Wagner starts to shake up school game

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After nearly two years of listening to Rhode Islanders and learning the ropes, Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner is changing the game and among other changes, issuing an open challenge to CCRI.

Traditionally, the commissioner delivers a State of Education Address at the State House. Not this year. And when does the commissioner, after delivering an address, take questions from students who end up making headlines?

Wagner is now on the road visiting media outlets and fielding their questions. Last week he stopped at Beacon Communications, leaving no doubt that he plans to take on CCRI for “their addiction to remediation” that he believes stunts the ambition and financial resources of students entering the college.

Wagner's State of Education Address mirrored his philosophy of a very student-centered, hands-on education for Rhode Island's students. Wagner picked Davies Career and Technical High School in Lincoln to make the address that featured a student showcase in which 11 different schools from around the state participated. After the address, there was a question and answer session, which utilized questions that had been submitted from students.

Wagner said his focus remains creating exciting opportunities for kids, engaging them in their education by including the chance for experiential, hands-on, applied learning opportunities. He listed several new partnership opportunities, with both businesses and community partners, something that he believes is critical to strengthening the education model in the state. He cited examples which included including the new six-year P-Tech programs, which allow students to earn a high school diploma, an associate's degree from CCRI and a job opportunity with the business partner, such as jobs in computer science with CVS in Woonsocket, in healthcare with Lifespan in North Providence, in Information Technology with FM Global and United Natural Foods in Providence, in cybersecurity with SENEDIA and defense employers in Newport, and advanced manufacturing with Electric Boat in Westerly.

Although Wagner has not come into his position making broad, sweeping changes, he said one area where he has seen some resistance is in the area of school choice, where he believes giving families the opportunities to choose the schools which are the best fit for their students creates a healthy competition, which serves to make schools and districts work harder and improve to be the best they can be.

"The goal is not to undermine the district system," he said. "It is designed to make the district stronger."

He cited a model utilized by Denver Public Schools, an urban, mid-sized declining school district who chose to partake in a Portfolio Model.

"The idea being that the money isn't ours, it's owned by the school district and we can provide our students with a portfolio of options. The Denver Public Schools worked together with their charter schools, private schools and public schools which gave the community more confidence in their city and their school system and more families tried the public schools. Their enrollment went up," he said. "Let's be open to our options, let them strengthen us."

He noted that oftentimes in communities where there are a higher percentage of charter schools, the school quality of the public schools goes up due to the external pressures from those choosing to attend charter schools.

He did agree that the policy of "the money following the child" from school to school across the state has caused significant financial woes for districts who have high-performing, high-quality programs, but who are losing students who wish to attend other schools who have same exact programs, with or without the same high ratings as their neighborhood school, under the school choice policy. He explained that the policy is being examined currently, and was in place prior to his arriving in Rhode Island.

Wagner said there are 13 charters remaining in Rhode Island before the state cap is reached.

"We will focus most on the communities with higher need," he said.

When asked about the prospect of combining and consolidating districts, Wagner stated that the consolidation model does not usually save money, but that sharing services, such as professional development and curriculum resources between districts does tend to save money.

Regarding the state's aging and deteriorating school buildings, Wagner agreed that the situation is dire, and that a long-standing history of not keeping up with building issues all along the way, is resulting in big problems now.

"There has been a lot of deferred maintenance," he stated.

He noted that there would be some funding in the next budget for community projects, with prioritization of projects based on need, per an audit, which has taken place. He said $80 million has been set aside per year for priority projects and that eventually he can foresee a time when there will be more project proposals submitted than available money for completing them.

Wagner's laid-back, easy-going nature was a bit more aggressive however, when he began to speak about post-secondary opportunities for students, and the issue he sees with such large numbers of students being placed into remediation classes prior to their being able to take college-level classes, and the income revenue that the schools are seeing from these students before they are even able to begin pursuing their degrees.

He specifically cited the Community College of Rhode Island's math department as being one of the worst offenders, "addicted to remediation," and he is willing to go to battle with the school over the issue.

"Having remediation as a pre-requisite for students is a loser for our students," he said, and he noted that high schools and colleges are beginning to see the impact of placing students into remedial classes post-high school, and have begun trying to rethink the process and the standards by which students are being placed into such classes. Instead, Wagner believes that more differentiated instruction and targeted remediation should be taking place within the college courses, reaching students where they are at, and personalizing their remediation for them, rather than having them take self-guided remediation classes in a math lab on a computer on campus, repeatedly, until passing, to the tune of a cost of thousands of dollars per student.

He hopes that CCRI is up for the challenge in regards to giving up their addiction to remediation.

"I want to have that fight with CCRI," he said.

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