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ANALYSIS

Rhode Island sets ambitious goals for Providence schools, but the turnaround plan leaves more questions than answers

Report offers few specifics on how the district plans to more than triple test scores in some grades

Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.
Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — If last year’s devastating report on Providence public schools moved you to tears, the state’s Turnaround Action Plan for the troubled district released Tuesday is more likely to cause your head to spin.

At 10,000 words — including the endless number of acronyms that seem to accompany all education reports — the plan at times reads like a compelling legal argument for why the state should be allowed to take control of the Providence public school system, explaining how only one in six students is graduating college-ready in math, and just one in four are proficient in English Language Arts.

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But the takeover hurdle already has been cleared. The state has had full authority over Providence public schools since Nov. 1, and virtually no one in any position of power objected to it. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green led the takeover last year, handpicked the superintendent, and answers to virtually no one in state or city government.

Now she’s asking for an immense amount of trust in a city where transformation plans have come and gone even faster than superintendents, nearly every teacher has outlasted the new fancy curriculum of the moment, and high school students have watched the standardized test that determines whether they are proficient in math and reading change three times since they were in the third grade.

The 64-page Turnaround Action Plan (TAP) released by Infante-Green and Superintendent Harrison Peters sets a lot of ambitious goals for next five years, including:

  • A reduction in chronic absenteeism from 37 percent last school year to 10 percent by the 2024-25 school year.
  • An increase in eighth-graders meeting and exceeding expectation in math from 7.4 percent to 50 percent.
  • A boost in the high school graduation rate from 73.6 percent to 89 percent.

But that ambition is not matched by a coherent plan for accomplishing those goals.

It’s not as if the plan is all sizzle and no steak. It’s that Infante-Green and Peters are promising to prepare a steak without a stove or a grill. For example, it offers no specifics on how the district is going to more than triple test scores in some grades. And while it hints that a school repair plan is on the horizon, it has now been nearly three years since a consultant concluded that the district’s schools need $372 million in repairs.

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“We’re not looking for a flashy plan that gets us nowhere,” Infante-Green said in an interview on Monday evening.

Instead, the TAP comes with a confusing list of markers, including 12 “power metrics,” five promises, four core values, three pillars of achievement, and one “foundational principle to guide us.” It was written with extensive community input, and it has the same all-over-the-place feel of Infante-Green’s truth-telling tour around Providence last summer after a scathing report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The new plan appears to merge several existing ones:

Infante-Green and Peters said the plan was never intended to be a full-fledged guide to turning around the district. They said they wanted to set benchmarks and outline their goals, but getting results will require flexibility.

“You can’t script turnaround,” Peters said.

That’s especially true when the success of the plan hinges on two huge variables: a new teachers’ union contract, and money.

The plan explains that the state expects to negotiate “a more flexible personnel decision process, additional substantive professional development opportunities, and will work to remove other barriers created by the contract,” but no deal has been reached. The state is seeking to increase the mandatory number of professional development days in the contract from one to at least seven.

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Infante-Green said she did not want to negotiate the union contract through the turnaround plan, but she acknowledged that she has been meeting with union leaders on Mondays and Thursdays. She said one thing she expects to announce soon is a mandatory anti-racism course for all teachers.

“There are a lot of things that we don’t have permission to do, but we’re not asking for permission,” Infante-Green said.

The district’s financial picture has been made more complicated by the coronavirus, which has had devastating consequences on state and local budgets across the country. Rhode Island is seeking to close a budget gap of more than $600 million, and aides to Governor Gina Raimondo have said education aid to cities and towns could see cuts.

Peters and Infante-Green acknowledged that increased funding could speed up some of their initiatives and decreased or level funding could force them to re-think their plans.

“I don’t want to oversell the TAP,” Peters said. “It’s going to take hard work to get it done.”

To be sure, there are plenty of admirable goals in the plan:

  • The district will release quarterly and annual reports to the public on the progress of the goals.
  • A districtwide task force is being created to improve school culture.
  • Infante-Green and Peters are vowing to create a streamlined process for identifying high-performing schools for “replication and/or expansion.”
  • The district will actively seek to identify school leaders and give them more responsibilities.

Where the plan comes up short is on the specifics.

Students are being promised access to high-quality schools, but there’s no mention of an expansion of high-performing public charter schools. The district promises that test scores will increase, but doesn’t say whether extending the school day or year is on the table. The district wants to recruit and retain world-class talent, but it’s unclear if it has the money to increase the salaries of good teachers.

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“To reverse decades of inaction, we have set a course for transformational change ... that will fully embrace a progressive and comprehensive plan that is culturally responsive, anti-racist, and is reflective of a data-driven approach to reform that puts students first,” the report states.

For now, it all goes back to trust.

Infante-Green promised there are big announcements in the pipeline, noting that the district is committed to reinventing its high schools. Peters said to keep an eye on Mount Pleasant High School, where there’s a national search for a new leadership team underway. And don’t underestimate lesser-known changes, like a recent decision to overhaul the central office, they said.

“Trust is only developed when you deliver,” Infante-Green said. “Up until this point, everything I said that I would do, we have done.”

But if the coronavirus crisis has proved anything, it’s that true urgency can bring about real change. When Raimondo announced on March 13 that she was closing every school in the state and needed distance learning plans immediately, Rhode Island became the envy of the country for how its schools responded.

It took one week for every district in the state to come up with a plan.

In Providence, it’s taken a year for a turnaround plan to come together. And while this may be a good start, it still leaves more questions than answers.

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Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.