Remarks of Peter McWalters
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
To the Rhode Island General
On the State of Education
House Chamber -- April 4, 2000
Mr. Speaker; Senator Perry; Governor Almond; Lt. Governor
Fogarty; members of the General Assembly; elected officials; community leaders;
distinguished educators; parents; students; and friends.
As I stand here to report on the state of education -- let
me first say that I'm proud to have worked with each of you. I'm pleased with what we've
accomplished. And I'm optimistic that we will do whatever it takes to stay the course
until our shared vision of educational excellence for every child in Rhode Island is a
Three years ago, this legislature had the vision and the
wisdom to pass Article 31. With the governor's signature came policy agreement and
direction. You endorsed high standards with annual assessments to measure progress. You
assumed a greater role in education, and you targeted investments in early childhood,
professional development, technology, and accountability.
You had the courage to increase educational aid at a time
when some said schools already cost too much, and most importantly, you didn't rush to
judgment, but allowed change to come over time, gathering a wealth of data about schools
rather than trying to judge schools on test scores alone.
You have shown the will and the resolve to act. As a
result, I can report that the state of education in Rhode Island is aggressively changing
for the better.
These changes are far reaching -- challenging and
empowering educators, students, and parents to strive for excellence, and to achieve the
results essential for full participation in an increasingly high-skills workplace and a
vibrant and diverse democracy. And we are doing this through the hard work of school
committees, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and students, and a growing
number of critical partners.
I'd be less than honest, however, if I didn't say that
there's a lot of work yet to be done. There are still communities, schools, educators, and
some students who have been slower to respond. It'll take a sustained effort with targeted
investments to ensure that no community, no school, and no students are left behind.
Brace yourselves. It will be challenging.
We've reached the initial goals we set; and I want you to
know tonight that we're ready to continue our work to tear down the remaining barriers,
re-tool the old educational engine -- not just tinker with it, not just reform it, but
fundamentally re-invent it.
More difficult? Yes. Bolder? Perhaps. Requiring more FROM
us, and much more OF us? Absolutely. But I can report that individual schools at every
level in almost every community are better off than they were three years ago and are now
poised to take the next step -- that is, if we have the will and resolve to clear the way,
expect it of them, and support their efforts.
Before I address what it will take, let me highlight some
of our progress to date.
You asked us to be accountable, and we are. Districts have
adopted plans and set targets. Schools have conducted self studies and report to their
communities annually. This week we will release our third annual report on schools and
districts, Information Works! 2000, and this year, for the first time, it will include
financial data down to the level of an individual school.
You asked us to focus on the early grades first, and we
have -- and our strongest results in basic reading skills are in the fourth grade.
You asked us to assess our progress, to assist struggling
schools and districts and make certain that we are not leaving any students behind. We're
doing this and we are making progress.
I've visited schools. I've talked to teachers and
students. I've sat in classrooms. The changes I've seen are, in some cases, extraordinary.
The comments I hear are compelling. Teachers are changing practice. Students are more
These changes are not an accident -- let me give you some
We've assisted districts with improvement plans. We've
supported professional development and teachers are altering instruction to reach more
students in challenging and engaging ways. Your reading investments have positioned us to
secure a $4 million competitive federal grant, and we are providing direct assistance to
districts to focus powerfully on reading. And the SALT surveys confirm that students are
These improved teacher practices are no longer isolated
pockets of excellence. Powerful collaboration among teachers is the lynchpin to improving
practice statewide. Nine networks of educators are being supported across districts and
schools at every level. Teachers are coaching each other, and sharing best practices, to
improve instruction in reading and math.
An outside evaluation of one network documents that the
collaboration is working to improve practice, increase communication, and deepen
understanding of state standards.
We have developed business partnerships and created high
school academies -- schools within schools -- where students must meet academic standards
and perform to industry standards. These academies are three of the
industry clusters identified by the Economic Policy
Council and the Human Resource Investment Council. There are now 21 of these academies in
Rhode Island in finance, information technology, and travel and tourism.
