PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Outgoing Education Commissioner Ken Wagner urged a roomful of stakeholders Monday to stop pointing fingers at one another as they seek to improve Rhode Island’s public schools and instead empower teachers, students and families to raise test scores and graduation rates.
In his final State of Education address, Wagner compared education to a motor vehicle, arguing that too much attention is paid to a dashboard that includes key indicators and not enough focus goes toward the engine that produces the outcomes.
“We need to pivot and stop staring at the dashboard and blaming each other when it doesn’t move fast enough,” Wagner told more than 100 educators, parents and students gathered inside the gymnasium at Martin Middle School in East Providence. “And instead fuel the engine: our teachers, our kids, our curriculum, our facilities, our principals, our superintendents, our families, our communities. When we fuel the engine and all of the cylinders are firing, the dashboard will move.“
But Wagner is departing before the dashboard has started ticking in the right direction. His exit comes months after results on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exam showed only 34% of students in grades three through eight were proficient in English language arts and 27% were proficient in math. The woeful results prompted widespread criticism from lawmakers and other stakeholders.
Wagner, who has already accepted a position at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, said he’s proud to be handing the reins over to Angélica Infante-Green, a veteran New York educator whose nomination to be commissioner is expected to be approved Tuesday night by the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education.
He said Infante-Green will build on the groundwork laid in Rhode Island over the last four years, which includes improved teacher preparation requirements, expanded access to career and technical education opportunities and a widely-praised federal accountability plan designed to improve outcomes across the state.
“The mark of a successful leader is the work continues after you’ve left,” Wagner said. “And that doesn’t happen spontaneously. If you don’t plan for sustainability, then sustainability doesn’t happen.”
The normally soft-spoken Wagner talked passionately about the need for student voice in schools, arguing that’s he’s been fighting for students since he was elected to his local school board in New York when he was 18 years old. He said he’s proud the state is partnering with the nationally-renowned XQ Institute to help reimagine high schools in Rhode Island.
But he also made a plea for school choice, which he acknowledged may be the most controversial position he’s taken since becoming commissioner in 2015. He has supported the expansion of public charter schools in addition to career and technical programs.
“I believe choice is absolutely critical,” Wagner said. “Not to weaken our system of district schools, but to strengthen of district schools. Because when systems don’t have to change, they don’t change.“