Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fear and Uncertainty will Kill Innovation

Given Commissioner Gist's recent assertion that Rhode Island's new Basic Education Plan gives her the authority to overturn contractual language on teacher assignment in districts statewide, it is interesting to revisit Tom Sgouros's analysis of the new BEP when it was passed this summer:

...the “basic educational program” ... specifies what you can expect the staff of a school to look like. For example, it says there should be a music program and a library, and says more or less what they should look like.

Until now. You’ll be glad to know that after the Regents’ meeting on June 4, many of these restrictions on local districts will be raised.

In February, the Regents put out a proposal for a new set of standards. The new standards excise pretty much every mention of staff and staff qualifications, save only for psychologists. The old standards contained sentences like “there shall be a halftime [librarian] in schools with 250 to 499 children,” and “at least 20 minutes in each school day is devoted to health and physical education taught by certified personnel.” (Recess is not considered physical education.)

The new standard contains sentences like these: “A high quality visual arts & design and performing arts education program leads to arts literacy for all students.” But nowhere does it require any school to have such a “high quality” program. In fact, in the very next paragraph it says schools will only be obligated to offer courses in “at least one” of the performing arts.

The language in the BEP on teacher assignments is similarly vague; however, the Commissioner's interpretation is very specific, and, she asserts, legally binding. So perhaps Commissioner Gist, or a successor might someday send out a memo to superintendents stating that, for example, "no system that does not include a full-time physical education teacher for each 300 students in a school can comply with this regulation.” It might happen. It might not. But it certainly seems possible. The point is, you don't really know, do you?

Similarly, the Providence School District has aggressively (if quietly) asserted its right to abrogate site-based agreements with schools.

So basically, if you're thinking about non-charter school-level reform in Rhode Island, there is no legal basis for it. The state and the district are quite clear that they will not honor agreements they sign with teachers or schools. The Basic Education Plan is vague, but subject to specific interpretation by the Commissioner. And, if the Commissioner feels you are out of compliance with the law, she will threaten your board with personal lawsuits and decertification of school administrators.

If you're a career teacher or principal, not an itinerant technocrat, you'd be a fool to pursue implementing ambitious reform in a school district on these terms. And you can't undo a pattern of ignoring and breaking contracts. There is no going back, and no basis for trust going forward.

No comments: