RIPEC Releases Road Map for Education Reform in Rhode Island

Providence, R.I. – The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) today released a report on the state of K-12 education in Rhode Island and recommendations to improve the education system. Through its in-depth historical and analytic study of the state’s K-12 system, RIPEC found that Rhode Island’s education system is in a state of crisis that worsened considerably during the pandemic, resulting in unacceptably low student outcomes overall and wide proficiency gaps across demographic and geographic lines.

“Rhode Island needs to take action now to fix K-12 education for students, families, and the future of our state,” said Michael DiBiase, RIPEC’s President and CEO. “We need to approach this issue with the priority and urgency demanded by the crisis, and this report can serve as a foundation for policymakers to develop a roadmap for reform that will benefit students and educators.”

The report, “Improving Rhode Island’s K-12 Schools: Where Do We Go From Here?,” provides a level-setting overview and analysis of how the state’s education system has changed over the past few decades and where it stands today, recounting both the areas where there have been positive developments and where the state continues to struggle.

“While Rhode Island ranks 12th highest for spending per student, its student outcomes are middling compared to the nation overall and low compared to other New England states,” said Justine Oliva, RIPEC’s Manager of Research. “Equally as serious are the stark gaps between student outcomes across lines of geography, race and ethnicity, and other demographic features including poverty, disability status, and English language proficiency. The COVID-19 pandemic and the related closure of schools only exacerbated these issues.”

On the 2020-2021 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS), only one in three (33.2%) students in grades three through eight could demonstrate proficiency on the English Language Arts (ELA) portion of the exam and only one in five (20.1%) students could demonstrate proficiency in math. On the SAT, fewer than one half (48.3%) of high school students were able to demonstrate proficiency in ELA and about a quarter (26.4%) could do so in math. For both exams, proficiency rates were likely even lower than reported due to sharp declines in participation rates, particularly for historically disadvantaged subgroups. Recent trends in both teacher and student absenteeism are also alarming—Rhode Island has historically had high teacher absenteeism relative to the nation, and in 2020-2021, over a quarter of all students were chronically absent.

Rhode Island posted the nation’s third highest white/Hispanic proficiency gap for eighth grade reading on the 2019 National Assessment for Education Progress. On the same assessment, proficiency rates for Rhode Island’s limited English proficient students were significantly lower than rates for these students in the U.S. overall. The gap between the graduation rate of Rhode Island’s special education students, economically disadvantaged students, and Hispanic students and their peers who are not members of these subgroups was greater than that seen in most states.

“Rhode Island has large populations of nonwhite, limited English proficient, and economically disadvantaged students, compared to other New England states, and the proportion of non-white students and limited English proficient students in Rhode Island have grown markedly in recent years,” said Oliva. “Rhode Island must take immediate action to support students, enhance professional development for teachers, recruit more teachers in high needs areas, and increase funding for economically disadvantaged districts,” she said.   

RIPEC’s report additionally provides an organizational overview of the state’s governance structures; a historical analysis of statewide education reform initiatives from the 1980s to present; an analysis of teacher certification, compensation, and demographic trends; and analyses of student demographic and outcome trends over time, in comparison to the region and nation, and across school districts.

Given its findings, RIPEC’s report offers to policymakers the following considerations:

  • Education reform should be pursued by all stakeholders with the level of priority and urgency commensurate with the current crisis. At the same time, policymakers should resist imposing piecemeal mandates and requirements on school districts and teachers that have no meaningful effect on student outcomes and divert time and resources away from improving academic achievement.
  • The state’s school funding formula should be reformed to increase the state share of overall education funding and target more state aid to support disadvantaged communities.
  • Policymakers should reform the governance of Rhode Island’s K-12 system to streamline authorities, clarify responsibilities, and improve accountability.
  • More time and resources need to be invested in teacher professional development that is content-centered and teacher-driven, particularly for math instruction.
  • More needs to be done to recruit, retain, and support new teachers, particularly teachers in high-need areas and teachers of color, including through adjustments to new teacher compensation and the reinstatement of the state’s beginning teacher induction program.
  • Resources should be directed towards English Language Learner certification for existing teachers, teacher preparation programs should be required to provide training in teaching limited English proficient students, and the state funding formula should be revised to include dedicated funding for limited English proficient students.
  • Policymakers should make room for innovation and choice so that school districts and educators can address the great disparity of student backgrounds and needs presented across Rhode Island’s K-12 system.

An executive summary of the report is available here. A data dashboard that corresponds to the report is available here.

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