Any time there is energy in the Rhode Island legislature about substantive education reforms, there is reason to cheer just a little. God knows we haven’t been busting out the pom poms over our state’s student outcomes in decades—if ever—but the wake up call of last year’s RICAS results seems to have finally awoken the sleeping bears on Smith Hill.
Tomorrow is a big day for education in our little state as leaders from the House and Senate will appear together at the statehouse to “unveil a package of education reform bills.” It’s unlikely it will have everything it should but there is reason to be optimistic that the proposed legislation, if passed, will set us up for much greater success than we have seen in generations. Or perhaps ever.
My Wish List—Here’s what I hope to see in the education bills. A girl can dream, right?
Principals can’t run their buildings if they aren’t given the autonomy to do so. They need to be the ones making the hiring decisions—and the firing decisions. They know what’s happening on the ground and are closest to teachers, students, and families. They should not have to ask the school committee for permission to do what they believe is best for the schools they have been hired—and trusted— to run. And they should not be bound by rules of seniority on any hiring or staffing matter. If the best person to lead the department is not the most senior, so be it. If the special educator who has successfully built relationships with students that are bearing fruit, we cannot allow a senior person to bump them out of that job. All decisions must be driven by what is best for students—making decisions based on seniority makes that impossible. Principals know that.
Fix Certification — Or Better Yet, Just Get Rid of It
The goal has to be improving teacher quality and dramatically elevating the teaching profession. We can only do that by eliminating arbitrary barriers to entry into the profession and offering flexible pathways that will attract talent into the profession.
We need to be recruiting and retaining great teachers. There is zero evidence that holding a state certification leads to better outcomes for students—on the contrary, it impedes our ability to create a real teacher pipeline and put the best educators we can in front of our students. Rhode Island College produces approximately 70 percent of the state’s teachers but they are graduating almost zero chemistry, biology, and physics teachers each year. Last year they produced fewer than 10 math teachers. It is not an overstatement to say that we literally have NO pipeline for STEM in our state. It’s also not an overstatement to say that less than 25 percent of our students currently do math at grade level. The status quo is not only unsustainable but fundamentally broken.
Stay the Course
In the past, every time RI has shown signs of being bold, special interests have successfully beat back much needed reforms. We can’t let that happen. We need to maintain high standards. We need to stick with RICAS. We need to stay the course.
Make Collective Bargaining Negotiations Public
Collective bargaining agreements rely 100 percent on taxpayer dollars and taxpayers deserve to see the negotiations unfold in real time. Many of us complain about language in teacher contracts but those documents carry the signature of school committee members and superintendents. Let us, the constituents and taxpayers, watch the process and listen to the promises —and concessions—as they are being made.
Guarantee Evidence Based Reading Instruction to All Students in K-3
There is a reason that, year after year, only one third of our students read at grade level—we aren’t teaching them to read properly. And once they hit 4th grade without the reading skills they need, it is extremely hard for them to catch up. But every year, students move on to 4th, 5th, 6th and even 10th grade with reading skills that, at best, would qualify them as ‘partially literate.’ Science based reading instruction is proven to work with English Language Learners as well as students with dyslexia, the largest disability group we have. And readers who don’t struggle with reading at all benefit from science based methods as well—this is a win win. But early elementary teachers need to be trained in structured literacy methods or it cannot work. If ever there were a way to blow up the school-to-prison pipeline, it is teaching kids—all kids—to read. It is not a coincidence that The Literacy Project Foundation found that three out of five people in U.S. prisons can’t read and 85 percent of juvenile offenders have trouble reading”. Other research has estimated that illiteracy rates in prisons are as high as 75 percent of the prison population. There is no greater example of social justice than teaching all children to read. It must be a top priority for elected officials.
Ensure Diplomas are Meaningful
Guarantee that every diploma given out in the state of Rhode Island actually means something—at the moment, just a quick look at our graduation rate and our college/career ready metrics tells us that far too many of our diplomas lack integrity. Let’s ask ourselves: How can we have a district where only ten percent of students read and write at grade level but 78 percent graduate? And how can we as a state claim an 83 percent graduation rate when only 34 percent of our students read and write at grade level and only 27 percent do math at grade level?
I don’t know the right answer as to how we guarantee meaningful diplomas but I do know that it has to happen. Maybe it’s a minimum score on RICAS, maybe it’s a minimum score on the SAT, maybe it’s some other proficiency based standard—but we cannot, in good conscience, continue to lie to students—and their parents—by giving them diplomas that misrepresent their skills and far too often set them up for disappointment and failure after the graduation parties wind down. While some may say making kids pass a test to graduate is Draconian, I could make the argument that not doing so is far more Draconian. High schools don’t have to worry about what happens to their students after graduation but the rest of us do.
Criminalize Sex Between Teachers and Students
It is currently legal for teachers and other school employees to have “consensual” sexual intercourse with the students in their care once they turn 16. It is also legal for teachers and school staff to sexually touch students when they are 14, if they have “given consent.” Most Rhode Islanders—parents and teachers included—are shocked to find this out. I certainly was. Now that we know, we have an obligation to fix it.
This is not an exhaustive list but it is what jumps to the front of my mind in anticipation of tomorrow’s education pow wow at the state house. Let’s hope at least a few of my wishes come true.