On Tuesday, the leadership of the Rhode Island Senate and House of Representatives unveiled a package of education reform bills that legislators are hopeful will result in local students achieving the same kind of test scores as their Massachusetts counterparts.
“We were all disappointed by the standardized test scores last year,” Speaker of the House Nicholas A. Mattiello (D-Dist. 15, Cranston) said. “There was also a great disparity in results from community to community, often based on income. This package of bills will standardize curriculum, improve governance and accountability so more decisions are made at the local level, and improve teacher training and evaluation. These are long-term solutions that will really change the ways that schools do business.”
More than one legislator emphasized the long-term aspect of the plan, which was drafted over several months.
The legislation would bring comprehensive reform to curriculum, instruction support, accountability, teacher certification, specialty skills certification, teacher assessments and the principal certification process.
“We have high standards in place, as well as assessments that are aligned to those standards. However, we never did the hard work of ensuring our curriculum prepares students for these expectations. Nor have we done the difficult work of better preparing and supporting teachers so they are equipped to help students succeed. We have the gold standard in education right next door in Massachusetts, and we looked to their model to see what best practices could make a real difference here,” Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio (D-Dist. 4, North Providence, Providence) said.
The first bill would require the commissioner of education to align statewide academic standards with curriculum and the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System. It would also require the commissioner to develop curriculum frameworks, which are broad, research-based instructional strategies for educators to help students develop the skills, competencies and knowledge called for by the statewide standards.
“This bill would ensure that our academic standards set forth the skills, competencies and knowledge expected of each student. The curriculum will align with those standards, and the frameworks would provide strategies to help meet the diverse needs of our students, closing any gaps that exist,” said Sen. Hanna M. Gallo (D-Dist. 27, Cranston, West Warwick), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of the bill. “The bills seek to bring about a culture change within our education system so that the talented professionals at the Department of Education can shift from ensuring compliance to assisting schools with on the ground – or in the classroom – support. We need educators, not regulators.”
“The goal is to give parents a clear map of what their children will be learning, and have it be consistent statewide,” said Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist. 19, Warwick, Cranston), chairman of the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare and sponsor of the bill. “It’s tremendously important that we bring these three tiers – standards, curriculum and testing – into alignment.”
Under the second bill, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would become a professional support partner with local education agencies regarding effective ways to evaluate student improvement and proficiency. The department would support local schools by providing a comprehensive understanding of how curriculum affects those schools based on their specific characteristics, such as size, budget and demographics. The legislation is sponsored by Sen. Adam J. Satchell (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick) and Rep. Daniel P. McKiernan (D-Dist. 7, Providence).
The third bill increases building-level management of schools, increases on-the-ground support for underperforming schools, and provides for the same support at the district level, which has not existed before. Student assessments would include a range of elements, such as work samples, projects and portfolios, in recognition of the variety of student learning styles.
“This bill will increase the authority and power of those who know their schools best – the principals, teachers and community members who are fully aware of the their school’s needs and how to best meet these needs,” said Rep. Gregg Amore (D-Dist. 65, East Providence), the House sponsor of the bill. “I have spoken with numerous school professionals, in Rhode Island and in Massachusetts, and they tell me such a change would make a significant difference in their ability to properly cultivate the educational environment in order to best serve our children. This bill is an important piece of the reforms we are trying to enact so that our children have the best educational opportunities in our state.”
“This legislation will create a greater collaboration among state, district and school officials to develop and implement plans,” said Sen. Ryan W. Pearson (D-Dist. 19, Cumberland, Lincoln), the Senate sponsor of the bill. “This bill is really a culture change for our schools. It’s reform that will focus on the success of individuals by giving greater authority to those who are actually doing the educating at a school and district level.”
The fourth bill, which applies to new teachers, would add an instructional component to the test that teachers must pass to get their certificates. This component will demonstrate that, in addition to understanding what they will teach, the aspiring educators must understand how to teach that subject matter to students. The bill is sponsored by Sen. James C. Sheehan (D-Dist. 36, North Kingstown, Narragansett) and Rep. Karen Alzate (D-Dist. 60, Pawtucket).
The fifth bill would create a process for certifying teachers with certain specialty skills. Its intent is to alleviate difficulties that districts have in finding qualified teachers with certain skills for elementary and secondary education. Typically, such specialty skills are needed for the STEAM curricula – science, technology, engineering, arts and math. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Mario F. Mendez (D-Dist. 13, Johnston, Providence) and Sen. Thomas J. Paolino (R-Dist. 17, Lincoln, North Providence, North Smithfield).
The sixth bill would create a new teacher evaluation system designed, in part, to promote growth, place student learning in the center, and shorten improvement timelines. It will apply to both administrators and educators. The bill is sponsored by Sen. James A. Seveney (D-Dist. 11, Bristol, Portsmouth, Tiverton) and Rep. Justine A. Caldwell (D-Dist. 30, East Greenwich, West Greenwich).
The seventh bill would require the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to establish a fast-track program to certify new principals. Applicants to the program must have at least 10 years of experience as an “effective” or “highly effective” teacher, a recommendation from the superintendent where they have taught, a record of leadership and a master’s degree. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Jean Philippe Barros (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket) and Sen. Harold M. Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence).