Articles on Rhode Island’s education system have become downright depressing. Here’s Education Commissioner Ken Wagner essentially admitting that his office sees diplomas from the state’s public schools as meaningless pieces of paper designating satisfactory attendance:
Wagner, who arrived here a year ago, defended his decision to drop a standardized test from the high school graduation requirements. He said it doesn’t make sense to punish students for poor test scores when “it is just as likely that they weren’t adequately prepared” by their schools and teachers.
“When kids don’t graduate, it has lifelong consequences,” he said.
Wagner wants to hold school districts, not students , accountable for improving student achievement….
Starting in 2021, Rhode Island will offer a “commissioner’s seal” for high school students who meet proficiency on a standardized test like the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Career. Instead of evaluating districts based on student test scores, the state Department of Education could judge districts based on the percentage of graduates who earn a commissioner’s seal.
Wagner’s thinking is all wrong. Rhode Island Association of School Committees Director Tim Duffy is right that “we’re not doing students any favors by not preparing them for college or work,” but it’s more than that. A diploma is supposed to be an achievement, not a participation trophy. We’re supposed to hold students accountable, and moreover, they ought to be the first link in a chain of accountability:
- If students aren’t succeeding, parents are responsible for resolving whatever problems are getting in their way.
- If parents conclude that the school is the problem, then they hold the school accountable by seeking correction or leaving.
- If the schools aren’t performing, then it’s the responsibility of the community that pays the bills to hold elected officials and administrators accountable.
The Dept. of Education’s role should be to facilitate this process, not to supplant it. Otherwise, the state government is presuming to take on the role not only of every school’s administration, but also the roles of parents and of voters. The childless commissioner’s apparent fondness for calling children who are students in pubic schools “kids” is not a good sign for the department’s perspective on those young Rhode Islanders. (“A kid’ll eat ivy, too,” after all.)
The ideal reform would be to empower students and parents to hold districts accountable more directly, but allowing them to apply money that would otherwise to go the district to an alternative, like a private school. Until that option becomes feasible, though, the incentive for parents and students to complain has to be stronger.
The bottom line on Wagner’s ploy is that the people who are the most insulated from accountability — the unionized teachers — have a controlling hand in the state government. The state, therefore, cannot be trusted to “judge districts” and take appropriate action.