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Aaron Regunberg: Promising Step For Providence Schools—Finally

Friday, April 05, 2013


The Providence Public School District announced earlier this week it is receiving a sizable grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to help Providence “support systemic remodeling efforts that will better equip students with the critical thinking, problem solving and communications skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century.”

As someone who has written a good deal about educational problems in Providence, at least as I perceive them, it is really nice to hear about initiatives like this one, which seems like a promising opportunity to move forward on some of the innovative, creative strategies that Providence’s students sorely need. (Full disclosure: the organization I work with, the Providence Student Union, has received a grant from Nellie Mae in the past.)

The goal of the 20-month, $450,000 grant is the implementation of systemic approaches to “student-centered learning.” Student-centered learning refers to a specific school of educational practice that focuses first and foremost on the capacity of students to take responsibility for their own education. Instead of viewing the teacher as the source of all knowledge—to be transferred through lecture to students, who are seen as empty vessels in need of filling—student-centered learning requires students to actively participate in the determinative process of their education. This model emphasizes learning in all its different potential forms, and instead of measuring students’ knowledge through rote memorization or—for example—standardized testing, a student-centered learning system requires students to be involved in deciding how best to demonstrate their knowledge in ways that support their learning and motivation.

Making our schools more geared towards student-centered learning is essential to getting more young people motivated and engaged in school, and to help those who are already motivated to take greater responsibility for the direction of their own education. That is why this grant strikes me as a fresh step in the right direction towards the kinds of reform that I think we need in Providence.

The district’s plan for this funding, as outlined in its press release, is divided into several components. One is “Culture and Leadership,” which involves “a youth-developed and -implemented survey [that] will be disseminated to all high school youth to identify their motivations and interest in various education pathways.” As a strong proponent of student voice, I was very excited to see this part of the plan, although my enthusiasm comes with a condition. A number of youth groups—including PrYSM, District Wide Student Government, and Young Voices—have conducted some really impressive surveys over the years that have yielded mountains of information with the power to inform important reforms on issues as varied as school discipline and culture to student and teacher evaluation to curriculum development. The fact that these changes, by and large, never took place should be a warning that it’s not the survey that matters, it is what is done with the resulting data. Here’s hoping that this time around, since it is a district-driven initiative, district officials will truly take advantage of the critical information they can learn from the students they serve.

Another main focus of the grant is to “develop formative, interim and summative assessments, which assess individual student learning against defined expectations, promote mastery and provide youth and teachers with feedback on progress, at three schools: Juanita Sanchez; E-Cubed Academy and Alvarez High School.” To me, this assessment-development strategy is perhaps the most exciting portion of the initiative, because it is a tool that is sorely needed. As a frequent critic of high-stakes standardized testing, I believe strongly in the need for more effective, precise, and valuable assessments that can actually be used by administrators, teachers, and youth to make necessary changes to better support every individual student. If the beginnings of such an assessment system can come out of this grant, then Providence will have been very well served.

Of course, we must be realistic about these kinds of initiatives; $450,000 sounds like a lot of money, but spread that budget across an entire district and it becomes clear that our expectations need to be reasonable. Still, it is good to hear about positive initiatives like this, and I for one am hopeful that the district’s plans move forward in ways that will put students and their learning front and center, where they belong.


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