Praising the state for improving its test scores but noting that it still trails New England and much of the country, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for the public to continue to demand more from the education system (and the government) in a visit to Rhode Island Wednesday.
Duncan was in town to deliver the keynote address at the 68th Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council Annual Meeting last night, but he also met with more than 500 teachers, students and community leaders at the Providence Career and Technical Academy during the afternoon.
The town hall-style event included five panelists (Adeola Oredola, Executive Director of Youth in Action; Steve Smith, President of the Providence Teachers Union; Jessica Hallam, a Ponaganset High School senior; Neil Steinberg, President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation; and Providence Schools Superintendent Susan Lusi), who each spoke about the education work taking place in Rhode Island and then pressed Duncan with questions about funding, relationships with unions and how to keep youth at the table when decisions are being made about schools.
Duncan was vague when asked about questions directly related to the state -particularly on the decision by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to fire every teacher in the school district earlier this year- but he praised Education Commissioner Deborah Gist and the improvements that have been made in the state’s schools.
Ahead of his visit, the state learned that for the first time in the history of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, Rhode Island students scored at or above the national average on all four mathematics and reading tests. Duncan called it a step in the right direction.
Calling the state small enough to be innovative, Duncan said “Rhode Island has made real progress” but also noted “we still have a dropout rate that is unacceptably high.”
Duncan touted the President’s American Jobs Act, saying it would create and maintain thousands of teaching jobs, but chastised Congress for being unwilling to spend money on education. He said he was proud of the Race to the Top program and the School Improvement Grant (SIG) money given to failing schools committed to turning around, and said he is committed to preventing “resource swings” when it comes to funding.
“The funding challenge is a real one [but] we’re in this for the long haul,” Duncan said.
Can’t Keep Chopping and Changing
During the panel, Smith said the Providence Teachers Union has been at the forefront of change, but asked why it should feel supported in light of a decision to terminate every teacher (the teachers were eventually rehired).
Duncan said he wasn’t clear on all the details, but agreed that the situation could have been handled differently. He said part of the problem in cities like Providence is that a high turnover rate among superintendents makes it difficult to build working relationships. He noted that Smith has worked with four different heads of schools during his time as a union president.
“You can’t keep chopping and changing,” Duncan said.
Duncan Supports Achievement First
After the panel, Duncan spoke briefly with the press and was asked about Achievement First, the charter management organization that wants to open a Mayoral Academy in Providence. The organization was specifically mentioned in Rhode Island’s Race to the Top application, but the Board of Regents rejected its plan to open five schools in Cranston earlier this year.
Duncan said he supports schools that show results, noting that good charter schools are part of the solution and bad ones are part of the problem.
“I think the results Achievement First has gotten are extraordinary,” he said.
Approximately 50 teachers and Occupy Providence protesters stood outside the public meeting criticizing Duncan for his commitment to what they consider “corporate education.” But Duncan noted that very few charters are actually run by corporations and called the battle between traditional public schools and charters a “false debate.”
A Real Success Story
In his closing remarks to the public, Duncan said he is confident Rhode Island has the systems in place to be a “real success story” moving forward. He said he was encouraged by the large turnout and the commitment to education.
Duncan left the audience with one message.
“You have a chance to get better faster than other states,” he said.