State of Education Address
March 5, 2002
Speaker Harwood, Majority Leader Irons, Governor Almond, Lt. Governor
Fogarty, members of the General Assembly, members of the Board of
Regents, it is my pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
Tonight marks the fifth time we have gathered in this chamber to
address a question we all care deeply about: What is the state of
education in Rhode Island?
We are here tonight with as clear and complete an answer to that
question as has ever been developed. This year we have gone from
impressionism to realism, from a developing photograph, to a sharp
focused image of school performance and district performance.
What we know tonight is the result of actions you took five years ago
– actions that – at the time – gave my department instructions that
seemed to us educators as challenging as President Kennedy’s clarion
call for landing a man on the moon. You set us on a direction to world
class performance standards and a system of annual assessment. You
told us to count every student, test every school, and to report the
results publicly. I would love to be able to tell you tonight that our
mission is complete -- or as NASA put it -- the Eagle has Landed. But
although we are well on the way and our trajectory is true, I do need
to tell you tonight -- Houston, we’ve got a problem.
It is not yet time to celebrate. I say this not because we don’t have
good teachers, real improvement and evidence of success. We do.
But the good news and solid improvements that so encourage us have not
yet touched all schools and all classrooms.
Still, we’ve learned a lot together along the way. More than ever
before we can look now district by district, school by school, grade
by grade and answer the question: Are Rhode Island schools performing?
Just as important – in many cases more important – we can also answer
the question: Are Rhode Island schools improving?
But before we talk about how we measure up, let’s talk about exactly
what we measure.
The most important thing to understand is that we have committed to
two goals that place Rhode Island among the most aggressive states in
the country in pursuit of educational excellence.
We have set a very high standard, roughly equivalent to the national
standard, and on a par with many international proficiency tests.
Students who meet Rhode Island’s standard can compete anywhere.
Let me say that again: Our standard is a high standard, our tests are
hard tests, and proficiency is hard work; it takes effort from both
the child and the teacher.
That said, our standard is not inflated, and it is not unachievable.
Some have urged us to, as they put it, “be more realistic.” They have
asked us to consider switching to a standard that is -- frankly --
Our answer is -- frankly -- no.
Setting the bar high and helping schools and districts get there is
the reasonable strategy; it is the right strategy. That’s why tracking
improvement is so important. I care as much about progress as I do
about performance, as much about “right direction” as I do “right
Second, we have adopted a policy of accounting for every student. Many
schools have students who never take the state performance tests, not
on test day and not on any one of the many available make-up days.
Those students are assigned no score, and that no score is counted in
the school’s results.
Now as you might imagine, we’ve heard a lot of objections to that
policy. Some argue that principals and teachers shouldn’t be held
responsible for truant or disengaged students. They argue that
students who are working hard and studying shouldn’t be lumped in with
kids who don’t show up and don’t care. They ask us -- frankly --why
not screen out those kids?
Again, our answer has to be -- frankly -- no.
There’s no question that eliminating those kids from the pool would
raise the scores. In some cases, they’d raise them dramatically. But
at what price? What signal would we be sending if we told 15-year-olds
– 15-year-olds – that we’d already written them off?
To the teachers and administrators who have these kids in their
schools and classrooms, who work in high schools where nearly half of
the kids didn’t take the test, I say this: I know these kids are tough
to reach. I know motivating them is hard. I know what you are up
against. But I don’t absolve you of the responsibility of trying, day
after day, to reach these students, open their minds, and help shape
There’s just no way around it -- all kids means all kids.
To the parents of these young people, I say this: I know you take your
children’s education seriously. I know, from my own experience as a
father of three daughters, that raising kids today is challenging. But
I don’t absolve you of the responsibility of knowing how your child is
doing and urging your child to take advantage of the single biggest
social compact offered to American families: a free public school
education. You work hard to provide for them, but a good education
will play the biggest role in their future success.
I know that your kids might think that they are old enough to make
their own decisions. But for 10th graders, attending school should not
School should be a must, not a maybe.
