The word “hope” may appear on the Rhode Island state flag, but it’s in short supply in Providence Public Schools. A recent report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University reveals that students are exposed to “an exceptionally low level of academic instruction” and in some cases, they have to attend school in dangerous buildings with lead paint and asbestos. At fault are byzantine rules and convoluted governance arrangements, the authors argue. Piecemeal reform efforts have not been enough to overcome ossified institutions, leaving unsafe buildings, low-quality instruction, and sub-par teachers shuffling between schools in a “dance of the lemons.”
The situation in Providence is dire, but it’s an important moment to make real, lasting changes as the spotlight is aimed on their dysfunction. Leaders in Providence — and Rhode Island at large — must focus on systemic change to provide students with safe learning environments and high-quality, rigorous instruction. Reforming an entire school system is a tall order, but other districts with similar challenges show that change is possible. One such example is just 191 miles down I-95: Newark, New Jersey.
Newark’s school system was in serious distress in ways that mirror Providence today: high poverty, dysfunctional bureaucracy, crumbling school buildings, and abysmal student outcomes. A voluminous report detailing the crisis in Newark’s public schools ultimately led to a state takeover in 1995.
Under state management, Newark’s school system was governed by the New Jersey Department of Education so there would be no confusion as to who ultimately bore responsibility for the school system’s success. But state control was no panacea. Fifteen years later, student outcomes in Newark were still among the worst in New Jersey, inspiring a mayor, governor, and billionaire to make a $100 million announcement on Oprah. Though controversial, the infusion of philanthropic support and energetic leadership served as a catalyst that spurred two key steps for Newark’s schools: a strong superintendent in Cami Anderson and the development of the One Newark plan. Leading with the core principles of excellence, efficiency, and equity, the long-struggling Newark school system began to improve, ultimately leading more students to be enrolled at better schools.
Another critical element of Newark’s overhaul was the negotiation of a new teachers contract that helped to retain high-quality educators — a key strategy to improving student outcomes in Newark. Independent analysis from AIR and NCTQ of the contract’s implementation show that the new labor agreement has helped to retain more than 90% of the district’s highly effective educators.
Recent research shows that Newark schools — district and charter — have shown dramatic improvements in test scores, graduation rates, and student growth rates since 2006. The share of black students in Newark attending a school that beat the state proficiency average in their grade has more than quadrupled, from 7% in 2006 to 31% in 2018. In 2018, low-income students in Newark’s district schools outperformed low-income students in math in most other large PARCC districts.
Rhode Island’s leaders already have some tools for transformative change, including state laws that enable the creation of new schools, such as empowerment schools, charter schools, or mayoral academies. The Johns Hopkins report also showed bright spots in the Providence Public School District (PPSD), including the presence of some exceptional teachers and principals, but these elements aren’t nearly enough to overcome a deeply flawed and ineffective system of governance.
Hope can come back to Providence, but leaders in Rhode Island need to apply the lessons of what worked in Newark, which may mean handing the keys over to the state until there’s evidence of progress. However, centralizing governing authority is a necessary but insufficient step to turn around PPSD schools; improvement also requires school leaders who are focused on the highest priority improvements and empowered to implement them.
Providence should also learn from some of what Newark didn’t do well. Engaging the community from the start of any reform effort could mitigate some of the criticism that arose in Newark. In a recent Providence Journal article, students are already voicing that they are “surprised that we had to have someone from the outside tell us what we’ve known for a very long time.” Leaders of any reforms in Providence would be wise to hear the concerns and voices of students and parents at the forefront, before taking any major steps.
Getting the Rhode Island legislature, Providence City Council, Mayor of Providence, the Rhode Island Department of Education, and the Providence Board of Education to all agree on a more coherent, streamlined system of governance for PPSD may not be possible, but Mayor Elorza has expressed willingness to partner with the state. Parents are also speaking up, calling for the state to lead the turnaround process in PPSD. While the state takeover in neighboring Central Falls, RI hasn’t translated to better outcomes for students, it’s still a model worth trying — it may be impossible to address structural challenges, such as a new labor agreement with teachers, without state intervention. Until the core issue of overlapping and convoluted governance is addressed, it will be difficult for Providence to provide their students with access to better instruction, safe buildings, and, most importantly, hope.