Power concedes nothing — not even time

mancusoEver since I wrote my letter to Eva Mancuso, the Board of Education chair, a month ago, I have hoped to have some other forum than this one in which to find a hearing for these concerns. (Since it seems clear I’m never going to get an actual reply.) I had a minute or two on Buddy Cianci’s show, after 45 minutes on hold, and about 20 minutes on Dan Yorke’s show.

After that, I tried to speak at a state Board of Education meeting, but Mancuso limited public comment to 30 minutes and allowed the first 15 of it to be used up by witnesses complimenting the board on opening up a charter school that already had majority support. Along with me, there were dozens of people left unheard at that meeting: angry parents, students, professors of education.

Last night, I tried to speak at a Senate hearing before the Education Committee, about a bill sponsored by Harold Metts that would forbid using the NECAP as a graduation test. I gather that something else was going on in the Senate yesterday afternoon — though how important could it really have been? — so the hearing didn’t get started until after 6pm.

At the outset of the meeting, the chair, Senator Hanna Gallo (D-Cranston), said that because there were so many people who wanted to speak, she was going to limit speakers to 2 minutes each. She opened the meeting by inviting Commissioner Gist to speak, and offered a double-ration of time: four minutes. Aided by friendly questions from the committee, Gist took somewhat longer.

Over an hour later, the next person got a turn. (Well, not counting a mother and daughter whose voluble objections couldn’t be suppressed when Gist was talking about the wealth of accommodations for kids with IEPs.)

When it came my turn to speak, while I managed to make the skeleton of my point in the allotted two minutes, I was unable to describe any of the evidence for it, to explain its consequences, or to list any of the support I’ve received from experts in the past month. Better than nothing, I suppose, but without any questions from the panel, it was two minutes and out. Of course it was after 8 o’clock by then, so I was starving and grateful to be done with the waiting, but how much good did it do?

What have I learned?  That there is essentially no forum in the state of Rhode Island in which one can address the kinds of technical concerns I have aired about the state Department of Education’s misuse of the NECAP tests. The people who are interested have no power to change the situation and the people with the power to change the situation apparently have no interest in hearing about it. The reporters dutifully report both sides (sometimes), but the conventions of modern journalism, along with the need to write for an audience who isn’t really familiar with the statistical issues involved mean that articles can’t even rise to the level of he said/she said.

I have two daughters, five grades apart. Comparing their experiences is instructive. My town has a relatively high-performing school department. There have been several changes in our schools between my first and second daughter, and as far as I can see, they fall into two categories: budget cuts and NECAP prep. Before my younger daughter entered seventh grade, the school department did away with seventh-grade foreign language instruction in favor of a second period of reading — to address NECAP deficiencies. While in the eighth grade, part of her shop class was turned over to NECAP prep for math. In the ninth grade, she is not taking a year-long biology, chemistry, or physics class, but a year-long science survey class that hopes to touch on all the topics covered by the science NECAP. Have any of these changes actually improved her education?

Remember, this is a relatively high-performing district, but RIDE rules demand improvement every single year, even for districts that are already doing fine. It is a truism of policy studies that a regulation that sounds good — demanding constant improvement from everyone — can have seriously counter-productive results, but the evidence is rarely as stark.

Along with the NECAP adjustments, budget constraints have had the music program cut back in the elementary grades, the high school has reduced the number of AP classes, and there are fewer buses to accommodate after-school activities. And much more.

So far as I can see, not a single one of the changes in my town’s schools over the past five years between my children has had anything at all to do with improving the quality of the education, and the changes to accommodate the NECAP test have been every bit as destructive of my daughter’s educational opportunities as the budget cuts.

So, buckle up everyone. The destruction of public education wrought by misguided RIDE testing policies has only just begun. Some people apparently buy the argument that simply demanding results gets results. For those of us who think this a dubious strategy, there is no real reason — beyond the personal promise of Deborah Gist — to think that these policies will improve education in Rhode Island and quite a number of reasons to think it will get a lot worse before it gets better. But if you want to bring these matters to anyone’s attention? Talk to the hand — for no more than two minutes.

Update: Hanna Gallo is from Cranston.  My apologies to her and to you.

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Tom Sgouros is an engineer, policy analyst, and writer. Check out his new book, "Checking the Banks: The Nuts and Bolts of Banking for People Who Want to Fix It" from Light Publications.

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