Be Like Mike. Those three words were part of a very catchy, even iconic, Gatorade commercial back in the early 1990’s featuring Michael Jordan shining on the basketball court, and smiling big while surrounded by crowds of kids and fans who wanted to be just like him.
Well, with a slight tweak of one word, Rhode Island may have found the the key to its future success.
Be Like Mass.
That’s right. The Ocean State is right next door to the Baystate, widely accepted as the gold standard in K-12 education. But despite their proximity, they don’t have much in common when it comes to educating kids. While both states spend about the same on education, students from Massachusetts outperform Rhode Island students by every measure. Whether we look at NAEP scores, PARCC scores, college graduation rates, or post graduate earnings, the truth is impossible to ignore. They are doing something right and we are doing something wrong.
The default drumb-beat in Rhode Island has been to blame our education woes on a lack of funding or socioeconomic factors that impede student success; while those factors are real and do impact schools every day, they are not the crux of the problem. According to a 57 page report out of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, more commonly known as RIPEC, the problem lies with our state education policy. If we want our students (and subsequently our economy) to improve, we really just need to be more like Massachusetts.
Dan McGowan of WPRI summarizes it this way:
If Rhode Island wants to improve educational outcomes, it should follow Massachusetts’ lead by increasing state-level influence over large-sale school policies, make standardized testing part of its high school graduation requirements and give principals more power over everyday classroom decisions, according to a new study from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC).
Rhode Island has forever been in the shadow of Massachusetts, always seeming to fall short in setting education policies that actually move the needle for kids. Even when bold commissioners come in, their role is far more limited than in Massachusetts because they find themselves, by design, trapped in the world of policy and disconnected from implementation at the district level. So while Massachusetts sits at number one for both its district and charter schools, Rhode Island continues to find its performance in the bottom half of states despite spending the same amount of money.
A quick look at recent tests has many Rhode Islanders asking how it’s possible that kids five minutes over the stateline are doing so much better on identical tests. Sure, there’s a very vocal subculture of anti-testing parents who reject any and all standardized tests (well except for SAT and AP tests, of course) but they are in the minority. Most parents appreciate seeing how their kids are faring compared to other kids in their school, their town, their state, and even the state next door. And taxpayers certainly deserve to see what return they are getting on their investment.
How Much Better?
If we are talking about PARCC, the difference in performance between Massachusetts and Rhode Island is a stunning 40 percent. In fact, the city of Boston outperformed the state of Rhode Island as a whole. Rhode Island’s results show that only 36% of students in grades 3-10 are proficient in English (Also referred to as ELA/Literacy) while Massachusetts’ boasts a proficiency rate of 60 percent. In mathematics, Rhode Island’s proficiency rate is 25 percent while in Massachusetts it is 52 percent.
These are not insignificant differences and that should give us pause. In fact, they should be enough for us to put aside our tendency to dismiss our neighbor to the north and instead get us shouting (or singing, dribbling, and dunking) from the rooftops, “Be Like Mass.” No need to reinvent the wheel. No need to scratch our heads. Just do what is being done minutes away and has shown itself to work. While it may not be perfect and there will always be dissenters, it’s undeniably better than what we are doing.
I know, I know, tests don’t tell the whole story. They don’t tell us about the other metrics of concern in Rhode Island including college graduation rates and post high school earnings. And they don’t tell us about the small victories like our exciting increases in SAT participation and high school graduation rates. But they are one objective measure that provides information to parents, even during that unlucky year that their kid gets the teacher who gives points for bringing in Kleenex, doesn’t follow the curriculum even a smidge, and is out 23 days during the year. In other words, they are an anchor in a sea that is wildly variable and even sometimes a bit rough.
Change is Coming, Maybe
Ken Wagner, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education, recently gave his first State of Education address and he introduced the idea of “empowerment schools” to a joint session of the General Assembly. He, and by extension, the Raimondo administration, believe that individual schools will benefit from having “unprecedented levels of regulatory and statutory flexibility.” In layman’s terms, the empowerment would be in having control over budgeting, hiring and firing of faculty, instruction policies and the school calendar.
But the roadblocks are many for these new empowerment schools. In order for a school to be converted into an empowerment school, they’d need to be approved by two-thirds of the teachers in the school as well as the local school committee and superintendent. And while “top down” policy and control often tops the list of educators’ complaints, they may ultimately decide they find more comfort in what they know than in what could be.
But autonomy is a vital piece of truly improving school for all kids. Some kids will thrive or get by if nothing changes but if we are to serve all kids instead of just some kids, the power and the money must live in the building, not in some office run by people who likely haven’t seen a kid during their work day in years.
Let’s hope at least a few schools jump at this unique and groundbreaking opportunity for Rhode Island principals and teachers to be at the helm of making the decisions that will directly impact the students in their classrooms and in their care. I
In other words, let’s hope they’ll embrace the opportunity, and like the commercial (almost says) decide to “Be Like Mass.”