Assessing Shortcomings, Meeting Seeks To Jump-Start R.I. Reforms

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Providence, R.I.

Like a concerned parent faced with a child's lackluster report card, Rhode Island has begun a statewide discussion over how to jump-start its school improvement efforts.

The Annenberg Institute for School Reform, based at Brown University here, kicked off the discussion last week by holding a kind of parent-teacher conference for the state. Called Rhode Island Responds, the one-day event brought together some 200 educators, policymakers, and parents to examine what the state needs to do, and why it isn't being done.

Discussion focused on a critique of Rhode Island's education policies and student performance in Quality Counts, a special report on the condition of public education in the 50 states published in January by Education Week.

The report drew widespread attention, and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond was one of several state chief executives who mentioned it in their State of the State addresses this year.

While few states got high marks, Rhode Island scored lower than average for both how it allocates resources for education and for the attempts the state makes to distribute them equitably. And though Rhode Island in recent years has worked at adopting statewide education standards, its effort so far earned only an average grade in the report.

Concerns of Lethargy

Annenberg Institute officials said last week's conference represents a new commitment by the organization to focus on education issues in its home state.

"We had been criticized for not doing enough in Rhode Island because so much of our work is national," said Jeff Kimpton, who directs public-engagement efforts for the institute. Founded in 1993 as the National Institute for School Reform--and renamed after receiving a $50 million gift from Ambassador Walter Annenberg--the institute organizes programs to both support and study school improvement efforts.

At the conference Annenberg organized last week, participants focused on such questions as: What would a good public education system look like? How should school accountability work? What should be the state's education priorities?

Some participants noted that Rhode Island has made progress since much of the data used in Quality Counts were collected. The state is adopting new student assessments, and the legislature is considering a measure that would increase funding while demanding more accountability from districts. ("R.I. May Move To Link School Funding, Accountability," May 14, 1997.)

"We have begun moving in a positive direction," said Anthony Milano, the principal of Providence's Feinstein High School for Public Service.

But many participants also expressed concern that the Ocean State's reform efforts suffer from lethargy, which they blamed on distrust, a lack of leadership, and poor funding. Many cited a failure of cooperation among the various groups that share responsibility for education: school administrators, teachers' unions, parents, state lawmakers, and the state education department.

"A lot is known about what needs to be done," said Rickard Gannon, the principal at Gorton Junior High School in Warwick. "But when those reforms are brought to the classroom level, there is a lot of suspicion, and I don't know what to do about it."

Many teachers here said they're wary of being held accountable to new standards when they haven't had adequate training on how to use them.

Although many district administrators agreed on the need to create a better "culture of professionalism," they also said that there are scant funds and other resources available for additional professional development.

A central topic here was the role parents play in their children's education. While many teachers said parents should be held accountable for ensuring that their children come to school ready to learn, parents responded that schools often leave them feeling alienated.

Many participants agreed that these problem are particularly acute in the state's urban areas, and that more should be done to pump additional money to them.

Right Audience?

Despite the myriad concerns raised, the meeting's organizers said they remained optimistic. Annenberg Institute officials said their hope is that a continuing conversation about education reform can break some of the deadlock many Rhode Islanders perceived.

"It reaffirms how complex all change is at the local level, whether it's in Rhode Island, or New York, or South Dakota," Mr. Kimpton said. "If we can still have all these people wanting to continue to talk, then we're happy."

Many participants, however, expressed concern about who was missing from the discussion. Although the meeting included educators well-versed in school reform, it included few of the legislators whose blessing they believe is needed for further progress.

Providence Mayor Vincent A. Cianci Jr. said increases in state school aid to his city haven't kept pace with the district's growing needs as it serves an increasingly diverse student population.

"You can't claim there is equity in education in Rhode Island," the mayor said.

Annenberg officials hope to widen the discussion by holding smaller follow-up discussions throughout the state in the coming months.

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