In February of 2018 Mayor of Providence Jorge Elorza and school superintendent Chris Maher rolled out a strategic plan that laid out goals around student proficiency, student and teacher absenteeism, and the high school graduation rate. The motivator for the initiative was the chronic underperformance of students in math and reading as well as high levels of teacher and student absenteeism. It seemed that Mayor Elorza was sending a clear signal that student outcomes were a top priority. Many of us celebrated that. But after listening to or, in my case, reading Elorza’s inaugural address, one has to wonder where the focus on student outcomes has gone. Other than quick references to fixing crumbling buildings, summer learning, and internet access for all students, Mayor Elorza said virtually nothing substantive about education. And that omission is staggering when we consider the current situation in the Providence schools.
I admire and appreciate Elorza’s willingness to push for structural (he prefers the term “transformational“) changes to the teachers’ contract and his assertion that we can’t continue to do things the same way and expect different results. And I know that he is trying to turn the proverbial Titanic by having to work within a system that is inflexible, inefficient and yes, very broken in many ways.
The goals that he and superintendent Maher announced 11 months ago almost look like they must be typos because, to the untrained eye, they look so anemic and unambitious. But once people take a look at where we are now, the goals, while incredibly sad, make more sense. The recent release of the very disappointing but unsurprising RICAS results even has the House Speaker and Senate President finally acknowledging that education is, in fact, a priority. So how is it possible that Mayor Elorza, a city whose schools are in crisis, did not even talk about education in his inaugural address this week? Sure, he mentioned the much needed plans to fix the crumbling buildings. But he did not utter a word about student outcomes. Not a single word about reading. Or writing. Or math. And while he was happy to tell us how bad so many things were four years ago and how much better they are now, he completely hid from the harsh truths that surround the school system’s academic performance. Since he couldn’t say that students were more literate and more numerate now than they were four years ago, he said nothing. That is not leadership.
How bad is it and what goals did Elorza set last year?
The goal for reading was that 33 percent of students would be reading at grade level by 2021. The starting point? 20 percent were reading at grade level.
The goal for math was that 25 percent of students would be doing math at grade level by 2021. The starting point? 14 percent were doing math at grade level.
Those percentages were even worse on the 2018—and first ever—RICAS test: current proficiency in ELA is 14 percent, and math is 10 percent. So, if Elorza wants to stick to his plan and stated goals for 2021 but use the RICAS as the measure, things just got even harder. And maybe that’s why he chose to say nothing.
Mayor Elorza did focus on kindness in his speech and even announce plans for a “City of Kindness” of initiative. But it is unkind to graduate children who can’t read, write, or do math. It is unkind to lie to them and to their families about their academic readiness. And it is unkind to hand out diplomas that, for way too many Providence kids, are meaningless.
As of eleven months ago, the Mayor was honest about the harsh truths that plagued the school system. And later in 2018 he held out for a (albeit undefined) “transformational contract”. At the time of his week’s inaugural, Mayor Elorza knew that only 14 percent of his city’s students read at grade level and only 10 percent do math at grade level. It is an understatement to call it an emergency yet somehow, it got no mention in the first speech of his second term. One can only hope that this one swing and miss on the education front is an isolated case and not a sign of things to come because it is hard to imagine a more important topic for a mayor to talk about than student outcomes—these kids are literally the future of the city and that future will be bleak if we continue to graduate students who can’t read, write, and do math.