PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A newly released outside review of the Providence Public School District paints a distressing picture of what the authors call “deep, systemic dysfunctions” inside the capital city’s K-12 schools.
The 93-page report, conducted by the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Education Policy, describes a school district that is struggling to support many of its students academically, socially and emotionally, and is bogged down by an organizational structure and red tape that impedes progress.
“My initial reaction was devastation,” Angélica Infante-Green, Rhode Island’s new educational commissioner, told WPRI 12. “It was tough to read without feeling the pain. I actually was sick after I finished reading the report.”
Infante-Green said the review was conducted at her request in reaction to abysmal test scores on the RICAS exam, the state’s new assessment that mirrors Massachusetts. The Partnership for Rhode Island, an organization made up of the CEOs of major Rhode Island employers like CVS Health and Brown University, paid for the $50,000 review.
In the report released Tuesday evening, the authors said they interviewed scores of people involved in Providence’s public schools, including teachers, students, parents, administrators, district employees, city councilors, school board members, the outgoing superintendent and the mayor of Providence.
There’s not enough learning going on
The review team made a stunning observation: “very little visible student learning was going on in the majority of classrooms and schools we visited.”
The report almost never names individual schools, but does give specific examples, including an English language arts class in one school where reviewers observed “almost no authentic reading.” During a French lesson at another school, the researchers report, “No French was spoken by anyone in the room.”
Only one of the 12 schools visited had “no substantial challenges.” Researchers said that school, which was not named, “seemed to be using blended learning successfully with high student engagement and teacher monitoring.”
The report also described a “large number of classrooms” where students were on their phones watching YouTube videos, taking phone calls and chatting with other students during the lesson. The authors said some teachers even arranged their classrooms so that the off-task students were in the back or facing a wall, rather than attempting to engage them in the lesson.
Test scores drop off in 8th grade
Test scores show fewer than one in five Providence Public School District students are proficient in English language arts and math across all grades, and the rates get worse as students get older.
“The proficiency rates of PPSD students start low and decline in middle and high school,” according to the researchers.
RICAS scores from 2018 showed 17% of 3rd grade students achieved proficiency in math, compared with about 6% for 8th grade students. While that was the first year of the RICAS exam, the researchers said a similar drop-off was seen on the results of other tests since 2015.
In fact, only 3% of Providence 8th graders achieved proficiency in math on the 2017 PARCC test.
Students in Providence also scored lower than their peers in Newark, New Jersey, and Worcester – both cities with comparable standardized testing – in English language arts and math across all grades and years examined. The gap between those communities and Providence was even larger among racial and ethnic minorities.
“Black and Hispanic students in Providence experienced a serious drop in performance in 8th grade English language arts that was nowhere near as evident in Worcester, and these minority students performed substantially lower than their white peers in Providence across all grades,” according to the researchers.
The dismal results are coming even though the Providence schools spend more per pupil than the state average: $17,273 in Providence, compared with $16,558 statewide, as of the 2015-16 academic year.
Teachers union contract provisions questioned
The researchers were especially critical of the city’s contract with the Providence Teachers Union, writing that most people they interviewed named the collective bargaining agreement “as one of the most pressing problems for the schools.”
Specifically, the report focuses on how difficult it is to hire good teachers and fire bad ones. Union members get the first shot at applying for open positions — based on seniority — and principals must accept their applications before advertising the job externally.
The firing process is also challenging.
“The number of teachers who have been let go on account of performance is exactly nil,” one person interviewed says in the report. (Most of the individuals quoted are not named.)
One principal reported having to attend ongoing hearings about the future job status of a teacher who had been put on paid leave because of repeated accusations of inappropriate physical contact with children. The teacher was still on payroll at the time of the interview.
The researchers say Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro, one of the few people named in the report, told them the schools and unions are working effectively but Mayor Jorge Elorza and the R.I. Department of Education are not.
Calabro and many teachers also lamented the fact that there is only one paid day of professional development for teachers, which Infante-Green called “shocking.” According to the report, the union contract requires that teachers be paid overtime for any additional training days.
In addition, Calabro pushed back at the idea that it is too hard to terminate teachers for performance, suggesting the report’s findings on the contract needed more fact-checking. “I know that we have people this very year that have been let go for not being good at their job,” she told WPRI 12. “We provide due process. … Administrators don’t want to do the work. It’s their job to document.”
She added, “Doing it appropriately is probably onerous.”
English learners are still not getting what they need
The report found there are not enough teachers certified to teach students that are English language learners, or ELL, who make up about a third of all Providence students. A U.S. Department of Justice probe last year found the school district was inadequately serving English learners, and reached a settlement with the district to hire more ELL-certified teachers.
The researchers said they observed ELL classes where “students were barely able to communicate in English at all,” and quoted one teacher as saying, “There has been no improvement for ELL since the DOJ report.”
The state budget plan expected to be approved this week includes $5 million in funding for English learners, about double the appropriation from last year. The exact amount that will be earmarked for Providence has not yet been released.
Students and teachers don’t feel safe or supported
In interviewing parents and students, the report’s authors said “many children feel unsafe” in school due to bullying, violence and “chaotic student behavior.” There was also “widespread agreement” that “physical violence” is a major problem in schools, which led teachers to also report feeling unsafe.
Researchers said they observed escalating arguments happening inside classrooms where students should have been learning. In one school, the report says “students were laughing, screaming, moving around and physically harassing one another, climbing up bookshelves.” One teacher said she discovered she had 12 gang members in her class only after they all got arrested.
