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Make Providence schools great again?

As the state prepares to take over the Providence Public School District on Nov. 1, the nitty-gritty around how much the move will cost, who will pay for it, what are the benchmarks for success, and how long the turn around will take remain in largely unmapped, uncharted territories

Image from Infante-Green's Twitter feed

Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green and Providence School Board Chair Nick Hemond share a thumbs-up moment in a recent tweet promoting the state takeover of the Providence schools.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 10/21/19
The absence of evidence-based metrics to measure the success of the state takeover of the Providence public schools beginning on Nov. 1, now extended to an initial five-year period, has raised concerns around accountability moving forward.
How will the state takeover address the issues of structural racism and concentrated poverty endemic to the Providence public school system? Who are all the corporate players who are investing in personalized learning computer software platforms in Rhode Island? Is there a need to develop a new version of Child Opportunity Zones for Rhode Island schools, based on the initiative launched 25 years ago? Is the dependency on teaching to improve performance on standardized tests a false goal? What is the correlation between childhood lead poisoning and poor performance on standardized reading and math scores? Who will be responsible for holding the new Education Commissioner accountable? What are the skills necessary for students to compete for jobs in the 21st century economy? Exactly how will the voices of students, parents and teachers become part of the decision-making process moving forward as part of the state takeover of the Providence public schools?
When Hope High School teacher Betsy Taylor interrupted a news conference called by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, which included Providence School Board Chair Nick Hemond, it changed the dynamics of the conversation – at least for a while. Taylor’s subsequent story in ConvergenceRI, “A teacher speaks her mind,” went viral, resulting in more than 12,000 page views in the first four days following its publication on July 22.
In its aftermath, Mayor Elorza met with Taylor and other teachers; acting Superintendent Gallo met with Taylor, but Commissioner Infante-Green never reached out, a puzzling omission.
The reaction by Infante-Green to three Providence city councilors who had spoken out at the show-cause public meeting, opposing the state takeover because of what they perceived as a lack of accountability in the process, resulted in a display of ire from Infante-Green. The commissioner lashed out in shrill terms, deriding one of the councilors; Infante-Green's behavior appeared to be more like a political commissar than a commissioner.
Infante-Green appeared to be very thin-skinned in her behavior when it came to public criticism of her, a worrisome trait, in ConvergenceRI’s opinion. ConvergenceRI has yet to hear back from Infante-Green responding to a request made two months ago for a one-on-one interview.

PROVIDENCE – We are about to enter a brave new world of education in Rhode Island, with the state officially taking control of the Providence public schools and its roughly 25,000 students on Nov. 1.

[The analogy, brave new world, is meant to be both ironic and damning, a reference to the dystopian novel written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley, imagining a future world in a time called A.F., or After Ford, where babies are manufactured in artificial incubators, and the population is fed a sleep-inducing drug called soma, a soothing, happiness-inducing narcotic to keep them sedated.]

A new turnaround Providence superintendent, from out of state, will be named in the next two weeks, replacing interim Superintendent Frances Gallo, according to R.I. Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green. [Gallo is expected to be retained in a consulting capacity.]

“Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in the history of Providence, and I am excited to begin the work of transforming the city’s schools to serve generations of students and families,” Infante-Green said in a statement on Tuesday, Oct. 15, when the final order for the state takeover was released.

“We know the road ahead will be long and challenging in order to make sustainable, long-term change. We are committed to working tirelessly with educators, students, and the community to develop a plan that moves us in that direction from day one,” Infante-Green said, as reported by WPRI’s Steph Machado.

Public education as a new corporate commodity?
Make no mistake: the future Providence Public School District is being positioned to serve as an incubator on how best to roll out public education reform on a national level, in much the same way that “personalized learning” computer software platforms are currently testing out their educational products in Rhode Island.

The worry, expressed by a number of informed observers, is that public education is being turned into a corporate commodity, much like health care has already become.

It is a self-evident truth that schools offer us one of the best chances to help at-risk students achieve success; it is not just our educational system, but our entire economic system, that is at risk. Translated, if you drop out of high school, you drop out of life.

Generating anger and outrage is easy; creating community-based solutions is much harder work. However, investing in better management, better teachers, and better learning software platforms will not by themselves address the underlying demographic and economic problems besetting Providence. Translated, the high level of concentrated poverty which reinforces the structural racism in Providence’s educational system needs to be addressed.

The demographics of enrollment numbers tell the story: in 2018, 84 percent of 24,201 students in Providence public schools were from low-income families; 16 percent were Black, 66 percent were Hispanic and 4 percent were multi-racial, according to the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook. Further, English learners comprised more than a quarter of all students, at 6,351 students, or 26 percent.

An effort is now under way, led by state Sen. Ryan Pearson, the head of a special Senate task force to study Rhode Island’s education funding formula, which ultimately determines how to allocate roughly $1 billion in annual state funding for K-12 schools, as reported by WPRI’s Eli Sherman.

