Innovation Ecosystem

The importance of being earnest about education in RI

Will public education, like health care, become a corporate commodity? What lessons can be learned from what happened to Child Opportunity Zones, an initiative launched 25 years ago? Youth wants to know

Photo by Richard Asinof

Angelica Infante-Green, right, commissioner of Rhode Island schools, opens a listening session at Hope High School with an extended monologue, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, left, spoke first.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/15/19
The "listening" sessions staged in the aftermath of the scathing report on the conditions in Providence public schools had the feel of a carefully managed public relations strategy. What was not shared may turn out to be important as what was shared.
How much will it cost to transform the Providence public school system and who will pay for it? Would it make more economic sense to invest in building more affordable, safe, healthy housing in Providence? Why have the lessons of the Child Opportunity Zone initiative from 25 years ago faded from public policy? Will students have a voice in the decision-making about the future of their schools? How will the Raimondo administration respond if the class action lawsuit alleging failure to provide civics education succeeds in federal court? What do we need to know about the agenda to expand personalized learning in the Providence schools? Will public education, much like health care today, become a corporate commodity? How much of the problems in performance on standardized tests have to do with a large segment of students in the Providence school systems being English language learners?
In the next few weeks, the Raimondo administration will confront the reality of some big decisions: will it be able to broker an arranged marriage between Care New England, Lifespan, and Brown University? What will emerge as plans for the Providence School system and how involved will the state become in those plans? How will the continued poor performance by the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families be addressed? How will the overall leadership of the R.I. Executive Office of Health and Human Services set its future course under a new director, who assumes her role on July 22?
With the opening of the new Wexford Innovation Complex on July 17, the focus of much of the discussion will shift to the potential positive economic future of Rhode Island. If housing is where jobs go to sleep at night, and young talent seeks a place where they can afford to raise a family and have their children attend public schools, how does that fit within the vision of the innovation economy in Providence and Rhode Island?

PROVIDENCE – Oscar Wilde would have loved the performance for its many ironies, and for the stories revealed, hidden inside of the stories told.

The “staged” gathering in the Hope High School auditorium at 7 a.m. on July 2 was one of eight stops on a “listening tour” of community forums to take the temperature of parents, community members and students, giving them the opportunity to respond to the devastating report about the Providence Schools conducted by a team of “experts” led by Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

The report had described in detail the problems identified in the city’s school system, after observing 12 schools – four elementary, four middle, and four high schools.

The “direct conversations” were billed as the next step before deciding upon what actions to take in the long term. The last “public forum” was held on Saturday afternoon, July 13, at the Bailey Elementary School. [The message delivered by the new education commissioner at the last forum was: Things are even worse than what is in the report.]

But it seemed that the future plan of action, much like the wheel inside a wheel, was already in the works, quickly being put together offstage, behind closed doors.

From the vantage point of ConvergenceRI, sitting in the front row during the performance at Hope High School, the public forums appeared to be a slick public relations exercise to convince folks that their voices were being heard, that what they said really mattered. And, at the same time, to build a crescendo of urgency and outrage.

The report had been funded by the Partnership for Rhode Island, a group representing the CEOs from many of the state’s largest employers. What exactly was their agenda in funding the study? Good question.

Everything is broken
The Providence school culture is broken; there is an exceptionally low level of academic instruction; and parents are marginalized and demoralized, according to the findings in the report from the executive summary, provided in a handout to about 90 people who were attending the forum [along with free doughnuts and coffee from Dunkin]. Further findings said that many teachers and students do not feel safe in school as a result of bullying and physical violence. Everything appeared to be broken, including the actual school buildings. Rats, lead paint and asbestos, oh my!

The release of the report had touched off a stampede of media outrage, resulting in the kind of weird call-and-response chant often used at progressive rallies: this is what education looks like, this is what education looks like, as a way of shaming all those responsible and pointing fingers. Even the national media joined in the chicken-pecking contest, from The Wall Street Journal to “The Daily Show.”

The problem was: the findings were not “news” if anyone had been paying attention – students had pointed out that inconvenient truth at the evening session the night before on July 1 at the Providence Career and Technical Academy, saying that they had been delivering the same messages for years, but no one ever seemed to be listening or paying attention.

All the underlying data, pinpointing the problems, had been hiding in plain sight: all the reporters had to do – and, for that matter, the corporate CEOs paying for the study – was to pick up the 2019 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook and read it, much like reading the Mueller Report.

The facts related to obstruction of education in Providence have been self-evident data truths for years – the challenges of an impoverished public school system with deep racial divides and a growing immigrant population, serving communities and neighborhoods with huge economic and health disparities, in a city that is riven by an extreme lack of affordable, safe, healthy housing and an inequitable property tax structure, created in large part because nonprofits, including hospitals, colleges and universities and churches, own huge tracts of city property and pay no taxes on the land.