And for those of you 10th graders who for whatever reason aren’t
showing up for the tests, I’ll tell you this: showing up is part of
If you are not showing up for school on test day, if you are not
showing up in general, let me tell you about the future that awaits
you. Chances are, at some point you’ll stop coming to school
altogether. Chances are, you’ll end up in trouble with the law, or in
a dead end job, or on the welfare rolls. And, most depressing of all,
chances are you’ll pass that same legacy on to your children.
So for your own sake and for the sake of us all, show up at school and
take your education seriously. You’ll do more, achieve more and go
farther, believe me.
And to you, members of the General Assembly, I say this: Don’t waver.
In past years, I’ve stood at this podium and I have urged you to stay
the course, and you have. You have challenged me to count all kids, to
leave no child behind, and I’ve heard you. A decision now to not count
all kids would be a public policy statement that not all of our young
people matter. It would be a decision to sweep under the rug our
truancy problems, and our discipline problems, and the failure of our
schools and communities to engage each and every student.
The fact is, all of our young people count, which is why we are
counting all of them.
Now, against that backdrop – high standards, all kids – let’s talk
about the results.
First, the good news:
There’s no question that the most encouraging results are in our
Nearly 50% of our elementary schools are high performing. A high
performing school is one in which over a three year period, across all
the tests, half or more of the kids met the standard. It is perhaps
even more important to point out that nearly 50% of our elementary
schools are improving. An improving school is one that consistently
hit its improvement targets and moved kids both into the top group and
out of the bottom.
Your targeted investments in early childhood education are paying off.
Your investments in early literacy, full day kindergarten, in reading
coaches …they are all paying off.
Your investments that support kids in partnership with schools are
also paying off. Your investments in high quality child care, RIte
Care expansion, lead abatement efforts, Child Opportunity Zones -- all
have children arrive at school ready to learn.
We should all feel proud of the performance of our elementary school
How proud? Think of it this way. If we got all of our kids performing
at the level of our elementary schools, we would be outperforming
every other New England state in educational achievement.
The other good news is that urban elementary schools are beating the
odds – there are a dozen schools in our poorest districts that are
challenging conventional wisdom. These schools, in West Warwick,
Providence, and Pawtucket, are demonstrating tremendous improvement
across the board – in math, language arts and writing. And remember --
improvement means they are moving kids both into the top and out of
Among these schools are those that I think of kind of as the “fabulous
four” – the Vartan Gregorian School at Fox Point, the Carl G. Lauro
School, and the Sackett Street School in Providence, and the Maisie E.
Quinn School in West Warwick. These schools have met improvement
targets on all tests, in every subject area, across the board. These
are the only schools in the entire state to do so.
Conventional wisdom holds that urban students will never meet the
standard – after all, they are poor, transient, and they face too many
challenges. Well, let me tell you folks, 350 nine year olds can’t be
wrong. These bright-eyed 4th graders, by their simple act of
demonstrating improvement and closing in on the goal, challenge the
notion that urban kids can’t perform, and can’t improve. They can, and
these schools prove it.
Conventional wisdom isn’t always right. The Education Trust, an
organization that compares national test results across the country,
recently reported that Latino 4th graders in RI have made more
progress on the math test than their peers in almost every other
state. African American 4th graders in Rhode Island have made more
progress in reading than their peers in any other state.
We can learn from these results just as our middle and high schools
can learn from the success of the elementary schools.
Middle schools have a long way to go. Still, the middle school results
show us that there are bright spots out there that identify the
strategies that work and guide the direction for the rest. While there
are only a few middle schools in the state that are high performing,
the ones that are have all followed the same winning approach. They
are systematically paying attention to reorganizing around their
students. They are creating teams where teachers work together and
students are well known. They are analyzing student results, adjusting
their content and changing their teaching strategies to improve those
results. Principals and teachers have shared their success and
concerns with their colleagues in other schools and districts.
They have heard the wake up call!
As a result, they have moved their scores. I’d like to acknowledge one
of your own, the Assistant Principal of one of those winning middle
schools, Rhode Island’s Assistant Principal of the Year,
Representative Joe Amaral. Representative Amaral, congratulations.