All of these changes are challenging local school
committees and labor leaders to rethink teacher contracts. Committees are negotiating
longer school years, more teacher time, and stronger accountability provisions. Contracts
are rewarding quality professional development. Labor and management are increasing shared
responsibility to improve student results.
And local communities continue to develop community-based
partnerships to support children and families. Locally developed and state supported Child
Opportunity Zones, or COZs, and family centers where students and families have access to
human services, and clinics are unique focal points that strengthen each school's
connection to its community.
In one school I visited in Middletown, a seventh grader
told me recently that he's reading more and learning more. He said, "You know the
work is getting harder, but I like it because I know what's expected." And a teacher
said to me, "This is very hard. But it's the best work I've ever done." Another
teacher told me, "There's no turning back."
There is no turning back.
Through the SALT surveys, Information Works!, school
improvement plans, and the response to the SALT visit reports, we're seeing the learning
environment beginning to change.
I'm pleased to say that some of the people who are on the
frontlines, everyday, making it happen, are here tonight. I'd like to recognize all those
people for their dedication and their leadership. These educators are changing curricula,
making progress in early grades, reforming contracts, developing dynamic strategic plans,
rapidly responding to change, creating community-based programs, letting schools
themselves lead the way, and getting results. They are the proof that our shared agenda is
That group includes our teacher of the year, Larry Verria,
and his colleagues -- this year's 14 Nationally Board Certified Teachers, the Presidential
Award winners in math and science, and the Milken Family Foundation Award winners. Could I
ask you to please stand. [applause] Now please remain standing.
This effort requires leadership at all levels. I would ask
Diana Lam and Mike Jolin to stand, two superintendents who were recruited as a result of
the consensus at the community level, between school committees and municipalities, to
find the best superintendent to lead their communities. Would you two please stand?
Would every superintendent here tonight now stand with
And now I would ask every school committee member,
business and community leaders who are working with the schools, our higher education
partners, teacher union leadership, and parents to stand.
And now I would ask each of you to join me in expressing
our thanks and appreciation for the leadership and support represented by the governor and
the legislators with us tonight.
We are getting results, but we can do better. More
students are reading, but we want them all to read. More students are staying in school
and more are graduating, but we want all of them to graduate. Many parents are involved,
but not every parent. Teachers are changing practice, but they need more professional
development and structures that support their efforts. In short, while our investment is
beginning to pay off, and we have moved some of the pieces, now the heavy lifting begins.
We must all understand that no one community, no one
school, no one teacher, can do it alone. The state must continue to play a coordinating
role, a prodding, but most importantly, a supportive role, assisting every community.
As incoming president of the national commissioners'
association, let me assure you, all states are struggling with similar issues. But thanks
to your leadership, we have avoided some common pitfalls. You have kept the focus on high
standards. You have resisted rushing into "high stakes" testing, which holds a
student accountable for results before the adults and the system have provided the student
the necessary opportunities to learn the material. Your foresight is giving us the time it
takes -- and it takes time -- to bring about the real and lasting changes that will make
all of our schools responsive to the needs of children.
The irony is that we're doing better than ever, but the
bar has been raised. Although we have been inching up in the national rankings, we
continue to be in the middle group of states that are perfectly average. Regionally, we
rank below our neighboring New England states.
On our own report card, then, we can only give ourselves
an "incomplete." We have not yet reached, challenged, and supported every
teacher and every student in every classroom, school and community. Schools are not
failing but many of our education structures are obsolete. The unchallenged
standard operating procedure of graduating 80 percent of our students is no longer
sufficient or acceptable.
To put it in perspective, the organizational elements and
underlying structures of our school system, like the bricks and mortar holding it
together, pre-dates most of us. Sad to say, a day in the life of some high school students
today might still be all too recognizable to many of the grandparents here tonight. The
rapid pace of change we accept in our daily lives hardly allows us to look back or keep
up, and yet we readily accept the status quo in educational structures, letting education
lag woefully behind.
To participate in today's world, every single child must
be able to read, to think, to listen, to communicate, to meet the civic responsibilities
and the competitive standards of the global marketplace. Without these capabilities, young
adults will find no skilled jobs.
