Rhode Island is officially getting a new Commissioner of Education and while the process took place far from the public eye, Angelica Infante-Green is a superb pick at a time that Rhode Island really needs one. Yes, it is a tad insulting that Governor Raimondo and her team will be introducing us to Infante-Green at a public event tomorrow, before there has even been a vote on her appointment, but it does us no good to hold that against the appointee. We have urgent work to do and it is incumbent upon us to separate any lack of transparency in the process from the impressive and accomplished leader that has agreed to take the reigns of our schools and make our state her home.
Welcome Angelica Infante-Green! The name is already familiar to those of us who follow education outside of Rhode Island—she was was one of three finalists for the same job in Massachusetts just last year and while she wasn’t chosen for that job, she received the second highest number of votes and impressed a lot of people during their very public process. I watched that process carefully—including Infante Green’s public interview—and when I heard that she was a likely candidate to succeed Ken Wagner, my immediate reaction was both positive and grateful. While we are faced with plenty of educational challenges here in The Ocean State, our most urgent and pressing need is arguably our English Language Learners—as Dan McGowan reports, “last year’s RICAS results showed just 5.8% of the state’s ELL students were proficient in math compared to 30.3% for students who have never been involved in ELL courses.” McGowan goes on to say that “Infante-Green has spent the bulk of her career working to strengthen ELL programs in New York, including opening a middle school for Students with Interrupted/Inconsistent Formal Education (SIFE) and newly-arrived ELLs. She also helped author the state’s “Blueprint for English Language Learners’ Success.”
That is huge. Not only is she a Latina and the first in her family to go to college, but she started out in the classroom with Teach for America and has been an educator ever since. She knows the immigrant experience firsthand. She speaks both English and Spanish and is raising bilingual children. She is the mother of a child with autism. And she has personally lived the experience of rising out of poverty by way of a high quality education. Infante-Green checks a lot of the boxes that parents—right or wrong— look for in an educational leader and with the state’s burgeoning hispanic population and the ELL crisis in Providence and beyond, her personal experience and professional expertise are especially significant.
But let’s not put on the rose colored glasses just yet either. Linda Borg wrote in the Providence Journal that New York “has seen graduation rates blossom during her tenure: English proficiency rates in grades 3-5 jumped by 16 percentage points for black students and 15 points for Latino students between 2015 and 2018.” Let’s pump the brakes a bit Linda—while the gains in high school graduation rates are noteworthy, so is the fact that New York lowered its graduation standards in 2016.
The good news is that we, in Rhode Island, can now benefit from the very public and thorough process Angelica Infante-Green’s went through during her 2018 Massachusetts bid for commissioner. There are written pieces as well as a video of her almost two hour interview with the board of education and it all helps us get a sense of who she is and what she brings to the table. The interview is highly substantive and provides an important window into her priorities, experience, and vision—the full video is provided below but here are some of the highlights, as reported by Commentary Magazine:
On Parent Choice
Commentary Magazine reported in January of 2018 that Infante-Green “called charter schools ‘part of a tool kit’ of options in public education. ‘My belief is that every parent and every family should have access to a high quality instructional program,’ said Infante-Green. ‘I think charters is one of those options.’ The same magazine went on to say that “Infante-Green emphasized the dire choices families face in searching for a good school – and the lengths to which they will go on behalf of their children – with the story of her own childhood. She described the school options when she was growing up in Brooklyn as a better school “up the hill” and a struggling school down the hill.”
She called testing “an important part of our accountability system” and how schools “take the temperature of what’s happening.” She agreed, however, that math and English testing were narrowing the curriculum and said extending the school day could be one way to address it.
On her son with autism
“You will not hear me say ‘disabled,’” she said. When we use that term, “we’ve almost placed a cap on what a kid can do,” she said. One of her achievements in New York was the development of the nation’s first dual language program for students with autism.
The disappointing news in all of this is that our governor thinks that a press release with expressions of support from people outside of our state—with two exceptions—is all that we, the public, deserve. And I’m the first to say that an executive can and should have the power to make important decisions like this one—but that doesn’t pair well with the governor’s promise that her administration would be “the most transparent Rhode Island has ever seen.” When only the “in crowd” gets to play, trust is broken right out of the gate and this is such an unforced error at a time that we need to be deliberate about building consensus. And now it will fall to Infante-Green to do the hard work of rebuilding it — one does have to wonder who was in charge of this roll out? There are so many smart, knowledgable, and experienced people in the education space in Rhode Island who are also parents with kids in schools—one or two of them could have at least been in the loop in a public way and served as credible messengers on a day like today. Instead, we get a press release with two local leaders who essentially regurgitated biographical information about Infante-Green already included in every news story this morning and then adorned it with some hyperbole and opinion.
I will close with the Governor’s own words, from a press release, since this choice was hers:
Rhode Island has an urgent need to improve schools and close achievement gaps for our students, and I believe that Angélica can help push our state forward. Her passion for education and her commitment to equity as an educator, leader, Latina, and mother are unmatched, and I look forward to working with her to stay the course on a long-term, comprehensive education strategy that is focused on the needs of every student in Rhode Island.
Nothing is official until the board votes on March 26th but on substance, I am very pleased with the selection of Angelica Infante-Green, grateful that she is willing to take the job, and hopeful that this is the beginning of the “stay the course, long term, comprehensive education strategy” that the Governor eludes to in her statement and has been needed for so long.
And a big thank you to outgoing commissioner Ken Wagner for his commitment to the students of Rhode Island and for the work he has done to set up his successor—Infante-Green— for success.
Here is an additional video of Infante-Green talking about what will be important to her as commissioner: