Sheldon Whitehouse Discusses the State of RI Public Education

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Sheldon Whitehouse

Rhode Islanders should take a broad view when evaluating the status of the state’s public education system, United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse suggested during a recent episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast.

While expressing concern about the poor performance of Rhode Island students on the RICAS standardized testing score results released late last year, which sounded an alarm throughout some Rhode Island communities, Whitehouse also suggested that there are many elements of RI public education that are having a positive impact on students that ought to be evaluated for their successes and considered in tandem with standardized testing results when describing the condition of Rhode Island’s public education system.

Bill Bartholomew: Is there anything that can be done on your end to help improve scores on these standardized tests? It’s tough to say to “improve education” broadly, because we’re only analyzing standardized testing.


Sheldon Whitehouse: What we tried to do in the last big bill that we passed in a very bipartisan way in the Senate was to take the pressure off a lot of the standardized testing, particularly the testing that was testing the school and not so much testing the kids. What we saw, particularly in a lot of communities where kids come to school with a lot of issues — they may not know a lot of English, they may be new immigrants who haven’t had a lot of education so far, they may have horrible things going on at home that make it hard to pay attention in school, there could be a lot going on in their lives that doesn’t necessarily show up for the average student at Lincoln or Barrington — and those schools having to deal with those problems and deal with the results that those kids were posting were narrowing the curriculum to what that school needed to get these kids to do on the test.

I thought that was really bad because there are very important parts of an education like arts, music, history, civics and government. These are all things that are really important for Americans to know about, and for some kids it’s why they come to school. They may hate the rest of it.

So, if you knock all that stuff out so that you can pound English and mathematics so that the kids will do better on the tests, so the school won’t get in trouble, you’ve really compromised those kids’ education. That’s a long way of saying that I get a little hesitancy when I hear people saying, “Oh, the tests aren’t showing up, right?” I just think we need to keep a very broad perspective about what’s going on in school and what really matters to kids.

While there’s some basics that yes, kids need to get out of school, we can’t forget the part that for some kids, some parts of their education are the positive flare that attracts them and they’re going to pursue for their lives. The positive, passionate things that they’re doing, that you don’t really get (to evaluate) just through tests. You get there with making sure that that pathway is available to them. I just get very cautious about “We’re doing badly on the testing. Quick, let’s go do stuff.”

With Rhode Island as a whole performing well below Massachusetts on standardized testing, some districts faced particularly grim results, especially those with significant English language learner student populations.

However, it was at one such school, Central Falls High School, that Senator Whitehouse described several lively and engaged classroom experiences.

SW: I just spent a morning at the high school in Central Falls and there was a computer lab that was pretty astonishing. I mean it was way out of my league, let’s just put it that way. The teacher was going around helping people one by one, they were doing really cool kind of design work on the computer. I was totally impressed. Then we did a class of, an English class where they were preparing and had memorized Shakespeare to compete in a national competition for the delivery of either a soliloquy or a poem. These were Shakespearean sonnets these kids had memorized. It was first-class quality work that I was seeing right there. Then I went to another classroom where there were two teachers and an assistant may be in the classroom and there were like 35 kids, and it’s hard to manage just on those kind of numbers when you’re trying to keep kids moving along and give them personal attention in a classroom. So you really saw that there’s a lot that is good that it’s happening in that high school and that’s true I think of a lot of our high schools that we think of as like, “Oh, the troubled schools.”

The condition of Rhode Island’s public school’s had recently been staked on a large infrastructure improvement bond championed by General Treasurer Seth Magaziner. With the passing of that bond in November 2018, and the unrelated, subsequent release of the RICAS results, the focus on education in Rhode Island has shifted from infrastructure and safety to the content of day-to-day learning.  

During his appearance on The Bartholomewtown Podcast, Senator Whitehouse appealed to Rhode Islanders to cautiously evaluate the specific aspects of public education that are developing students’ creativity before declaring the entire system to be in crisis mode.

To hear the entire episode of The Bartholomewtown Podcast, visit, Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast platform


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