Make this the new mantra for Rhode Island edu leaders: Be Like Mass

Be Like Mike. Those three words were part of a very catchy, even iconic, Gatorade commercial back in the early 1990s featuring Michael Jordan shining on the basketball court, and smiling big while surrounded by crowds of kids and fans who wanted to be just like him.

Well, with a slight tweak of one word, Rhode Island may have found the the key to its future success: Be Like Mass.

That’s right. The Ocean State is right next door to the Bay State, widely accepted as the gold standard in K-12 education. But despite their proximity, they don’t have much in common when it comes to educating kids. While both states spend about the same on education, students from Massachusetts outperform Rhode Island students by every measure. Whether we look at NAEP scores, PARCC scores, college graduation rates, or post-graduate earnings, the truth is impossible to ignore.

They are doing something right, and we are doing something wrong.

The default drumbeat in Rhode Island has been to blame our education woes on a lack of funding or socioeconomic factors that impede student success. While those factors are real and do impact schools every day, they are not the crux of the problem. According to a 57-page report out of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, more commonly known as RIPEC, the problem lies with our state education policy. If we want our students (and subsequently our economy) to improve, we really just need to be more like Massachusetts.

Dan McGowan of WPRI summarizes it this way:

If Rhode Island wants to improve educational outcomes, it should follow Massachusetts’ lead by increasing state-level influence over large-sale school policies, make standardized testing part of its high school graduation requirements and give principals more power over everyday classroom decisions.

Rhode Island has forever been in the shadow of the Massachusetts, always seeming to fall short in setting policies that actually move the needle for kids. Even when bold commissioners come in, their role is far more limited than in Massachusetts because they find themselves, by design, trapped in the world of policy and disconnected from implementation at the district level. So while Massachusetts sits at number one for both its district and charter schools, Rhode Island continues to find its performance in the bottom half of states—despite spending the same amount of money.

A quick look at recent tests has many Rhode Islanders asking how it’s possible that kids five minutes over the state line are doing so much better on identical tests. Sure, there’s a very vocal subculture of anti-testing parents who reject any and all standardized tests (well except for SAT and AP tests, of course) but they are in the minority. Most parents appreciate seeing how their kids are faring compared to other kids in their school, their town, their state, and even the state next door. And taxpayers certainly deserve to see what return they are getting on their investment.

No need to reinvent the wheel. No need to scratch our heads. Just do what is being done minutes away and has shown itself to work. While it may not be perfect and there will always be dissenters, it’s undeniably better than what we are doing.  

An earlier version of this blog appeared at Good Schools Hunting.

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Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi

Erika Sanzi spent a decade as a teacher and school dean before becoming a full-time education advocate. Her love for writing coupled with her willingness to take on people in power has led her to spend much of her time responding to status-quo protectors inclined to put adult interests ahead of kids. She is particularly focused on inequities in the system, persistent but surmountable achievement gaps, and what she sees as a culture of low expectations that disproportionately impacts low-income students of color. She is the mom of three young sons and you can often find her on the sidelines of their countless sports practices and games. She is committed to the belief that zip code isn’t destiny, that parents deserve choices when it comes to educating their children, and that too many “good” schools are falling down on the job in too many ways. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she now calls Rhode Island home with her boys, her husband, and her big fluffy dog, Griffey. She writes about her corner of New England at Good School Hunting.

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