A Problem of Scope

John McDaid rightly tweaks me for my overly hasty reaction to Berkshire Advisors’ audit of the Portsmouth school district. The report is thorough, thoughtful, and likely enlightening for employees of the district… within its scope.
In large part, my complaint still stands. Indeed, John begins a related post on his own blog thus:

There is nothing wrong with the Portsmouth schools that a few tweaks and more money can’t fix. That was the message last night from the consulting firm Berkshire Advisors after their months-long performance audit of the school department.

Well, gee.
As helpful as the individual suggestions may be, a comparative analysis of Portsmouth versus Barrington, Smithfield, Tiverton, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, Middletown, South Kingstown, and Exeter-West Greenwich is inherently limited in scope. So, for instance, we do get the insight that the teachers’ contracts require the district to spend too much of its purchased teacher-time on preparation and departmental administration, but this intriguing statement is left floating:

Many parents are concerned about the lack of opportunities for gifted and talented and high achieving children. In fact, in focus groups some parents reported moving their children who are gifted and talented to private schools while continuing to enroll their children with special needs in the Portsmouth schools.

I suspect that a survey of Portsmouth residents with children in private school would provide some very interesting feedback in this area. To what degree, for example, do Rhode Island schools lose their most promising students — whose participation teachers would most definitely value in “inclusion classrooms” — because parents perceive public schools to be mainly a drag on their opportunities?
How, for another example, does the school department’s provision of “high quality education to Portsmouth students with limited resources” compare, not with some nearby districts, but with private schools within the town’s own borders? How does the quality compare? How the resources?
Those who follow public happenings in Rhode Island may be inclined to see the report in quite another context: the tendency of officials and representatives to stop their inquiries just short of the line at which the tough questions and tougher decisions begin to come into view.

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15 years ago

“… that a few tweaks and mo’ money can’t fix”

John McDaid
15 years ago

Hi, Mr. Katz…
Thanks very much for taking my feedback onboard. I think you ask a very interesting question about benchmarking to private schools, and I too wish the report had addressed that. It would be most interesting to see an apples to apples comparison of per-student spending at PHS and Portsmouth Abbey, for example.
However, I still feel the need to disagree with the implication of your last paragraph: that the officials of Portsmouth somehow intentionally limited the scope of the study. Peter McIntyre, one of the founding members of the Portsmouth Concerned Citizens was a Town Council liaison to Berkshire Associates. He is not known for stopping inquiries short, and I cannot imagine a scenario in which he would agree to such a coverup, nor can I imagine him not speaking out on the topic if such a thing were attempted. I might disagree with Mr. McIntyre, but I believe he is a thoroughly honest and diligent public servant.
As to the quote from my coverage, what the report is notable for is what is *not* there: the massive waste and mismanagement alleged by some in our town. The key part of the sentence is not “more money” but “there is nothing wrong.”
Thanks very much for listening.

Citizen Critic
Citizen Critic
15 years ago

I lived in Portsmouth for a few years.
Clearly the problem with the Portsmouth schools is not money, but the structural deficiencies of a system that is 1. riddled with conflicts of interests on the school boards and 2. a slave to the teachers’ union.
The town budget of my new town,
Rathdrum, ID, is $10.6 million/ 6,300 population ($1,682 per person).
The town budget of my old town of Portsmouth, RI is $52.5 million/
17,000 population ($3,088 per resident). At the local level, you have
nearly double the per capita spending! Although the Rathdrum schools
are far less expensive, I’ll bet they are also better, by any measure.
It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you remove the lying, deceitful, and self-serving unions.

