School Talk

A Softer Touch But No Less Bold

New RI Ed Commissioner Ken Wagner
We all know that bold and smart leadership can look lots of different ways and the education landscape is certainly no exception. While some well known education leaders tend to be the more aggressive warrior type, many others are mild mannered yet equally bold in their ideas about what works best for kids. 

Education reporter at US News and World Reports Lauren Camera has just written a piece that speaks exactly to this recent trend of the more disruptive and hard charging education chiefs moving on and being replaced by leaders who are equally bold on policy but have a softer touch that will be useful in repairing whatever fractured relationships may have been left behind.

“It seems that after a series of divisive figures in education reform, there has come a second series of people who speak much more as uniters, but are not in any way taking a different policy stance than the people who came before them,” says Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way.

“The current wave of state chiefs are equally committed to reform, but I think they’ll be quieter about it in part because a lot of the policy changes that needed to be made have been made,” says Peter Cunningham, executive director of Education Post, a Chicago-based education communications firm, and former assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the Education Department. “A lot of that work has been done and now it’s a matter of easing into transition and supporting educators at the local level.”

Cunningham goes on to say, “Change is hard. The question becomes now, ‘Who is going to stick to their guns, who is going to see these policies through, and who is going to give up because of the politics?'” 

Former RI Ed Commissioner Deborah Gist
It’s no surprise that Rhode Island is singled out in Camera’s piece. Despite our tiny size, we’ve had some very big and bold education leaders pass through in recent years. Deborah Gist departed the Ocean State for her home state of Oklahoma earlier this year but her legacy of pushing for tougher admissions for aspiring teachers, high and consistent learning standards, and meaningful teacher evaluation is here to stay.  

Ken Wagner is Gist’s successor and he comes to us by way of New York, having worked alongside John King, our soon to be acting Secretary of Education. He is a mild mannered guy with a background in school psychology and not surprisingly, he is a skilled listener. Truth be told, he’s just what the doctor ordered as the people of Rhode Island have made it clear that they want and need to feel heard.

That being said, Wagner remains deeply committed to his predecessor’s legacy despite his willingness to consider a few tweaks to allow for a bit more flexibility for students and families. For example, despite his support for the 11th grade annual test being tied to graduation eligibility, he has said on the record that he’s open to accepting a certain threshold of score on  SAT, ACT, AP, or even a robust CTE exam as an alternative to PARCC.  

He sees the upcoming release of our first round of PARCC results (which he contends are likely to be quite poor) as nothing more than evidence that our kids aren’t where we need them to be and that there is exciting work ahead.

In a recent interview on a weekly RI show, he shared one other detail about himself that may ingratiate him even more into what what can sometimes feel like hostile territory when it comes to our sports teams. When asked if he supports the NY teams, he responded this way: “Fortunately, I know nothing about sports.”

What he doesn’t know about sports he more than makes up for with his constantly increasing knowledge base and expertise around how best to ensure that kids learn what they need to know.

And knowing he won’t be walking around in a Yankees hat or a Jets T-shirt is just an added bonus.
What do you think?

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