While the General Assembly’s session will not formally resume until January, some committees continue to meet. In this letter, I will review the Senate Oversight Committee’s latest hearing concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools.
1. The Problem Of Teacher Turnover
At the Committee’s request, the School Department made a presentation concerning its annual responsibility of providing every student with a permanent teacher. When school began, 105 critical teacher positions were vacant, which resulted in part (according to a Providence Journal article) from at least 159 resignations (in addition to retirements) from the prior year. For elementary school students, a lack of a permanent teacher can compromise the entire year’s education for a class of up to 26 children. For students in middle and high school, a missing subject matter teacher can limit learning of over one hundred students taking that missing teacher’s subject.
Lesley Shapiro, Ed.D. testified at the hearing concerning her decision to resign. In her resignation letter (summarized in the Providence Journal article), she wrote that “all of the things that made teaching joyful – classroom autonomy, a rigorous and engaging curriculum and a grading system that rewards hard work – have been dismantled under the takeover.” At the hearing, Dr. Shapiro testified that the School Department had replaced a departing physics teacher at her school with a substitute who was a philosophy major, causing the science department teachers to relinquish their planning period to replace this inadequate substitute. Dr. Shapiro was asked to do evn more, namely to teach two different classes during the same academic period. The stress this created led to her decision to leave the district at a personal financial cost to move to another school where her work was more appreciated.
To be sure, the problem of teacher recruitment and retention goes beyond the Providence Public Schools, as described in, among other places, a recent Atlantic Magazine article, but it was disappointing that the School Department’s presentation concerning the reasons for teacher turnover lacked any candid recognition that the School Department’s own policies and practices were contributing to the rate of resignations and the problem of inadequate staffing in classrooms.
2. The Need For A Better Oversight Process
The hearing’s tone reflected the challenges of the current external oversight process, which is basically limited to quarterly hearings before a Senate committee. Though School Department officials stated they were “willing to be held accountable” for their work, they also expressed their frustration with the hearings, asserting that the hearings were negative, burdensome and detrimental to their work educating of children in Providence.
While nobody enjoys criticism, the problem of teacher retention does not represent the first serious and preventable mistake that the School Department has made during the turnover. These mistakes (and perhaps others of which we are not yet aware) support the conclusion that the Providence School Department is not uniquely exempt from the general requirement that school departments, like any other organizations operated by human beings, benefit from external oversight. To put it another way, if the School Department wishes for its rhetoric about being held accountable to correspond to reality, it will have to accept being accountable to someone other than itself.
In other school districts, external oversight and review is conducted by a specialized body (typically a school committee) that meets regularly, allowing for the exchange of more information both formally and informally, and shared understandings and working relationships that facilitate the provision of both effective and constructive external oversight. It remains my hope that we will find a way, either through agreement or through legislation, to restore effective external oversight to the Providence School Department in a way that will relieve both the School Department and the Senate of the difficulties inherent in the current process.
Let me close by wishing all of us who observe Yom Kippur an easy and meaningful fast.