Sara Bohnsack MAT'11 leads a game of word jeopardy in a fifth-grade classroom at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence. "If I told you that you'd never have to do homework again, some of you might respond by doing this," she reads from a clue. Some of the students act out the correct vocabulary word — "cheer" — which a boy in the front row spells out loud.
The students wear navy and khaki uniforms befitting the school's namesake, a black sea captain. They face a whiteboard, above which triangular college flags — Brown's included — are posted as reminders of a college-bound future. Paul Cuffee's student population is 89 percent minority and 77 percent below the poverty line. And when compared to neighboring Providence schools, the proportion of its students scoring proficient on standardized tests in math and reading is nearly 30 percent higher.
Only 2 percent of Rhode Island students attend charter schools like Paul Cuffee, where 973 students entered a lottery this spring in hopes of being selected for one of 39 open spots. The vast majority of students in Rhode Island attend public schools, where student achievement differs dramatically across the state's 36 districts. For every high-achieving district like Barrington and East Greenwich, there is another like Providence, in which under half the district's 26,000 students were proficient in reading, and only one-third demonstrated proficiency in math.
Rhode Island has trailed neighboring New England states in student performance in recent decades. But the arrival of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist in July 2009 brought a new sense of urgency to the push for reform. With Gist at the helm, the state won $75 million in federal education aid last August, taking fifth place in President Barack Obama's Race to the Top program. Last June, the state adopted an education funding formula, which, beginning July 1, will apportion aid based on student enrollment and the number of students in poverty. And two weeks ago, the state's top governing body on education voted to adopt tougher high school graduation requirements effective in 2014.
The biggest question, according to Warren Simmons, executive director of Brown's Annenberg Institute for School Reform, is whether the momentum will continue under Gov. Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14. Chafee, elected last fall with support from the state's two largest teachers unions, was the only gubernatorial candidate who did not express full support for Gist's reforms. "I think the question will be pace of the change and tone, particularly when there are hard decisions to be made given the continuing effect of the economy on state and local budgets," Simmons said.
‘A sense of accountability'
Just 15 minutes away from Paul Cuffee is Central Falls High School, which became a flashpoint in the national education reform debate almost a year ago. After the district's teachers union rejected Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo's demands to transform the failing school, Gallo fired all of the school's teachers Feb. 12, 2010. Nearly three months later, they were all rehired — but only after agreeing to work a longer school day, eat lunch with students, provide extra tutoring and attend weekly 90-minute professional development sessions.
During the stand-off last March, Obama weighed in. "If a school continues to fail year after year after year and doesn't show sign of improvements, then there has got to be a sense of accountability. That happened in Rhode Island," he said in a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Central Falls is Rhode Island's smallest and poorest city, with nearly 19,000 people living within 1.29 square miles. Roughly four in 10 children there live in poverty. Also mired in debt, Central Falls was forced into state receivership last July.
About 50 percent of the students at Central Falls High graduate.
"I believe we're making headway," Gallo said of the school. Since the firings, the school has audited its curriculum, reevaluated its teachers, adopted a strategic plan and agreed to have its transformation process overseen by outside evaluators.
But problems remain. On average, 14 teachers on a staff of 89 call in absent each day, Gallo said.
Deloris Grant, an English and drama teacher who has taught at Central Falls High for 14 years, said she thinks the climate at the school has improved since the firings. But high staff turnover is still a big problem, she said, as are demographics.
"The actual reality is that we service kids that are not similar to the kids in Lincoln, the kids in Cumberland, in Barrington and all the high-performing schools," Grant said. "For anyone to believe that a child who lives in poverty is going to learn the same as another child who goes home every day to a hot meal and is sent off with warm clothing — it's ridiculous."
Report cards and requirements
According to the Nation's Report Card, a national assessment of student performance in multiple subjects administered every two years, Rhode Island consistently lags behind other New England states. In fourth grade reading, it placed 23rd out of 50 states, while four other New England states ranked in the top five. Rhode Island placed 34th in eighth grade science and 38th in eighth grade mathematics, according to 2009 test results.
"In Rhode Island, we've had wonderful assessment systems, but we haven't had the funding levels required to support and invigorate reform," Simmons said. "Massachusetts not only adopted high standards — they invested heavily in education reform over the last decade."
The fact that Rhode Island funds its schools disproportionately through property taxes — which generate more money for schools in areas with higher property values — exacerbates inequality across districts, Simmons said.
Another reason for Massachusetts' success is tougher graduation requirements, according to Gist. Under Rhode Island's newly approved requirements, which Gist strongly supported, high school juniors must score at least partially proficient on the New England Common Assessment Program or improve on the test their senior year to graduate. During the most recent round of testing last October, 38 percent of the state's juniors received scores indicating they lack fundamental math skills.
The focus on standardized testing, Gist said, is a matter of accountability.
Testing allows education officials to "set an expectation statewide for what performance is and what kind of skills and knowledge we want students to have when they graduate," she said. "Right now, the reality is that what is considered to be algebra in Woonsocket may not be the same as the algebra in Westerly."
Sticking to the plan
The state's ambitious strategic plan — which goes hand-in-hand with its Race to the Top application — lays out objectives for all schools to meet state performance targets by 2015 and for 85 percent of students to graduate and proceed to higher education, vocational training or employment by the same year. Last January, Gist announced six persistently under-performing schools in Central Falls and Providence that would be required to undergo state-supervised transformation, a move that set the stage for the dramatic firings in Central Falls. Gist said she plans to name five additional low-achieving schools in the coming weeks.
