A Conversation with Dr. Ken Wagner, RI Education Chief


As students, parents, educators and administrators embark on a new school year, there are innovative ambitions on course. I had the privilege to talk with the highest ranking official in education in Rhode Island, Education Chief Dr. Ken Wagner, about his philosophies on the transformative efforts currently underway in Rhode Island public schools.

Michele Graf (Motif): There has been a lot of controversy about the empowerment schools in the School and Family Empowerment Act, specifically the idea that families would have free choice to send their students to particular districts not in their locale that may have openings. Could you speak to your ideas on this?

Ken Wagner: On the school side, we wanted to have a strategy to give some of that design thinking power back to school communities. It does strike me as hypocritical to give that power to just the schools without giving a commensurate level of power to families. We know that one size doesn’t fit all, so why would we pretend that the assigned school could meet the needs of all of the kids all of the time in the schools? This option gave a little bit of space for families to pick other districts. Ultimately, people weren’t yet ready for the idea. [Ed. The School and Family Empowerment Act was passed with some changes that included not allowing students to move outside of their district.]

MG: Many schools have transient students, and this can widen the achievement gap. What is being done about student mobility?

KW: I have been in talks with the superintendents of Providence, Central Falls and Pawtucket where a lot of mobility occurs. We need to have conversations about how the adults set the rules and if you change addresses you have to change schools. The adults can change the rules and let kids stay in their schools even if they change address. This would virtually eliminate all of the difficulties that occur around student mobility, particularly around a high-needs school system.

MG: Could you speak to the transformative efforts and initiatives being done in the Rhode Island public schools?

KW: If we are going to improve our system, we can’t just talk about getting better at the things we are currently doing, but we also have to talk about doing different things that would be better. Putting on the table how we do schooling — not just doing schooling better, but reimagining how we do schooling. What I worry about is not just instructional excellence, but the engagement and the instructional mission with the hearts and minds and souls of our kids. We know that too many of our kids across all types of communities just disengage from the work of school. It starts early. We tend to focus on dropouts as juniors or seniors in high school, but we know kids are dropping out by disengaging in early elementary grades. The question is how we can do schooling differently that brings a holster of things to the conversation.

One, we need to dramatically expand student access to advanced coursework. Right now we are stuck in this remediation track that if a student is struggling with schooling we do more of the same. We call it remediation, but it’s really drudgery work. A student is feeling bad about reading so let’s force that student to read more instead of finding the motivational hook so students will want to take risks around reading. Or a student is really struggling with the algorithms of math so let’s have them sit at a computer and do more algorithms of math. Or they are really struggling with the school day so let’s make the school day longer. That more of the same can be helpful, but won’t transform how we get results in our system. Instead of remediating kids who are struggling, why not challenge them with courses that are worth taking? We talk a lot about college readiness through cut scores on tests, but why not talk about college readiness through actually sitting through a college course. [We should] challenge all students with proper supports. The PrepareRI Initiative gets students taking college courses for free while they are still in high school. Initiatives around the Advanced Coursework Network also bring alternate providers to the table to offer courses that districts may not be able to afford — ships building and advanced computer applications or AP courses districts cannot afford. Virtual and face-to-face providers can offer this after school and weekends, helping students get access to courses they wouldn’t have been able to before. The Advanced Coursework Network creates opportunities for students to pursue their individualized graduation pathway.

The Computer Science for RI Initiative is getting computer science in all schools, including elementary and middle schools, by the end of next school year. We are about halfway there this school year including in about 75% of our high schools. Computer science is integral to our economy and the fabric of our culture. Kids can’t be true participants in co-creating our world moving forward unless they know how to code. We have to drag that work out of our basements and garages and into our classrooms. These are the kinds of learning opportunities needed. The achievement gap is often an opportunity gap.

The second part of improving our system has to do with building different relationships between the student and his or her learning. We’ve heard about student-centered learning environments and lots of things are happening in competency-based approaches. In these environments, kids are co-creators of their instructional program and they move at their own pace with things like personalization-leveraging technology. This helps make student-based personalization possible because it’s not on the heroic efforts of teachers to personalize for all students, but uses technology to make that happen. And then just also good old-fashioned project- and problems-based approaches where you make learning come alive through projects and problems that are chosen to address the demands of the learning standards. These are projects and problems that are worth solving. Finally, we are going to talk in the next school year about bringing career focus to our instructional design work so that kids see the light at the end of the tunnel — not that they are just learning for learning sake. These are the types of performance tasks or learning opportunities that are directly tied to the kinds of economic and workplace opportunities that not only will feel relevant to students, but will offer them a lifetime of career advancement.

MG: What providers will offer these types of opportunities to students?

KW: The Prepare RI Initiative brought our public universities to the table, but the advanced coursework network brought our private universities and colleges to the table as well as some nonprofits.

One of the major themes in this change is design work. The adult design work around the kind of learning opportunities that they believe will become transformative for their children and also student design work as part of learning is knowing how to consume rigorous content — not for its own sake but for the purposes of dreaming, designing or building whether in the learning environment or the future of our world.