Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Undoing Performance-Based Graduation Requirements in Providence

Jennifer Jordan for the ProJo:

WARWICK — Despite mounting pressure to adopt more rigorous academic standards, some high schools continue to offer watered down math courses and others are barely complying with a new requirement that seniors complete portfolios and projects before they graduate, says Education Commissioner Peter McWalters.

Time is running out for these lagging schools, McWalters told an audience of about 250 superintendents, principals and teachers yesterday morning at the Airport Sheraton.

Education officials hope the majority of schools will be on track with the new requirements by 2010, but school districts have a grace period until 2012 before they face penalities — including not being permitted to award diplomas. The intent is to ensure that no student graduates without being able to read, write and compute at a high school level, officials say.

Currently, most districts have received “preliminary approval” for their efforts to adapt to the tougher graduation requirements. Just Burrillville, Cranston, Providence and a state-run school, the Rhode Island School for the Deaf, have failed to earn this level of approval.

Feinstein High School was reconsitituted in 2000 with the specific goal of creating a high school in the Providence School Department where advancement would be based not on seat time or credits but on the achievement of standards. This was formally laid out in a contractually-binding site-based governance agreement between the school department, union and school. All along FHS's design has been in clear alignment with the RI Department of Education's plans and intentions, leading the way.

Now, however, as Providence as a whole struggles as one of the remaining districts in RI to achieve even "preliminary approval" to meet new standards-based graduation requirements, including "complet(ing) projects and portfolios to prove they have mastered material in a variety of subjects before they graduate," the Providence School Board and Brady administration are taking aggressive steps to end standards-based portfolio graduation requirements at Feinstein High School.

Why? It is a little unclear because no explanation has yet been given to the school community, but essentially it seems that it is better to have all schools not in compliance in the same way than to have any variation in compliance. Or something. After four months of requests from the school, there is finally going to be a meeting on the matter next week, but at this point it is nearly a fait accompli, as the measure will be voted on by the board later this month.

On one hand, it seems like the school has a good case. On the other, the school department has many other weapons to bring to bear and has already demonstrated a vindictive streak, so any victory here may be a phyrric one for the school. Retaining portfolio evaluation for graduation, losing funding for after-school programs and gaining a hostile principal would not be a good trade off, as a hypothetical example.

The clear lesson for faculty and staff is keep your head down and wait for better days and more enlightened leadership. Unfortunately for the school, once achievement of standards is disconnected from advancement and graduation, the culture of the school will very quickly regress to the mean. It takes a long time and consistent effort to make faculty, parents and students believe that you're really and truly doing something different than "school" as it is usually played. If you switch back to business as usual, the effects will be immediate, and not easily undone. Fool me once...

But it is no wonder that, as Comissioner McWalters says, "All of you are working in places where you have some teachers just hoping all of this will go away." The clear lesson from Feinstein High School is that teachers who lead in innovating practice in the Providence School Department will, sooner or later, be kicked to the curb by administration. Waiting out each successive reform is a more rational long-term strategy than getting on board.

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