Study: Why education policy in R.I. should look more like Mass.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Governance. Testing. Autonomy.

If Rhode Island wants to improve educational outcomes, it should follow Massachusetts’ lead by increasing state-level influence over large-sale school policies, make standardized testing part of its high school graduation requirements and give principals more power over everyday classroom decisions, according to a new study from the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC).

In a 57-page report released Thursday, RIPEC makes the case that state policy – not funding or socioeconomic factors – is one of the key reasons Rhode Island lags far behind its neighbor to the north when it comes to student performance.

The detailed analysis comes as lawmakers begin to consider a slew of proposed changes to the education landscape in Rhode Island, from school funding to charter schools as well as a new proposal from Education Commissioner Ken Wagner to give individual public schools more decision-making authority and potentially open the doors to enhanced school choice.

RIPEC, a nonprofit think tank, doesn’t take a position on any of the proposed policies currently in front of the General Assembly, but it does make a series of recommendations for why the state should adopt certain education guidelines followed in Massachusetts.

In other words, rather than calling its study “Understanding Institutional Differences in Education Governance,” RIPEC might as well have called it “How to be more like Massachusetts.”

Among the proposed changes RIPEC suggests:

• Rhode Island should promote “system-wide alignment and increasing the degree of state-level influence, guidance, and/or control over certain key education functions,” including curriculum development, teacher evaluation and professional development.

In Massachusetts, the study suggests, the education commissioner plays more of an active role when it comes to helping local school districts understand and incorporate state-level objectives into their classrooms.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island’s commissioner is largely restricted to advising the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education on policymaking, but it largely leaves the implementation of state policies in the hands of local districts. (This is a common complaint from school districts across the state.)

• Rhode Island should use a standardized exam as one component of its high school graduation requirements. RIPEC argues that the state can only get the full benefit of increasing state-level influence over education if there is a “mechanism for accountability.” Massachusetts uses the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) for its high school graduation requirement, although the state is planning to create a hybrid test that will also incorporate parts of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) exam.

During a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers last week, Wagner said Rhode Island will begin using a test for its high school graduation requirements for the class of 2021. But on Wednesday, Gov. Gina Raimondo refused to say whether she believes the state will ultimately use testing as part of its diploma policy.

• Rhode Island should approve policies that “serve to empower local school-based officials, such as principals, to make school-level decisions and move the state closer to the school-based management model.”

Wagner has proposed the creation of “empowerment schools” to give individual public schools “unprecedented levels of regulatory and statutory flexibility,” which could include control over budgeting, hiring and firing of faculty, instruction policies and the school calendar. These schools would need to be approved by two-thirds of the teachers in the school as well as the local school committee.

The study argues that while Rhode Island and Massachusetts have similar demographics – Rhode Island has a higher percentage of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, while Massachusetts has more English language learners (ELL) and students in individualized education programs (IEP) – and both states rank among the top 10 in the country in per-pupil expenditures, there is a wide gap when it comes to student outcomes.

On the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment, about 40% of Rhode Island fourth graders scored at or above proficient in reading, compared with 50% in Massachusetts. (The national average was 35%). Among eighth graders, 35% of students in Rhode Island were proficient in reading, compared to 46% in Massachusetts. (The national average was 33%.)

On the math section of the NAEP, 37% of Rhode Island fourth graders were proficient, compared with 54% in Massachusetts and 39% nationally. In eighth grade, 32% of Rhode Island students were proficient, compared with 51% in Massachusetts and 32% nationally.

The PARCC results were even more striking.

Although only about half of the communities in Massachusetts took the PARCC in 2015, students there far outperformed students in Rhode Island. About 37% of Rhode Island students in grades three through eight met or exceeded expectations on the English language arts (ELA) section of the exam and 28% were proficient in math. In Massachusetts, 60% of students were proficient in ELA and 52% were proficient in math.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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