability subset in 2009-10:

So if you live in either Connecticut, Maine or Utah, then you can hang on to the hope that every child will be counted. If you live in a state education the other 98% of American students, it is time to wake up to the fact that school officials have a long and predictable history of following the path where perverse incentives lead them, and don’t tend to let little things like the interests of children bother them overly much. Given the opportunity to make use of a “parental” opt-out, it is blindingly obvious that school officials will take full advantage of the provision to make themselves look good, just as they have used every available loophole to bury special education scores.

Some in the beltway likes to think that Congress is some sort of gathering of Olympians best positioned to guide the nation towards technocratic K-12 improvement. The House has already provided (additional) recent evidence to demonstrate this to be incredibly misguided, and the Senate seems poised to follow suit.  Anti-common core hysteria “The Devil Made Me Do It!” will not do for an excuse when one is contemplating wrecking state testing systems and creating a Freddie/Fannie level perverse incentive all in one fell swoop.

By the next time this law comes up for reauth some 13+ or so years hence, CC will likely be a distant memory. If you’ve been paying attention, states have been adopting their own tests left and right and they have control over their own cut scores. Oklahoma withdrew from the standards completely, and approximately nothing happened to them. Many states have begun a process to review and revise standards. The best case scenario is that states will choose to use something better than their old My Little Pony Book of Connect the Dots for their new tests, but it will be up to them in any case.

We would likely find a federal opt out of all criterion based tests not so easily dispatched. It would prove far more consequential if Hanushek and Loveless are to be believed. Once put into law, the unions will fiercely defend it, given that it completely thwarts the ability to consider test scores in tenure and retention decisions on the basis of criterion based tests. I would expect it to stay in place until the next reauth. States desiring to have campus level comparable data would have to create new systems to carry it out with non-criterion tests in an era of testing fatigue. Thanks DC!

None of this is likely to happen of course, given the high probability of a presidential veto. It grows ever more obvious however that the unions have outmanoeuvred reformers.

UPDATE: The Senate voted down the opt-out amendment most similar to the House Amendment 32-64. Faith in humanity (temporarily?) restored.


NEA “Cognitive Linguistic Analysis” Conducted by Wile E. Coyote

February 9, 2015

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

ALELR draws our attention to Conor Williams’ reporting on a rich, rich vein of hilarious tomfoolery at NEA. Williams has a leaked memo in which the NEA uses “cognitive linguistic analysis” to change reality by using magic words. As ALELR points out, some items in Lily Eskelsen’s “cloven hoofed minions” speech appear to have been driven by this magical thinking.

But wait, it gets better. One of the union’s magic words is “the right ZIP code.” Apparently people aren’t much moved by complaints about “inequality” so the unions will seek to advance the redistributionist agenda by saying that a quality education should not depend on living “in the right ZIP code.”

How long do you think it will take the NEA’s soooooooper geniuses to figure out the problem with that approach?