Remarks of Peter McWalters
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
to the Rhode Island General Assembly on the State of Education
May 15, 2001
Speaker Harwood, Majority Leader Irons, Governor Almond, Lt. Governor Fogarty, members of the General Assembly, members of the Board of Regents, I want to thank you for inviting me here tonight. Your presence signals to all Rhode Islanders that the pace and progress of education reform in Rhode Island is something worthy of our attention.
The late Senator Pastore had a lot to say about the subject of education during his many years of service to Rhode Island, but as I begin tonight I will keep in mind his advice on a different subject. Senator Pastore once said there are only two kinds of speeches: those that are too long….and those that aren’t short enough.
Duly noted, Senator.
Where are we? What has changed since last year?
What is most exciting, I think, is this:
We have a growing body of data that points to areas of solid improvement in our schools.
We have tested the strength and veracity of the tools we have for assessing our progress, and they are strong and revealing;
We see increasing acceptance of those tools at the local level. Teachers and principals are using the assessment information and the SALT process as road maps to self-improvement.
These are all good signs. Let me share with you some of what we now know.
The first piece of good news is that Rhode Island students are reading more. The most dramatic change is the increased numbers of books children are reading outside their assigned schoolwork. It is occurring at all levels, among children of all ages.
How much does reading matter? Children who read more feel better about school and learn more. Results from the State Assessment Program show that 4th grade reading scores have improved, and they are continuing to improve.
The second piece of good news is improved math scores at both the elementary and middle school levels. Since 1998, 4th grade math scores and 8th grade math scores have improved in both basic skills and problem solving.
The third piece of good news is that Rhode Island’s SAT scores are rapidly improving. Among the New England states, Rhode Island has the fastest rising trend in SAT scores.
In the past four years, we have moved ahead of Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maine and New York in terms of SAT performance.
URI confirms that the average SAT score of RI students has increased significantly, and the number of Centennial scholars coming from Rhode Island has increased as well.
The fact is, your reasoned, tempered approach to educational reform -- Article 31 -- is working. The information gathered through the comprehensive tools you supported is informing all of us. It is allowing schools and districts to see themselves through a clearer lens, to measure their progress, and to come face to face with areas in need of improvement.
But frankly, there ARE areas where the results are not showing progress. Reading comprehension in the middle grades has not improved. 10th grade math performance is lower than it should be. High schoolers are reading more, but they are reading less than they need to. Drop outs and suspensions are unacceptably high and are disproportionately minority students.
The results tell us what to celebrate and also where we need to work harder.
That brings me to my second point: How do we demand more accountability in a comprehensive enough way to have faith in the results? How do we do it in a fair enough way to gain support from parents, teachers, administrators and the business community? What does a fair system of rewards and punishments look like? Is this balancing act even possible?
Around the country, demands for better accountability for public investments in education have led to a variety of approaches. Some states have high stakes testing as a graduation requirement for students. Some states have high stakes accountability for schools. Some states have centralized decision making in an effort to direct improvement. Some states are leaving it up to local districts to decide what to do and how to do it. Some states have invested heavily in targeted efforts to retrain teachers and retool the system – others less so.
I am reminded of that Dickens line about “the best of times, the worst of times.” In many states standards and accountability efforts are leading to real and lasting improvements in public education. In others, they are leading to stalemate: demoralized teachers and students, increased drop-out rates, expanded equity gaps, controversies around testing.
I am proud to be from a state where we have not only worked hard to achieve policy agreement, we are working very hard to strike the balance. Rhode Island is attracting increasing national attention for its approach. A recent article in a respected journal warns against the dangers of a test-heavy approach to accountability, and also points to best practices. The author writes: “For an example of a state accountability system that balances the public’s need for individual student and school-level results against the school’s need for support and a genuine measure of autonomy in achieving those results, I would point readers to Rhode Island.” He goes on to say that districts around the country will be more likely to succeed if “increasing numbers of states adopt approaches to standards and accountability that look more like Rhode Island’s SALT.”