Some teachers criticized what they perceived to be pressure from the school district and Department of Education to reduce suspensions, which they said left students “openly defying” teachers and misbehaving with little or no consequences. Many teachers interviewed said they would not send their kids to Providence schools, citing safety as a prime reason.
However, the researchers also said certain schools they visited seemed like calm, safe environments for students.
Too many cooks in the kitchen
Across the board, people interviewed for the report said there were too many “masters” involved in governing the school: the district’s central office and superintendent, the mayor, the School Board, the City Council and the Department of Education all have a hand in crafting and approving policies and spending.
The report says Superintendent Chris Maher — who is leaving the district this week and who was interviewed by the researchers — “stressed frustration with the need for micromanagement of every initiative through endless layers, players and budget limits.” He said he didn’t feel he had the “authority” to do his job under Mayor Jorge Elorza, a second-term Democrat.
Maher, along with multiple school board members, said Elorza tends to interview many new hires all the way down to crossing guards. But in his own interview with the review team, Elorza insisted he does not interview crossing guards, though he acknowledged he does try to meet with “key school department personnel.”
Some school buildings are in much worse shape than others
The researchers found the state of Providence school buildings to be uneven, with some in very poor shape. One was described as being in “absolutely dire condition.”
The report said “seasoned members” of the review team were reduced to tears inside the worst school. One reviewer reported that “the smell of stale urine in the physical therapy room was so strong I had to hold my breath.”
The team also observed brown water pouring from taps, paint peeling in sheets and buckets set up to catch rain leaks. They also saw an EPA letter warning of lead in the water posted directly above a drinking fountain.
Some schools appeared to be in fine shape, including one described as being in “top condition” and recently painted. People interviewed for the report said students are aware of which schools are being invested in, and which are not.
Providence is currently in the process of borrowing $20 million for school buildings, and is also eligible for state bond money approved by voters last year.
Teachers are frequently absent, and substitutes are lacking
The report describes “chronic” absenteeism among students, but notes teachers are also frequently absent — and substitutes are hard to come by.
The authors say there aren’t enough substitute teachers, counselors, social workers, support specialists and “properly certified” ELL and special education teachers to fill in for the “high levels” of absent teachers. As a result, the researchers found students were being split up around the school when a substitute wasn’t available.
“Because a teacher was on jury duty, one 5th grader came into a kindergarten classroom to work all day independently,” according to the researchers.
Other classes had simply been disbanded for the day or cancelled because there was not a substitute available. And even when a substitute is available, finding one with expertise in the subject matter is a challenge, leaving students behind in some cases.
“In general, students did not work on mathematics in classrooms covered by subs, aides, or when sent to sit in other classrooms,” the report said.
Racial issues persist among students and teachers
Providence students don’t look like Providence teachers.
Black and Hispanic students account for more than 80% of students in Providence, while more than two-thirds of the city’s teachers are white, according to Department of Education numbers detailed in the report.
Researchers found the disparity is often ignored.
“We heard from district, state and school staff, and from community partners, that the system inadequately addresses, and at times actively avoids addressing, the mismatch between students of color and their teachers,” the authors wrote.
Undertones of racial inequality are prevalent throughout the report. RIDE staff interviewed by the researchers pointed to their own department as being part of the problem.
“Equity conversations are largely absent from the many layers of governance that influence Providence,” researchers wrote. One RIDE staff member was quoted saying there have been problems with “embedded racism and sexism [that were] routine and covered up.”
The Johns Hopkins team also points to a failure to create a pipeline for teachers of color, including substitute teachers, and said the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement was “particularly problematic for teachers of color, who are ‘chased out by other teachers’ without apparent consequences.”
There’s no consistency in curricula
Most of the people interviewed in the report say the lack of a consistent curriculum across the district is a problem.
In one school, there was no coherent English language arts curriculum, and researchers noted there were different textbooks in every classroom – even within the same grade.
In other examples, the report details how teachers often use older curricula, along with a mix of outside teaching resources, some from the internet.
A principal in one school reported currently using nearly 20 different curricula between math and English language arts. One special-education teacher who asked “to put in for a donor” to support the purchase of curriculum materials.
“[Many] cite the lack of coherent curriculum and the lack of professional development, as deleterious to the learning environment,” according to the researchers.
Great teachers do exist, and are fighting for their students
Amid all the disturbing findings, the researchers emphasize that many students and parents had high praise for certain individual teachers who they said were “devoted” to their students.
But those teachers still struggle with a lack of resources, using their own money to purchase school supplies and even items for their students like jackets and coats, the report says. High-performing teachers told the researchers they “stay for the kids,” despite poor working conditions.
Teachers themselves are aware of the varying equality, with many interviewed in the report saying they would send their children to Providence “only if they could pick the teachers.”
The state and city are now working on next steps
The Johns Hopkins researchers did not make recommendations on what to do next, leaving it up to state and city leaders.
Infante-Green and Elorza will be holding a series of public forums starting Wednesday night for parents, school staff and administrators to learn about the report and provide input. There will be forums in both English and Spanish.
State leaders have not yet said if they are aiming to formally take over Providence schools, but Raimondo has made clear more intervention is coming, and Infante-Green said her patience should not be tested.
“I have been pretty clear that if the conversations don’t lead to better instruction, support in the classroom, that I’m not having it,” the commissioner told WPRI 12. “We all have to look at ourselves and say, where did we go wrong?”