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A rock-bottom moment for education in Rhode Island

The Harry Kizirian Elementary School in Providence.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

You want scores? Start with 13-9.

There were 13 elementary and middle schools in Rhode Island where fewer than 10 percent of students were proficient in English during the 2020-2021 school year, according to the latest RICAS data. There were only nine schools in the state where proficiency rates were above 70 percent.

Here’s another: 29-1.

There were 29 schools – in Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, Cranston, West Warwick, and Woonsocket – where at least 95 percent of students didn’t reach proficiency in math last year. One school, Sowams Elementary in Barrington, posted a proficiency rate above 70 percent.


In any other year, we’d be declaring a state of emergency in public education.

The Rhode Island Foundation would launch another task force. State lawmakers would grandstand with bills that often do more harm than good. Some advocates would call for Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green’s head, while others use the abysmal results as another reason to blame the teachers’ unions.

But this was the most disruptive year any of us can remember, and officials in Rhode Island can point out that our higher-achieving peers in Massachusetts and Connecticut also saw drops in their test scores.

So the message out of Infante-Green’s office right now sounds a lot like one from a professional sports team that can’t seem to get its act together: Stay the course. Trust the process.

“This is a clear call to action,” Infante-Green said on Wednesday.

The question for officials in our state now is whether they can take action without messing things up even more.

All Rhode Islanders should be alarmed that only 33 percent of our students are reading at grade level and just 20 percent of kids are proficient in math. But another year of education summits, bad bills, and finger-pointing probably isn’t going to help anyone.


And no, gleefully reviewing RICAS data to fit your own narrow agenda isn’t productive, either. If you hate the state takeover of Providence schools, these results will confirm your fears. If you dislike charter schools, you can pound them this year, too. Same goes for the anti-union crowd.

Instead, let’s simply consider this a rock-bottom moment for education in Rhode Island. It allows everyone to account for the real challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic while also acknowledging that there’s no way to spin these scores.

And it gives a baseline for everyone to build on — and to be held accountable.

That’s starts at the very top.

Governor Dan McKee has said that he wants to extend Infante-Green’s contract. The state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education would be wise to build true measures of accountability – and, potentially, incentives – into that new deal.

Let’s aim for a real path to the 75 percent proficiency goal for third graders by 2025 that former governor Gina Raimondo set a few years ago.

Same goes with the takeover of Providence schools.

Yes, the pandemic has completely interrupted the first two years of the state’s intervention. It’s also true that takeover has been messy (we’re already on the second superintendent) and poorly implemented.

Based on the RICAS scores, we know that 14 percent of Providence students are proficient in English and 6.8 percent are proficient in math. Those baseline scores need to at least double in the next two or three years, and that’s the timeline state lawmakers should be operating under.


The Senate Oversight Committee should continue holding regular meetings to monitor progress in Providence and ask difficult questions, but before taking dramatic action, they should ask themselves whether having a lame-duck mayor in charge would improve the situation?

It’s possible that the temptation to act quickly will be impossible to resist.

McKee is going to feel pressure to show that he’s in charge. The other candidates who want his job might use these scores to release their own education plans. And just wait until you get a bunch of mayoral candidates promising their own fresh ideas for schools next year.

We love to teach our kids that it’s OK to show emotion, that it’s healthy to be angry sometimes. But we also remind them that punching a wall or picking a fight is not the right way to express those feelings.

The adults in charge might want to remember that when they review these scores.

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