Tag Archive: Rhode Island


Today the RI AFT President Marcia Reback announced that she and the majority of AFT locals will be endorsing RIDE’s RTTT round two application.  This is a huge political victory for Commissioner Gist and places RI in a better position to win the $75 million in federal RTTT grant money that it’s applying for in round two.  So, why do I remain skeptical?

The connection between the AFT’s change in position and the recent settlement of the teacher union-district dispute in Central Falls is obvious.  In fact, no one is hiding this.  What are we to think when, in the beginning we were led to believe that the decision to fire all the teachers at Central Falls High School was in the best interests of the students (a decision I disagreed with in the first place), and now it seems that saving the jobs of the 90 or so teachers is suddenly in the best interests of the students? Is this only because there’s a pot of federal gold at stake?  Could it be that the outside promise of federal dollars is confounding our ability to make decisions with students and families at the center?

Commissioner Gist was careful to state to news outlets that she would never approve the new arrangement in CF that preserves teachers’ jobs if it weren’t in the best interests of students.  I believe her sentiments are genuine, but only two days later it seems clear that the work to renegotiate in CF was also calculated to secure the AFT buy-in for RTTT.  To my knowledge, nothing of substance with which teacher unions took issue in the RTTT application has changed (in fact, these were portions of the application on which RI scored highly, so changing them wouldn’t make much sense in terms of winning the award), and so I’m confused as to why the union would suddenly agree except for that it’s a simple quid pro quo: we don’t fire you, you “support” our reforms.

Furthermore, the new settlement in CF essentially contains the same new conditions of work that Superintendent Gallo offered in her transformation plan in the very first place.  A major difference this time around (aside from the obvious drama and controversy that has surrounded this whole debacle) is that the CF teachers union actually put the approval of the transformation conditions to a vote from its membership.  I suspect that if the union leadership had truly asked the membership in the first place, it would have voted “overwhelmingly” to support these changes when it was clear that the alternative would be the mess that ensued.

In any case, the federal money grab and application circus that the Obama administration has created through RTTT has held hostage debates about educational policy and reform for months now.  The narrow RTTT reform agenda that further entrenches our culture of over-testing young people, demystifies teaching by deskilling it, and encourages the opening up of public education coffers to private interests, won’t do much to improve the educational lot of those most disadvantaged and underserved by our racist and classist educational institutions.

What it has done, however, is put education in the news, and at least in RI more and more people are talking about these headlines.  This is a good thing.  What I hope we can do moving forward as these reforms begin to take shape and we begin to sense that the change they promise may, in fact, not be on its way, is to at least use this new, more widespread engagement about education reform to build our ideas for what education should look like from the bottom up.  To do this we will need information outlets that do not merely serve as mouthpieces for RIDE and local district officials, union leaders, politicians, and the self-important psuedo-reformers who have entered the education arena because it’s the new sexy thing.  I hope that the dialogue that we see these folks having can be challenged by those who are actually most affected by all of this: students, parents, and grounded community members.

In a lot of ways I don’t really care what Deborah Gist, Fran Gallo, Marcia Reback, Steve Costantino, or Angus Davis is saying (or paying someone else to tell them what to say), or even how they think we need to change our education system.  They don’t matter, or at least they wouldn’t matter as much if we, as students, parents, and community members, started informing, mobilizing, and organizing ourselves to demand the changes we want to see.

I went to a RI RTTT meeting today at which the RTTT application steering committee presented their thoughts and plans for RI’s round 2 application.  The meeting was open to the public, but was specifically designed for those who received special invitations: district officials, school committee members, and teachers union leaders.  Turnout was impressive, as I would say that there were easily 75-100 people there to listen to a long presentation.

Part of RIDE’s renewed efforts to garner widespread support for the state’s RTTT application, this meeting may signify a slight shift in strategy that we should all welcome.  As RIDE acknowledged regarding their process for the RTTT round 1 application, they did not call any similar convening of RI’s educational leaders.  Instead during round 1, districts, school committees, and teachers unions were asked to support an application package together without any clear process for discussing the implications of such support beyond “we’ll win money!”  Today the messaging was different.  There was a clear understanding that the RTTT process, while immediately about securing additional funds for public education in RI, is more about working with various stakeholders to come together around a common reform agenda.