In Rhode Island the accelerating pace of reform is having a strong and widespread impact. The principals I talk to tell me that the survey information and school visits help them quantify their progress and take an objective look at where they fall short.
Just this March, the Stadium School in Cranston hosted our 100th SALT visit. The teachers and administrators there were justifiably proud of the many good things the SALT visiting team had to say about their innovative literacy initiatives. But they were equally open to the constructive criticism they received.
Principal Susan Bryan said the praise was well deserved, and the recommendations were right on target. She also detailed the school’s plans to make the recommended changes in math and writing instruction.
There’s no question that we still confront schools and districts that prefer to shoot the messenger than to hear the message. But the holdouts are fewer and the converts are growing.
Thanks to our balanced approach, progress has been steady and improvements tangible. Still, the pace of change in education often feels too slow to all of us. Impatience is understandable. I recognize that for a parent concerned about the quality of their child’s education, “give it time” is not an acceptable answer. And make no mistake: I have no more tolerance, no more patience, no more acceptance of mediocrity or failure than you do.
If a poor-performing school, with increasing support and engagement from the district and the state, continues to flounder or decline, we will act. If faced with a district or school unable or unwilling to make adequate progress, we will act. You have written into law, and the Regents have endorsed, Progressive Support and Intervention, and we will make use of all the tools at our disposal, up to and including closing a school.
But let me be clear: it would give me no joy to see one of Rhode Island’s schools shuttered. It would deeply disappoint me as an educator. And I am not willing to take those actions until I am satisfied that we have taken every measure possible to avoid such an outcome.
So how do we do that? What do we do to avoid failure and increase our
First, we need to improve the climate in our schools, especially our middle and high schools.
Second, we need to affirm our support for teachers and teaching.
And third, we need to recognize what it will take to reach the goal of universal high achievement – what we call the “all kids, all schools” goal -- a reality.
What kids, parents and teachers think about the school environment matters. Safety, nurturing, peer and teacher relationships matter a lot. And I have to tell you: this is an area in serious need of improvement. SALT survey results suggest that with a few notable exceptions, we are failing to bring about needed changes in the climate of our schools, especially in our middle and high schools.
We've known for years that if each kid is known well by at least one adult in the school we see fewer discipline problems, less bullying, increased learning, improved relationships between teachers and students. But we haven't made much progress toward that goal. Too many Rhode Island teenagers report that they don't feel they have anyone in the school to turn to for personal or even academic problems. That’s unacceptable.
Personalizing our schools, making the climate safe and supportive, is a terribly important thing to do. It will have tremendous benefits for everyone involved. It is harder in big schools, but not impossible. There is no silver bullet, but this is one area where we can make a difference.
I’ve told you what I think needs to happen inside the school, now let me tell you what I think needs to happen inside the classroom. I want to talk about supporting our teachers.
You’ve heard me talk before about the importance of the classroom teacher. Let me come at it tonight a different way: let me ask you a question. Take yourself back to your fourth grade classroom. Do you remember the name of your principal or district superintendent? How many of you remember who the Commissioner of Education was? But, how many of you can remember the name of a teacher who really made a difference for you?
Teachers do make the difference. There can be no doubt: as much as curriculum, as much as school resources, as much as family circumstances, the person who sets the tone in that classroom, who grades the papers, explains the assignment, provides the encouragement, that person makes the difference for a child’s success.
We must ensure that teacher preparation, student teaching and certification programs produce the kind of qualified, effective teachers our children need and deserve. We are working with our partners in higher education to make that happen.
Over the next ten years 75% of teachers will be new to the classroom, we must also expand our mentoring programs for new teachers. We must ensure that every new teacher has a capable mentor to support them.
We also need to ensure that many of these new teachers reflect the changing demographics of our student body. The recent census results are a call to action.
However, it is not just about new teachers – we must also focus on the men and women teaching today. Teachers in classrooms today have embraced these changes and are hungry for opportunities to expand their knowledge and upgrade their skills.
