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Jencunas: Implementing Changes Will be Hardest Part of Fixing Schools

Thursday, December 03, 2015

 

Mayor Elorza recently wrote an op-ed in Providence Journal titled “Providence failed its students.” In it, mayor discusses the problems with Providence’s schools. The mayor wrote, and I agree, that the schools are among the worst in the nation for educating Latino students and that students who graduate are woefully unprepared for college.

Supporters of education reform should be delighted that Mayor Elorza is beginning a conversation about fixing Providence’s broken schools. However, starting the conversation is the easy part. What’s hard is implementing real solutions, especially when they disrupt the status quo. 

While the mayor mentioned many important policies, meaningful education reform requires challenging liberal orthodoxy. That means fighting for more charter schools, making it easier to fire bad teachers, and rejecting the notion that more money alone can to get better results. Only once these changes have been made can new funding be put to good use. 

English Language Learners (ELL) are the children most harmed by Providence’s underperforming schools. According to Roger Williams University, ELL programs in Providence are among the worst in the nation.  In one middle school, only 2.5% of students were proficient in English. There are real challenges to educating ELL students, and nobody expects perfection. But 2.5% proficiency is unacceptable no matter what the circumstances are. That statistic should be a glaring reminder of how badly Providence’s schools are failing our next generation. 

Charter schools are the single most cost-efficient way to help ELL students. A study of the Texas school system, where ELL students are similarly common, showed that charter schools were most effective for ELL students and added the equivalent of 50 more school days. The advantage comes from flexibility and narrowly focused programs, which allow charters to tailor every aspect of their education to the ELL students. For a cash-strapped city like Providence, this is the kind of affordable advantage that the city needs to embrace. Mayor Elorza has been supportive of charters in the past, and continuing this support now that he’s a policymaker will show seriousness about education reform.

Beyond charter schools, education reform needs to make traditional public schools more effective. An easy way to do that is fire bad teachers. Unfortunately, preventing teacher accountability is a major goal of Teachers Unions, which are among the most important Democratic special interest groups. No business owner would operate under the constraints that a public school principal faces, and making schools better requires empowering leaders to remove bad employees.

As a Democrat, Mayor Elorza will always support the existence of public sector unions. He will never be a union-buster in the mold of Scott Walker, and nobody expects him to be. What he can do is ask for concessions, require Teachers Unions to stop protecting their worst employees and publically shame them if they refuse. Politically, this would require him to make concessions on payment and benefits, but that would be a good price to pay if it means getting bad teachers out of the classroom. 

These are commonsense reforms, but politicians are often reluctant to take the risk of opposing the status quo. It’s easier to fall into convenient excuses for failure, which this case means blaming the state for not giving Providence enough money and blaming East Side families for hogging all the educational resources. But while those tired bromides earn applause, neither of them will help Providence’s schoolchildren.

Education reform gives Mayor Elorza the chance to be a profile in courage. He can stand up to the status quo and make real change, then use the credibility he’s earned from those victories to ask the state for more support. Expanding charter schools and making teachers accountable wouldn’t win the mayor any friends among the Democratic far-left, but it would be the kind of commonsense, honest leadership he campaigned on. Walking away from ideology and pursuing these solutions would make Mayor Elorza one of the rare politicians who fulfills a promise he campaigned on.  

Brian Jencunas works as a communications and media consultant. He can be reached at [email protected] and always appreciates reader feedback.

 

Related Slideshow: RI Experts on the Biggest Issues Facing Public Education

On Friday November 22, the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, the Latino Policy Institute of Roger Williams University, the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, the Providence Student Union, and RI-CAN: Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now will host Rhode Island leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors for a symposium on "the civil rights issue of the 21st century, adequacy and equity and the State of Education in Rhode Island."

Weighing in on the the "three biggest factors" facing education in the state today are symposium participatnts Gary Sasse, Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Leadership; Christine Lopes Metcalfe, Executive Director of RI-CAN; Anna Cano-Morales, Chairwoman of the Board of Trustees, Central Falls Public Schools and Director, Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University; Tim Duffy, Executive Director, RI Association of School Committees; and Deborah Cylke, Superintendent of Pawtucket Public Schools.  

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Sasse

"Provide a state constitutional guarantee that all children will have access to  an education that will prepare them to meet high performance standards and be successful adults.

Bridge the gap between the educational achievement of majority and minority students.  This will require the implementation of a comprehensive agenda for quality education in Rhode Island’s inner cities."

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Sasse

"Revisit school governance and clearly define the roles and responsibilities of the state, school districts , neighborhood schools, and school teachers and school administrators.  Develop and implement a system to hold schools responsible for student outcomes."

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Sasse

"Build a consensus and buy in of all stakeholders around  the education reform initiatives being advanced by the Board of Education."

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Metcalfe

"Set high expectations and raise our standards across the state for anyone that contributes to the success of our students. From adopting the Common Core to discussing rigorous teacher evaluations, conversations around creating a culture of high expectations have to be at the center of the work."

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Metcalfe

"Expand opportunities and start earlier - we must ensure that all kids have access to a high performing public school of their choice, which includes full-day kindergarten."

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Metcalfe

"School facilities - with an aging infrastructure, underutilized buildings and the need to provide fair funding for school facilities for all public school students regardless of the public school they attend, this needs to be a top issue tackled by the RI General Assembly in 2014."

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Cano-Morales

"Meet the academic potential of all students but especially with regards to urban schools students -- 3 out of 4 are Latinos in Providence, Central Falls, and Pawtucket." 

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Cano-Morales

"Connect through specific best practices the academic successes of our students to careers jobs. Investing in schools is economic development as a whole for Rhode Island. " 

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Cano-Morales

"Increase the access to -- and completion of -- higher education and post- secondary opportunities.  Poverty? Struggling families? Education and access to careers and competitive wages is the best antidote."

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Duffy

"Providing adequate funding is critical -- and there are going to be pressures on the state budget, which mean stresses to meet the education funding formula.  With the predictions of the state's projected loss of revenue with the casinos in MA, education funding could be on the cutting board, and we need to ensure that it's not.  Do we need to look at strengthening the language of the constitution to guarantee funding?"

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Duffy

"Implementing the common core standards will provide continuity -- and comparison -- between states now.  With over 40 states involved, we're embarking a new set of standards here."

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Duffy

"Accountability and assessing student performance -- how that it's driven by the common core, we'll be able to compare the best districts in RI against the best districts in say MA.  That's the intent of the Common Core is a standardization of how we hold the system accountable."

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Cylke

"Issue one is quality.  Your quality of education should not be dependent on your zip code.  And the reality is, certain cities are distressed, or whose property values are not as high, I know each town has a different capacity to fund education. There's an absolute, clear relationship between the quality of public schools, and economic development of states. There's irrefutable evidence that quality public schools can make states more competitive."

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Cylke

"Issue two is equality.  In West Warwick and Providence, the per pupil spending is around $16K.  In Pawtucket it's $12.9.  What's wrong with that picture? If I'm in charge of overseeing that my students are college ready, they need to be adequate funding.  A difference of $3000 per pupil?  We're talking in the tens of millions of dollars -- more like $25 million in this case.  An exemplary school district is Montgomery County, MD -- they have roughly the same number of students, around 145,000 -- there's one funding figure per pupil. There's equitable funding for all kids."

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Cylke

"Issue three is Infrastructure.  A critical issue is whether the state is going to lift its moratorium in 2014 for renovations for older schools, ore new construction.  If that moratorium is not lifted, and those funds are not available, it is critical to us here in Pawtucket. The average of my schools is 66 years, I've got 3 that celebrate 100 years this year. These old schools have good bones, but they need to be maintained.  These are assets -- and this is all interrelated with the funding formula."

 
 

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