The strategic plan also focuses on teacher performance. Under the plan, 75 percent of educators will be evaluated using an assessment system that takes into account student achievement by 2012.
The state currently lacks a comprehensive evaluation system for identifying ineffective teachers, according to Maryellen Butke, executive director of R.I. Campaign for Achievement Now, an education reform policy and advocacy organization started in December. In most districts, teachers are hired and fired based
on a seniority system codified in union contracts, whereby new teachers are first to be fired and last to be rehired after layoffs.
"How do we make sure that just because you've recently graduated and you're the first in, that you won't be the first out if you're getting amazing results?" Butke said. "That doesn't make sense."
Rhode Island's Race to the Top application calls for teachers to be hired and assigned to schools based on credentials set by education officials rather than seniority by August 2013. Gist has directed education officials to demand the change in new collective bargaining agreements with teachers unions, most of which are slated to be renegotiated this year.
‘A voice at the table'
When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke at the National Education Conference in Denver Feb. 16, he singled out the relationship between Providence Superintendent Tom Brady and Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith as a model of collaboration between labor and management. Under Smith's leadership, the Providence Teachers Union was the first union to sign on to Rhode Island's Race to the Top proposal. Labor cooperation was among the criteria for successful Race to the Top applications.
Exactly one week after Duncan's speech, Mayor Angel Taveras fired all 1,926 Providence teachers, citing the dire state of the city's finances and strict seniority rules that would limit the city's ability to retain the best teachers, regardless of tenure. Smith called the move a "back-door Wisconsin" at a Feb. 24 Providence School Board meeting.
"There are tremendous financial constraints, but that doesn't alter the fact that next year Providence is going to have 20,000 kids that need and deserve an education," said Frank Flynn, a 34-year veteran Cranston teacher and the president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, the state's second-largest teachers union.
"The teachers need to have a voice at the table," he said, adding that reformers must take into account the perspectives of the teachers who work in classrooms every day.
Flynn pointed to the $5 million Investing in Innovation federal stimulus grant the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers received to develop new teacher evaluation standards in six cities as an example of how unions and administrators can work together. Another example is in Providence, where Brady and the Providence Teachers Union have spent two years working on a plan for transforming failing schools, he said.
While Flynn is not completely opposed to eliminating seniority, he said it must be replaced by an evaluation system that protects teachers' rights. Hiring and firing decisions must be "defensible and quantifiable," he said.
But the current system just isn't working, according to Gallo. "When the contract becomes so convoluted that due process takes a few years before you can move a teacher who is absolutely ineffective, then something's wrong with the picture," she said.
With seniority under attack due to state budget crunches and recently elected Republican governors determined to take on public employee unions, the president of the national union affiliated with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, Randi Weingarten, proposed a plan Feb. 24 to change the system. Weingarten called for giving teachers deemed ineffective by administrators one academic year to improve. If teachers do not improve, they can be fired within 100 days, according to Weingarten's proposal.
Setting the pace
Though a new player in Rhode Island's education policy, the governor is the most important in determining the pace and tone of future reform. Chafee was elected with strong support from the state's major teachers unions, which put their organizing muscle behind the independent's campaign, helping him win a 36 percent plurality in the four-way race.
During his gubernatorial bid, Chafee said he does not support all the reforms called for under the state's Race to the Top plan. Education Secretary Duncan has said Race to the Top funds might not be granted if states fail to honor their plans.
"The very idea that this governor wants to materially slow down or reverse school reform couldn't be further from the truth," said Mike Trainor, Chafee's communications director. "He just has his own sense of how and how fast education reform should appropriately proceed."
Trainor pointed out that the state's teachers unions supported Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., in Chafee's 2006 Senate re-election campaign and have never endorsed Chafee prior to the recent election.
In a budget address March 8, Chafee announced his intention to fully fund the state's new education funding formula, which allocates more money to schools than was apportioned through the old system. Rhode Island had been the only state without such a formula. Chafee has also voiced a desire to observe a "thoughtful pause" on charter schools — which are largely non-unionized — in order to assess their effectiveness. Last March, the General Assembly almost doubled the state's cap on charter schools in order to better position Rhode Island to win Race to the Top funds.
Chafee also made new appointments to the Rhode Island Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education by removing four strong supporters of Gist's reforms and placing George Caruolo, a politically savvy former Rhode Island House majority leader, as its chair.
Caruolo has questioned the recent pace of reform. "It's not as important to get all of this work done in the next 15 minutes," he said in a March 1 Providence Journal article, "as it is to get it done correctly."
There was media speculation about whether Chafee would remove Gist, who has stated publicly that she will stay in Rhode Island as long as she is wanted and feels she can proceed with reform efforts. In January, RI-CAN sent Chafee a letter signed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Joel Klein, former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, urging him to keep Gist.
Trainor said Chafee will honor Gist's contract, but would not comment on whether the governor will renew it when it expires June 2013. As for charter schools, the governor wants to see additional data on their performance before proceeding with new schools and is concerned that additional charters might detract from the state's focus on public education.
"This governor is first, last and always a proponent of the public school system in the state," Trainor said, adding that local schools should not be "force-fed decrees from either the state or the federal level."