Four years ago I asked you to support teachers who seek National Board Certification – the highest standard based on the very best in teaching. If I had asked you then to make room in this chamber for the Rhode Island teachers seeking national board certification, I would have had to ask only two of you to stand.
Today I would have to ask nearly all of you to give up your seats to accommodate the 95 teachers either recently completing or currently seeking national board certification. This is a major accomplishment, and one that should make us all proud.
National certification, mentoring, school based coaches and network -- all these strategies are paying dividends. Listen to these stories about actual teachers changing their classrooms.
At a recent budget hearing Kristen Vito, a first grade teacher at Fairlawn School in Lincoln, described dramatic changes in her classroom based on the power of networking. “Because we are working with teachers in other districts I now feel confident that every child is moving to the next grade level better prepared. We know this because we are able to share our best approaches to teaching reading, writing and mathematics. I am so much less isolated in examining teaching and learning now than I was in the past.”
Even the most seasoned, veteran teachers are asking themselves new questions and adopting new approaches with great success. I recently visited Cunningham Elementary School in Pawtucket. There I met Deborah
Harrold, a fourth grade teacher who has the accumulated wisdom of having taught hundreds of children, over many years. She has a command over her classroom and a connection to her kids that I’ve seen so many times with seasoned teachers.
But she is also open to new ideas. With the support of her principal she partnered with a reading coach in her classroom. As she developed new methods and adapted old ones, she began working with her peers in the school. She blended her wisdom based on experience with new knowledge based on research.
As a result every child in her class is now meeting standards in reading. Every single kid.
When I think of our goal of all kids, all schools -- I think of Debbie and her class. I think she’s doing it, so can we.
I want to end by talking about that goal: all kids, all schools. That’s the goal we’ve set, the standard we have pledged to meet. We are not alone. Other states make similar pronouncements, and set their sights just as high.
But the reality is that some states will get there -- or get close -- while other states will lack the political will and the targeted resources to do so. It is easy to stand before television cameras and embrace a slogan. It is much harder to enact policies and make budget decisions that will slowly, sometimes painfully, deliver our schools and kids to high achievement.
I like to think that in Rhode Island we actually do mean it. But it is not an easy goal to achieve. And it is a goal that will require patience, as I’ve told you, and a commitment to the course we’ve charted.
It will also take resources. Not just new dollars, but continued targeted investments based on our new, better understanding of what needs to improve.
In the past five years, we’ve made targeted investments in elementary education, particularly in reading. This year’s scores tell us that student performance has improved the most at the elementary level. Especially in reading.
We talked earlier about school climate. We know from SALT survey responses that the environment in our elementary schools is more supportive and personal. We also know that students are performing better in elementary school. This is no accident.
We need to listen to the SALT survey results. We need to take what we’ve learned and improve our middle and high schools. In fact the Regents have issued a wake-up call to our high schools that says: our visiting teams see it -- test scores, drop out and suspension rates confirm it -- improvement is needed.
A commitment to “all kids, all schools” must translate to a commitment to our urban districts. The fact is, 30% our kids are educated in the three highest need districts in the state. Without improvements among these children, without improvements in these districts, we will fail to move forward as a state. We will continue to have rankings and statistics that mask the two Rhode Islands. We will have one Rhode Island where teachers and students continue to better their teaching and learning, and another Rhode Island where limited resources continue to hold us back.
If we mean it when we say all kids, all schools, we can not accept two Rhode Islands. Rhode Island has a proud history of charting its own course, a history that celebrates both independence and interdependence. Our unique approach to standards and accountability relies of both these concepts – the importance of each part, the importance of the whole. We are all in this together and some students, some schools, some districts, will need more help than others.
Our reform effort is now four years old. Not so new that we should rely on faith alone to believe that it is working, but not so mature that we can rely on reason alone for proof. Let us proceed together, guided by both faith and reason. We still have a long way to go – but now we have better maps to chart our course, and though the seas are rough -- the sails are aloft, the rigging is strong and the winds are favorable. Together we will get there. Thank you very much.