Rhode Island’s General Assembly has been in a mild coma when it comes to improving education but suddenly another batch of dismal test results have the Senate president and House Speaker shaking their fists at poor performance. Umm, hello. This isn’t a new problem. But it took having a direct comparison with neighboring Massachusetts to shake all these sleeping giants out of their stupor and actually get mad. There was a time when we had time to vote on what our state appetizer should be but now, K-12 education is front and center. It’s calamari, by the way.
Newsflash: It should have been front and center since the first day any of these elected officials took office.
We’ve known that Massachusetts has been blowing us out of the water forever—it doesn’t take RICAS to figure that out. We saw it in the data every two years with NAEP tests when Massachusetts was #1 out of 50 states and we found ourselves, most recently, at 46th in 8th grade math. And 44th for 4th grade math. Dan McGowan covered it. I covered it. Dan Yorke covered it. The Providence Journal covered it.
So I’m not buying the whole, “but we didn’t know” routine. Two years ago, Massachusetts outperformed RI on PARCC by 40 points. The city of Boston outperformed our entire state. So, while I’m relieved to see someone finally grab a hose, this house has been on fire for a very long time.
Teacher absenteeism? It’s no secret that we have the 3rd highest rate in the nation. Student absenteeism? We are 7th worst in the nation. Everybody was chomping at the bit to talk about crumbling buildings—as they should have been—but the focus on student achievement has been anemic at best and non-existent most of the time.
A beautiful new sparkly building doesn’t mean anything if students aren’t learning and progressing and becoming prepared for their futures. Just look at Nathan Bishop Middle School if you don’t believe me. After a $35 million overhaul, they find themselves with the lowest possible school rating and targeted for intervention. On the flip side, it’s criminal to expect students to believe us when we say education is important and then condemn them to buildings where it rains in the hallways, classroom ceilings come crashing down, and rodents are commonplace.
We have failed our children in this state. And leading that failure were the people in positions of power who couldn’t be bothered or didn’t have the political courage to do what had to be done. The same people now calling out the Department of Education and pounding their fists on the table have blinked every single time they had the opportunity to be brave for kids. They have run away from following Massachusetts’ lead for decades, worked to limit the school choices of the parents who are most desperate to have them, and refused to take needed action on changing the state constitution to guarantee the state’s children the right to an education.
So it is good news that finally—after the pressure that comes with a side by side comparison with Massachusetts coupled with the strong initiative coming from the Rhode Island Foundation and a willingness by David Driscoll, former Education Commissioner in Massachusetts, to tell us what we need to hear—our elected leaders have seen the light that educational performance is actually important. Perhaps now they understand that people choose not to move here because of the schools. And that businesses choose not to come here because of the schools. And that our children, born with the same potential as the children born 10 minutes away in Massachusetts, are equally capable and deserving of a General Assembly with a backbone, some political courage, and a commitment to stay the course.
Some of us have been out here beating the drum for years while simultaneously banging our heads against the wall in disbelief that our elected representatives could seem to care so little about the children of this state and be so dismissive of the parents of those children.
So while I refuse to say “all in good time”, I will embrace the age old “better late than never.” I suggest that House and Senate leadership get themselves over to Achievement First for a visit STAT and begin talking with parents whose children are zoned to—and mandated to attend—schools where fewer than 10 percent of students can read, write, or do math at grade level. And if they haven’t read this piece entitled ‘Hard Words’ by American Public Media journalist Emily Hanford (or listen to the fantastic podcast) about the science of reading instruction, they should do it tonight. And then tomorrow morning, first on their to do list should be to find out from RIC and URI (and any other teacher prep program receiving our tax dollars) exactly how they are training elementary teachers in the science of teaching reading. And if it isn’t by way of phonics, they should draft a bill the first week of the session to change that.
There is an army of us waiting in the wings to be part of the solution not only for our own children but for all children.
So, thank you to those leaders who have finally committed to at least try to put out the fire that has been burning up the future of Rhode Island’s kids for generations.