This is what's next
Ken Wagner, Ph.D.
Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
We should be concerned with dropouts in Rhode Island, and not only in the 10th grade, 11th grade, and 12th grade. Too many of our students drop out in the 2nd grade, 3rd grade, and 4th grade. They may still attend school, but they disengage because school is not meaningful for them. It doesn’t engage their interests, passions, or concerns. They fall farther and farther behind. They find school to be demoralizing, and they’re just waiting to spring free.
But when students are engaged, when they experience school in a way that makes sense to them – you can’t stop them from learning!
We need to see innovation in how we do schooling as an equity strategy. We will get the results we want for all students only when we dramatically change the way teaching and learning happens in our classrooms and when we take student engagement seriously – providing students with agency and voice in their own learning.
When I envision what happens next in Rhode Island schools, I see active, hands-on, integrated teaching and learning that builds upon the high learning standards and accountability work of the past five to ten years. I see our students engaged in problem- and project-based learning, where kids have to complete a project that culminates in a performance or solve a problem by building a business and present their work product to a panel of experts for feedback and critique and revision. This is the way the world works, so this is the way more of our learning should work.
What happens next in our schools will entail the integration of the academic skills and the so-called soft skills: social and emotional skills, creativity, questioning, analysis and synthesis, problem-solving, teamwork, persistence through frustration and difficulty entrepreneurial skills – the skills that will prepare students to succeed in the workforce, to be global citizens, and just to be good and honorable people.
We can get there only through shared leadership in empowered schools, among the people closest to the action: our principals and teachers, anchored in partnerships with students, families, superintendents, and school committees. We need to build instructional leadership pathways that teachers can follow over the course of their careers, leading toward to principalships and other interest-based teacher-leadership roles. Teachers will jump at leadership opportunities based on their strengths and interests.
What happens next will be schools run by leadership teams – principals with the autonomy to make key decisions about instruction and personnel, surrounded by cabinets of teacher-leaders who together make wise judgments about policy and management and working in coordination with their superintendents, school committees, students, and their families.
And when schools have the tools to empower and innovate, let’s open the doors a bit so that more families can choose the school that’s best for their children. One size doesn’t fit all. Imagine families and students able to choose a school because of its great program for the arts or its academy for science and engineering or its dual-language instruction – the good, old-fashioned magnet-school model. Imagine an urban school with a program powerful enough to attract students from across the state – building diversity, multi-cultural awareness, and global competency.
When students have access to advanced coursework that’s meaningful to them, when schools have the space to innovate, when teachers have a clear pathway toward leadership positions, when families are empowered with choice, when we are working in a culture of trust and joy, we will elevate the quality of our work to levels not otherwise possible. That’s what’s next for Rhode Island schools, and we’re already on the way.