Wagner leaves with clear path ahead for successor

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Dr. Ken Wagner, outgoing Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education for the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), calls himself a Rhode Islander, even though he established many of his career accolades while in New York.

He’s not just saying that either, as his new job – which will begin after his last day as Commissioner on April 26 – will be at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University as a Senior Fellow for Education Policy and Practice, where he hopes to continue to have a hand guiding Rhode Island’s educational direction.

“I hope stay in that kind of space just in a different role,” he said. “I’ll continue to advocate to help Rhode Island become better, stronger, faster in what we’re doing. I’m a Rhode Islander now.”

Wagner said during an interview last week that he didn’t necessarily plan on leaving the top job at RIDE at this exact moment in time, but he knew his tenure wouldn’t be a lengthy one.

“I was in New York six and a half years, and I was here for four years,” he said. “Ten years is enough in high-profile, state level service – that’s on a personal side.”

On a professional side, he continued, the plan was to extend his original contract prior to the re-election campaign for Governor Gina Raimondo last fall to ensure that he would still be Commissioner regardless of who won the governorship. With Raimondo winning soundly, Wagner said he felt it was “the right time” to let a new Commissioner come into the fold who would continue the work that he began.

That work for Wagner began in the summer of 2015 during a time of significant upheaval in the state’s educational atmosphere. Former RIDE Commissioner Deborah Gist had just departed for Oklahoma following a tumultuous tenure that began in 2010 and was marked by venomous relationships with teacher unions across the state. The state was also in the midst of a controversial transition to the PARCC Common Core standardized test, after a decade of utilizing the NECAP examination – neither of which had cast Rhode Island students in a glowingly positive light.

Wagner said that, upon his arrival, issues he considered controversial and flashy but not overall impactful – like a push to ramp up teacher evaluations efforts – dominated the educational conversation in a negative way.

“Lots of heat, lots of headlines, lots of drama, and very little impact,” he said of the teacher evaluations. “It was a public policy failure.”

He said his plan from day one was to develop core policies that were not only widely supported by data and general consensus, but would also lead to positive change across the state – things like investing in early learning opportunities for kids, developing demanding curriculum that targets developmentally crucial areas like third-grade reading, fifth-grade fractions proficiency and social-emotional learning, creating experiential, career-based pathways and investing in professional development for teachers. And, of course, trying to “make sure the buildings aren’t falling down,” as he put it.

“It’s like a Venn Diagram. Where does the area of high consensus overlap with the areas of high impact? Let’s get as much of that done as we can,” he said. “I like to say it’s not complicated, it’s just really, really hard.”

Fighting for school choice

While Wagner said he feels those areas have been received mostly positively and with good collaboration throughout the state, one facet of his strategy he feels has encountered the most resistance pertains to school choice. Whether it’s in relation to charter schools or offering open enrollment to students in career and technical education programs, Wagner said that too many districts have viewed choice as a threat to their funding levels rather than an existential pressure to improve their offerings to entice kids and families to stay.

“I believe that choice makes systems stronger because it forces systems to stay on their toes,” he said, pointing to Scituate High School as a model example of a district that was losing around 25 percent of their students to Ponaganset. He said the district took the opportunity to invest in their own programs, and have seen students come back.

He rebuked criticism from some legislators, and he specifically mentioned Rep. Evan Shanley of Warwick, that providing open enrollment for CTE programs was causing a problem for districts – especially ones that already offer similar programs that students opt to find elsewhere in the state.

“I agree with him that it’s a problem that kids have to escape substandard schools to get to schools that are somewhat better. I don’t agree with him that it’s a problem that kids have that escape,” Wagner said. “He seems to want to lock kids in and hope that schools get better. I want schools to get better because kids could leave and choose not to, and that’s what happened at Scituate High School.”

“The only reason that happened is because they had an existential threat through choice,” he continued. “That’s tough, and that’s stressful but that’s how you force systems to evolve.”

Wagner said districts that moan about financial woes created by providing students with a choice of where they will attend school – as has been heard in Warwick lately, as the district has been battling large deficit issues – is indicative that the districts have failed to truly be thinking about what is best for those students.

“It’s a question of who is in charge. Are the systems in charge or are the people that the systems serve in charge?” he said. “Warwick is not losing money. Warwick is making less money off of its neighbors than it used to make off of its neighbors, but it is still making money off of its neighbors. Systems just want to feed themselves and they’re getting hungry because they’re losing some of the money they used to make – but they’re still making money.”

Wagner didn’t mince words regarding his thoughts on Warwick’s need to evolve and think more forwardly about its educational path.

“The reason why they’re making less money is because they’re not as good as they used to be and there’s more competition and kids are going to other programs. I think that’s good for Warwick,” he said, calling Warwick the “poster child” for not keeping up with the times. “Warwick is like Galapagos Island, off on its own, and pretending like the world hasn’t changed. The world has changed. So, if there’s any place where people should be responding to changed conditions under healthy existential pressure, it’s Warwick.”

Some legislators have promoted – and the Warwick School Committee has heard proposals from Warwick School Department officials – a ranking system, which would rate the CTE programs in the state and would prevent students from exiting a district for a CTE program of equal or lesser rank than one that exists in their home district.

