My Turn: Ken Wagner: Recharging R.I. students’ interest in school (Providence Journal)

By Ken Wagner

Picture this: A family sits down to dinner, is on route to soccer practice or getting ready for bed. The inevitable question is posed: “What did you learn at school today?” It’s a scene that’s played out on television and in our own families for decades.

The answer matters. It matters whether or not a student is excited to learn.

Last spring, we launched a statewide school culture and climate survey called SurveyWorks. We heard from educators and families about what is and isn’t working in their school communities. We also heard from nearly 86,000 students, and the results were staggering. When asked, “How interested are you in your classes?,” 65 percent of children in grades 3 through 5 — the majority of young kids — said they were quite or extremely interested. When we asked the same question of students in grades 6 through 12, however, the number dropped to 36 percent.

In fact, only 8 percent of older students said they were extremely interested in their coursework.

When students do not feel connected to, excited by or curious about their coursework, achievement drops and they disengage from their education. Relevance is key to keeping them engaged. We must create conditions under which each student can explore passions, deepen learning, and forge a pathway through the system that helps them acquire not only a well-rounded education, but also, as Gov. Gina Raimondo reminds us, the skills they need to compete for the jobs of today.

We are building these pathways. We’re on track to meet the Governor’s CS4RI challenge to have computer science offered at every school in the state. Working with our colleagues in higher education, we continue to grow the PrepareRI early college program and the Advanced Coursework Network to increase access to college and other challenging courses, with more than 120 offerings through 14 providers this year. We also have more than 140 career preparation programs, built upon strong partnerships with industry leaders, which bridge the gap between classrooms and careers.

Career readiness initiatives continue to expand, thanks in part to Rhode Island’s successful New Skills for Youth grant from JPMorgan Chase. We’ve assembled a group of education leaders to serve as PrepareRI Ambassadors, who will spend this year leading professional development opportunities and creating policy recommendations to enhance career education offerings.

In our five P-TECH programs across the state, students can earn a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, and a first-in-line job opportunity with a business partner. These are hands-on, work-based learning opportunities in technology, health care, and advanced manufacturing that ensure students are ready for their next steps after graduation. In a July 9 Commentary piece (“Creating a stronger manufacturing workforce”), Jeffrey Geiger, the president of General Dynamics Electric Boat, credited P-TECH as a critical resource to supply skilled workers to his company.

This year also marks the start of our new diploma pathway endorsements, through which students can demonstrate deeper learning in an area of interest. If we want students to be successful, we need to empower them.

These efforts will help move the needle, and in the year ahead, we will double down in order to integrate this approach into all schools and all coursework.

Most importantly, all coursework and all pathways should be characterized by rigorous learning opportunities, because it’s not enough to engage our kids — we have to challenge them too. It is only when we take an approach that combines engagement and rigor that we will truly prepare our students for the future.

Traditionally, students have had to adapt to what our schools offer. But if we want our system of education to be nimble and innovative, we must change our way of thinking. The system needs to adapt. Schools and districts must form partnerships that diversify offerings and expand opportunities such as early college, specialized instruction for struggling readers, advanced coursework, and work-based learning. We should adapt to the needs of our students to ensure that when asked what they learned, they have a lot to say and are excited to say it.

Ken Wagner is Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education.