That's not to say that our schools are not working for
some kids. But right now, in many cases, the structures of schools are themselves impeding
a teacher's ability to reach every child.
I want to work with you to look at what we can do to
support local efforts to restructure schools to meet the needs of all children. The
results we're seeing tell me we have to take that next step because the system, as we know
it, even at its best, has reached a level of productivity that, frankly, is flat out.
You need only talk to principals and teachers to know what
I mean. They're running harder and faster but often feel frustrated by insurmountable
organizational obstacles. The traditional 50-minute class period, 180-day school year, the
7-hour day, caseloads of 125, 150 students, schools of over 1200 students, centralized
decision-making, limited access to professional time, and ineffective evaluation
instruments are just a few of the structural barriers to effective teaching and learning.
The time has come to give students and teachers the
schools they need to achieve their full potential. Imagine if we gave every teacher the
professional training and the community support to reach every student, to turn every
classroom into a vibrant, interactive learning experience, engaging students and parents
alike in a new culture of learning.
We can do that. But it will require all of us -- parents,
teachers, students, administrators, our partners, and our political leaders-- to pull
together, ready and willing to do some very heavy lifting.
The question is: Do we have the capacity and the will to
do the heavy lifting that's required? Your role -- our role -- is more critical than ever.
If we falter on the next steps, if we compromise our commitments, we will lose this
You've already taken the first steps, and as you well
know, not everyone has been happy with the changes. But I commend you for staying the
course, asking skeptics to provide proof that the prior system was working for every
You wisely understood that real, substantive change is
slow and sometimes difficult, and that teachers and principals need our moral as well as
financial support as they confront the difficulties of implementing meaningful
instructional and organizational change.
You signaled your commitment to them by targeting
additional aid specifically to professional development for teachers. And you refused to
be goaded into the national past time of taking "cheap shots" at our teachers
and our public schools.
We are one small state facing one big challenge and a big
opportunity. Common sense tells us that our size can be our strength. We know each other
and each other's communities. Rhode Islanders have the benefit of being able to actually
grasp our interdependence. We cannot reach our goal of all kids without building a
community of interest to support "other people's children." We can draw on our
size and our closeness to achieve our goal and to make Rhode Island's success a beacon of
hope for the nation.
Our vision is right. Our strategy is sound. Our results
are encouraging. Our investments are beginning to pay off, but we need to invest more in
targeted levers of change. It's not just about more money; it's about levers -- applied in
the right place at the right time. These levers must meet the test of having the strength
and creating the tension to get the job done.
Obviously, the state has a vital role to play. Let me
identify three critical levers.
The first concerns teacher quality.
I'm sure that every person in this room has had the
privilege of having a fabulous teacher -- a teacher who believed in you, pushed you, and
caused you to achieve things you never thought possible. Excellent teachers make a
tremendous difference in the lives of their students and in their students' achievement.
Many of us, however, have also had the teacher who, for
whatever reason, could not help us. Not everyone can teach. Today's classrooms require a
greater level of expertise. We've never expected teachers to reach every child. And we've
never expected all kids to reach high levels of proficiency.
Teacher support is more critical than ever. How can we
build the lever for that support? The governor's task force on teacher preparation has
given us a comprehensive framework for improving teacher quality.
We have asked our institutions of higher learning to
rethink and redesign teacher preparation. They've started, and we need to support them.
We must ensure that all teachers, whatever their focus,
are strong teachers of reading.
We must insist that all student teachers be supervised by
a master teacher during their student teaching experience.
We must provide high-quality mentoring for every new
We must follow through on connecting continuous
professional development to re-certification.
We must develop an alternative certification route for
mid-career professionals to enter teaching without sacrificing the required knowledge and
skills that assure good practice.
We must support teaching as a profession. That means we
must move towards a professional-length day and a professional length year. And we must
provide professional working conditions and professional compensation, and expect
The second critical lever concerns state support
for local leadership.
We must reinforce the state's responsibility to provide
adequate and responsive support to districts and schools. Many districts and schools know
how to move forward and are simply looking for help. Some cannot do it without state help.