“What does the word ‘same’ mean? You could have ‘same’ on paper, which is very different than ‘same’ in reality…If we just take the adult’s word that it’s the same on paper, we still may not be doing right by kids,” he said. “The Council [of Elementary and Secondary Education], I think wisely, said we don’t judge in gradations of quality above a minimum standard. We only have the capacity to set a minimum standard – and then the kids should judge the differences in quality above the minimum standard.”

Wagner said that he understood the plight of districts, but that he feels such a compromise on school choice misses the point of what school choice is meant to encourage – districts working collaboratively with one another to share what works with one another and pick each other up where they fall short.

“I sympathize with the magnitude of the challenge of a school. A school tries to be all things to all kids all of the time. It’s impossible. I get it, I agree with them, it’s impossible,” he said. “But the answer isn’t to tell the kids to have their needs go away, the answer is to partner with other schools or other people who can do things that they can’t do.”

On funding issues and fiduciary responsibility

On the topic of funding for school districts, Wagner said that the state has exercised a clear commitment to providing increased funding over the past decade, and that Rhode Island is in the top five in terms of state spending on education per capita in the nation. He said that municipalities have, in many cases, not exercised sound fiduciary responsibility in how they have handled the increased funding – and that communities in financial crises need to look at how they operate before blaming the state.

“Our crises are almost always crises of leadership,” he said, adding that communities which brag about not raising taxes is evidence they exercised poor financial planning. “Any community that finds itself in a jam, they really should either look at either current or prior decisions of leaders.”

Wagner proposed three potential options to improve relationships among city and town councils and school committees within municipalities – which in his view too often are fighting with one another over fiscal resources rather than working together to advocate for best outcomes for students.

He said to either take municipalities out of the decision making process for schools and give tax levying authority to school committees (as is done in Massachusetts), eliminate school committees and give full authority to the municipal governing body, or mandate that both government bodies work together in drafting and approving union contracts for school personnel, which makes up a huge portion of a city or town’s overall budget. 

“We have this disconnect between the school committees and town or city councils – where they just point at each other and fight, primarily over contracts, and then they agree to cut [school] maintenance…which always backfires,” he said.

On his successor and maintaining momentum

Wagner said that the transition to RICAS – a test modeled after the Massachusetts stalwart standardized exam, MCAS – and the subsequent release of dismal test scores late last year, did not play a role in him deciding to step down. Instead, he said that maintaining momentum with a like-minded administrator would be of the utmost importance to establishing real fruit from the seeds he has sewn.

“It’s like any healthy organization,” he said. “Every leader should identify their successor.”

His planned successor (pending approval from the Rhode Island Board of Education), Angelica Infante-Green, is also a product of the New York public education sector, where she is currently a deputy commissioner for the state’s department of education. She was also in the final running for the head Commissioner job in Massachusetts. Wagner had nothing but praise for Infante-Green, and denied any role in getting her onto Governor Raimondo’s radar.

“She got on the radar on her own and totally earned it,” he said. “I think she’s the perfect person to step in.”

Wagner said any leader has “blind spots,” and that Infante-Green – as a Latina woman, daughter of immigrants and mother to a child with autism – will be able to provide perspective he could never offer.

“She’s one of six female leaders of color in this job, and there’s only 50 of these jobs in the nation,” he said, and added that she could be especially helpful in advancing the goal of closing the opportunity gap, which especially impacts students of lower income and students of color.

“We created a lot more opportunities, and she is going to help make sure that those opportunities are really equitably distributed,” he said.

More than the opportunity, quality and achievement gaps that Wagner highlighted in an op-ed he wrote for the Providence Journal last week, Wagner said that a real threat to positive change in Rhode Island stems from what he calls the “belief gap,” meaning that teachers in the state must start believing in the capabilities of their students more.

“We are dramatically under-challenging our kids all across the state,” he said. “There’re very few classrooms that I’ve walked into where I felt kids were really being challenged, where I felt the kids were working harder than the adults.”

Wagner said that this mentality has to be challenged from the roots, starting with how teachers are prepared during their postsecondary education – an initiative he has especially promoted recently at the state’s major teacher preparation institute, Rhode Island College. But more so, Wagner said that the belief gap has to be closed by teachers themselves, and can’t be mandated to change.

“I think at some level, I can’t preach this,” he said. “You just need to have teachers to do things differently and then be amazed at what kids can do.”

For the time being, it appears the strategy Wagner has created for education in Rhode Island will be given time to germinate. There is a bill currently working through the Rhode Island House that would enshrine the RICAS test and curriculum standards he imposed for the next 10 years, and would also continue to mandate ongoing professional development for teachers. He feels it is a good sign that the will for improvement has “saturated” to a point where more people are beginning to collaborate.

Overall, Wagner said that he is happy with how he is leaving the public education sector in Rhode Island, and is pleased to be giving up the position voluntarily, rather than how some other famous Rhode Island public figures have had to relinquish their power.

“What I’m most proud of is my exit. People tend to hold onto power until the very last moment when it’s grabbed away from you or you exit in disgrace or intrigue or what not. That’s the opposite of what we need,” he said. “In my view we need more reluctant leaders – people who step up because they think they can add value out of a sense of duty or obligation, whatever it may be.”

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