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5 things to know about RI’s new education reform laws

Target 12
RI Students to Take New Standardized Test This Spring

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Public K-12 education in Rhode Island will soon look a lot more like Massachusetts, which could be good news in a state that consistently performs worse than its neighbor to the north.

The shift is thanks largely to a wide-ranging set of education reform laws passed by the General Assembly this year, the subject of a report released Thursday by the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a business-backed think tank.

The new education laws create statewide academic standards and curriculum, redefine how schools are governed and demand more accountability at the local level.

“This package of reform legislation is significant as it has the potential to fundamentally reshape education in Rhode Island,” said RIPEC President and CEO John Simmons, who advocated for the changes.

In the report, RIPEC details how Rhode Island education differs from Massachusetts, and why the now-approved legislation could result in dramatic changes.

Here are five key takeaways.

Massachusetts students perform better than Rhode Island students, despite similar demographics, economics and funding

The long-standing performance gap between Massachusetts and Rhode Island is nothing new, but it provides a good baseline for understanding why legislative leaders decided the sweeping reforms were necessary.

Massachusetts students for years have performed better than Rhode Island students on standardized tests, including the National Assessment of Education Progress, the SATs and – more recently – the new RICAS exam, which is modeled on Massachusetts’ MCAS exam, created in 1993.

“While the gap between student achievement in Rhode Island and Massachusetts has proven consistent across assessments and over time, the results of the 2018 RICAS garnered significant public attention … yielding renewed broad-based calls for education reform in Rhode Island,” the report’s authors write.

Perhaps most frustrating for educators, the performance gap exists despite striking similarities between the two states when it comes to student demographics and educational funding.

Nonetheless, RIPEC points to two ways the states differ: how districts are governed, and how Massachusetts passed a comprehensive education reform a quarter-century ago, unlike “Rhode Island’s comparatively piecemeal reform efforts.”   

“The chief reasons for a consistent interstate performance gap are differing levels of commitment to long-term reform, as well as two broad distinctions in education governance,” the authors wrote.

Rhode Island’s new laws mirror Massachusetts laws (word-for-word, in some cases)

The state is looking to replicate Massachusetts test scores by replicating its education laws.

The RIPEC report shows Rhode Island emulated existing state laws in Massachusetts to craft three new laws of its own that overhaul curriculum and instruction, reform governance and accountability, and create a fast-track certification for aspiring principals.

“Though not a direct reproduction of Massachusetts law, this legislation borrows heavily from Rhode Island’s northeastern neighbor,” RIPEC authors wrote about the Rhode Island law that addresses curriculum and instruction.

Here’s a look at the three laws:

• The first law creates statewide standards and curriculum framework for six core academic subjects (math, English language arts, science and technology, history and social studies, world languages and arts) that must be developed by the end of the year. The curriculum will be required across the state, and the state will be responsible for providing professional support to local districts as the changes are made.

• Under the second law, superintendents and principals become more like day-to-day administrators and managers, while school committees are supposed to focus more on policymaking. RIPEC says the new law moves Rhode Island closer to a school-based management model used currently in Massachusetts, and establishes new requirements for evaluation, assessment and review.

• The third law creates a “fast-track principal certification” process, which is designed to prepare applicants to operate more effectively under the new systems created by the first two laws. Unlike Rhode Island’s other new laws, however, there is no equivalent in Massachusetts law, according to RIPEC.

Lawmakers stopped short of passing other reforms largely affecting teachers, RIDE

State lawmakers decided against passing four other legislative measures that would have brought changes to the R.I. Department of Education, along with the state’s system of certifying, evaluating and training teachers.

One of the bills would have required RIDE to help school districts improve student performance “through the analysis of budget, demographic, school culture and assessment data.”

Another would have based the certification for teachers on the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure, and required educators to be “of sound moral character.”

A third bill would have mandated that RIDE ensure the state’s teacher and administrator evaluation system aligned with state standards. And a fourth would have made it easier for schools to staff “hard-to-fill and in-demand teacher positions,” according to RIPEC.

The reform comes with new jobs and a $1M price tag

In addition to passing the reform measures, state lawmakers allocated about $1 million to support four new full-time RIDE employees and three new education initiatives.

The jobs include positions focused on school improvement ($120,000) and school leadership ($150,000), a STEM curriculum specialist ($120,000), and a literacy-dyslexia specialist ($250,000 split between the job and a related education initiative).

The three newly funded initiatives, meanwhile, include adopting and promoting curriculum ($200,000), principal-leadership development ($500,000) and literacy-dyslexia support ($250,000 split with the aforementioned specialist).

Yes, the new reforms will affect the embattled Providence school system

While the reforms mark a shift in education policy across the state, there’s a high level of interest in how it could affect Providence.

In June, the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy released a report showing schools in the capital city are among the worst in the nation. The state has since moved forward with a plan to take over control of the embattled district.

The RIPEC study does not specifically look at how the new laws will affect Providence, but Simmons said the changes in governance and curriculum especially could play a pivotal role in future changes made to the district.

In the Johns Hopkins report, educators repeatedly complained about the lack of uniformity in curriculum across the district, along with the absence of local control in schools.

“The report provides a reference point for RIDE to do work with Providence and this should be something that directly results in change,” Simmons told WPRI 12.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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