Now, anyone who has read other posts of mine knows that I am no fan of the policy priorities within RTTT, so I am not writing this post to endorse the specific priorities in any way.  But, what I will say is that as I was sitting in the meeting this evening I thought to myself, when is the last time a bunch of superintendents, school committee presidents, and teacher union leaders from all over the state gathered together in same room to talk about education reform?  I’ll venture to say that a meeting like today’s has not happened in my lifetime here in RI.  And this, a process that encourages dialogue and thinking around how to improve education in our state, is something I can get behind.  I may not like the reform priorities, but I have to admit, I can’t think of anything else right now that would have brought these stakeholders together in the same space.

There will be a follow up meeting with these same constituencies on April 27th.  Hopefully this meeting will be structured differently to encourage deeper conversations, critical discussions, and even spirited disagreement.  What would be even more exciting is if there were meetings of this kind not just when the state is applying for a pot of federal gold, but just because the stakeholders represented truly care about improving educational outcomes for our students.  And what would be even more exciting than that is if the meetings really were open and accessible to the public, and superintendents, school committee members, and teachers had these important conversations with students, parents, and other community members.

I could just write this all off as the newest political ploy by RIDE to entice people to support RTTT.  More cynically, one could see today’s meeting as a sort of soft power play to coerce union buy-in (it’s clear who is needed to realize “widespread support” when there is a powerpoint slide highlighting that they have secured 96% commitment from districts, but only 4% from local unions).  But, what I’d like to believe I saw today from RIDE, and in the leadership of Commissioner Gist, was a honoring and respect for something called process.  When too many leaders ignore process in order to push for particular outcomes, it is encouraging to see leadership cognizant enough to understand that the process is just as important as (if not more than) the product.  Let’s hope that Commissioner Gist, RIDE, district officials, school committees, and union leaders truly engage in and sustain a process for positive school reform in our state, one that also includes the powerful voices of students, parents, and other community leaders.

Yesterday RI Education Commissioner Gist delivered a “state of education” speech to the RI general assembly.  With the GA and a sizable crowd of interested community members present, she delivered a speech that highlighted a few school success stories and celebrated the accomplishments of a number of individual educators.  She also painted a challenging picture of how RI student test scores measure up when compared to rest of the nation.  With statistics like RI Latino students having some of the lowest test scores for their demographic from across the country, the message was clear: we must do better by our children.

But of course, a major goal of the speech was to gain support for legislative changes that will strengthen RI’s round 2 application for RTTT.  She noted that Delaware and Tennessee won first round funding due to bold plans–like RI–and widespread support (unlike RI).  The parenthetical reference here was not stated explicitly but was certainly implied.  Commissioner Gist admonished that we need the entire state to get behind the reforms and asked the GA, “Do we have the will?”  She repeatedly stated her belief that “RI is ready” for change, a belief that she has from her many school visits all over the state, and a belief that she needs to have if the kinds of reform she wants to see are going to come to pass.

So, what is Commissioner Gist hoping RI is ready for?  She highlighted four areas in which RI could score higher in the RTTT competition: 1) Data systems linked to instructional improvement; 2) More charter school friendly policies; 3) A predictable and equitable state education funding formula;  and 4) Widespread support for RTTT initiatives from the state’s districts and local teachers unions.

With regard to data systems Gist highlighted that while RI collects lots of relevant data, it lacks a system that can help educators use the data to improve practice.  RIDE is working on developing such a system.  For charter schools, the GA recently lifted the state cap on charters from 20 to 35.  With only 13 approved charters throughout the state and with multiple campuses being allowed within 1 charter, the Commissioner seemed confident that RI would score higher in this area for RTTT round 2.  She thanked the GA for their passage of the charter cap raising legislation.

It was clear that the next two issues were the ones of great importance.  For education funding, there will be a battle this spring in the RI state assembly over this important issue.  RIDE has proposed a funding formula that it developed with the assistance of Kenneth Wong, head of the Urban Education Masters Degree Program at Brown University.  State Rep. Ajello has also proposed legislation that would make stronger the aims of equitable funding for which the RIDE formula provides a good foundation.  Current funding is inequitable across the state, and there is no way of ensuring that students and communities with the most need actually receive adequate resources.  If there is a silver lining to RTTT for RI, it would be the passage of an equitable funding formula.