Who’s on first?
State control will now last for at last five years, according to the recently published written order, bumped up from an original three years that had been initially proposed.

“We are making a commitment of not giving back the school system until the school system is in a stable place,” Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said, in announcing the final order, as reported by WPRI’s Steph Machado. But what does being “in a stable place” actually mean?

Beyond the descriptive phrase of being “in a stable place,” we still do not know what are the measurements, benchmarks and evidence under which control of the Providence public schools will return city officials, including the mayor, the school board and the city council.

Translated, no one knows what “evidence” will be used to make that determination. The decision will be made by Infante-Green, in consultation with a yet-to-be-appointed Providence superintendent, based upon a turnaround plan that has yet to be written [which is expected to made public sometime in January of 2020]. Two other pertinent dates on the timeline: the teachers' union contract expires next year; and Infante-Green's contract is for only three years.

To date, there has been no public discussion of how “stability” or “success” will be measured.

Will such a decision to return control to the city be made based upon improvement in standardized test scores by students? Will the key benchmarks be the improvement in high school graduation rates or in the increase in college acceptance rates? Are there specific skill sets that students will be measured on? All good questions, all of which lack any specific answers.

There have been some big hints dropped about potential future plans:

There is a need to close down some school buildings because they are in poor condition, according to the Commissioner, citing the presence of asbestos, in a recent radio interview. “We probably will have to close a couple of the school buildings,” she said, in talking with the news media on Oct. 15, as reported by Machado. “Some of these buildings really should not have children in them in the present condition that they’re in. That’s the reality.”

The problem, of course, is how to quantify the evidence and share it publicly. The R.I. Department of Education has not yet asked the R.I. Department of Health to do a comprehensive health audit of the public school buildings in Providence, which would provide the accurate evidence of the health threats posed. Will the Providence City Council step up and vote to ask for such a health audit?

There are plans afoot to increase the number of charter schools in Rhode Island, according to Gov. Gina Raimondo, who indicated her support for such a move in a recent interview with CNN commentator David Axelrod. How many charter schools? Who will fund them? Where will they be located? Who will be their corporate backers? What will be the actual costs of expanding charter schools in Rhode Island?

The new Commissioner has also suggested that the district may be reorganized around a K-8 school model, dropping middle schools from the current educational format. Where is the evidence-based research that such a dramatic change will result in better educational outcomes for students?

The new Commissioner has also said that she favors expanding the use of “personalized learning” software platforms throughout Rhode Island, in an interview with The New Yorker in July.

As ConvergenceRI reported in the July 15 story, “The importance of being earnest about education in RI”: Reporter E. Tammy Kim, in the July 10 issue of The New Yorker, in her story entitled “The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning: Untangling the mixed record of the latest big fix educational trend promoted by Silicon Valley,” [detailed] how personalized learning has taken over Rhode Island classrooms. As part of her “nut paragraph” describing the gist of her story, Kim wrote: “But skeptics warn that underneath the language of “student-centered” pedagogy is a tech-intensive model that undermines communal values, accelerates privatization, and turns public schools into big-data siphons.”

Kim continued: “For decades, nonprofit advocacy groups and corporate donors have targeted K-12 education for intervention. The allure of helping disadvantaged children has combined with an openness, on the part of government actors, to private partnerships and technocratic fixes, especially those aimed at disciplining teachers.” [ See link below to ConvergenceRI story.]

The new Commissioner has also promised a higher degree of accountability, particularly for teachers regarding chronic absenteeism. The unasked and unanswered question is: how much of chronic absenteeism by students and teachers is related to health conditions, such as air pollution, substandard housing and sick school buildings?

For instance, one elementary school in Providence, Vartan Gregorian, recently installed an air filtration system because of issues with air pollution that were affecting students and teachers there, apparently related to its proximity to I-195.

Providence, it turns out, has the highest number of child emergency department visits for children with the primary diagnosis of asthma, with 2,779 between 2013-2017, according to the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook, with a rate of 13.3 emergency visits per 1,000 children for a diagnosis of asthma.

Beyond outrage, beyond promises: where is the accountability?
But, without the new Commissioner being clear and transparent about what the goals of success are – other than things said with great rhetorical flourish, the folks leading the charge in the state takeover merely appear to be throwing al dente spaghetti at the wall to see if it will stick.

“If I am reading the new order correctly,” one informed observer commented recently, “the city government and taxpayers basically have to cut a check to RIDE each year for almost $400 million, with no formal input or check on how that is spent.”

The observer continued: “I'm beginning to think that all three public entities – the school board, the city council, and the mayor – have committed a kind of democratic malpractice here, in not slowing all this down and thinking it through.”

The observer remained somewhat optimistic: “While I do think a state takeover offers great opportunities for meaningful change, to me that doesn’t mean we hand [some] 25,000 Providence kids and PPSD employees over to another agency without any sense whatsoever of what they plan to do, and no recourse if what they do is not acceptable to the people of the city.”

