Sue Lusi: Fix Providence bureaucracy and student outcomes will improve

Providence City Hall (Lane Turner/Globe Staff)
Providence City Hall (Lane Turner/Globe Staff) The Boston Globe/Globe Staff

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

Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green says education is all about what happens in classrooms; everything else should support that. She’s right. So why all the attention to how adults run the school system? Does governance really impact what happens in classrooms for kids that much?

The answer is a resounding yes.

When I was superintendent in Providence, we learned this lesson the hard way. Pleasant View Elementary School was identified as one of our lowest performing schools. The state gave us a mandate and timeline for dramatic improvement.

Fortunately, the district had hired a wonderful school leader, and she worked collaboratively with staff and families to develop a plan for student success. That plan received kudos from the state, leading the school to receive one of the largest school improvement grants, as well as a competitive state grant for blended learning (using technology, along with the guidance of teachers, to meet diverse student learning needs). Everyone was excited to start the new school year.

But there was a big problem: The multiple approval processes required for purchasing in Providence -- involving the School Board, the Board of Contract and Supply, and the City Council -- took so long that students and teachers didn’t receive the hardware or software called for in the plan until almost Thanksgiving, despite the principal having started the process in July. This meant that roughly 25 percent of the school year passed without students benefitting fully from a state-approved plan to dramatically improve a low-performing school.


These bureaucratic lapses have profound real-life consequences. We systematically underestimate the urgency of giving educators the flexibility they need to act expeditiously to meet the needs of students, and this underestimation has a life-threatening impact on our kids. You only need look at the life outcomes of poorly educated people and their families to see that – fewer job prospects, lower income, reduced access to quality housing, food and more dire health outcomes.


The troubles plaguing Providence Schools need to be treated as urgently as health crises are treated in the ER. Imagine if ER doctors were told that while their diagnosis and course of treatment were approved, the medicines they needed had to go through a multi-layered approval process that would take months. We wouldn’t tolerate it, and critical delays shouldn’t be tolerated in education either.

Mass Insight Education & Research, the organization I now lead, emphasizes the need for schools to have the flexible conditions required to meet the needs of students. The ability to act thoughtfully and quickly on behalf of children matters every time.

Governance, by itself, can never guarantee educational quality. But poor governance can certainly undermine it.

Susan Lusi was superintendent of the Providence Schools from 2011-2015. She now serves as President & CEO of Mass Insight Education & Research a Boston-based national non-profit that works to change lives and change schools.

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