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Total Dysfunction in Providence, R.I., Schools? Here's Some Context You Need to Know

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A damning report painting a picture of near complete dysfunction in Providence, R.I., schools has quickly become a national sensation and raised calls for immediate action by parents and policymakers alike.

The 93-page audit from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, conducted at the request of the state, points to unclear lines of authority and communication in the 24,000-student district; a teacher contract that constricts hiring and firing; and schools in terrible states of disrepair. It all boils down to the fact that academics are far too weak, too many teachers feel unsupported, and too many students aren't learning and are disengaged.

It is a terribly painful read. But it's an important one, underscoring a point that's easy to lose sight of in the ongoing battles over funding, charter schools, and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: Despite overall improvement, some urban districts serving many vulnerable students continue to underperform. 

What you might not realize perusing this report is that, as awful as these findings are, many of them are not new. They have simply been hiding in plain sight. Even the state's education leaders have acknowledged as much at press conferences in the wake of the report.

And that deserves a little more context, so let's dig in.

Governance matters. Perhaps the headline finding of this report is that there are at least five different, competing entities that are asserting power over the school system, making it difficult to proceed on any set of changes or reforms. (They consist of the mayor, the Providence city council, the school board, the superintendent, and the state department of education). It's hard to overstate how bizarre this is, but there's an entire appendix detailing which of these entities view the others as obstacles or competitors. 

But the writing has been on the wall about this for a while: The district has been utterly unable to keep a superintendent for more than a few years, churning through three in the last decade alone. As local newspapers have reported, many departing superintendents cited meddling from City Hall and the mayor's office, which controls the school budgetary process, as part of the reason. (Then-mayor Angel Taveras, for example, was fingered as the driving force behind a decision, in 2011, to pink-slip every Providence teacher during a wobbly budget period, though most of the notices were later rescinded.)

A pitch perfect example of the way this plays out even in mundane ways has to do with procurement. Nothing is less sexy than procurement, and yet nothing matters more in terms of getting basic supplies, repairs, and textbooks into classrooms. And in Providence, any expense over $5,000 has to go through both the city council and the school board—a process that can take two or more years for even minor purchases.

Student and parent engagement are too low. Students are not engaged, with students as young as 3rd grade appearing to give up on their own learning. In other classes, teachers were  exclusively focused on those students who were most engaged and ignoring others, who were playing on their phones, not participating in tests, and so on. English-language learners seem to be particularly ill-served by too few teachers with not enough support, resources, or training. And the overall feeling, by both students and teachers, that schools aren't safe is contributing to this lack of engagement.

One of the subtexts here is pretty disturbing: A fair few pointed towards the district's large English-language-learner population as the reason for poor performance, rather than seeing the performance as a symptom of students in need. Parent engagement appears to be very low, too. That's partly because of the complicated lines of authority. But the auditors also found that the lack of engagement, especially for the city's Latino parents and ELL community, was an accepted feature of the system.

To quote one of the report's most damning lines: "The lack of parent input was striking on its own, but the widespread acceptance of this marginalization was of particular note."

The city might do well to take a look at Minneapolis, which is training parents of color to serve as emissaries to those communities, per my colleague Denisa Superville.

The teacher contract constricts teacher quality. Let me be perfectly clear here: Contracts are a joint responsibility between a district and its teachers' union, so both share some responsibility for problems in this area. In fact, the report notes that the mayor took over the city's most recent round of contract negotiations, normally conducted by the school board, yet again compounding the list of actors.

Person after person interviewed by the auditors faulted the hiring process outlined in the contract, which generally permits switching within and between schools before outside hires can be considered. The current contract does underscore "criterion based hiring," but in reality there appears to be a strong culture that emphasizes seniority. Firing teachers for performance is costly, takes many steps to satisfy state law, and is politically unpalatable.

None of this is new. Fully a decade ago, I reported about how the then-commissioner in Rhode Island had ordered Providence schools to start allowing principals to select talent on their own without regard for seniority preferences.

It isn't immediately clear how the city can address this. The current contract stays in place for another year. Seniority and dismissal are among the most hot-button topics on teacher policy. (Just ask former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who made teacher performance a major thrust of his administration and paid the political price for it.) And teacher dismissal is especially thorny because it would require a change to state law, not just the contract; most states have elaborate due-process procedures for teachers.

Curriculum is not coherent or aligned. This is not the part of the report that's gotten the most attention, but in a sense all of the other issues come down to either supporting or detracting from what happens every day in the classroom.

As teachers will volubly tell you, what students learn is an incredibly important part of the recipe for success. Providence, the report found, has gone through waves of decentralization and centralization as various leaders have moved through the city and state education departments, with some favoring a tighter approach to curriculum and others a looser one. And that's turned curriculum into something out of the Wild West.

In one single school, for example, one principal listed almost 20 different curriculum series between math and ELA. Too many students in other Providence classrooms were doing worksheets all day rather than reading high-quality texts. 

There are, admittedly, a lot of different perspectives on how best to support good curriculum in schools. Nationally, there have been two conflicting trends on this score. First, there's been a lot of attention on the benefits of a more centralized approach, thanks to new curriculum-rating services and studies raising questions about fidelity to materials. But there's a decentralization push, too—this is the world of curriculum sites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Pinterest, (where teachers trade lession plans), and personalized learning.

And speaking of personalized learning, there's an interesting portion of the report on Summit Learning, an program that combines classroom teaching with online content tailored by teachers for each student. It's been in the news lately, thanks to a critical (and much criticized) account in The New York Times. In this instance, the audit team reported that students seemed further disengaged rather than stimulated by the program, though they did find one classroom that seemed to be using it effectively. There is clearly more to learn about how personalized-learning programs that include online modules affect student learning—and especially how that's shaped by school conditions and the student populations the programs serve.

What happens next? This is the most important question of all. And it's the one we can't answer just yet.

It's important to note that Rhode Island lawmakers have been throwing a lot of school reform ideas at the wall—including eyeing elements of neighboring Massachusetts' 1993 reform plan, which put standards, curriculum frameworks, and tests into place. Massachusetts' stick-with-it-ness is often credited for raising Massachusetts students' performance to the top of the nation. 

Is there a possibility for a state takeover, something that's been tried in other states (notably New Jersey, Tennessee, and Michigan)? Gov. Gina Raimondo had not ruled it out as of this week; even some parents support the idea, according to Linda Borg of the Providence Journal.

On the other hand, there appears to be a growing acknowlegement that many state agencies simply do not have the resources or capacity to effectively manage a district—though that has not stopped states from trying (Memphis and Nashville, Tenn., and South Bend, Ind. are currently being eyed, for example.) 

Clarification: This post has been updated to clarify Summit Learning's online features. It does not use a computer algorithm to assign content, as other personalized-learning providers do.

Photo: Rhode Island Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green poses in this file photo. She is among those in Rhode Island who have demanded changes to the state's largest school system, acknowledging in a recent interview that she would not want to send her children to a Providence school. Photo courtesy of the Rhode Island Department of Education

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