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Johns Hopkins Report Offers ‘Devastating’ Findings for Providence Schools, Sparking Talk of State Takeover

By Kevin Mahnken | June 26, 2019

Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Grim. Painful. Heartbreaking.

Those were the words that Rhode Island leaders used to describe a brutal assessment released Wednesday of public schools in Providence, the state’s capital and largest city. The 93-page report, requested by newly appointed Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Angélica Infante-Green and compiled by experts at Johns Hopkins University, points to dire academic results and widespread fears about unsafe classroom conditions.

In an atmosphere of disappointment and uncertainty in Rhode Island, the review may also trigger the most drastic reaction in the education playbook: a comprehensive takeover of Providence schools by the state.

In a late-morning press conference Wednesday, Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo — who has pushed for additional education funding and an expansion of the state’s public pre-K program — remarked that while she knew the situation was bad, the findings of the report were nevertheless “shocking.”

“The report showed me it’s much worse than I realized,” she said. “It’s beyond just low test scores. It’s the basics that educators and students don’t even feel safe in their schools. A culture has developed where kids don’t feel safe, teachers don’t feel supported, and real learning isn’t happening. I’m upset and angry for the generation of kids who have suffered the consequences of this broken system.”

The report touched on issues ranging from curricular quality to labor relations, collecting frank critiques from dozens of district employees on the learning and working conditions in schools serving 24,000 students.

It has already triggered deeply felt responses. Authors described multiple teachers breaking down in tears about the chaos and lack of support their students endured; several Johns Hopkins reviewers did the same when confronted with the district’s crumbling infrastructure.

Providence Public School officials did not respond to a request for comment on this article. But in a statement, Superintendent Christopher Maher said he hoped the report would be a catalyst for improvements.

“The … report creates a much-needed sense of urgency around the educational needs of Providence public school children and the system that strives to support them. My hope is that this sense of urgency translates into concrete actions that improve outcomes for our young people.”

Maher announced in February that he would be leaving Providence after four years in the job.

In a statement, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro said that, reading the report, she felt as if she had been “kicked in the sternum by Godzilla wearing steel-toed boots.” Asked by reporters whether she would send her own children to a public school in the city, Infante-Green flatly said, “No.”

The commissioner, who accompanied Raimondo Wednesday along with Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, said the failures detailed in the report had long been an open secret.

“We are all responsible,” she said. “Everyone was responsible, because we all knew what was happening.”

‘Very little visible student learning’

Gov. Raimondo first demanded a comprehensive review of Providence schools in April, partly in response to standardized test scores from 2018 showing Rhode Island students performing substantially worse in both math and English than their neighbors in Massachusetts. The report was funded with $50,000 provided by the Partnership for Rhode Island, a civic group headed by local business and academic leaders.

Review teams made up of local educators, parents and Johns Hopkins scholars conducted site visits of 12 elementary, middle and high schools around the city. As part of their reviews, they interviewed students and teachers, convened focus groups of parents and reviewed data from the 2014-15 through 2017-18 school years provided by both the school district and the Rhode Island Department of Education.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo (Getty Images)

Their observations of the schools’ academic performance were, in Mayor Elorza’s description, “grim, concerning and accurate.” Particularly in the middle and high schools they visited, the teams reported, there was “very little visible student learning.”

In secondary-level English classes, instruction was described as “extremely weak,” with teachers attempting to engage a handful of students while ignoring the behavior of others. Math classes were marked by large numbers of students chatting or staring into space. In one classroom, a senior simply scrolled through social media on a phone rather than taking part in a critical subject exam; the student wasn’t attempting to cheat but simply refusing to take part.

Teachers roved between desks yelling at students for various behavioral infractions, according to the report. No French was spoken in a French-language class. In only one of 12 schools were no “substantial challenges” to learning detected.

In general, the authors noted, “PPSD has an exceptionally low level of academic instruction, including a lack of quality curriculum and alignment both within schools and across the district.”

The deteriorating conditions of school facilities reportedly contributed to the district’s learning challenges, with the most severe moving members of a review team to tears. Students alerted interviewers to crumbling floors and bathroom stalls with no locks. Teachers made alarming reports of the presence of asbestos, lead paint and raw sewage in school buildings, and one Johns Hopkins reviewer compared the scene unfavorably with dilapidated schools in Arkansas and Georgia.

Funding for improved school infrastructure has been a key priority of Gov. Raimondo, who successfully advocated for the passage of a massive state bond for more facilities funding.

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‘No discipline’

Worse still, the schools showed evidence of major behavioral problems and student disengagement. Bullying was noted as a common occurrence among older students, and teachers described themselves as demoralized from a lack of support from school leaders and the district.

Teachers complained of frequent fights on school buses and in cafeterias, some leading to gang-related arrests. Cell phone usage during class seemed practically ubiquitous, with students watching videos on Netflix or Facetiming with friends without even using headphones.

One instructor interviewed for the report said that lapses in both discipline and academics were rarely checked: “Students emulate others exhibiting poor behavior because there is no discipline. One student not doing work became two and then three. They see that they can just sit on their phone and watch videos and not work.”

The persistent misbehavior may help explain why, according to figures from the Civil Rights Data Collection, 41 percent of Rhode Island teachers are chronically absent from work (i.e., missing 10 or more days of school each year). That’s the third-highest total of any state.

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The professional environment for school employees was likewise undermined, many complained, by a contract that makes bad teachers virtually impossible to fire. In one middle school, reviewers heard multiple complaints of a teacher who frequently hurled racial epithets at students but couldn’t be removed because of procedural hassles. Another employee had been put on administrative leave — but not terminated — for repeated instances of inappropriate physical contact with students, according to the report.

Whole pages could have been dedicated to complaints from both principals and teachers about the district’s collective bargaining agreement, the reviewers concluded; instead, they offered a pungent sample:

“We can’t get rid of teachers; it’s a slap in the face for teachers who come in every day to do a good job. It’s demoralizing.”

“No one can lay off teachers. Ineffective teachers just get shuffled.”

“The displacement process is [explicative].”

What’s next

The report’s release comes at an unpredictable moment for the state’s educational leadership. After district superintendent Maher announced his sudden resignation in February, state Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner followed suit.

The arrival of Wagner’s replacement, Infante-Green, has been heralded as an opportunity to pursue ambitious changes to education throughout Rhode Island — as has the passage of a wide-ranging school reform package that would grant more hiring and firing authority to principals and move the state toward a more uniform curriculum.

Some even wonder whether the review’s dismal assessment could provide a pretext for the state to take over Providence schools. That would be an extreme step; such takeovers have ushered in long periods of state control in cities like Newark and Philadelphia, often accompanied by angry resistance from local families and educators.

In Wednesday’s press conference, Gov. Raimondo refused to rule out the possibility, repeatedly vowing that all options for turning around the district would be considered. With Infante-Green, she encouraged Rhode Islanders to attend a series of listening sessions held throughout the state, scheduled to begin the night of June 26 at Providence’s William D’Abate Elementary School.

“The state will have to get more involved,” she said. “In light of the crisis that’s before us, there’s no scenario in which the state doesn’t get more involved.”

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