There’s something to be said about a public official that decides to leave on their own terms rather than wait until they are run out of town, until they are operationally ineffective or they are otherwise forced to give up their position due to scandal, suspicion or some other outside force.
There is also something to be said about somebody who is willing to take on a job that – in a rational person’s mind – nobody should really want, and doing their best to push forward initiatives that make things better, even if sometimes those decisions are unpopular or force uncomfortable conversations.
This is why we are simultaneously pleased to wish outgoing Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner good luck in his future endeavor at Brown, and are also sad to see him leave. While we respect Wagner’s wish to step down from the public eye to pursue a likely much less stressful career in the private education sector, we hope that his successor will truly carry on his style of quiet, effective leadership that has, in our mind, put Rhode Island back onto a path towards success – even if the journey is far from complete.
Wagner used the term “reluctant leader” in his exit interview with us, which is featured in a story in today’s Beacon, and we find that to be an especially interesting term. Certainly, following the departure of Deborah Gist, nobody should have been chomping at the bit to get into the hot seat of leading Rhode Island’s educational branch of government.
The job came with automatic baggage. Schools were, and still are, crumbling. Performance levels were, and still are, painfully low compared to neighboring academic pace-setter Massachusetts – whom Rhode Island will always be compared to, even if unfairly, due to geographic proximity. On top of that, Gist had encountered firsthand the razor-thin balance that public officials must strike between making ambitious changes, and not going too far and ticking off labor unions and the politicians who rely on those union votes to stay in the State House.
All said, Wagner took a very difficult job with not much margin for error, and he spent nearly four years in a very high-profile role mostly out of the spotlight – which is perhaps the best performance indicator you can receive in this tiny state, where one public gaffe can follow you around forever and cause you to lose credibility.
In advancing his ideals for Rhode Island schools, Wagner has established a meaningful foundation for academic improvement in the state. He emphasized the importance of things like early childhood learning and career-based education that puts kids on track for good careers. He helped facilitate a comprehensive infrastructure assessment of all the state’s schools, and utilizing that information the state passed a historic bond to finally begin addressing the issue.
Elsewhere, Wagner has challenged the way we think about testing. Instead of hiding from our shortcomings compared to the leaders up I-95, Wagner swapped the state to a test that mimics the one that students in Massachusetts take, knowing full well that it would, finally, give us a fair and scientific benchmark for where we truly are, and how far we truly must go.
It cannot be understated that through this decision, Wagner raised our expectations. The fact that people were outraged about our test scores was not an indictment on Wagner – he hardly is to blame for decades of deferred maintenance and a lack of a consistent educational strategy – but it was an important benchmark moment where Rhode Islanders stood united in the belief that we have to do better for our students, otherwise our students will never have the chance to get better.
Whereas Gist lost first the unions’ support and then subsequently the legislature’s, Wagner’s actions have resulted in an education bill that would codify some of his strategies into law for at least 10 years, including utilizing RICAS as the state assessment. This shows that we’re not the only ones who view Wagner’s work as valuable and based in sound judgment.
Wagner said it best in his op-ed to the Journal – “Less drama; more steady, useful, permanent change.”
We hope that his successor will take the steady, less dramatic culture that Wagner has started and nurture and cultivate it, and that she is able to do so in the same low-profile way that Wagner made look so easy. If she does, we believe that educational change can happen in Rhode Island for the better.