It is terribly important to celebrate our successes, and we have many
But we also must acknowledge and confront the bad news. Virtually
every one of you represents a community that has at least one high
school. High schools represent a vital bridge in the continuum of
education – they connect grade school to college, childhood to young
adulthood, and educational basics to higher level reasoning and more
In your communities, with too few exceptions, that bridge is broken.
The fact is – students in Rhode Island are traveling up the down
As they advance in grades -- as their schoolwork gets more complex --
as they get closer to the world of work and higher education -- the
quality of the education they receive spirals downward for far too
many students. Middle schools are a step down from elementary schools.
High schools are a step down from middle schools. The longer you’re
in, the worse it gets.
Don’t get me wrong -- there are high performing high schools. High
schools that are leading the way. This year’s Teacher of the Year,
David Neves, is from one such high school, Scituate High School. David
Neves please stand up and be recognized.
There are high schools that are exceptional – not perfect, but very
good. There are others that aren’t performing well yet, but have heard
the message and are improving. For example, recently you may have read
about school districts that awarded Rhode Island’s first “Certificates
of Initial Mastery” to high school students who have stepped up to the
plate to meet exceptionally demanding performance standards. These
kids now have a certificate that says they can meet industry standards
and college standards today!
We have to pick up on these successes and make them the norm not the
exception at the high school level. Too many high schools are simply
mired in the status quo.
Most high schools, as they are currently organized, simply cannot meet
the challenge. School work should be hard, but getting access to a
good education shouldn’t be.
We need to fix our high schools.
I said it last year and I’m saying it again: We need high schools that
relentlessly look at results and use them to rethink content, improve
teaching and focus on the hardest to reach students.
Three days from now, we will hold our second high school summit, where
the Regents, community leaders and educators will grapple with
purposeful graduation requirements, knowing and being responsible for
students, and continuing to teach reading, writing and math at the
high school level.
Our work doesn’t begin and end with the Summit. In the coming weeks
and months I will be meeting with college presidents, business
leaders, teachers, labor unions, parents and religious leaders to
globally reexamine the way we do business in high schools.
I’m also going to need your support in the coming months. I’ve talked
about this before but the time for talk is over. Now is the time for
me to get directive, because too many high schools continue to turn
their backs to low performance; too many high schools cling to the
familiar notion of seven forty-minute periods of missed opportunity;
too many high schools are trapped in the numbing, empty ritual of
yesterday’s approach: impersonal, unconnected and unaccountable.
Four years of cold hard data tell us that yesterday’s approach not
only isn’t working today, it didn’t work yesterday, either. On this
mission failure just is not an option. Continue to practice business
as usual, and you’ll find yourself out of business. It’s that simple.
I am heartened to see that most educators and school committee members
are rejecting business as usual and know that new approaches are
needed. This is true at the elementary, middle and high school level.
In communities across the state the test results are being viewed for
what they are: a road map to areas where there is need for
improvement. A call to action.
At the end of that road is a vision where we are organized around
children, where children are well known, and where teachers are
supported in getting the child to the next level.
Where the school climate is nurturing and supportive, while also
teaching children to be self-disciplined enough to take their
schooling seriously. Where students are given the time they need to
master their task and where teachers are given the time they need to
improve their craft. Where every child counts and is ready for the
next challenge, whether that is the next class or graduation.
Each of us has a role in making this vision a reality. School
committees need to be advocates in their communities for child
centered education policy. School districts need to organize
themselves around supporting school performance. Principals must be
leaders and community builders. Teachers must make learning happen.
Parents -- our students’ first teachers -- must be partners in
reinforcing the importance of school. Community members must know and
support their schools. Businesses must be connected to schools and
open their doors to students. Labor unions must be committed to
student centered solutions. Students must show up and take
responsibility for their own learning.
Students are why we are all here.
Members of the General Assembly, you have a role too. Some have
already been up to this building telling you that realizing this
vision is going to require more money. You cannot afford to ignore
Although money alone will not improve these schools, in overburdened
districts, money will have to be part of the solution. I know this is
a difficult year to tell you that, but improving school performance
We’re not waiting either.
Starting next week, we are meeting with districts and schools to work
out what’s next for every low performing school. Just as you’ve
directed, we will review action plans and will develop and in some
cases direct strategies for school improvement.
