PROVIDENCE – When Lieutenant Governor Daniel McKee spoke to a roomful of more than 200 parents in a Providence elementary school on a sweltering Saturday morning last month, he warned that “our leaders have not been honest with the families” about student outcomes.
And he wasn’t talking exclusively about Providence. McKee says he was seeking to explain that too many districts across the state have celebrated mediocrity while failing to inform parents that the schools they send their children to have stunningly low proficiency rates in English and math.
“That was a global statement about Rhode Island,” McKee told the Globe.
But while state officials are moving swiftly to take control of the capital city’s school system, McKee is urging leaders to remember that all Rhode Island districts need to raise test scores in order to compete with Massachusetts, which is widely considered home to the best public schools in the country.
The numbers back up McKee’s message: Outcomes for students in grades three through eight on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System in 2018 nearly mirrored the results posted by students in Fall River, one of the lowest-performing districts in Massachusetts.
All told, 34 percent of Rhode Island students were considered proficient in English language arts, the same as Fall River. In math, only 27 percent of Rhode Island students scored at grade level, compared to 30 percent in Fall River.
The poor RICAS results sparked an outcry from the Rhode Island’s political and business class, in part because 2018 was billed as the first time the state had an apples-to-apples comparison to students in Massachusetts. State lawmakers said the woeful results were a wakeup call, and they passed a package of education reform bills that expands the power of school principals and standardizes curriculum.
But much of the public’s focus in recent weeks has shifted to Providence following a blistering report released by researchers at Johns Hopkins University that found the state’s largest school district was plagued by a culture of dysfunction and deplorable building conditions.
Putting the situation in stark terms, consider this: if Providence were a district in Massachusetts, its 10 percent proficiency rate in math would match Holyoke for the lowest-performing school system in the state.
Now McKee, a second-term Democrat who as mayor of Cumberland helped persuade state lawmakers to allow public charter schools – known as mayoral academies – open in several communities, is beginning to gain traction with a proposal that would require officials at all schools to hold public forums to explain to parents how their schools are performing.
“If I was just interested in Providence, I’d say only Providence needs to have these meetings,” McKee said. “Every school in the state should have these meetings.”
A public forum where families learn about test scores, attendance rates for students and teachers and building conditions might not sound like a clear way to move the needle on educational outcomes, Massachusetts’ ability to engage communities is one of the ways it managed to raise test scores over the last several decades, according to former Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll.
While Driscoll is quick to credit government leaders with sticking with a plan for education over the course of 20 years and providing a boost in funding to go with it, he said “our strength and our success was because the local districts and schools figured out how to make this work.”
“The state can only do so much anyway,” said Driscoll, who now works as a consultant. “In some ways, it’s good to have good policy and get the heck out of the way.”
The latest RICAS results haven’t been released yet, but state leaders say districts should start to see growth in test scores as they become more familiar with the exam.
It would be difficult to get much worse.
In 2018, only 15 schools in the state posted a proficiency rate of 70 percent or better in English language arts and one school exceeded 70 percent proficiency in math. In contrast, 74 schools had proficiency rates in English below 30 percent, and 110 schools were below 30 percent proficiency in math.
Massachusetts, on the other hand, has entire districts with impressive results. More than 50 local education agencies – which include districts or charter schools – reached at least 70 percent proficiency in English, while 40 districts or charter schools had at least 70 percent of students doing math at grade level.
To be sure, Massachusetts has plenty of communities with struggling schools, and is in the middle of a slow moving debate over how to make funding for oft-ignored schools more equitable. But as a rule, the state’s successes are more broadly shared.
Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green was hired from New York to following the first wave of RICAS results, pitched by Governor Gina Raimondo as a change agent with an expertise in teaching English learners, the state’s fastest-growing student population.
She said last year’s scores sent a “strong, clear message across the state that we are not doing enough to prepare students for success in college and career.”
Infante-Green has spent her first months on the job working to take control of Providence schools, but she maintains she plans to work with all districts once classes start in September. She said the state is working toward building a quality, aligned curriculum for schools while investing in building repairs across the statute.
“The status quo must and will change, starting now,” Infante-Green wrote in an e-mail statement.
Timothy Duffy, the executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, said he’s hopeful the state offers intense professional development for teachers in the coming years. He said teacher training should not be subject to collective bargaining, a nod to the fact that Providence teachers have just one day of guaranteed professional development in their union contract.
He said Infante-Green’s office should be required to review and approve professional development plans so there’s no “fluff” in the training. He said districts should be required to set aside funding for training, similar to the way they are now forced to budget for building infrastructure upkeep.
McKee said giving parents a voice is the key to improving schools. He said he’s confident many families aren’t aware their children are attending schools with proficiency rates that would be among the worst in Massachusetts.
It’s a lesson he says he learned as mayor in Cumberland. He took his reform message directly to families and created a department specifically to promote year-round learning. Both of the town’s middle schools and its high school have boosted their test scores over the last decade.
“When we started communicating with parents directly, it got their attention,” he said.
For his part, Driscoll, the former commissioner in Massachusetts, said he’s optimistic Rhode Island schools will show improvement in the coming years. But he acknowledged that until the test scores start to improve, there will be cynicism.
“I think there’s too much of a defeatist attitude,” Driscoll said. “They have to get over that.”