For those well off enough, parents can send their kids to expensive, private schools in Providence, or move to the affluent suburbs of Barrington or East Greenwich. The new commissioner of education said: “I wouldn’t send my kids to [these] schools,” but for a majority of parents living in Providence, that is not an option.

Beyond the problems of distracted learning and selective hearing by the news media, the larger, impertinent question, posed by an African-American community activist in Providence on Facebook, invoking W.E. B. Du Bois, seemed particularly apt: “How much of our soul do we sacrifice just to get a seat at the table?”

Dramatic speaking lessons
Like many “listening tours” these days, the speaking program began with two extended monologues, a short opening speech by Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, followed by a longer soliloquy by newly appointed Rhode Island Department of Education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, before anyone in the audience was permitted to speak.

Mayor Elorza spoke with an earnest tone of humility about his own failures as a student before he was able to find success, saying he was graduated in the lower 25 percent of his high school class and was initially rejected by all the colleges he had applied to. The new report, he said, had confirmed: “We have been failing our kids.” Moving forward, the focus needs to be on “what is right for our kids.” Elorza promised to keep his “eyes wide open” to solutions.

Commissioner Infante-Green spoke in a dramatic tone of righteous indignation about what the report had found, with an actor’s flair, accentuating her own sense of personal disgust at what she had observed. She said that she was amazed that nearly100 people had gathered for a 7 a.m. meeting, which was a hopeful experience for her.

The first slide in her presentation seemed an anomaly to her message: it spoke about how a friend of her mother’s had intervened to prevent Infante-Green from being shifted to a different school district in the South Bronx, and that had made all the difference in her personal story. [ConvergenceRI was unsure what the moral of the story was: was it the Bronx version of the Rhode Island tale: “I know I guy or gal?”]

Infante-Green reviewed many of the report’s findings, saying: “The system is broken at every single level.” She expressed disgust and dismay about the findings in the report, saying: “Our kids deserve better.” She asked rhetorical questions of the audience, wondering out loud if they could name the two cities that Providence performed worse than in student testing. The answers: Newark, N.J., and Detroit, Mich.

Editor’s Note: We interrupt this narrative to bring you an important sidebar: Comparing Providence to Newark in terms of performance is a tricky business, because it didn’t come with the needed asterisk, either in the Johns Hopkins report or in the conversation at Hope High School: Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook donated $100 million in 2010 to reform the Newark public schools, matched by another $100 million, and the actual outcomes of what has been achieved by that investment are still part of a vigorous debate.

Reporter Dale Russakoff’s book, The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools, published in 2015, details what happened. It should be required summer reading by anyone involved in deciding the future fate of Providence schools.

In a 2015 interview with Tom Moran of The Star-Ledger, Russakoff pinpointed the way that the issue had been “demagogued” by politicians, often ignoring the community.

Moran: Are politicians demagoguing this question?
Some of them definitely are. But that’s partly because of the way this unfolded, with reformers coming in and basically dismissing the community, saying, “We know better, we’re going to fix your schools and fix you and save your kids.” That was a gross thing to do and the push back was natural.

Had they worked with some of the great teachers and principals on the ground in Newark, and the local philanthropists, it would have been a lot harder to demagogue.

Moran: Is that a main lesson of the book?
It’s one of them, but not the main lesson.

Moran: What's the main lesson?
The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability. Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods.

Their mantra is that poverty is no excuse. That’s a fair critique of some, true for some people. But if you’re not addressing poverty as part of your plan for education, you’re not going to have an impact.

Moran: Who disputes that poverty is a gigantic obstacle?
Verbally, no one does. But if you look at how this money was spent, there wasn’t anything systemic or strategic to address the issues that are keeping kids from learning no matter how great the teachers and principals are.

Surveillance capitalism, personalized learning
Beyond the insights offered by Russakoff, an equally relevant undercurrent to the conversation at Hope High School and the alarming situation in Providence schools is how “personalized learning” has become the watchword of education reform, and in particular, the way in which various technology giants from Silicon Valley, including Google and Facebook, have promoted a new approach to education, under the nomenclature of “personalized learning.”

In Rhode Island, numerous classrooms have been transformed into pilot laboratories of personalized learning, using platforms such as Summit Learning, a signature program of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative [yes, named for the husband-and-wife team that owns Facebook]. In Newark public schools, Summit Learning is an integral part of the educational reform program, as well as charter schools.

In excellent reporting by E. Tammy Kim in the July 10 issue of The New Yorker, in a story entitled “The Messy Reality of Personalized Learning: Untangling the mixed record of the latest big-fix educational trend promoted by Silicon Valley,” details of how personalized learning has taken over Rhode Island classrooms emerge. [See link below to The New Yorker story.]

