PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Democratic legislative leaders proposed a significant shakeup of Rhode Island’s public K-12 education system on Tuesday, unveiling a package of bills aimed at helping the state catch up with Massachusetts on student achievement.
Supporters say the seven bills — which would standardize curriculum statewide, empower school principals, shake up teacher hiring, and shift the mission of the R.I. Department of Education — represent an aggressive effort to learn lessons from the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” that has put the Bay State at the top of national rankings.
State leaders were spurred into action last fall after the results of the first-ever Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) standardized test — modeled on the MCAS exam used in Massachusetts — revealed only 27% of Rhode Island students in grades three through eight were proficient in math, compared with 47% in Massachusetts. And in English language arts, only 34% of Rhode Island students were proficient, versus 51% in Massachusetts.
“We were all disappointed by the standardized test scores last year,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, said in a statement. The proposed measures are “long-term solutions that will really change the ways that schools do business,” he said.
“We have the gold standard in education right next door in Massachusetts, and we looked to their model to see what best practices could make a real difference here,” added Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, D-North Providence.
The presence of Mattiello and Ruggerio at Tuesday’s news conference sent a clear signal that the package of education bills is on the fast track, though backers said they will be revised in committee before coming up for final floor votes. The measures are the result of months of behind-the-scenes talks between influential lawmakers in the two chambers.
“The bills seek to bring about a culture change within our education system so that the talented professionals at the Department of Education can shift from ensuring compliance to assisting schools with on the ground – or in the classroom – support,” said Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Hanna Gallo, D-Cranston. “We need educators, not regulators.”
The move by Assembly leaders comes during what is shaping up as an important moment in Rhode Island’s years of on-again, off-again efforts at education reform. Gov. Gina Raimondo recently appointed a new education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, and has begun taking steps toward some sort of state intervention in Providence’s long-struggling schools. Separately, a group convened by the Rhode Island Foundation has been meeting for months to develop a long-term K-12 plan.
One high-profile idea that has not achieved a consensus so far: appointing a new secretary of education who would have authority over issues like budgeting and legislative relations, while leaving the commissioner to handle education practice. Senate leaders are still supporting the appointment of an education secretary, which Massachusetts has, but the House has not yet signed on.
Also absent from Tuesday’s suite of proposed changes: high-stakes testing. Ruggerio said tying a diploma to a test score is something Rhode Island should look at down the road, but not until more has been done to create a cohesive K-12 system statewide.
What’s in the education bills
Here is a look at what the seven education bills are designed to do, based on interviews with lawmakers and summary material provided by their spokespersons. Some of the proposals are supposed to take effect as soon they become law, while others would take longer.
Statewide curriculum: A common complaint about Rhode Island schools is that students who switch from one district to another may find they are not up to speed because the two districts don’t cover the same material along the same timeline.
This bill seeks to change that by having the education commissioner ensure there is a statewide curriculum that lines up with statewide academic standards and RICAS, and to develop five curriculum frameworks for districts to choose from, the way Massachusetts does. (Districts would also be able to petition for an alternative curriculum framework if they can show it aligns with the standards.)
“It’s tremendously important that we bring these three tiers — standards, curriculum and testing — into alignment,” said House Health, Education and Welfare Committee Chairman Joe McNamara, D-Warwick.
RIDE support for districts: This bill would task the Department of Education with supporting local districts as they implement the new curriculum frameworks. The agency’s staff would also be effectively turned into coaches who would go to local district and school leaders to help them figure out how to observe teaching practices, use assessment data and make improvements.
“We want to change RIDE from the chief compliance officer to the educational practice leader,” said Sen. Ryan Pearson, D-Cumberland, who helped put together the package of bills.
Accountability and governance: This bill would require “site-based management” across Rhode Island school districts, meaning principals would be given more autonomy from school committees to manage their schools themselves, including when it comes to budgeting and hiring. In addition, the role of existing “school improvement teams” in advising principals would be expanded.
“I have spoken with numerous school professionals, in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts, and they tell me such a change would make a significant difference in their ability to properly cultivate the educational environment in order to best serve our children,” said Rep. Gregg Amore, D-East Providence, a lead House architect of the education bills.
This bill would also implement what the sponsors call a “progressive support model” for state intervention in struggling local schools and local school districts. The amount of oversight from the state would progressively increase, from basic support if the problems are small to the most dramatic step: appointment of a receiver to run either an entire school or entire district.
Teacher test change: This bill would change the way prospective teachers are evaluated. Currently, Rhode Island requires would-be educators to take Praxis exams to test their subject matter expertise; Massachusetts uses its own set of exams called Massachusetts Tests for Educator Licensure (MTEL). Rhode Island would start using a test like MTEL, too.
Flexibility on teacher certification: This bill would add more flexibility in hiring teachers for subject areas that are hard to recruit for such as math, science, arts and foreign languages. A new path to certification would be created that would let someone with expertise in the actual subject get in the classroom sooner, and do their training on how to teach the subject while they’re working.
Models for teacher assessments: This bill would create a new teacher evaluation system that would apply to both teachers and school administrators. This is another proposal modeled on Massachusetts, where lawmakers say most districts use a standard assessment that is made available by the state Department of Education; Rhode Island would offer the same option so districts don’t have to come up with assessment tools themselves.
“I think the point is, where possible if RIDE can take on jobs, let [district leaders] focus on teaching,” said Pearson.
Fast-track hiring for principals: This bill is somewhat similar to the teacher certification one above. The effectiveness of a principal is often cited as making a huge difference in the success or failure of an individual school, so RIDE would create a fast-track program to make it easier to elevate a strong teacher (with at least 10 years in the classroom) to a principal job even before the teacher has completed the additional training required.
New commissioner, union head react
Infante-Green, the newly named education commissioner, was not at the news conference, though lawmakers said they plan to work with her to implement their proposals.
In a statement, she said it is “exciting for me, in just my second week on the job, to see that Rhode Island is really keeping its foot on the gas when it comes to improving educational outcomes.” She called it “very positive” that lawmakers are focusing on the issue, and said her staff will recommend changes to the bills.
“Rhode Island has high standards, a strong assessment tool, and a robust system of school accountability and we need to stay the course in those areas,” she said. “Curriculum is a key piece of the puzzle that we still need to address, and we appreciate the support of the General Assembly in moving this work forward.”
Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island union, said: “We’re encouraged by the focus on public education in Rhode Island and look forward to working with the General Assembly on this comprehensive package of pro-education initiatives.”
Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, sounded a cautious note.
“I think it’s comprehensive,” Duffy told WPRI 12. “I think it addresses a lot of the issues that Massachusetts confronted in 1993. But intervention and change frequently cost money, and there’s no additional appropriations associated with this proposal.”