Wagner’s Warning for Rhode Island


A scathing editorial in the Providence Journal takes Education Commissioner Ken Wagner to task, suggesting that he never should have been hired:

Buried in the story, on the jump page, was an astonishing revelation. “In my three and a half years, I’ve seen only four classrooms that challenge kids at the levels the standards require. We are dramatically under-challenging our kids.”

That is a shocking admission. In the entire state, with its 300-some schools, Commissioner Wagner has found only four four classrooms where students were being adequately challenged.

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The referenced story is an interview with the $225,000-per-year commissioner, and the editorial rightly snarls about his insistence that “it’s no one’s fault.”  But in one respect, the editorialists might have been a little unfair, inasmuch as they missed Wagner’s lightly hidden warnings:

Wagner said Rhode Island might be ready for a test-based graduation requirement in two or three years, when educators and elected officials have a chance to dig into the latest test scores. Next year, he said, the education department will release data on students who have reached proficiency on the Rhode Island Common Assessment Program or RICAS, called a commissioner’s seal, side-by-side with high school graduation rates.

“I’m not opposed to it. Just not right now,” Wagner said. “Let everyone digest the dramatic gaps between high school graduation rates and student proficiency and then revisit it.

“If you change the graduation requirements, everyone is going to bank on (the belief) that we’re going to blink,” he said. “The legislature will step in again.”


“If absenteeism rates are high,” he said, “there is something wrong with the school … with its climate and culture. Our first role is shining a light on this. Every school is talking about this. We have named it.”

There you go.  Basically, the education commissioner is confirming that the problem is a system in which powerful labor unions create an unproductive, low-quality environment with no hope of improvement because they can make the politicians blink.  The trick those legislators and the governor are trying to pull off is to find a way to squeeze some improvement out of the system without actually naming (or fixing) the underlying problem.

It won’t work, and no one should blame Wagner if he sees escape as the silver lining of his scapegoating.  By contrast, we all should wonder what sort of person would want to take the job on the politicians’ terms, even with that six-figure pay rate.


Featured image: Ken Wagner being dramatic on the Dan Yorke State of Mind show.

  • ShannonEntropy

    “Wonder what sort of person would want to take the job on the politicians’ terms” ??

    Are you kidding ?? I bet there’s a stack of resumés applying for the post two feet thick sitting on Gina’s desk right now

    Work — if you can call it “work” — the job for 5 yrs; pocket a cool mill; then take the ‘heat’ as the DOE’s designated scapegoat for the disaster that is public education in Li’l Rhody; then give an exit interview to the ProJo in which you *wink* and basically say “C’mon, everybody… we all know nothing’s ever gonna change here”; then laugh all the way to the bank and Boca Raton

    The one I really feel sorry for is Gist — she actually thought she could shake things up and make some progress here…. fat chance

    My kids live in EP and Cranston and they each have a pre-school-age child. Both are planning to move across the border to Mass before the kids turn 5. Can you blame them??

    • Rhett Hardwick

      Almost by mischance, I taught for a short time between college and law school. I had attended that school for a while. The teachers were every bit as bad as I remembered them. They hid my coffee cup in the teacher’s room. They let the air out of my tires for parking in someone else’s parking space. The last straw was a request to “get a kid” in my class because she had been unable to “get him” in her class. Since teaching was not a career choice, I walked out.

      • ShannonEntropy

        The Rhodent public schools are a disgrace

        My kids both went to Pilgrim HS in Warwick.

        I used to “pop quiz” my kids over dinner

        After a year of Am History my daughter had never learned anything about any war the US fought in. Nine months of “geometry” and my son had never heard the equation for the area of a circle, “pi-R-squared”. Two years of Spanish and he couldn’t say “Good Afternoon” in the language [ “Buenas tardes” ] & didn’t know what “pronto” meant [ it doesn’t mean “immediately” … it means “soon” ]

        My son-in-law also went to Pilgrim. When my grand daughter was born on Sunday Dec 7th, ’14, I remarked that not only was it Pearl Harbor Day, but the original Pearl Harbor in 1941 was also a Sunday

        They looked at each other quizzically and asked me almost in unison — “What’s Pearl Harbor ??”

        I could go on all day like this, but you get the picture

        • Rhett Hardwick

          Perhaps a sign of the times. I recall a fairly recent survey showing that 40% (I am approximating that percentage as I don’t recall the exact figure) of Ivy League undergraduates thought that Japan was on our side in WWII.

    • Joe Smith

      Yeah, before you feel sorry for Gist, go look at how well her “reforms” are doing in Tulsa where she’s had a much freer hand..considering she is by far the highest paid Superintendent in the state, she got much backlash over her performance “bonus” given the Tulsa schools’ performance she felt the need to donate it to charity.

      But I agree with the sentiment – Wagner came in with his empowerment schools and commissioner seals (even though language is still not in the state basic education plan nor a graduation requirement!) – never got a lot of grassroots support. I’m not speaking about the unions – never got the Supts or School boards.

      I mean, you go to a “class that isn’t challenging” so shouldn’t you then go to the next school board meeting, get your Board of Education (another patsy group for the Gov) fired up, etc. I bet he *never* engaged a local school board. In his defense, he wasn’t really the education commissioner – the Gov’s inner circle advisor for education is.

      “when educators and elected officials have a chance to dig into the latest test scores” Really? In my background, “dig in” means you contact expert folks in data analysis, give them *all* the data (hey, MASS does this and aren’t we supposed to be like them?), and have them run all kinds of modeling. Geez, our “transparency” site can’t even filter the data by more than one variable.

      Additionally, you have a Commissioner who can’t even acknowledge some basic facts from the “data” like the gender gap in ELA proficiency (goodness, wouldn’t want to upset the apple cart about Girls and STEM but mentioning boys are the most disadvantaged students).

      Oh, and there maybe “dozens” of resumes, but the Gov and her inner circle already have someone picked..someone who understands the next couple of years are about promoting her bona fides among the national democratic circles with items like universal pre-K and “reform” (without actually upsetting the labor unions).

      • Rhett Hardwick

        “Oh, and there maybe “dozens” of resumes, but the Gov and her inner circle already have someone picked.”

        Yes, those “nationwide searches” that politicians indulge in always have an air of humor about them,

      • ShannonEntropy

        Wagner – never got a lot of grassroots support. I’m not speaking about the unions – never got the Supts or School boards.

        A LOT of resistance to reforms — like a testing graduation requirement — even came from parents

        That to me really showed the hypocrisy that many parents exhibit about their kids: if they’re all such super-special budding Einsteins, you would think parents would *demand* a test to verify their beliefs. Instead, they fight reforms that would expose their precious darlings as the losers they really are

        As they say, you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t