The report card grades are in. Education Week, an educational news publication, recently released their annual state-by-state education rankings and scores. The scores were based on eight independent areas: chance for student success, the teaching profession, K-12 achievement, school finance, standards, assessment, accountability, and transitions and alignment. Rhode Island ranked 20th in the nation and above the national average score of 76.5 with a score of 77.7, good enough for a C+. Both the nation’s overall score and Rhode Island’s score are unsatisfactory when compared to educational systems worldwide, and Massachusetts’ educational system, which ranks second in the nation after Maryland.
After Pearson gave the United States’ education system a rank of 17th out of 40 developed nations, the Obama Administration began the Race to the Top initiative in 2009. RTT set aside $4.35 billion to be distributed to states that exemplified innovative approaches to developing a comprehensive system of teacher evaluation, encouraging competition with charter schools, and implementing best instructional practices supported by standardized tests and other quantitative measures of performance.
In a Brown Daily Herald article from last October, reporter Adam Toobin describes the arduous task in Rhode Island of developing and implementing a more comprehensive system of teacher evaluation. Before Secretary of Education Arne Duncan even began executing the RTT initiative, the Rhode Island Department of Education had already begun the process of constructing a comprehensive evaluation system. The initiative only incentivized RIDE to follow through with the process of satisfying one of the facets of RTT. Rhode Island received $125 million between 2010 and 2011 from RTT and has devoted $18 million of that sum to implementing its new teacher evaluation system.
Rhode Island’s evaluation system is both unique and controversial because it evaluates teachers based on student learning objectives set by teachers and the school administration. The system quantifies progress in all subject areas from mathematics to physical education. In Toobin’s article, John Tyler, professor of education, economics, and public policy at Brown, was critical of the system’s leniency toward evaluating teachers, alluding that it may encourage teachers to set lower standards in order to produce evidence of progression in student achievement. However, Tyler did concede that the evaluation system, while imperfect, was a step in the right direction toward quantifying student progress with codified achievement goals.
Despite establishing the foundation for an improved system of evaluating student progress based on data, some in the Ocean State have dropped the anchor when it comes to moving toward any evaluation system that quantifies student comprehension. In a Providence Journal article, published in December, Jennifer Jordan gives a snapshot of this negative sentiment towards the new evaluation system. The opening of the article is a microcosm of the resentment among some of Rhode Island teachers and their union leaders toward the new system, claiming that “It’s not fair. … It’s demoralizing. Even worse, it’s distracting them from helping their students.” The teachers who oppose the new system have even taken to the Internet, generating an online petition that over 4,000 teachers have signed on a self-generated website called slowridedown.com.
Though the website chastises the new evaluation system for “untested” evaluation techniques, it does not offer any counter plan for evaluating teachers quantitatively. While the demand to “slow RIDE down” may be a catchy political slogan, the real question that should be asked is “What exactly are we slowing RIDE down from doing?” Implementing an evaluation system that quantifies student progress and seeks to emphasize best practices? Slowing down the implementation of a system that is much more generous to teachers than the new (and arguably) stricter evaluation standards agreed to by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education? And most importantly, are critics obstructing an opportunity for Rhode Island to become more competitive among the states by reforming the status quo of teacher evaluation? It seems like the only thing being slowed down by those in opposition to any means of quantifiable measures is progress.
The Pearson study shows that when it comes to improving education, there are in fact no “magic bullets.” However, it does elaborate upon comprehensive steps that can be taken in order to remedy issues within the system. One of the primary recommendations from the study is encouraging high-quality teachers and placing an emphasis on professional development and best practices, stating that “teachers need to be treated as the valuable professionals they are.” As a part of this process, it is necessary that states such as Rhode Island implement rigorous evaluation systems to ensure that the best teachers are distinguished and serve as instructional role models for others. Teacher evaluations should not be looked at as a means of demeaning the teaching profession, but rather strengthening it by offering a way for teachers to improve the instruction that they offer students. Rhode Island’s infant evaluation system is not perfect, and even its main proponent, Commissioner Deborah Gist, has opened the door to gradual improvements. However, the notion of Rhode Island’s teachers’ unions that “high-stakes” quantitative measures of progress have no place in teacher evaluations actually discredits the teaching profession more than it enriches it. We should be encouraging best practices that are supported by data to ensure that teachers are performing to the best of their ability and that students are receiving the education that they deserve.
Recently, William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan, articulated the direct correlation between receiving a strong education and the eradication of poverty. Education still stands as the primary source of social mobility for every individual living in the U.S., Bennett said. He alluded to English philosopher Edmund Burke, who referred to communities that encourage intellectual growth and character development as “little platoons,” all of which serve as sources of upward mobility for society.
The responsibility of every state is to educate its children to the best of its ability. Rhode Island is no exception. As shown in the Pearson study, issues of family engagement, the culture of learning, and educating for the future all are problems that need to be addressed. It will take a collaborative approach to improve Rhode Island’s educational issues and put the state on track for long-term economic growth. However, improving teacher quality cannot be phased out of the equation. The teachers who signed the petition to “slow RIDE down” all play a crucial role in educating Rhode Island’s children. However, they must understand that empirically supported instructional techniques will improve both their abilities as educators and the education they offer their students. Rather than slow down, Rhode Island must speed up, and work its way closer to making substantial improvements in helping its students achieve the American Dream.