Dear Fellow Rhode Islanders:
Last October, I stood before the students at the Kent Heights Elementary School, in East Providence, and released the results of the 2004 state assessments. It was a proud moment for those students, for me, and for all Rhode Islanders.
For the first time, I was able to report that our test scores were up in all grades – in both English language arts and mathematics. More than 2/3rds of our elementary-school pupils and more than half of our secondary-school students achieved proficiency in English. Just about half of our students achieved proficiency in mathematics.
In addition, more than half the schools in the state (166 schools) were classified as “high performing.” About 82 percent of our schools (258 schools) met all of the targets established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Kent Heights was one of many schools that showed significant progress – moving all the way from the bottom classification in 2003 to “high performing – improving” in 2004. These are wonderful accomplishments.
Since 1997, when the R.I. General Assembly passed the education-reform act known as Article 31, we have benefited from a series of public investments in school improvement. With support from the General Assembly and the Governor’s office, federal aid, and grants from private foundations, we have expanded the statewide assessments, conducted the annual SALT Survey and SALT visits, established a cadre of Reading and Mathematics Fellows to help schools throughout the state, created the I-Plan system for teacher certification, built an individual student identifier to help organize the sea of data about student achievement, developed the process of “progressive support and intervention” to help the schools and districts most in need, and implemented the Board of Regents’ ambitious program of high-school reform, which is based on literacy, personalization, and proficiency.
In short, we have worked hard to get our schools ready to hit their academic targets – and most schools have done so.
But with that, I have to issue a caution: These are moving targets, and they are moving upwards, beginning this year. Under federal law, we had to set specific goals, or targets, for each subject and for each school level. The law also mandates that we move these targets higher and higher through a series of steps that lead to the ultimate goal of all students meeting all academic standards by the year 2014.
This fall, the targets will be raised one step higher – and, we will begin a new testing system. Beginning this fall, we will test students in grades 3 through 8, plus grade 11. As we begin this new round of tests, our schools must continue to improve or they will miss their targets and, in some instances, they will be subject to sanctions under federal law.
The results from 2004 were heartening, but not good enough. They are only a step along the pathway to full proficiency.
Moreover, 15 percent of our schools (58 schools) fell below their 2004 targets. Most of these schools lie within the “urban core” of Rhode Island. This pattern should not be surprising – in fact, it’s true nationwide. Our urban areas are our areas with the greatest concentration of student need: high proportions of children living in poverty and children with limited proficiency in English.
If we are to bring all students to proficiency, we must focus our efforts, and our resources, on the areas where there is the greatest student need.
We know that education is expensive in Rhode Island. As has been often stated, we have one of the highest per-pupil education costs in the nation. In fact, the cost of education is relatively high in the entire Northeast region. Our problem is not only the cost of education – it is our method of financing education. More than almost any other state, Rhode Island depends on the local property tax for education financing. Our communities with the greatest concentration of need – our cities – have the least capacity to raise more money from property taxes. You will see in this Information Works! 2005 State Report a series of tables that outline the tax capacity and tax effort in each community in the state. These tables will show that our cities, relative to their property values, are “taxed out.”
The state needs to rethink the whole process of education financing. All of our school districts are facing the problem of cost-containment, as they grapple with salaries, benefits packages, retirement programs, transportation issues, and other budgetary obligations. In particular, our urban districts are in dire need, and they no longer have the capacity to meet their obligations alone. They are seeking help, and only the state is going to be able to carry that burden. It is time to look at establishing a formula for state aid to education.
Over the past few years, while we have celebrated the successes in many school districts, the R.I. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (RIDE) has become increasingly involved with the districts that need help. The most notable instance of this has been the state intervention at Hope High School, in Providence, which culminated this year when I issued an Order of Reconstitution for the school and a detailed Corrective Action Plan for school operations. Unfortunately, others schools besides Hope High School and other districts besides Providence may require increasing degrees of state intervention in future years.
Over the past two years, RIDE intervention teams have been working actively in seven districts: Central Falls, East Providence, Newport, Pawtucket, Providence, West Warwick, and Woonsocket. I am pleased to report that Newport met all of its performance targets for the past two year, and it is no longer in intervention status. Two more districts – Central Falls and East Providence – met their targets last year, and if they do so again in 2005 they, too, will move out of intervention status.
As the teams work with the districts in need, they focus on seven key objectives for successful schools and school districts:
Leading the focus on learning and achievement
As you look through Information Works!, you will see how well our students are performing on the state assessments in English language arts and mathematics. You will see tables that show you which schools are improving and which are not. Using our “value-added” tables, you can determine how well each school is doing with its students as compared with similar students statewide. You will see summaries of reports from the annual SALT Surveys that show student, teacher, and parent responses regarding instructional practices, school climate, and parental engagement. And you will find several charts on school spending and municipal finances.
Information Works!, now in its eighth year, is the result of a successful collaboration between RIDE and our partners at the National Center on Public Education and Social Policy, at the University of Rhode Island. Since 1997, there has been basic policy agreement on education, shared by the legislature, the Regents, and the Governor. I hope that you will use this report to strengthen this public-policy agreement, no matter what your community of interest. School improvement is a challenge for all of us – business leaders, labor leaders, community members, and above all parents. We may have 36 school districts in Rhode Island, but – as James DiPrete, the chairman of the Board of Regents often says – they are all our kids. We are responsible for all of them. Let’s accept this responsibility together.
|For further information call the Rhode Island Department of Education at 401-222-4600 x2182.
Information Works! is produced in collaboration with the National Center on Public Education.