Wagner grades state of schools (Warwick Beacon)

By Ethan Hartley

Commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Ken Wagner stopped by the Beacon office on Good Friday to discuss the state of education in Rhode Island, touching on everything from better preparing students for success in the modern economic environment, to the hopes of the school infrastructure bond process.

Wagner started by recapping an eventful couple of weeks for RIDE, beginning on Monday, March 19 when he delivered his 2018 State of Education Address from Potter Burns Elementary School in Pawtucket.

The speech was an opportunity for Wagner to present some impressive statistics about educational trends in the state – such as increasing AP participation in high school students by 38 percent (the largest year-over-year increase in the country); increasing college enrollment by students still in high school by 150 percent through dual enrollment programs; and increasing enrollment at the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) by 43 percent since the inception of Rhode Island Promise.

Later that week was the Prepare RI Summit, which brought over 300 educators from 29 school districts together at CCRI to engage in over a dozen workshops pertaining to student advancement. The major theme of the conference was establishing educational “pathways” to success, an effort that combines more targeted instruction, offerings to students and collaboration with private entities to open professional doors for students even before they graduate.

“You give kids opportunities and they can do anything with support,” Wagner said, calling the Prepare RI Summit an “important marker of progress.”

Creating a pathway to success

For Wagner, helping students succeed hinges first and foremost on a strong educational foundation based on early literacy and strong curriculums.

“Virtually everyone agrees investing in early learning is a high impact area. Numbers vary but typical consensus is every $1 you invest you get back $7 in downstream outcomes,” Wagner said. “Curriculum is another…You can really move the whole system by investing in vetted, high quality instructional materials for teachers.”

Moving forward, Wagner said that students have a higher chance to succeed if they can navigate onto educational pathways earlier in their education. These pathways should, ideally, help kids identify areas that they are interested in and give them access to skills training programs while in school and set them up with potential employers prior to graduation.

“The career pathways are good not just because it leads to jobs but it’s also a chance for kids to contextualize what they’ve learned in books and academics and tie it into hands-on experience so they can go deeper,” Wagner said. “It’s not yesterday’s vocational education.”

Wagner talked about how increasing access to technical education while still in high school is helping kids secure high-paying, in-demand jobs and, at the very least, is giving them the ability to learn useful skills while still being able to take AP classes and partake in a “traditional” educational model simultaneously.

In addition to the increased number of students enrolling in college and taking AP classes in high school mentioned earlier, Rhode Island also increased its technical career programming by 30 percent across the state last year, Wagner said, totaling 155 programs. He said there were already applications for 60 new tech programs so far this year.

“We’re not going to approve all those programs but we’re in a state of flux,” he said. “Everybody wants to offer these opportunities to kids.”

Wagner said an important part of the conversation going forward is to utilize a mix of technical training by local and regional facilities, and to figure out which technical programs would be best suited to be instructed in dedicated regional technical schools – such as auto and nautical mechanics programs that require large spaces to work – and which programs can be best offered through individual district level programming offered through the existing public school systems.

“The nice thing that’s happening is there’s a democratization of the kinds of offerings that we can make where they’re no longer as capital equipment intensive as they were,” Wagner said. “3-D printers, for example, are becoming cheaper and cheaper.”

Wagner talked about was how the Governor’s Workforce Board recently invested in various businesses through Junior Achievement of Rhode Island – a Warwick-based organization that seeks to better prepare students for 21st century jobs – to work with students in eighth grade and encourage them to start thinking about potential careers; essentially trying to get them on a dedicated pathway earlier.

“You can’t just start this in high school where lots of perceptions and doors may have already opened and closed, you have to ideally start in middle school where kids, who may or may not know how college fits or doesn’t fit with what they’re interested in,” Wagner said.

As students progress in their education, Wagner said providing them opportunities to connect with businesses and get experience in their field of interest is another crucial piece of the puzzle. Assisting in this goal is a New Skills for Youth grant – which Rhode Island was one of only 10 states to receive – that enabled RIDE to partner with Skills for Rhode Island's Future, an intermediary between the school and businesses who are interested in providing jobs to new graduates with appropriate skills.

Additionally, Wagner mentioned this summer will kick off a paid internship program in partnership with Roger Williams University for 100 kids, who will also be eligible to earn college credit for their work.

Another strategy, which Wagner mentioned in his State of Education address, is to implement a so-called “Diploma Plus” program, beginning with this year’s generation of ninth graders in the fall and will further personalize a student’s diploma with information on their chosen pathway, personal achievements and areas of focus and interest. The hope is to have all students earn a Diploma Plus by 2025.

However, Wagner tempered the excitement of programming at the state level by cautioning that the ultimate success or failure of the state’s educational strategy will rest on the shoulders of those within the schools’ classrooms.

“The adults, the teachers and educators, they need to own it and drive it and improve it and keep it honest,” Wagner said. “We need to get to the point where it’s not just a bunch of leaders who are pushing this work, but everyone is pushing this work.”

Other thoughts

Outside of the facilities improvement initiative, which Wagner described as “the top priority” of the department, he also provided thoughts on technology within schools. Wagner did not confirm or deny that districts unable to afford cutting edge tech for their schools are at a disadvantage in preparing students, instead focusing on how good teaching is the most important aspect of providing an education.

“The focus should never be on the technology,” he said. “We should be doing embedded training on the best teaching techniques, and then devices can be tools in those teaching strategies. But the training should always be on teaching, not on technology.”

That said, Wagner said that technological tools are becoming more and more impactful, and that the best way to implement new technologies is to not force teachers to attend training sessions on how to implement technology into their curriculum but to have teachers pass along tips on utilizing technology within the classroom organically between one another.

“When you sit a bunch of people who would rather be somewhere else in a classroom and say ‘We’re going to teach you how to use your Chromebook in your lessons,’ it’s not going to work,” he said. “People learn from each other.”

Wagner also touched on the issue of the state educational funding formula. Wagner said that the state is always interested in feedback about the formula and that they revisit the formula every five years, with the next conversation occurring three years from now.

Wagner said that districts most often take issue with how changes in the formula occur suddenly and sometimes drastically affect the available funds for a given budget year. This issue can be made worse due to Rhode Island having a structural disconnect between school committees (who administer the schools’ needs) and the legislative government of the municipality (which has the tax levying authority that funds the schools).

Wagner said that this disconnect causes strife between the two governmental bodies, especially around collective bargaining agreements and during budget season. He suggested possibly requiring both entities to sign off on collective bargaining agreements or giving school committees the ability to levy taxes on their own and be responsible for raise the money for their own budget.

“This is long game, but we have to do something about that,” Wagner said. “Because otherwise you don’t have strategic long term planning, you have a lot of finger pointing and you don’t plan for these kind of long term investments.”