Education commissioner praises island schools
In addition to a warm welcome that Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist received on Monday, she was also greeted by substantive and probing questions during her “Transforming Education in Rhode Island” presentation at Town Hall.
Addressing parents, students, town officials, school administrators and staff — as well as members of the Jamestown School Committee — at the public forum on April 11, Gist’s responses were straightforward, direct and in each case supportive of the district’s autonomy to make local decisions.
Also in attendance was state Sen. M. Teresa Pavia Weed, whom Gist credited for the “advocacy and development” of the application for Race to the Top funding. Earlier in the day the federal Department of Education announced final approval of the state’s plan to use $75 million to support significant educational reform.
Gist first shared a PowerPoint presentation of pictures, charts and graphs, giving the audience “a snap shot of how Jamestown compared to the rest of Rhode Island.” She suggested that the “main takeaway” from the demographics is that compared to the rest of the state, “Jamestown has less diversity and lower poverty rates.”
Specifically the chart indicated that 95 percent of students in Jamestown schools are white, while the state average is 68 percent white. She also mentioned that 42 percent of the students in the rest of the state are in families living below the poverty line, while just 5 percent of Jamestown students share a similar circumstance.
The commissioner was direct in her concern regarding the higher-than-average number of students in Jamestown who qualify for special services as indicated by Individual Education Plans: 18 percent of Jamestown students qualify, which is slightly more than the 16 percent state average. She raised the issue of “over identification,” a situation in which students who may have unique needs are given access to special education resources when those services may not be necessary.
Gist defined chronic absenteeism as any student who misses 10 percent or more of the school days in any given year. The Jamestown rate of eight percent is half that of the state average, but Gist told the attendees that while that appears to be good news, she has seen a number of “communities with similar demographics where the chronic absentee rate is a lot lower than that.” She encouraged the district to study the issue.
In terms of academic achievement, Gist noted that “at both elementary and middle school levels, Jamestown is outperforming the state across the board.” She highlighted the exceptional difference between the science test scores in Jamestown compared to the state and mentioned her recent visit to Ms. Turenne’s first-grade science class where she observed students “making their predictions and writing like scientists.”
Widening the lens, Gist drew the room’s attention to the National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, which are given to a sampling of students in districts across the country. It indicates that Rhode Island falls near the national average in a vast number of comparative cases. Gist explained that in other comparisons, such as graduation rates, the middle position seems to be the one most often occupied by the state.
On a regional basis, Rhode Island falls below average in comparison to other New England states, in spite of this year’s successful scores in 11th grade reading and writing compared to New Hampshire and Vermont.
“There are areas for celebration, or at least encouragement, but overall we do not do as well as other states in our region,” Gist said.
Taking the broadest possible view, Gist next examined the state’s position relative to the rest of the world. The data was telling, if not gloomy.
The data compared country to country but it also included a ranking of states from the United States as though they were individual countries. The U.S. average would appear as a data point as did Massachusetts and Rhode Island, for example.
The research, completed by Eric Hanusheck of Stanford University, compares only the top scoring students on the Program for International Student Assessment math test. The results placed two dozen countries ahead of the United States’ best performing state, which in turn was well above the U.S. average, which Rhode Island trailed well behind.
Reading results improved Rhode Island’s standing, ranking above the U.S. average. Gist pointed out that Massachusetts was ranked fourth in the world. Gist said, “There is a lot to learn from our neighbor, Massachusetts.”
Recognizing both the good news and the bad news that can be taken from the data, Gist described her “Transforming Education in Rhode Island” strategic plan in detail.
Gist said that the five priorities of the plan includes “excellent educators, great schools, world-class standards and assessments, user-friendly data systems and equitable and effective investments.”
Gist offered the General Assembly’s revised funding formula and the Uniform Chart of Accounts as two examples of initiatives that attempt to achieve equitable and effective investments. She touted UCOA as a “deep-and-complex” data mine for spending comparisons between districts.
Gist then opened the forum to questions.
A series of questions addressed the significant success that Massachusetts has made in improving student performance in general and math performance specifically since 1999.
Gist took the opportunity to point out that one of her current staffers was integral to the change process in Massachusetts and that it was a process that took at least 20 years. She added that like Massachusetts, standards are high in Rhode Island and she said that the move to common core standards, a national initiative that sets the bar high for all enrolling states, will further increase standards.
Gist named three elements of the Massachusetts plan that are mirrored in Rhode Island: adopt high standards, put a strong curriculum aligned with the standards in place and improve educator effectiveness. Gist described the educator effectiveness as the highest priority.
Another thread in the questions centered on the need for teachers to ensure that students are developing self-esteem along with their test scores. Gist reminded the group that the best way to develop confidence and self-esteem is to develop quantifi able academic competence. She added that tests have indicated that the United States tends to rank 19th and below in global academic comparisons, but first in self-esteem measures.
After several parent questions, Jamestown School Department Superintendent Marcia Lukon raised the question of the recently released UCOA data as it impacted Jamestown. Lukon pointed out that the state’s calculation of district expenses includes North Kingstown High School tuition cost but not the students.
Therefore, Lukon noted, any central office calculation based on total expenditure for the year is skewed, leading in turn to misconceptions regarding spending in the district.
Gist said that it was the first that she had heard of it and encouraged the superintendent to speak with the commissioner’s team to address the issue. Lukon explained that the state went back and forth on the issue with the district, agreeing to place a footnote on the page but had yet to do so. Gwen Spence, Jamestown’s director of student services, added that the same issue has led to a miscount of the percentage of Jamestown students receiving special services as earlier reported by the commissioner.
Gist reminded the gathering that the UCOA data, particularly in the first year, should prompt questions not conclusions.
Other questions concerned teacher training, teacher evaluation and teacher certification. Gist described a multifaceted system that is being developed to measure teacher and administrative effectiveness to insure that the best teachers are being prepared by the teacher training programs in the state and then rigorously evaluated in their districts.
The process includes three components: professional responsibilities, professional practice and student growth and achievement. She said that teacher training will be considered in light of a teacher’s results and that certification will be completely revamped.
Questions around the Jamestown math curriculum, including the use of everyday math, were numerous. Although the questions were addressed by Gist, she was careful to leave authority and autonomy regarding such decisions in the hands of the district. She reminded parents that a well-researched and highly defi ned curriculum is far more important than a particular text or program of study. Gist explained that standards tell schools what students need to know; materials, such as textbooks and software, are the resources, and curriculum is the map for the journey.
Gist ended the forum on a note of appreciation and thanks, praising both the turnout and the success of Jamestown schools.