Finally, Commissioner Gist highlighted that the RI application lost 15 points due to a lack of support from districts and teachers unions from across the state.  Now, as far as I know, every district and school board in the state signed onto RI’s RTTT application.  So, this comment was a clear swipe at the local teachers unions, none of which signed on, with the exception of Providence and Foster (which only represents 1 school).  If the state assembly passes a funding formula, RIDE can convince the feds that its data systems plans are in order, and the charter school legislation is looked upon favorably, then RI’s RTTT round 2 fate may very well rest in the hands of the teachers unions.

This teachers unions-dependent fate is exactly the design of the RTTT initiative.  Following the latest trend of blaming teachers, and especially their unions for our educational ills, Arne Duncan & Co. created a set of education reform priorities that are far from union-friendly.  The design banks on the will and pressure that will come from state legislatures and the public for teachers unions to agree to reform plans that do nothing to ease the over-testing of our children and dumbing down of our curriculum.  In fact, RTTT further entrenches these misguided educational priorities by encouraging teacher merit pay and evaluation systems based on student test performance.

So, we’ll see what teachers unions will decide to do.  Will they capitulate and sign on to RTTT plans for fear of being further vilified?  Or, might RIDE consider modifying some of its RTTT application to accommodate some teacher-oriented interests?  Of course not, even if that were amenable to RIDE officials, it would take them out of the competition…by design.  Again, we see that the RTTT initiative is not about innovative educational solutions or the elicitation of ideas from teachers, students, and parents, but instead about which states can most deeply shove Duncan’s pre-conceived national reform agenda down the throats of their communities.

After a somewhat celebratory post, I would like to continue logging my criticisms of RTTT.  A previous RTTT post (Part 4) outlined the various point values of the initiative’s major priority areas and highlighted some of the more valuable subareas.  Judging from relative point values, “Great teachers and leaders” is the area of greatest importance for RTTT.  I will dedicate an entire blogpost to this area soon enough.  Right now I would like to focus on another area that at first glance seems less important in terms of point value.  “Turning around the lowest achieving schools” as a priority is worth only 50 points (compared to 125 for “Great teachers and leaders”), but 40 of those points are connected to a very limited outline of four turnaround options, three of which provide entry points for charter schools (turnaround, restart, and school closure).  In addition, 40 more points can be found in the “General” section connected to ensuring charter school friendly environments.  Together, these 80 points make for a valuable chunk of the application.  So, what’s the problem?  To answer that question, you have to understand the problem of widespread charter schools.

The early charter school movement was led by progressive educators who thought that in these alternative settings they’d be able to display for traditional district public schools how to do education differently.  Charters would be limited and function as test sites from which good ideas could be plucked, replicated, and implemented in the traditional schools.  The current RI law limiting the number of charter school operators in the state was made in this spirit of limited function.  However, the law was just modified increasing the charter school operator cap from 20 to 35 in an attempt to help RI’s RTTT application.  With 13 current operators in the state, there is now ample room for charter school growth.  Perhaps too much given a loophole in the charter school regulations that allows a single operator to manage multiple schools sites through a single charter.  For example, the RI Mayoral Academies can expand to additional sites without increasing the total number of charters in the eyes of the charter school cap law.  Unfortunately, the charter school movement has largely lost its progressive focus, and it has changed to be dominated by conservative interests intent on replacing, not informing or enhancing, traditional public schools.

Exposing the unfortunate reality that charter school proliferation has created in other places (like in New York City) is key to understanding my distaste for this RTTT priority.  First, most respectable research on charter schools shows that, on average, they do no better at educating students than their traditional public school counterparts.  Moreover, studies have shown that charter schools do worse for populations like special education students and English language learners by systematically excluding them.  The selectivity, and thus exclusivity, of charter schools is a major problem.  Even those that claim to admit students by random lottery still have an application process for their lottery, and even if selected via lottery, charter schools have the option to choose to maintain a student’s enrollment or not.  Students and families who do not fit the mold are often encouraged to leave charter schools, resulting in student bodies that are exclusive and display the least resistance to schooling.

Further, celebrated charter schools like KIPP and Roxbury Prep are notorious for high teacher burnout and turnover.  In fact, many leaders of charter schools will freely share that they expect high turnover.  They are content with recruiting young, inexperienced teachers that they can work to the bone for a small handful of years and replace with a new crop of elite college grads.  Not only is this model unsustainable, it is certainly not scalable, thus offering no real solution to widespread challenges facing urban school districts.  Some charter school teachers who would like to make teaching a longer-term career and who know that students benefit from a stable teacher corps have begun to organize and unionize in response to the misguided charter school attitudes toward teacher burnout.