As part of her “nut paragraph” describing the gist of her story, Kim wrote: “But skeptics warn that underneath the language of “student-centered” pedagogy is a tech-intensive model that undermines communal values, accelerates privatization, and turns public schools into big-data siphons. Rhode Island’s experiment with personalized learning reveals a still more complicated picture: of overworked, undervalued public-school teachers who embrace reforms in order to get what they need.”

Kim continued: “For decades, nonprofit advocacy groups and corporate donors have targeted K-12 education for intervention. The allure of helping disadvantaged children has combined with an openness, on the part of government actors, to private partnerships and technocratic fixes, especially those aimed at disciplining teachers.”

Kim cited initiatives such as “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top,” spurred on by what she called a “nationalization of education politics.”

“Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation,” Kim wrote.

Kim continued: “Angélica Infante-Green, who became the education commissioner in May, told me that she intends to expand personalized learning to more schools.” Surprise, surprise, surprise.

A Constitutional right to an adequate education?
Beyond the politicized national push for public education reform, beyond the agenda for “personalized learning” being promoted and funded by Big Tech in the age of surveillance capitalism, there is one more important ironic subplot around the failures of education in Rhode Island that needs to spotlighted: a constitutional challenge in the form of a federal class action lawsuit being brought by the R.I. Center for Justice against the Raimondo administration, seeking to protect students’ rights to an adequate education.

In March, the Governor’s office moved to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing: “…while the Plaintiffs [public school students] assert a constitutional right to receive a meaningful opportunity to obtain a civic-based education adequate to prepare them to function productively as civic participants, such a right or opportunity is not ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition, and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed.’”

Translated, students have no guaranteed right to learn about their rights as citizens, according to the Governor’s legal team.

Further, the Raimondo administration “disclaimed responsibility for the state of Rhode Island’s public schools, claiming that it was enough that the state had ‘established an ample regulatory framework, as well as necessary guidance, to ensure that civics and social studies are important part of the curricula in the State’s elementary and secondary schools,’” according to a recent post by the Center for Justice.

That argument was repeated in legal documents in a second brief seeking to dismiss the lawsuit, less than 24 hours after the Johns Hopkins report had been released publicly, according to the Center for Justice.

In its post, the Center for Justice eviscerated the position by the Raimondo administration: “The state continues to argue in A.C. v. Raimondo that questions of instructional quality and curricula “fall squarely within the jurisdiction and authority of local school committees,” in spite of clear findings by the Johns Hopkins team that “[Providence School] Board members were either ill-informed or did not know which kinds of curricula are being used in schools,” that RIDE’s school rating system of rating schools makes it difficult for schools to accept large numbers of English language learners and Special Education students, that the Department regularly issues unfunded mandates that burden schools, and that its pressure to lower suspension rates negatively affects school culture.”

The irony, in case you missed it, goes like this: in court, the Raimondo administration argued that local control of schools is paramount and absolves the state of responsibility for any shortcomings, but in the wake of the new report on the Providence school system, Gov. Raimondo said, “Everything is on the table,” including the state taking a heightened role in Providence schools. Can you hear Oscar Wilde laughing and applauding?

Editor’s Note: We now return you to the regularly scheduled narrative of the story, capturing what happened on the morning of July 2 in the Hope High School auditorium.

Near the end of her opening monologue, Infante-Green pointed to the peeling paint on the ceiling of the high school auditorium and said: “All you have to do is look up.” Hope High School, it turned out, had been one of four high schools the team of experts visited.

Finally, after about 30 minutes of talking at the audience, the conversation with those in the auditorium began in earnest.

A play in search of an audience
What struck ConvergenceRI was the hopeful tone of the members of the audience – many of whom said they were not surprised by the content of the report, but still, wanted to be counted on to help out: a former Latin teacher who volunteered to teach students for free; a former Hope High graduate now involved with labor negotiations who offered to help with negotiating new contracts; and two or three other parents, who said that they were willing to pitch in, to do whatever needed to be done.

[A group of former Hope High School alums have formed a volunteer nonprofit group to attempt to refurbish the school’s auditorium called the “Hope High School Auditorium Theatre Project,” with the goal to restore the auditorium theatre and transform arts education at Hope High School.]

Only one member of the audience verbally attacked Mayor Elorza, and somehow that emerged, unsurprisingly, as what GoLocalProv chose to accentuate in its coverage of the public forum, skewing the story of what had actually occurred.

Familiar faces in the crowd
Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, said he was attending his first session of the listening tour, when ConvergenceRI asked him. Steinberg had been conversing with a reporter from The Wall Street Journal, who was busy interviewing members of the audience before the session began.

