It’s been seven months since Rhode Island said farewell to Deb Gist, who has gone on to an exciting career in entertainment. She was replaced by Ken Wagner, who strikes me as a non-entity. Wagner worked at the New York State Department of Education for a while with current acting US Secretary of Education Jon King. He is one of the ed reformers, full stop. But as the ed reform movement has fallen on some hard times, perhaps they need people like Wagner, lower-key types whose mission is to try to lower the level of hostility toward ed reformers that people like Gist and Michelle Rhee whipped up. Not only does Wagner have a much less strident personal style than Deb Gist (or, really, any personal style, for that matter); he also has not made any major moves to change course from the Gist administration, nor pronouncements on how “it all has to change”.
That was, of course, until this week, when he addressed the Rhode Island Council on Elementary and Secondary Education. According to the report in the Providence Journal, Wagner now has a vision that involves opening school districts to “school choice” across districts, empowering principals, and “bringing back the joy”. Oh joy.
To be honest, I’m not certain how worried we should be. Wagner has not made any big gaffes yet, nor any particularly big moves, and his recent announcement that PARCC would not be used as a graduation requirement for the class of 2020 is a good thing. (I meant to link to this statement, but I cannot find it on the RIDE website.) I do wonder, though, to what extent he may have greater latitude to carry out corporate reforms in Rhode Island as a result of the ESSA, the new education act passed by Congress this fall. The ESSA was lauded by my union, the NEA, but it also seems to have had significant backing from the ed tech lobby. These are the people who want to sell their distance-learning courses, “flipped” classrooms, and other fancy stuff, and if teachers and students suffer in the race to the top profits, well, that’s too bad. So I’m unconvinced of my union’s enthusiasm, and guarding my suspicion of our top state-level bureaucrat for now. But I also want to unpack Wagner’s “vision statement”, because I think it does reveal some important dynamics that we need to keep in mind as we fight for public education in Rhode Island. So let’s start.
“We have to find a way that takes student engagement seriously.” So what does the non-“whack” Wagner suggest? Why, increasing the number of “advanced” courses and decreasing the focus on test preparation. But what does this really mean? Does this mean increasing the number of Advanced Placement courses in high schools, a push that already started several years ago and has not yielded the anticipated results? Or does it mean increasing the number of on-line classes, “virtual high school” and such, which are funneling public ed dollars out of the system and into the hands of private companies? The other question raised by the Commissioner’s statement is whether he also intends to scale back the actual testing. Remember, the test-prep focus is not about misguided educators responding improperly to a perfectly legitimate part of education. Instead, it’s the symptom of a poisonous and pressure-filled imposition on teachers and students. My concern is that when test prep does not subside because the PARCC is still here, that Wagner comes back and blames teachers for “sucking the joy out of education”.
The other two proposals are bound to ruffle the feathers of Rhode Island’s 33-odd school committees, both the appointed ones in Providence and Central Falls, and the elected ones everywhere else. An odd fact of life in Rhode Island public education is the antiquated nature of the district set-up and governance. There are numerous large-city school districts in the country now that are bigger, both geographically and demographically, than our entire state. The persistence of the local districts means that Rhode Island’s schools are in a perpetual provincial competition, chronically under-funded with funds coming from regressive taxes, and ruled over by petty tyrants. It means that for the ed reformers, Rhode Island has been a tough nut to crack in some ways. It’s hard for charter schools to funnel off enough students and tuition dollars in most local districts to make a profit. Only four of Rhode Island’s districts have more than one high school—how is a charter supposed to compete with that? This is why the Mayoral Academies, the next step in the charter school invasion, aim to take students from multiple districts; anything less renders them unviable.
The two proposals—to allow students to attend schools in other districts, and to give more control to principals—is in point of fact a direct attack on the power of Rhode Island school committees. These committees are a relic of old-fashioned New England town hall “democracy”, supposedly giving the community some control over the schools. But reality has long outpaced the original intention, and today’s school committees are essentially petty fiefdoms in which the tyrants have the power to pull the purse strings tighter (but not the reverse). The era of corporate education reform has added a new dimension, in that everything from curriculum to teacher evaluation is now being defined by the state (or by private entities beyond it), delivered as a fait accompli to committees composed of locals whose knowledge of current education trends is nil. These people, mostly elected but often unopposed, are now something of an obstacle to the imposition of corporate reforms just by their existence. While they largely endorse the testing mania and find themselves dazzled by trends in ed technology, they can also undermine mayoral academy ambitions at taking their money, as happened in West Warwick a couple years ago. And there’s always the danger that a group of organized parents who oppose the testing craze may actually successfully take them over. The proposal to allow students a measure of “school choice” would, in fact, complicate district funding dramatically, and will likely face stiff (and racist) opposition from suburban districts eager to keep “those kids” out of their schools.
The issue of principal control is perhaps more interesting, in that it is a nod to local control while actually negating the real possibility of it. You see, the school committees’ ignorance has been exposed quite a bit in the last couple of years as the revolt against the NECAP and PARCC tests has gained steam. School committee members who obviously have no understanding of the tests, no understanding of the educational rationale behind them, and certainly no knowledge of the national discourse, look like fools when they try to defend the tests. Superintendents may fare somewhat better, as they generally have some knowledge of educational practice and theory—some of them were actually teachers themselves at one point. But while they pose an obstacle on the financial front of corporate ed reform, they are an unhelpful embarrassment in the pedagogical struggle. By proposing greater principal control, Wagner can simultaneously be self-effacing while also undermining the authority of the local school committees: “School is where the magic happens. Ken Wagner can’t create a culture of innovation and improvement, nor can the superintendent. That culture can only be created by a principal”, quotes the Providence Journal.
What comes after is also interesting. The quote continues: “…but not alone. The principal needs to be surrounded by a leadership culture”, to which the Journal adds: “of committed teachers”. Having been previously interviewed myself by Linda Borg, the author of the Journal piece, I feel comfortable saying that a journalist who argues with the person she’s interviewing during the interview may be prone to inserting her own pre-conceptions. Is this addition to the quote what Ken Wagner had in mind? It certainly creates a further impression of self-determination in the school building. But let’s be clear: teachers are NOT committed to corporate educational reform. We are OPPOSED to it—which is why more than 85% of teachers disapproved of Deb Gist. Furthermore, our principals are themselves of two minds: on one hand, they tend to be petty managers whose job is to enforce on teachers, parents and students the changes that the district, RIDE, and really the corporate reform movement, want. On the other hand, especially when they themselves have risen from teaching positions to become administrators, they know the changes are crap and secretly hope they fail—even though they would never say that to their superiors for fear of losing their jobs. So can we say that giving principals more power would be positive for teachers and students? Absolutely not.
So what would bring “the joy” back to the classroom? Simply put: teacher and student self-determination. I intend to expand on this concept in a future post. But suffice it to say for now, that the Commissioner’s “vision” is really not so brilliant or innovative, nor so democratic, as he may want it to seem. I doubt we’ll soon see big protests or big, verbally explosive forums such as the one NEARI and RIFT put on in Cranston in May 2013. But I also doubt the Commissioner will be so “joyful” at the next wave of PARCC test refusal. Stay tuned.