One may wonder why, with such questionable outcomes and unsustainable models, charter schools seem to be getting so much attention from RTTT.  I believe this attention largely stems from interests that are far from having students’ education at the center.  Instead, there are many charter school interests that view public education as a vast industry with a wealth of resources to exploit and profit from.  As charter schools siphon off money from local school districts, they open up an entirely new source of capital from which private interests can profit.  Instead of being governed by public regulatory bodies (school boards, committees, and even mayors) that oversee contracts and manage budgets, charter school monies are opened up to a less regulated market.  Thus, conservative interests that would like to see any and all public goods and services privatized see charter school models as a step closer to a privatized public school system.  These interests have little to do with the education of students, and more to do with the commodification of education as something to package, market, sell, and profit from.

As RTTT promotes charter school options, we must question whether this direction makes sense for a system of public education in a supposed democratic society.  I believe that public education should be democratically run, as an educated citizenry is the foundation of a functional democracy.  I do not believe that the market forces behind the current charter school movement provide a viable democratic model.  I understand that public schools in urban America have never really been run in a way that is truly accountable to the communities they serve and have been plagued by corrupt school boards and mayoral leaders.  But, I want to see communities work hard to establish and ensure democratic control of public schools, and stepping toward the proliferation of more charter schools is a step in the wrong direction.

When engaging in discussions regarding charter schools in RI, it is important for youth, parents, and educators to think critically about how reclaim the charter schools movement so that it can return to its progressive roots.  It’s not that we should eliminate charter schools all together, but that we should view them in the proper light.  They are useful as models, demonstrations, and limited alternatives from which district schools need to learn so that all students and communities benefit.  We need to pressure district schools to adopt promising practices from successful charter school models.  This means building authentic community-based power that can help districts and teacher unions understand what they need to do in order to change.  Charter schools should not be seen as replacements for district schools and public school management should be as directly accountable to the students, parents, and teachers as possible.

The RTTT initiative highlights four major priority areas: 1) Standards & Assessments; 2) Data Systems to Support Instruction; 3) Great Teachers & Leaders; and 4) Turning Around the Lowest Achieving Schools.  On the surface, these areas not necessarily problematic.  They are all things about which those concerned with public education should be deeply concerned.  In the RTTT application each of these areas was assigned point values and the application delineated subsections within which states needed to articulate their reform plans.  These point values indicate the relative importance of each priority area and also can provide some insight as to what state officials will be most concerned with when it comes to shoring up RTTT applications that fall short of a winning mark.  In rank order of point values here are the priority areas listed again:

1) Great teachers and leaders – 138 points

2) Standards and assessments – 70 points

3) Turning around the lowest achieving schools – 50 points

4) Data systems to support instruction – 47 points

Two other major areas of the application were assigned point values: “State success factors” (125 points) and “general” (55 points).

Given the RTTT priority areas, the recent education policy priorities set by Commissioner Gist upon the start of job in July 2009 come as no surprise.  Consider RIDE’s five priority areas: 1) Ensure educator excellence; 2) Establish world-class standards and assessments; 3) Accelerate all schools toward greatness; 4) Develop user-friendly data systems; and 5) Invest our resources wisely.  The first four areas listed here correspond directly with the RTTT priority areas, while investing resources wisely is definitely a good priority to have when asking the federal government to invest an extra $125 million in your state.  In fact, essentially every educational initiative pursued in RI within the past 8 months can be traced back to a particular priority promoted by the RTTT initiative.  And this is not necessarily to a fault, if any of us were in Commissioner Gist’s shoes we’d be hard pressed to do otherwise, as doing so would jeopardize RI’s chance at gaining a significant new chunk of federal monies.

At this point readers might be wondering what the problem is.  I admit again, the RTTT and RIDE priority areas themselves do not seem problematic on the surface.  Who would be against things like great teachers and leaders and turning around low-performing schools?  Certainly no one who is genuinely committed to providing a high quality education to all students regardless of where they live and what schools they attend.  And, shouldn’t we have high standards and use data to improve classroom instruction and educational decision-making?  Of course we should, especially to fight against the much too common bigotry of low expectations and unfounded educational practices that plague too many classrooms disproportionately populated by low-income students of color.

