You Won't Fix Providence's Public Schools Until You Tackle the Root of the Problem

Jul 31, 2019 12:00:00 AM

by Ellen Foley

The recently-published report on Providence public schools, where I teach and where my children learn, contained just one major finding. That finding didn’t have to do with human resources, facilities or the education of English language learners. The researchers concluded that all those heartbreaking stories you read about mousetraps and chokeholds, all those glaring shortcomings and infuriating injustices, stem from one source: governance.

Providence Public School District is overburdened with multiple, overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy with no clear domains of authority and very little scope for transformative change. The resulting structures paralyze action, stifle innovation and create dysfunction and inconsistency across the district. In the face of the current governance structure, stakeholders understandably expressed little to no hope for serious reform.

All of the other details in the report point back to this “central, structural deficiency.”

For me, the report was devastating. It was hard not to feel that my own work had been impugned, even with the repeated recognition of “devoted” and “heroic” teachers. In the same way, it was hard not to take the commissioner’s comment that there was not one school in Providence good enough for her own children as an indictment of my parenting. 

Prior to becoming a teacher in 2013, I was a Brown University researcher and policy analyst focused on urban education, leading teams like the one from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. As a researcher, I have reservations about the methods Johns Hopkins used, which seem mostly ad hoc, but I don’t dispute the truth of the anecdotes or the general point: [pullquote position="right"]we have serious systemic issues and it is critical we do better by our students.[/pullquote] These are the exact reasons I chose to become a high school teacher and to send my children to Providence schools. I don’t think the system will change unless we all take responsibility for and invest in it.

So if a tough report and tough talk are what it takes to spur that investment, I welcome it. But what I worry about as we move forward is that the solutions will ignore the lessons, we all, including teachers like me, have learned.

Will the Commissioner and the Board of Education be able to address the current dysfunction, which goes beyond their purview into city and state politics, collective bargaining and state and local finances? 

One consistent lesson from education reform is that systemic changes are difficult, so policy leaders end up tinkering with the system as it exists. That includes strategies like mandating curricula, changing testing regimens and requiring teacher training, which have all been done and re-done in Providence, as documented by the Johns Hopkins report. Any new initiative will only have a marginal impact without addressing systemwide challenges, like the frustration you experience when supplies never arrive, or when you have to teach computer science with no internet access or when, because no one took responsibility for a tough decision, teachers find out they are sharing classrooms just days before school starts, all things that happened to me in the last year. 

[pullquote]When trying to improve a system, we teachers also know that how we do it is as important as what we do.[/pullquote] This lesson applies whether you are changing a classroom or a school district. Leaders often create “solutions” without including (and sometimes alienating) the very people expected to implement the reforms. 

That’s why this damning report is such a risky strategy. It may get everyone on the same page, but what if it also further demoralizes staff and students and encourages would-be staff and students to look elsewhere? And most importantly, what is its impact on the people who do not have choices? In my classroom, I seek students’ input throughout the learning process, try to address their concerns and give them multiple opportunities to reach our shared goals. 

So, Ms. Commissioner and board of education members, I’m hopeful about your intervention into Providence schools, but make sure your solutions are done with us teachers, students and families—not to us. And make sure that your intervention gets at the roots of the problem: governance.

Ellen Foley

Ellen Foley is a STEM Learning Facilitator at 360 High School in Providence Public Schools.  She is a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.

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