Portsmouth Citizen
Portsmouth Citizen
15 years ago

Justin: You ask, “How, for another example, does the school department’s provision of “high quality education to Portsmouth students with limited resources” compare, not with some nearby districts, but with private schools within the town’s own borders? How does the quality compare? How the resources?” As to quality of education, how do you propose to compare this? You can’t base it on results or test scores because the private school doesn’t have to take (and in fact doesn’t take) kids with less than stellar academic prowess. Gone too are kids with discipline problems or serious learning disabilities. I would welcome a comparison between PHS and the Abbey because I believe PHS delivers a quality education. But, how do you propose to do the comparison when the two schools are clearly like apples and oranges? As to resources, have you actually priced the Abbey lately? Portsmouth’s costs are in the range of $11,000 per pupil. The Abbey is about double that, comfortably over $20,000 per kid. That’s just tuition, Justin, not room and board or anything else. Finally, I suspect no one with your philosophy will ever be satisfied by something like the Berkshire report. If more money is recommended to do things like bring spending on supplies up to national standards, I suspect you’re unwilling to accept that as true. The final red flag to me about your bias is that you criticize the Berkshire report for being “inherently limited in scope.” Well of course! Did you expect it to be unlimited and infinite in scope? By your criticism, am I to gather that it was “limited” and therefore of no use and the findings and recommendations are to be ignored? Personally, I found much substance in the 200 pages of the report and I hope our town leaders and… Read more »

Justin Katz
15 years ago

But notice that — under the impulse to be fair — you intend to control for a factor that is an important consideration. In keeping with what I quoted from the report, there appears to be a general sense that parents of more advanced and talented children should self-select by pulling them out of public school, if possible.
As a product of public schools, myself, I don’t believe that should be the case, but as a parent of young children, I concur that it is. The private school that we have selected reminds me of nothing so much as the public school system in which I received my elementary education in New Jersey. As I recall there were far fewer private schools around then and there, and I think it’s important to question why there’s such demand around now and here.
Think of what the system — whether we’re talking NCLB or teachers unions — is costing: bright students, who are good influences and bring up general test scores, and wealthier families, who are more able to donate to discrete projects and interests as they arise within the school system are currently finding increasing incentive to go elsewhere.
Put aside my philosophy, which I do not attempt to hide. Any study that does not address these fundamental problems amounts to chiseling at a mountainside.
I’m absolutely on-board for the suggestion that more money ought to be spent on resources for students (books, computers, etc.), as well as for additional programs (e.g., gifted-talented). But unless the query looks to the single largest draw on a district’s resources, it will ultimately exacerbate the problem.

Portsmouth Citizen
Portsmouth Citizen
15 years ago

You raise a good point that parents of kids with high-performing potential look toward private schools. I don’t know the figures on that, so we might be talking about folklore rather than data, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that there is such a trend. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that the issue is much more perception (i.e. that private schools are “better”) than reality. Again, just relating my personal experience, I had my own kid in private school from pre-K through 8th grade. The private school we chose is known for its academic rigor and for being a prep school for those wishing to attend elite private high schools. The kids wore jackets and ties. You get the picture. Then, for 9th grade, we chose to send our child to PHS. I can report with good old fashioned hometown pride that our kid thrived at PHS like never before. I can tell you that my experience was that I had better access to teachers and administrators who I felt really listened to my concerns than I had at the private school. The teachers worked closely with me and turned my kid from a then mediocre performer to the now high performing college freshman. So, are private schools better? I wouldn’t say so at all. Certainly not for my kid. But, I think there is the general perception that the private schools are better, whether or not that perception has any basis in reality. I think (just my opinion) that it is like the Brand Name pharmaceuticals versus the cheaper CVS brand. In a “nothing’s-too-good-for-my-kid” mindset, or perhaps just out of fear, folks spring for the extra bucks to buy the private brand, but the generic is just as good. At least that’s my experience.… Read more »

Justin Katz
15 years ago

A few points:
1. Part of the argument on the table is that perception is to some degree reality. If enough parents of advanced and well-to-do children believe the hype, then private schools will, indeed, prove better by standard measurements that don’t seek to “correct” away differences.
2. If we’re talking folklore, then I must be a vampire, because it was my comparison of opportunities in Tiverton public schools versus private schools that has led me to make the financially difficult leap of enrolling my children in private school.
3. We’ve long thought that Portsmouth might be a different story (although, sadly, buying a house there would have been an even more difficult financial leap), which means we’re having this discussion in context of a school district for which the differences are somewhat less stark.

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