Treasurer Seth Magaziner was there, as was state Rep. Rebecca Kislak and Providence City Councilors Helen Anthony and Kat Kerwin.

ConvergenceRI asked a number of people if they were familiar with Child Opportunity Zones, an initiative launched 25 years ago that had been a “signature” collaboration between the Rhode Island Foundation, the R.I. Department of Education, the and United Way of Rhode Island. All said that they were unfamiliar with it.

“We are ahead of the nation”

The headline on the front-page, above the fold story in The Providence Journal on Monday, Nov. 7, 1994, written by reporter D. Morgan McVicar, proclaimed: “We are ahead of the nation,” detailing the official opening of the Child Opportunity Zone at the William D’Abate Elementary School in Olneyville, an intervention led by the R.I. Department of Education, the R.I. Department of Health, the Rhode Island Foundation, and United Way of Rhode Island.

The article described Child Opportunity Zones [or COZ] as “the wave of the future” for Rhode Island schools, with some 19 school districts receiving grants for the development of 25 COZ sites.

“We looked around and realized parents have different roles today and children have different needs,” the principal at William D’Abate, Bernice Graser, told McVicar. “We recognized that education involves a large group of people working together on behalf of a child. Simply providing the best classroom isn’t enough if a child comes to school and isn’t ready to learn.”

In an editorial published on Nov. 21, 1994, by The Providence Journal, the opening paragraph said: “The William D’Abate Elementary School in Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood contradicts the notion that an inner-city public school can’t be as responsive to the special needs of parents and students as can private or parochial institutions.”

And, on March 2, 1994, in a guest op-ed in The Providence Journal, “On the way up in Rhode Island,” it described the goal of the new Child Opportunity Zone initiative: “Our goal is to invest in improving the quality of life for children and families in Rhode Island, linking the education, health and social services to support students and their families in every school community. Our vision is provide all of Rhode Island’s children with an equal opportunity to succeed: The ‘All Kids’ agenda.”

The aim, the op-ed continued, “is to make schools the hub of activity for the community.”

The op-ed concluded: “There can be no better investment in our future than the investment in providing all our children the best possible quality education. By our words and by our actions, this new partnership is breaking down the barriers to make that idea a working reality, promoting family-based delivery of services through a local effort. The groups involved have invested the resources. The reward will be seeing ‘All Kids’ succeed.”

The authors of the op-ed were listed as: Peter McWalters, the Rhode Island commissioner of education; Dr. Barbara DeBuono, the director of the R.I. Department of Health; Rear Admiral Paul Mulloy, the director of the R.I. Department of Substance Abuse; Ronald V. Gallo, president of The Rhode Island Foundation, and W. Douglas Ashby, president of the United Way of Southeastern New England.

[For purposes of transparency, the principal author of the op-ed had been ConvergenceRI, when he worked as director of Communications at United Way.]

25 years later
A quarter-century later, the Child Opportunity Zone initiative has been all but forgotten as an intervention focused on Rhode Island’s public schools, a lesson in itself about the lack of continuity and memory in public policy. Call it the onset of the chronic disease of forgetfulness – a pernicious affliction that befalls reporters and editors, elected officials and state administrators alike. It is not only kids who need to be encouraged to read.

There are some Child Opportunity Zones that still exist today – in East Bay and in Newport, for instance – but they are no longer focused on partnerships with schools.

Much of the community-based work to find solutions laid the groundwork for the current Health Equity Zone initiative; in particular, the HEZ in Olneyville, with ONE Neighborhood Builders as the backbone agency, is involved with the D’Abate elementary school.

Some truths continue to be self-evident:

Schools offer us one of the best chances to help at-risk students achieve success. It’s not just our educational system but our entire economic system that is at risk. If we do not provide the best education possible for all our students, we cannot hope to compete in the world economy.

Translated, if you drop out of high school, you drop out of life.

Generating anger and outrage is easy; creating community-based solutions is much harder work. Politicians and school administrators “demagoguing” the issue of public education comes with risks. As Dale Russakoff said: “The reform movement is focused on changing the management of schools, instilling more accountability. Those things are necessary. But they didn’t attend to the effects of poverty on children, and that’s a huge issue in Newark’s schools and neighborhoods.”

Translated, the structural racism in Providence’s education system needs to become part of the conversation.

Who is going to pay for the needed improvements? What will be the cost? How many other public school systems – in Warwick, in West Warwick, in East Providence, in Newport, in Woonsocket, in Pawtucket – are in a similar dire condition as Providence?

Translated, unless there is a wholesale recalculation of school funding formula in Rhode Island, the chasm between wealthy and impoverished public school systems will widen.

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