School & District Management

Outgoing R.I. Chief Bucked National Push for High-Stakes Tests

By Lesli A. Maxwell — May 06, 2008 7 min read
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Peter J. McWalters first turned heads 20 years ago as the superintendent in Rochester, N.Y., where he hammered out a labor contract that dramatically changed the teaching profession in that city and made the district briefly famous.

Years later, in his job as education commissioner in Rhode Island, Mr. McWalters would draw attention time and again as he set the state apart with his brand of reform. His rejection of high-stakes testing when other states embraced it, and his insistence on personalizing high schools and measuring would-be graduates by more than their scores on standardized exams, have helped make him one of the country’s best-known and most-respected state schools chiefs.

His go-against-the-grain style also may have contributed to the end of one of the nation’s longest tenures at the helm of a state school system. Last month, Mr. McWalters, 61, announced that he will step down in June 2009, closing out what will be a 17-year run.

His decision to leave, Mr. McWalters said in a recent interview, was his own, along with a “recognition that the governor wanted to do his own search for someone.”

But some observers believe politics played a role, along with Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s frustration that Rhode Island’s schools have not improved fast enough in this era of hard-nosed accountability. Mr. McWalters’ supporters said they are disappointed by his plans to leave, but not surprised.

“It’s no mystery that the governor and the current board of regents have a different philosophical approach than Peter,” said state Rep. Joseph M. McNamara, the chairman of the education committee in the Rhode Island House of Representatives, who is also the principal of an alternative high school in Pawtucket. “They seem to think that he has not been aggressive enough, which is not a view that I share.”

‘Seeds for Success’

Robert G. Flanders Jr., a former state supreme court justice whom Gov. Carcieri, a Republican, appointed as chairman of the state board of regents for elementary and secondary education last year, explained it this way: “Our hope is that, under Commissioner McWalters’ tenure, the seeds for success have been planted. But frankly, the results to date have been disappointing.”

That Mr. McWalters has kept his chief’s post for so long—through three governors, multiple changes in the state legislature, and mounting pressures to deliver better student achievement—is a testament to his track record on school reform and his humane approach, supporters say.

“It really has everything to do with how he treats people,” said Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers and a former state commissioner in Kentucky. “Even when he did things that could be adversarial, like intervening in low-performing schools, he didn’t just step back and order the conditions. He literally sat down with superintendents and went to those communities to talk about how to improve schools and pledged the department’s help in doing so.”

Mr. McWalters himself attributes his longevity as commissioner to his leadership style and a philosophy that every child, no matter how disadvantaged, can achieve at high standards.

“I’m a classic participatory leader,” he said. “Some people have said that I am the master of guerrilla warfare. I don’t expect big victories overnight. I expect things to be tedious, but I trust the process.”

Process is what he has relied on since 2000, when, under Mr. McWalters’ guidance, the state department of education took its first steps to help improve Hope High School, a chronic underperformer in Providence, the capital. Five years later, with test scores and graduation rates still anemic, Mr. McWalters ordered a dramatic restructuring that included re-evaluations of all the school’s teachers and administrators. At the time, national education experts called the hands-on intervention at Hope High one of the first by any state to improve a chronically underperforming school.

“To me, it wasn’t really about taking over,” said Mr. McWalters. “It was about changing the culture in the school and building capacity. I didn’t get involved in that to beat people up. It was a friendly intervention.”

Steven F. Smith, the president of the Providence Teachers Union and a member of the state House, mostly agrees with that analysis.

“We certainly butted heads on some of the issues there, especially on the re-evaluations and how that would work,” said Mr. Smith, whose 2,000-member union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. “But he certainly could have taken a much more heavy-handed approach. Instead, he held our feet to the fire to come up with a plan.”

Trouble Over Scores

Peter J. McWalters, left, the state schools chief in Rhode Island, meets with his staff, including David Abbott, the deputy commissioner.

Mr. McWalters, who taught social studies and English-as-a-second-language earlier in his career, earned his national reputation in Rochester in 1987 after becoming superintendent. That he became the district chief at all was remarkable, said Adam Urbanski, the president of the Rochester Teachers Union, who met Mr. McWalters on a picket line during a teachers’ strike in the city.

“He was serving as interim superintendent and had such a calming effect on this district that we wanted him to become permanent,” Mr. Urbanski said. “We called on the school board and the state to waive the necessary qualifications. He got it by popular demand.”

With Mr. Urbanski, he wrote a groundbreaking labor contract that moved the district toward school-based management, asked teachers to take on more responsibilities, and rewarded the best of them with hefty raises. The contract attracted attention from around the country as perhaps the best hope for transforming low-performing public schools.

But that was before the accountability movement’s emphasis on testing.

When it comes to Rhode Island students’ test scores, Mr. McWalters has borne his share of criticism. Three years ago, Rhode Island students began taking a new exam that he helped develop in partnership with educators in New Hampshire and Vermont. Elementary and middle school students—especially those in high-poverty schools—have made steady gains each year on the New England Common Assessment Program, which is aligned with grade-level expectations.

But critics say the growth hasn’t been fast enough, and Rhode Island students lag behind their peers in the two other states giving the exam. And Gov. Carcieri, in particular, has expressed disappointment in Rhode Island’s showing on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

But supporters say Mr. McWalters’ willingness to compare Rhode Island’s performance against that in Vermont and New Hampshire, where there are fewer children living in poverty, is a prime example of his leadership.

“It was a risk for him to step up and say, ‘I’ll be compared to these other states,’ ” said Mr. Wilhoit.

Mr. McWalters likes to remind his critics that when he became commissioner in 1992, Rhode Island used an off-the-shelf test as its state assessment. Though the state published the results, it didn’t bother to report how many students took the exams and in which districts they attended school.

“There was no transparency, which was one of the first things that I said we’ve got to change,” he said. “When you do full transparency, reporting all scores and the full extent of participation, it can look like scores are going down.”

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence school board who writes a weekly column on education for The Providence Journal, described Mr. McWalters as “ahead of the curve,” especially in his thinking on high-stakes testing and the performance assessments—such as senior projects and portfolios—that are now a big part of high school graduation in Rhode Island.

“In 2000, Rhode Island was the laughingstock of the nation, because everyone else was going down the high-stakes testing road, and we were going to be doing this wussy performance thing,” Ms. Steiny said. “Now all eyes are on Rhode Island for what we’re doing around graduation and performance. You need multiple measures, and Peter absolutely got that.”

His refusal to make passing an exit exam a condition for graduation stems in part, Mr. McWalters said, from his own disability.

“I’m dyslexic, so I probably wouldn’t have graduated myself,” he said. “I am a total believer in using a high-quality state test in literacy and numeracy and to report the results publicly.

“But using it as a report card or diagnostic tool is much different than using it as high stakes for kids,” he said. “And any place that is using high stakes for kids before dealing with the capacity side of the equation is finding that they are moving the bar or deferring the consequences.”

In his final 14 months, Mr. McWalters said, he plans to focus much of his attention on refining the new graduation requirements and ensuring that all of Rhode Island’s school districts are complying. As for what will come next, he ruled out any job as a district superintendent or another gig as a state chief. Working on state and federal education policy is one possibility, he said.

“Maybe I’ll go back to my roots in labor and management issues and teacher quality,” he said.

In the end, said Ms. Steiny, Mr. McWalters’ reluctance to be a political schmoozer might have helped end his tenure.

“If anything, he probably should have had more lunches with the right people,” she said. “His agenda was always pristine, though. He can articulate on the side of the angels, which drives you nuts.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation.

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