PROVIDENCE (March 2019) – Today, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) released a comparative analysis of education governance in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. This analysis is a companion to, and update of, a 2016 report which likewise observed that, despite recent education reforms, Rhode Island’s public school students perform near the national average on standardized assessments, while their Massachusetts peers lead the pack. The intent of this analysis is to explore the differences in academic performance across the Ocean State and Bay State, as well as the structures of institutional governance that contribute to these differences.
In light of its analysis, RIPEC recommends that Rhode Island move towards Massachusetts’ education model by focusing on two related categories of reform:
1. System-wide alignment: RIPEC suggests promoting system-wide alignment throughout Rhode Island’s educational system. Specifically, RIPEC recommends requiring RIDE to develop a single, state-wide curriculum framework for Math and English and Language Arts (ELA). To aid in the implementation of curriculum frameworks, RIPEC suggests that RIDE additionally help develop high-quality and fully-aligned instructional and other support materials such as sample lesson plans and assignments. RIPEC also recommends requiring RIDE to develop a state-wide plan encompassing teacher certification, teacher evaluation, and professional development that is explicitly aligned with Rhode Island’s current, highly-regarded content and performance standards (The Common Core and RICAS). In support of alignment, RIPEC urges policymakers to consider the system-wide implications of any future reforms, and commit to long-term and comprehensive reform over at least ten-year span.
2. Educational governance: An enhanced degree of state-level influence over key education functions is central to achieving system-wide alignment, and RIPEC thus suggests that RIDE provide districts and schools with the practical supports necessary for implementing reforms. RIPEC also recommends that the Ocean State move towards a school-based management model. As with alignment, school-based management necessitates that RIDE provide enhanced support to local officials. In turn, district-wide officials should be empowered to make district-level decisions, while school-based officials should have increased agency over school-level decisions.
These recommendations are the product of RIPEC’s analysis, which begins with a review of the striking performance gap between Massachusetts and Rhode Island students on the 2018 RICAS/MCAS. Statewide, 51.0 percent of Massachusetts students in grades three through eight met or exceeded expectations on the English language arts and literacy component of the MCAS, and 48.0 percent met or exceeded expectations on the mathematics portion. Rhode Island students did not achieve the same standard on the RICAS, a direct reproduction of the MCAS; 34.0 percent met or exceeded expectations in English language arts and literacy, and 27.0 percent met or exceeded expectations in mathematics. The stark difference in student proficiency on display in the MCAS/RICAS results is also apparent in RIPEC’s analysis of Rhode Island and Massachusetts students’ performance on two nationally-administered assessments: the NAEP and the SAT.
These differences occur despite Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s similarities in terms of education funding and student demographics. While there are some observed demographic differences at the statewide level, the performance gap between the two states persists even when comparing demographically-similar districts’ performance on the RICAS/MCAS. Thus, demographic characteristics alone cannot fully account for observed differences in student achievement.
RIPEC’s report reveals two essential structural differences between Massachusetts and Rhode Island’s education systems. First, there is a greater degree of state influence over the governance and provision of education in Massachusetts, which has helped generate greater alignment throughout the education system. In recent years, Rhode Island has moved closer to Massachusetts’ model, adopting the Common Core State Standards as well as the RICAS. However, a number of functions that are performed on the local level in Rhode Island are performed, in whole or in part, at the state level in Massachusetts. For example, Massachusetts Department of Education is charged both with creating curriculum frameworks that are based on the Common Core and translating those standards into a delivery system of instruction. In Rhode Island, on the other hand, there are no statewide curriculum frameworks and discordant curricula is in use throughout the state.
Indeed, a recently-released overview of curriculum data from RIDE shows that only 20.0 percent of the curricula in K-8 reading have been reviewed for quality and alignment with state standards. Of that 20.0 percent, less than half have been determined to be aligned and of high-quality. The remaining 80.0 percent of curricula remain unrated, and therefore, their quality and degree of alignment are unclear. In terms of K-8 mathematics curricula, 49.0 percent have been reviewed, with slightly more than half considered high-quality. The remaining 51.0 percent of math curricula have not been reviewed.
Massachusetts’ influence over curriculum development, as well as other aspects of its education system, has been crucial to establishing alignment through all components of its education system, including teacher evaluation, teacher certification, and professional development.
RIPEC’s second key finding is that Massachusetts uses a school-based management model that is distinct from local school governance in Rhode Island. In Rhode Island, district-level school committees take charge of district-wide policymaking as well as the day-to-day management and administration of schools and personnel. In contrast, Massachusetts’ system of school-based management enables school committees to focus on policy, while superintendents and principals have greater control over the decision-making process. For instance, in Massachusetts, school committees are responsible for appointing superintendents, superintendents are responsible for hiring principals, and principals are responsible for hiring teachers and other building-level personnel. In Rhode Island, by contrast, school committees hire superintendents, and superintendents hire all principals, teachers and other personnel, with the advice and consent of the school committee. Massachusetts’ school-based management model demarcates clear lines of responsibility, promotes participatory decision-making, and has been linked by researchers to improved job commitment among principals and teachers, as well as improved performance among students.