Another informed observer said: “There is no accountability, and the system will be in the hands of people who insist that mismanagement, as opposed to funding issues and external effects, are the primary problems to be addressed. So I’d expect a brief improvement while everyone gets their act together to impress the new boss, followed by a long regression to the mean, as it were.”

Pitch-perfect tweets
In the meantime, on Thursday, Oct. 17, in what must be considered a pitch-perfect social media post on Twitter, Infante Green and Nick Hemond, chair of the Providence School Board, posed for a photo showing them giving a thumbs up sign, as if they were liking a post on Facebook, with the following message from the new Commissioner:

“Yesterday was a great day working together for students! Thanks @NickHemond for your partnership. It was great to talk student-centered policy. We all may have perspectives and experiences, but at the end of the day, if we’re putting kids first, amazing things are possible.”

The post received more than 70 likes, with some commentators urging Hemond to run for mayor of Providence.

Metrics, metrics, who has the metrics?
The apparent absence of clear, transparent evidence-based metrics for what the exit strategy will be for the state takeover did not go unnoticed by everyone.

As Peter Simon, retired pediatrician and epidemiologist, tweeted: “Would like to see a discussion on one question: what will the metrics be to track improvement, and what will be the design of the sample to be tracked.”

A recent analysis about concentrated poverty in Rhode Island highlight the difficulties that the state will face in its efforts to turn around the Providence schools:

The most recent analysis of Census data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation for the five-year period 2013-2017 found that Rhode Island has a high percentage of children growing up in communities of concentrated poverty. Some 28,000 kids, 13 percent of all children in Rhode Island, are growing up in neighborhoods where more than 30 percent of the population is living in poverty.

Nor surprisingly, Rhode Island has large racial disparities when it comes to communities of concentrated poverty, including 34 percent of Black children and 32 percent of Hispanic children.

Such analyses should not surprise anyone: the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook found that in Providence, for the five-year period, there were 4,776 children under the age of six living in poverty, 34.7 percent of all children under age six, more than one-third.

Just as the initiative to create health equity zones in Rhode Island is grounded in the research that shows clinical interventions are responsible for only 10 percent of health outcomes, another 10 percent in genetics, and 80 percent of health outcomes are the result of health, social and economic disparities in the community, the same may be true for the public education system.

Translated, the capability of schools to address the prevalence of concentrated poverty in Rhode Island remains an open-ended dilemma.

In an interview following the 2015 publication of her book, The Prize, which detailed efforts to attempt to reform the Newark public school system, former Washington Post reporter Dale Russakoff talked about how politicians were “demagoguing” the question around reforming public education.

According to Russakoff, reformers came in and basically dismissed the community, saying: “We know better, we’re going to fix your schools and fix you and save your kids.”

The main lesson to be found in her book, Russakoff said, was this: “The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability. Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods. Their mantra is that poverty is no excuse. That’s a fair critique of some, true for some people. But if you’re not addressing poverty as part of your plan for education, you’re not going to have an impact.”

Further, Russakoff said in the interview: “If you look at how this money was spent, there wasn’t anything systemic or strategic to address the issues that are keeping kids from learning, no matter how great the teachers and principals are.”

The skills needed to survive
So much of the outcomes and results of the current public education system is predicated upon measuring performance by students on standardized tests. As the state plunges ahead with seizing control of the Providence public schools, for those who believe in the value of standardized tests, there was a worrisome story written by reporter Valerie Strauss published in The Washington Post on Friday, Oct. 18. The story detailed how many colleges and universities are consdiering dropping the use SAT or ACT test scores as part of their admissions requirements.

Strauss wrote: “For students who fear they can’t get into college with mediocre SAT or ACT scores, the tide is turning at a record number of schools that have decided to accept all or most of their freshmen without requiring test results.

“Meanwhile, two Ivy League schools have decided that many of their graduate school programs do not need a test score for admissions, fresh evidence of growing disenchantment among educational institutions with using high-stakes tests as a factor in accepting and rejecting students.

“And the nine-campus University of California system is studying whether to continue using test scores in admissions and, if so, which exams. Famously, a 2001 proposal by then-UC President Richard C. Atkinson to stop using the SAT for admissions spurred the College Board, which owns the test, to add an essay component in 2005 [although it was later dropped as an admissions requirement by many schools after it failed to produce the results they hoped for].

“It may not quite have reached a tipping point, but the admissions world is clearly grappling with the use of standardized tests in admissions.

“Research has consistently shown that ACT and SAT scores are strongly linked to family income, mother’s education level and race. The College Board and ACT Inc., which owns the ACT, say their tests are predictive of college success, but [as with many “education issues] there is also research showing otherwise.

“The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest, just analyzed SAT scores for the high school class of 2019. It reported that the gaps between demographic groups grew larger from a year earlier, with the average scores of students from historically disenfranchised groups falling further behind students from more privileged families.”

Translated, if colleges and universities are now abandoning standardized tests as requirements for admissions, how will that change the emphasis by the state of Rhode Island in designing curriculum to achieving better outcomes in testing?


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