Coffee Break: Ken Wagner on Improving Rhode Island’s Schools and the Perfect Glass of Milk

Coffee Break: Ken Wagner on Improving Rhode Island’s Schools and the Perfect Glass of Milk_5fbec4ce35365.jpeg
Better Conversation Coffee Break Education Commissioner Erika Sanzi family empowerment High Standards John King Ken Wagner Massachusetts President Obama Providence Rhode Island school empowerment Secretary of Education Standards

Coffee Break: Ken Wagner on Improving Rhode Island’s Schools and the Perfect Glass of Milk

Coffee Break: Ken Wagner on Improving Rhode Island’s Schools and the Perfect Glass of Milk

Despite its tiny size, my home state of Rhode Island is no stranger to big challenges when it comes to its schools. And our new education commissioner, Ken Wagner, is poised to start doing the hard work of moving Rhode Island forward. He hopes to replicate ideas that have worked in neighboring Massachusetts; while Rhode Island finds itself a middling state in terms of student achievement, Massachusetts tops the list year after year.

Prior to taking the reigns in the Ocean State, he served as deputy education commissioner in New York under John King, who is now the acting secretary of education for the Obama Administration. Wagner is a mild-mannered guy who plans to make some noise on behalf of Rhode Island students.

Coffee drinker? Tea? How do you take it? Favorite place (anywhere in the world) for a cup of coffee or tea?

There’s nothing in the world better than having a glass of coffee milk in Providence.

You were a school psychologist at one time. How has that shaped your vision as an educational leader?

Leaders build partnerships that allow movement, little by little, from what is to what ought to be. My background and training as a school psychologist has helped me become a good listener and problem-solver—important skills for all educators.

Rhode Island’s test scores were considerably lower than our neighbor, Massachusetts, on the same test. What can you learn from Massachusetts that might help improve results in Rhode Island?

For the past 20 years, Massachusetts has led the nation with its commitment to measuring student progress against rigorous learning standards. Massachusetts also empowers school-based leadership and decision-making, while balancing school empowerment with family empowerment through options for inter-district school choice. We are in the midst of a statewide conversation to determine the best way to chart a course in Rhode Island that leverages the lessons learned in Massachusetts.

You’ve said you want principals (and teacher leaders) to have more autonomy over budgets, hiring decisions and the instructional program, what’s the path to getting there and how do you see that impacting student achievement?

We must continue the work of the past five years. We still need high learning standards, comparable measures of student progress and accountability for results.

That said, accountability for results—the “what”—makes sense only if you have autonomy over your course of action—the “how.” If an educator is executing someone else’s script, over which she or he had no input, accountability doesn’t seem fair.

So we want to offer a voluntary “school-empowerment” package that creates regulatory freedom and building-based autonomy. The model will be based upon shared leadership between the principal and her or his teacher-leadership team, and there will be school-based flexibility for contract work rules, other than salaries and benefits.

School empowerment must be balanced against “family empowerment,” however, whereby students would have the right to attend nonresident schools and districts, so long as the receiving school had extra seats and opted in to the open-enrollment system.

The combination of school and family empowerment is the right mix to take standards and accountability to the next level. When families and educators are empowered, we create a space for both innovative instruction and opportunities that are uniquely tailored to the strengths and interests of students.

Despite increasing collaboration between district and charter schools throughout the state, lawmakers continue to propose polarizing bills. What’s your approach on having a healthy discussion about supporting both district and charter schools?

At some level, we know that a school is great only when families choose to stay there, even when they have other options. We want to give all schools the opportunity to have the tools to create such compelling learning environments that no one would want to leave, even though they could.

Your job is ultimately all about serving students. What experiences from your own time as a student, or from the students you’ve known in your career, have shaped your thinking and vision as Ed Chief?

For decades, our strategy for addressing opportunity and achievement gaps has focused on remediation in failing schools—essentially a failure narrative that patronizes, demoralizes and achieves diminishing returns. We have to reposition ourselves to see innovation in how we do schooling—total student engagement in rigorous learning tasks led by great teachers—as a core part of our equity agenda. When a student is inspired and enthusiastic, you can’t stop them from learning. It completely reverses the failure narrative.

At a foundational level, we have to put the joy back in schooling. If we aren’t enjoying our work, we probably aren’t doing good work.


Photo courtesy of Ken Wagner. Wagner, right, is pictured with the interim superintendent of Providence Public Schools, Chris Maher.

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