Rhode Island will go all-blended

Rhode Island will use blended learning — self-paced online learning for part of the day —  in all its schools, says Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. “We know that students learn at different rates, and we want to make sure they are challenged and that they get support when they need it.”

60% of adults fail Rhode Island test

Saying Rhode Island’s graduation exam is unfair, the Providence Students Union persuaded 50 professionals to take a condensed version of the math portion on “take the test” day.  Sixty percent scored “substantially below proficient,” which would put them at risk of not graduating from high school if they weren’t already college graduates. Eight percent scored “proficient with distinction, 14 percent were “proficient” and 18 percent were “partially proficient.”

Students ask policy makers to take exit exam

Today is Take the Test Day in Rhode Island. The Providence Student Union (PSU) has invited community leaders and policy makers to take a condensed version of the state graduation exam.

Providence students haven’t received the “support, resources and improved teaching” necessary to reach high standards, argues PSU member and “part-time zombie” Cauldierre McKay in a blog post.

For the state to punish so many individual students for its own systemic failure to deliver a high-quality education is an injustice on a massive scale.

. . . A comprehensive 2011 study by the National Research Council concluded that, “high school exit exam programs, as currently implemented in the United States, decrease the rate of high school graduation without increasing achievement.” . . .  this policy will do nothing to improve our education while denying many students a diploma—the diploma they need to make it through life.

Forty percent of Rhode Island’s 11th graders — 60 percent in Providence — are in danger of failing the exam and not graduating. That would turn young people into hopeless, jobless, lifeless “zombies,” argues PSU.

Most of the 35 test-takers thought they “tanked the test,” reports the Providence Journal.  Some complained of trick questions on the math exam.

“I was good at math,” said state Rep. Larry Valencia, D-Richmond. “I took trig, statistics, pre-calculus. I have a degree in chemistry. I think the test is very unfair. It doesn’t represent what the average high school student should know.”

Carla Shalaby, director of Elementary Education at Wellesley College, struggles with some of the questions on the math exam, which she took at the Knight Memorial Library in Providence.

Photo: Bob Breidenbach/The Providence Journal

Making integration work

Is economic integration a feasible goal? By creating high-achieving schools in high-poverty areas, charter networks such as KIPP and Achievement First, derailed the debate on school segregation, writes Dana Goldstein. But Rhode Island is creating charter schools that mix urban and suburban students.

The Rhode Island Mayoral Academies (RIMA) model, authorized by state law in 2008, lets mayors of neighboring towns and cities create regional charter schools.

RIMA’s first school, Blackstone Valley Prep, is located in affluent Cumberland, but draws elementary and middle students from low-income Pawtucket and Central Falls as well as Lincoln, another well-off town. Fifty-five percent of the students are black and Latino, 65 percent are poor, and 43 percent are English Language Learners.

In its pedagogical methods, BVP is a traditional “no excuses ” charter, with uniforms, an extended learning day, and privately-funded extras, including free breakfast and a gorgeous, newly renovated building. Administrators and teachers greet students each morning with a handshake and eye contact, the kids are expected to line up and walk through the hallways in silence, and there are songs and chants to help the students memorize their multiplication tables and phonics principles. Standardized test gains and scores are impressive.

BVP kindergartners and first-graders “get their wiggles out” after their daily breakfast and morning meeting.

The no-excuses model doesn’t always attract middle-class and affluent parents, Goldstein writes. But there are 299 Cumberland and Lincoln students signed up for BVP’s next lottery as well as 431 Pawtucket and Central Falls students. That should boost the percentage of middle-class students.

RIMA is awaiting approval of five new regional charter schools in a partnership between Providence and the town of Cranston.

Goldstein also visited troubled Central Falls High, a failing school in a failing  town. New leaders are trying to change the school culture, she writes, but it’s hard when the teachers are demoralized after last year’s mass firings. Discipline remains a problem.

“The kids, when they’re here, need to know this is a place of learning,” (math teacher Anthony) Kulla said. “Right now they don’t.”

Central Falls High students are predominantly low-income and Hispanic.

Gist drops three-tier diploma plan

Rhode Island should stick with a single diploma, says Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, who’d proposed creating standard, “regents” and honors diplomas. Instead, she said districts should be able to add “endorsements” to the diploma to indicate higher levels of proficiency and honors.

In addition, Gist proposes delaying more rigorous high school graduation requirements for two years, till 2014, to give schools and students more time to prepare.

The tougher standards aren’t all that tough: Juniors who score at the lowest level on state math and English tests –“substantially below proficient” — will have to retake the tests senior year and show improvement. They will not have to show proficiency.

Currently, students who score poorly on the 11th-grade state exam can show samples of their work or use other test scores to qualify for graduation.  Up to half the class has been using that option:  45 percent of Rhode Island’s 11th-graders score “substantially below proficient” in math; 9 percent score at the lowest level in English.

