A Conversation about R.I. Education
Ken Wagner, Commissioner
I recently spoke with the Council of Elementary and Secondary Education about a conversation we’ve had over the past few months with Rhode Island students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, school-committee members, community leaders, and elected officials. The details have evolved based on feedback, but the focus has been consistent: Can we bring trust and joy back into our schools while dramatically improving teaching and learning for all students? I believe we can.
Teaching is the engine that powers great schools. Great instruction happens when we provide teachers with time to collaborate, develop curriculum and lessons, review student work, observe one another, and reflect on their practice. We must recruit, support, and retain a diverse staff of teachers and principals into our professional community.
But what if we did even more? What if we also re-imagined how we do schooling? What if we truly empowered the teachers, students, families, and principals who lead a school community? And what if we made these activities voluntary at the school level? Innovation and coercion do not go hand in hand.
Although it is our mission to prepare students for the 21st century, the way we do schooling was largely designed in the 19th century. The way most schools divide up time, knowledge, and learning just doesn’t make sense for many students – or for their teachers. Why not change that? Why not re-imagine schooling through hands-on, integrated, project- and problem-based approaches?
We know that far too many of our students do not have access to or are not prepared for advanced learning experiences in high school. There is some good work under way, such as Governor Raimondo’s Prepare Rhode Island and P-TECH initiatives – and we need to continue expanding opportunities. Persisting in challenging coursework is one of the best ways for our students to develop the social and emotional skills – the so-called “essential skills” – they will need for success in life. Let’s prepare our children for their futures, starting with early childhood fluency with words and numbers through a deep and engaging high-school course of study.
We need grade-level standards to ensure equity of access to the teaching and learning that prepares students for success in life, but these standards need not stifle innovation. We need tests that measure student progress so we know where our students stand, but these tests need not produce worry and fear. Assessment serves instruction – not the other way around – and the primary purpose of a test should be to provide the feedback that prompts a culture of constant growth.
Teachers, students, families, and principals would need additional autonomy and support to implement this kind of vision. What can we do to dramatically empower our school communities?
What if principals and their teacher leadership teams had the autonomy and authority to design and implement a school’s instructional program, including authority over budget and hiring decisions and freedom from the state and local rules and regulations that seem to constrict rather than enhance education? We would need shared leadership among a school’s principal and teachers, with the support of superintendents and school committees, anchored in partnerships with students and their families.
If we are serious about innovation and empowerment, why couldn’t we allow students to enroll in another district if the district had the space and wanted to welcome more students? One size doesn’t fit all. If we could provide opportunities for true autonomy, all schools would have the power to create learning environments that are so compelling no one would want to leave, even if they could.
These ideas are not new. For the past 20 years, Massachusetts has taken a similar approach, focusing on high standards and school empowerment. These are long-standing features present in all high-achieving organizations, not just in education. These are the ideas that could make our state and our economy strong.
Let’s create that culture of school leadership, feedback, innovation, and continuous improvement. If we give them the opportunity, I believe our teachers and students will achieve even more than we thought possible.
A Message from Newly Appointed Education Commissioner,
Dr. Ken Wagner
Dear Rhode Island Students, Parents, and Educators:
On July 13th, the Board of Education approved my appointment as the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.
I am honored by this appointment, and I am excited about the opportunity to serve you and all of the people of Rhode Island.
I’ve been in the education field since the age of 18, when I was elected to the school board of my hometown in New York. I have served in numerous different roles at the school, district and state levels – from school psychologist to principal to my current role as the senior deputy commissioner in New York.
As a school psychologist, I am trained to listen and I look forward to putting that training to work on behalf of the people of Rhode Island by meeting and listening to teachers, families, principals, students and other key stakeholders.
I am especially encouraged to join this new team in Rhode Island. Governor Raimondo and her administration understand that education is an investment in the future and is deeply committed to building the needed partnerships to be successful.
I’m deeply optimistic that our collective efforts will pay off for the children and families of Rhode Island and I look forward to the opportunity to serve.