RIPEC Releases Comparative Analysis of Education Governance in Massachusetts and Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE (April 2016) – Today, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) released a comparative analysis of education governance in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In recent years, policymakers in Rhode Island have enacted a number of reforms intended to improve the state’s public education system. Despite these reforms, students in the state continue to perform near the national average on most standardized tests and are significantly outperformed by their peers in Massachusetts. This analysis is intended to explore in greater depth the differences in academic performance across the two states, as well as the institutional governance issues that may contribute to these differences. 

A review of 2015 PARCC assessment results reveals stark differences in performance between students in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Statewide, 60 percent of Massachusetts students in grades 3 through 8 met or exceeded expectations on the English language arts/literacy portion of the test, and 52 percent met or exceeded expectations on the mathematics portion of the test. By contrast, 37 percent of Rhode Island students in the same grades met or exceeded expectations on the English language arts/literacy portion of the test, and 28 percent met or exceeded expectations on the mathematics portion of the test. These vast differences in student proficiency occur despite similar levels of education funding and student demographic characteristics in the two states.

In addition to differences in statewide proficiency rates, a more detailed analysis of district-by-district performance on the PARCC assessment reveals that the top-performing districts in Massachusetts substantially outperform the top-performing districts in Rhode Island. Furthermore, Massachusetts school districts with high levels of student participation in the federal free and reduced lunch (FRL) program outperform Rhode Island districts with similarly high levels of FRL participation. A table attached to the press release provides an overview of this analysis.

The RIPEC analysis finds two key structural differences between the states’ public education systems. First, there is a greater degree of state influence over the governance and provision of education in Massachusetts, which appears to promote strong alignment between statewide content and performance standards and the rest of the education system. In Rhode Island, by contrast, local communities have exercised greater autonomy in the governance and provision of education on the ground, as the entire care, control and management of public schools is vested in the district-level school committee. Even with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards and the associated PARCC exam, local Rhode Island districts are still responsible for functions that are performed, in whole or in part, at the state level in Massachusetts. 

The report’s second finding is that Massachusetts’ school-based management model differs from Rhode Island’s approach, which places much greater emphasis on school committees. In Massachusetts, school committees hire superintendents, superintendents hire principals, and principals hire teachers and other school-based staff, which empowers school-level officials to control more of the decision-making process and creates clear lines of authority. By contrast, school committees in Rhode Island not only hire superintendents, but also must provide their consent to the hiring of principals, teachers and other school personnel. The Massachusetts model also encourages broad participation of key stakeholders, including teachers, parents and students, in the school-level decision-making process, which facilitates the emergence of a shared vision and promotes a higher level of commitment to achieving common goals and objectives.

The RIPEC analysis recommends that Rhode Island move towards the Massachusetts education model by promoting system-wide alignment and increasing the degree of state-level influence, guidance, and/or control over certain key education functions. Examples of those functions include curriculum development, teacher evaluation, and professional development. Reforms of this nature may require categorical funding, which suggests that legislation, rather than regulatory action, is called for.  

Furthermore, the success of these types of reforms in Massachusetts cannot be separated from the adoption of MCAS competency determination standards as a graduation requirement. Meaningful evaluation of, and requirements for, student performance ensures that students who graduate from the public school system actually have the knowledge and skills required by the statewide standards. Without such a mechanism for accountability, reforms that improve alignment and increase the degree of state-level involvement in education may not have the full positive impact on actual student and school performance.  Therefore, RIPEC also recommends that Rhode Island adopt competency determination standards as a graduation requirement.  

Additionally, RIPEC recommends supporting any reform efforts within Rhode Island that will empower local school-based officials to make school-level decisions and move the state closer to the school-based management model, and urges policymakers to consider implications that any future reforms may have on alignment throughout the education system.

“Rhode Island and Massachusetts devote similar amounts of financial resources to education and have similar student demographics, yet, despite this, Massachusetts’ students consistently outperform most other states on national tests and its schools are widely regarded as being among the best in the United States,” remarked RIPEC Executive Director John C. Simmons. “This comparison provides one way to understand this performance gap.”

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