We know this because we have a long waiting list of requests for assistance. And we need
the people with the expertise to respond.
Our strategies have been respectful of local choices and
local control. Local control will remain a watchword for the future. Local leadership and
local solutions are the best ways to achieve results. We need to continue to support
locally developed alternatives.
After all, this is Rhode Island, a state with a history of
supporting local solutions. But high standards are not negotiable. Improving student
results is not negotiable. When a community, a district, or a school demonstrates, over
time, that it cannot improve results, then you must expect and demand that the Regents and
the Department of Education provide increasing and aggressive support, followed by
progressive intervention to ensure student success. Specifically,
We must invest in the department's ability to assist each
district and school with curriculum and instruction.
We must complete the investments in the accountability
structure -- complete the SALT visits, complete the information system, implement the
universal student identifier.
We must be able to bring the resources to those schools
and districts that need aggressive support to improve school performance.
The final, and probably most critical lever, concerns adequacy
and equity of resources.
We all acknowledge that none of our districts is able to
move all students to proficiency without additional support from the state. We must
support and advocate for targeted resources for ALL of our districts. Yet while doing so,
we must also continue to adjust for the equity gaps that have developed over the years.
I am pleased to acknowledge that for the last three years,
more than 70% of each new state dollar has gone to support our neediest school districts.
This has helped to remedy the equity gap. We've begun, but it is not yet enough.
- We must raise the proficiency level of students in our
urban areas, where nearly half our children go to school, or we will not raise our
- We must target enough investment in the instructional
program to raise the per pupil expenditures in our core cities up to and beyond the state
- We need to support the expansion of full-day kindergartens
as the governor has proposed.
- We need to resolve the method of financing education in
this state to provide tax burden fairness, adequacy for all, equity based on need, and
predictability for stability.
For those who are timid or hesitant about the state role
or the financial responsibility for resourcing this agenda, let me suggest that this is a
race -- a marathon. We will be measured by how well we, as a state, prepare our children.
This legislature knows well the opportunity costs if we do
not meet the all kids challenge. One in five of our current ninth graders will drop out
before the twelfth grade. Some 70 percent of current ACI population lack a high school
diploma. Dropouts will not find skilled jobs, a low-skilled workforce will not attract
high-wage business, and low wages won't support a family.
Kids Count , released just yesterday, tracks the rise in
the number of children in poverty, and we know the effect of poverty on school readiness
and performance. You have already begun to address these issues. Keep investing in the
early childhood agenda. My colleagues and I on the Children's Cabinet look forward to
working with you to continue that effort.
So, it's up to us. All of us. What we do here can change
the life of every child. In the end, we can either choose to act slowly, preserving the
status quo, making small changes here and there that only incrementally raise test scores
but never really address the fundamental issues, or we can resolve, right here and now, to
do whatever it takes to see this through and meet the needs of all kids.
Our goal is not only to raise graduation rates, but to
raise our sights, to open the minds of our students to a universe of possibilities so that
they have a framework of knowledge into which they can add their own scientific
discoveries and artistic creations.
To every student, I say that we want to start with you,
not with the system. We want to organize around your strengths and capacity to learn. And
we ask that you work with us, give your best effort, never stop thinking, never stop
trying, and always dream of the possibilities. A teacher is depending on it.
To every parent I say: help us. Be part of it. You asked
us to demand more FROM every student and expect more OF them. We've raised our
expectations of them -- now we ask more of you. Education is not only about numbers and
grades, but about lifestyles and attitudes, and, in that regard, there is no greater
influence over a child than a parent. You are your child's first teacher; you are our
To every teacher I say that we will work with you to tear
down the barriers that stand in the way of reaching every child, but, at the same time, I
ask every teacher to stand with us on the issues of time, responsibility and results. You
hold the key to the lives of the next generation of Rhode Islanders -- what they know, how
they think, in effect, the kind of people they become.
To every member of this Assembly, the governor, every
elected official, every community leader I say: let's work together to do what has to be
done to make this happen.
If we act together, I believe amazing things can happen.
Thank you very much.
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