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Kenneth Wong: Accountability and autonomy are key to turning around Providence schools

An entrance to Brown University (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

To read all of the Globe’s op-eds on Providence schools, click here.

Following the release of a highly critical report on Providence Public Schools, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza attended a series of public forums across the city. The message was clear: The current school system has failed to provide parents with what they want for their children’s education.

With support from the governor and the mayor, the commissioner has begun the process of running the city’s school system for at least the next three years. Now parents and other stakeholders want to know: By June 2022, will Providence schools become the first choice for an overwhelming majority of families across all zip codes and diverse communities in the city, as opposed to charter schools or private schools? And will today’s parental demand accelerate the supply of high-quality services that lead to significant school improvement?

The success of the commissioner’s takeover plan depends on the collective will of all stakeholders. Political and organizational restrictions need to be removed. This is the time for leaders to use their political capital to transform our city schools.


The takeover has the opportunity to create a system of high-quality seats for students that are managed by highly functional organizations. It can draw on evidence from cities that have implemented what is known as a diverse provider approach. In other words, a district could enforce performance-based accountability while also granting substantial autonomy to individual schools or a network of charter schools.

This kind of arrangement enables system oversight without regulatory overreach while broadening the pool of organizations that support students in the district. For example, traditional public schools, charter school networks and other organizations can enter into contracts with the city or state that will not only clarify accountability, but offer transparency on school performance (such as graduation rate and chronic absenteeism), staffing conditions (such as teacher absenteeism), resource allocation (personnel compensation and benefits), facilities’ conditions, and parental and community engagement.


Building a system of diverse providers works when a rigorous selection and renewal process is in place. In Indianapolis, the mayor’s office partners with the nonprofit The Mind Trust to apply strong selection criteria in charter schools and district-based autonomous schools. In Chicago, Renaissance 2010, the non-profit Renaissance School Fund, conducted independent reviews on all the provider applicants to meet the city’s plan of opening 100 new schools.

The diverse provider approach is likely to encourage public-private investment in transforming the city’s schools. Since 2015, Indiana’s Transformation Zone (HB1638) has enabled low-performing districts to partner with their local teachers union to implement school improvement initiatives. New foundation dollars can seed a nonprofit hub of effective practices to send dozens of well-trained urban system specialists of diverse backgrounds to schools with highest needs to improve operations, cultural responsiveness, resource management, data analysis, and community engagement. These specialists, by filling the capacity gap across Providence schools, will contribute to the success of the three-year transformation plan.

Kenneth Wong is the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Chair for Education Policy at Brown University.

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