But, as the old adage goes, the devil is in the details.  Each RTTT priority area is actually broken down in great detail, outlining a variety of subsections within the larger categories.  Even more revealing than the overall RTTT categorical point values are the values assigned to these subsections.  These subsection point values signal which devil to focus on in the details.  Here are the 5 most valuable subsections within the application:

1) Articulating State’s education reform agenda and Local Education Agencies’ (LEAs’) participation in it – 65 points (45 of which are connected to support from superintendents, school boards, and teachers’ unions) – part of “State success factors.”

2) Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance – 58 points – part of “Great teachers and leaders.”

3) Developing and adopting common standards – 40 points – part of “Standards and assessments.”

4) Turning around the lowest-achieving schools – 40 points (35 of which are connected to the state’s support for LEAs in implemented one of the four school intervention models: turnaround, restart, closure, or transformation) – part of “Turning around the lowest-achieving schools” (yes, the subsection has the same name as the major category).

5) Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools – 40 points – part of “General.”

It is the manifestation of these and other subsections that lead me to seriously question the priorities of RTTT.  When one stops to consider the practical implications of these subsections, it becomes easier to predict the problematic outcomes likely to result from the education reforms that RTTT is forcing upon states throughout the country.  To draw out what I see as problematic in more detail, I will address each of the most highly valued subsections noted above over the course of my next few posts.  Stay tuned :)

People keep asking me if there is some sort of useful resource out there laying out criticisms of the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top (RTTT) school reform plans.  I’m not sure what’s out there, but I hope to provide an analysis of RTTT through the telling of what’s been going on in RI from my point of view.  So, here goes…

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (in its most recent form known as No Child Left Behind) might be up for re-authorization sometime within the next year, but that hasn’t stopped the start of a new education reform era: The Race to the Top.  If you’re even peripherally connected to public education, you’ve probably heard of the Race to the Top (RTTT) in the past few months as state education officials all over the country raced to get their RTTT applications submitted to the feds.  But, you might be wondering: why has everyone been in such a tizzy?

A small part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (otherwise know as the “Stimulus” package) dedicated approximately $4.3 billion to education reform.  These funds are being administered through a competitive grants program managed by the US Department of Education named Race to the Top.  As Duncan launched his “NCLB Listening and Learning Tour” in the late spring of 2009, he was really less interested in listening and learning about people’s experiences with NCLB, and more intent on pushing what amounted to an RFP outline for RTTT funds.  And then, just in case folks still hadn’t heard about what the Obama administration has in store for our public schools, Duncan launched another tour, this time with Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton, and continued to promote a narrow reform agenda that threatens to entrench some of NCLB’s worst legacies.  Once again, the ones on tour did most of the talking and it soon became clear who was supposed to be doing the listening when Duncan & Co. made their appearances.

In the littlest state in the union, newly minted State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist listened carefully.  Gist arrived to Rhode Island fresh off of her previous job as the State Superintendent of Education in Washington, DC.  Her days in DC (from the Clinton administration forward) may have helped Gist to translate Duncan’s RTTT policy plans more quickly than others less familiar with the federal policy scene.  She soon released newly articulated statewide priorities directly aligned with RTTT priority areas.  Rhode Island had officially entered the Race to the Top.

(The next post in this series will use RI’s example to begin exploring how RTTT’s brilliance and simplicity has exploited the economic crisis to spell danger for public education throughout the country.)

UPDATE: A few people have let me know that the letter from the CF teachers union to Dr. Gallo, which Colleen Callahan refers to in the ProJo video clip, was not as conciliatory as Callahan makes it sound. In other words, the union may have said they would agree to the “transformation” model, but then refused to agree to the conditions necessary for transformation…essentially double-speak.

***********************ORIGINAL POST BELOW************************

Video footage of Thursday’s RI Board of Regents meeting leads one to believe that Fran Gallo, Superintendent of Schools in Central Falls (CF), was not truthful when it came to her claim that the teachers in CF refused to agree to a school “transformation” plan that would lengthen the school day and make other structural changes at Central Falls High School.  She used this claim to justify her choice of a school “turnaround” model, resulting in the recent firing of over 90 instructional staff that work at the school. If the teachers did agree by the deadline that Supt. Gallo imposed, then what was her real reason for going through with the mass termination plan?  Watch the videos and judge for yourself.

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