Farewell Message

How to make R.I. schools better (first published April 4, 2019)

Improving Rhode Island’s education system is a long-haul journey. The needs are urgent. But, although progress can and should happen now, lasting change takes time.

Massachusetts achieved success in education only because it stayed the course for years.

Staying the course on a long journey means maintaining the destination and route, even when a new driver takes the wheel. Rhode Island has never done this. Now is our chance.

We’ve spent the last four years paving the road so the destination and route are clear. Maintain high expectations for all kids; invest in high-quality pre-K; invest in curriculum and ongoing professional learning for teachers; build strong academic and social/emotional foundations for students; offer career pathways for students; maintain school buildings.

Students are on track if they can read well by third grade, understand fractions by fifth grade, manage emotions and relationships, and begin academic and hands-on preparation for college and careers by high school.

Education is not someone else’s problem. The challenges are in Chariho as well as Providence, Warwick as well as Central Falls. Every community in Rhode Island underperforms dramatically.

The Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System scores accomplished exactly what we intended. Comparing ourselves to Seekonk generated interest and outrage in a way never before accomplished. There is no reason that proficiency should drop 15 percentage points when you cross state lines.

The truth, however, is that Rhode Island scores in 2018 mirror Massachusetts scores in 1998. Massachusetts started sooner, and stayed the course.

We must not mistake the dashboard (the scores) for the engine (high expectations, curriculum, teaching, and professional learning). We have ignored the engine for far too long. In fact, the engine of Rhode Island’s educational system had stalled.

Our engine will run smoothly when we close four gaps — the belief, opportunity, quality and achievement gaps. We must believe all students can do what too many of us do not yet think possible; we must challenge and support kids in their struggle; and we must hold ourselves accountable for results.

If we have a single crisis in education, it is a crisis of leadership. We are all responsible. Staring at Rhode Island test scores and blaming someone else is like staring at the dashboard of a stalled car and blaming the person down the road.

Don’t just stare at the dashboard; fuel the engine.

Teachers, keep believing in, listening to, challenging, and preparing your students. Make sure you have the skills necessary for the task.

Students and families, remember that a high-quality education is a civil right. Demand more and better.

School and district leaders, focus every day on curriculum, teaching and ongoing professional learning. Listen to your teachers, students and families. When you cannot do it all or do it well, find and embrace alternatives — even if you lose funding in the short-term to another education provider. It’ll make you stronger in the long run.

Higher education, your faculty and teacher preparation candidates must understand deeply the standards and curriculum that will be taught in Rhode Island’s classrooms.

Unions leaders, you will be stronger if you allow members more autonomy on work rules. One size never fits all.

Elected officials, stay the course and step in only when you add value.

Media, you are the first teachers of the public, just as families are the first teachers of our students. You have the same awesome responsibility, and you deserve the same awesome respect.

To the Rhode Island Department of Education team, thank you for the drive and talent you bring to the work every day.

To my successor, Angélica Infante-Green, welcome. You will take us to amazing places we have not yet seen. Get as far down the road as you can, as fast as you can, but as slow as you must.

That’s what I’ve tried to do. Less drama; more steady, useful, permanent change.

Let’s keep going.

Ken Wagner is Rhode Island’s outgoing commissioner of elementary and secondary education