Rhode Island considers tiered diplomas

The best students in Rhode Island’s most rigorous schools may get a Regents diploma showing they’ve met state standards, while most graduates would earn a local diploma, reports the Providence Journal.

Tougher graduation requirements linked to the Regents diploma are supposed to go into effect in 2012. But many districts — including the three largest, Cranston, Providence and Warwick — aren’t ready to teach to that level. Students aren’t ready either.

. . . nearly half of 11th graders for the past two years have scored so low on the math test — “substantially below proficient” — they would be at risk for not graduating if the new standards were already in place.

Under the proposed plan, students who score “substantially below proficient” in their junior year would retake the test in their senior year. Schools would offer programs to help those students improve.

Only students who score proficient or proficient with distinction on the state tests and who attend a high school that has been approved by the state Department of Education would receive a Regents diploma.

Students in approved schools who score partially proficient or who show improvement on the tests between junior and senior year would receive a Rhode Island Diploma.

The plan would give schools and students “incentives to work hard and improve during the last two years of high school,” regents said.

Rhode Island: 63% need remediation

On Community College Spotlight: Despite higher academic standards, 63 percent of high school graduates need remedial classes at Community College of Rhode Island.

Is California’s community college system “too big to fail?”

R.I. weights per-student funding

After 15 years without a statewide school funding formula, Rhode Island has set baseline funding per student with 40 percent more for low-income students, reports Education Week.

For years, the state’s districts have had wide disparities in per-pupil funding, ranging from $11,000 per student in one poorer district to more than $19,000 per student in more affluent communities.

. . . The state also will assume more of the costs for special education students with particularly intense needs, regional transportation, and school construction as the new formula takes effect.

Critics say the formula should provide more for educating special education students and students who aren’t fluent in English. Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s education commissioner, said the idea was rejected because of “national studies and data on how certain weights had led to spikes in the numbers of students identified as English-language learners and special education students.”

You get what you pay for.

Is a 40 percent funding premium enough to give poor students the extra help they need? Maybe not.

Gist: teacher quality matters most

Improving teacher effectiveness is job one says Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s controversial education commissioner, in a CommonWealth interview.

. . . in everything that I have experienced, both as a teacher and in my role as an administrator, and in everything I’ve read about the research about student achievement, the quality of the classroom teacher is the most important factor. It’s the greatest lever that we have to be able to improve the quality of education of our students.

Firing the staff at Central Falls High — no more than half will be rehired — was necessary, Gist argues. The school was on improvement lists for eight years. “Tinkering around the edges” didn’t work.

Failing school require a culture change, Gist says.

Many teachers begin to believe that because their students come from difficult circumstances or have challenges in their lives, they can’t achieve at higher levels. Just that shift in the thinking means that the expectations are lowered.

She talked to a young college student who lived in a group home in high school and used her problems to get special treatment from teachers.

She says [that], looking back, she really wishes that her teacher had said, with as much love and support as possible, “Look, I want to make sure you have all the supports that you need, but here’s what you need to do, and here’s when you need to do it, and here’s the quality that I expect.” Because now she’s in college, and she’s struggling. That was a clear example of the way in which the love that teachers have for our students can sometimes cause us to lower our expectations. It’s not enough to care.

Central Falls High teachers can reapply for their jobs this week. Their union has filed a lawsuit challenging the dismissals.

Gist has made the Time 100 list for 2010 under “thinkers.”

Compromise at Central Falls High

The plan to fire all teachers and staff at Central Falls High in Rhode Island is off, it appears.  The day after President Obama backed the firings, the union blinked, proposing a reform plan similar to what the superintendent wanted in the first place. A compromise is in the works.

“I am pleased to reassure the union their place in the planning process,” Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said in a statement. She said she welcomes union input in developing “a dynamic plan to dramatically improve student achievement” at Central Falls High School.

The union now will accept “a longer school day, as well as more rigorous evaluations and training, among other steps.”

Will that help? Rhode Island has been trying to improve the school for many years to no avail.

“There just is very little evidence in terms of what works in quickly turning around a persistently low-performing school,” said Grover “Russ” Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw education research under President George W. Bush.

Flypaper, which has lots of links, thinks the students will be no better off and perhaps worse.

When a school is as dysfunctional as Central Falls High, it’s not just the teachers. It’s a succession of ineffective principals, faddish and incoherent curricula, poor support from parents and a lot more. A bad school drags down average teachers and drives out the most ambitious. What this school needs is an exceptionally good principal — competent is not good enough — with the authority to replace the least-effective tenured teachers. Central Falls might get a strong leader, but is unlikely to let the new principal fire the  teachers who flunk those “rigorous evaluations.”