April 30 District Letter

I hope you enjoyed Earth Day, including those of you who marked your celebration by a neighborhood cleanup. This week’s letter will first discuss the latest data available to assess State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools, which indicate that the takeover is not succeeding. The letter will then discuss the Governor’s recently announced education plan, which is not actually a plan.

1.     Assessing the State’s Takeover of the Providence Public Schools.

Earlier this month, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) published “report cards” describing the performance of schools and school districts in the 2021-22 academic year. The data provide an opportunity to gauge the success of the State’s 2019 takeover of the Providence Public Schools. Aware that the pandemic affected our schools during these three years, I looked at data measuring the growth (or improvement) in academic performance in Providence, rather than the static achievement level. Also, instead of looking at Providence in isolation, I compared Providence’s improvement to two peer communities, Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

a.        Growth in English Language Arts in 2021-22: Providence is level with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

RIDE grades academic growth on a three-point scale each for English language arts and mathematics. In its 2021-22 report card, Providence earned a rating of two points out of three in English language arts growth, the same as Pawtucket and Woonsocket

b.        Growth in ELA in 2018-19: Providence was ahead with Pawtucket and Woonsocket

I then reviewed the report cards from 2018-19, the last school year prior to the takeover. Because the 2018-19 RIDE report card did not aggregate the growth rating of individual schools into a single number, I constructed an aggregate by taking the average growth rating for all of the district’s schools, where a score of 1 indicates an adequate baseline. Using this method, I calculated that Providence’s composite ELA growth score in 2018-19 was 0.86, which was better than both Pawtucket (0.84) and Woonsocket (0.77). 

To test my conclusion, I used the same methodology for the 2021-22 data. Providence’s composite score was 0.85, better than Woonsocket’s 0.82, but lower than Pawtucket’s 0.95. In other words, Providence’s rate of growth in ELA achievement outpaced these two peer communities prior to the takeover, but those communities gained ground on Providence (Woonsocket) or passed Providence (Pawtucket) since the State takeover began. 

c.        Growth in Mathematics

Moving over to mathematics, Providence’s rate of improvement in mathematics was weaker than Pawtucket and Woonsocket both in 2018-19 and in 2021-22, but the gap between Providence and its two peer communities increased since the takeover began.

d.        What the Report Cards Tell Us

My analysis has limitations, both in terms of the small number of data points and the partial shift in how the data was reported over time. With that said, I believe it is safe to say that the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools has failed to produce greater improvement in Providence compared to its peer communities. I also believe the data support the conclusion that in some areas, Providence’s rate of improvement (as measured against its peers) has declined since the takeover began.

2.     The Governor’s Education Plan

In the Governor’s State of the State Address, he pledged “within the first 100 days of my full term, we will be outlining a plan to reach Massachusetts education levels by 2030.” 100 days later, he made an Education Address in which he presented his “Learn 365 RI” strategy. He identified three areas for Rhode Island to attain Massachusetts levels, namely RICAS math/English scores, student attendance and FAFSA completion. The described strategy will consist of funding for agreements with mayors to support extracurricular activities outside of the normal school day and school year. 

The “Learn 365 RI strategy” does not achieve the Governor’s State of the State claims. To begin with, it is not a plan. A real plan contains goals, benchmarks and implementation mechanisms in addition to any strategies. Second, Learn 365 RI is manifestly unsuited to achieve the lofty goal articulated in the State of the State Address. To point out the most obvious problem, this “strategy” is limited to supplemental programs outside of the normal school day and school year, and may be duplicative with successful existing supplemental programs such as Providence After School Alliance and Inspiring Minds.  

A real plan, such as the one adopted by Massachusetts in its Education Reform Act of 1993, relies primarily upon structural changes to the delivery of education in the classroom during the school day. A sounder way to catch up to Massachusetts by 2030 would be to follow the best practices from the Bay State, which have little if anything to do with extracurricular programs. In short, the “Learn 365 strategy” is, at best, an interesting idea, but it falls far short of being a plan, never mind a plan that has a non-trivial chance of achieving its stated goal of catching Rhode Island’s schools up to the level of Massachusetts by 2030. Instead, it is more accurately viewed as a political strategy in ways that resemble the Governor’s “Rhode Island 2030 working document” that I reviewed in my November 21, 2021 letter.

3.     Conclusion

I believe the 2021-22 report card fails to demonstrate any improvement in the growth of academic performance among the students in the Providence Public Schools as measured against the peer communities of Pawtucket and Woonsocket. In fact, there are data to support the conclusion that Providence’s comparative rate of improvement is inferior today to what it was prior to the takeover. Also, the Governor’s “plan” to improve the State’s academic outcomes to catch up with Massachusetts by 2030 is not an actual plan, never mind a plausible one. 

For these reasons, I believe the best future for the Providence Public Schools will come when the State finds the courage and the candor to (1) acknowledge that the takeover of the Providence Public Schools is not succeeding, (2) learn from its mistakes to make the best use possible of the remaining years of the current takeover term and (3) begin a credible planning process for the best possible transition back to local control.