I need you to understand that this involves a larger state role. We
are at that point. We must act now, building on successful programs
and directing other schools to learn from them.
We can’t wait, because the future won’t wait.
From your vantage point as lawmakers, you are able to glimpse the
Rhode Island that our students will inherit. You see the businesses
and industries that will shape our state’s future. You know that the
world of work has changed radically since you and I were in school.
Even the jobs we think we all understand have changed in ways that we
Firefighting, for example, is a profession that twenty years ago
required three things: a high school diploma, a first aid card, and
the ability to pass what was called an “agility test.” Oh, and you
needed lots of guts.
Today, you still need lots of guts; you still need a high school
diploma. You still need to pass what’s now called a “physical
performance assessment.” But today you also need to pass a general
aptitude test that covers writing skills, math skills, and science,
including chemistry and physics. That’s to become a firefighter.
Once on the job, and especially in order to move up the ranks, the
training and education requirements intensify. Computing technology,
environmental science, and the chemistry of fire all come into play.
In fact, fire service requires a working knowledge of 21 major
industries, from architecture to law, from structural engineering to
emergency medicine. I imagine that the several firefighters who serve
in this Chamber know what I’m talking about. In the 21st Century, a
good education is not an option. It’s the price of admission.
My colleague Bill Holland has lived this reality every day as
Commissioner of Higher Education and I know that I speak for all of us
when I say: Thank you for a job well done. Bill, I’ll miss you.
So to the students I say: show up. Take these tests seriously. Take
your education seriously. You’re going to need it!
To teachers and principals, I say: keep it up. You’ve been handed a
clear picture of your school and your students – if you’re willing to
commit to high standards and all kids, you can count on my help, in
your classroom, and in the trenches.
But for those of you who think these tests are the latest fad and that
this too shall pass, I must say: we’re serious about this. Step up, or
To lawmakers, I say: buckle up. Improvement is tough to achieve, and
schools today are turbulent places. The fasten seatbelt sign is going
to be on for a while.
It may be a while before we achieve that moon landing but giving in to
doubters will only cause us to lose our way. Lowering our standards is
how we’ll shortchange our children, our economy, and our state’s
And finally, I want to say something to the many dedicated teachers,
principals, superintendents and school committee members who are here
with us tonight. Whether or not you realize it, you now have something
in common with the men and women who serve in the General Assembly.
Like them, you know the feeling of having your performance judged
publicly, and of being held accountable by those you serve, even
though they may understand only a small part of what you tackle every
In the end, the road to improvement starts and ends with you, with
that unique alchemy of inspiration, guidance and challenge that is the
recipe for good teaching. Thank you for being here, thank you for
returning to the classroom tomorrow morning, and thank you for
embracing this challenge.
To you I say -- please stand up, and be recognized.
Teachers and lawmakers alike, you have your work cut out for you.
Educational excellence – excellence that lasts, and becomes embedded
in who we are – is hard to achieve. It is a foundation built brick by
brick over time, with the determination and hard work that requires a
work ethic matched to the task.
To find that determination, that ethic, we need look no further than
Rhode Island’s proud working class history, to the seamstresses and
textile workers and stonemasons that built Rhode Island, sparked the
Industrial Revolution and taught us by example that any job worth
doing is worth doing well.
They taught us that mastering knowledge of a craft takes real effort.
Not just talent, not even mostly talent, but real effort. They taught
us to be proud of our work, and to stand by its quality. They taught
us to show up, work hard, persevere, and do what needs to be done.
Our working class ancestors knew that the best way to guarantee a
better life for their children was to hold them to a high standard. To
meet the challenges of Rhode Island’s tomorrow, there is no better
guide than the wisdom and work ethic of Rhode Island’s yesterday.
We’re on the right track, but that is not enough. As Will Rogers once
said, “Even when you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you
just sit there.”
So, let’s leave this chamber tonight with a common vision. Let us
leave here committed to high standards, committed to all kids, and
sobered by the fact that real improvement takes real time and real
Don’t blink - demand hard work of the schools, demand it of the
children, demand it of us. This challenge, this vision is rooted in
both the American Dream and the Rhode Island experience. By reaching,
believing and persevering, we will get there.
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