As we look back on the past 12 months, we can see that this has been a year of accomplishments and a year of challenges. In our state, we have the capacity, the policies and the public support we need to make our schools America’s best – and among the best in the world.
Our global competitiveness will depend on innovations, including digital learning, as well as the growth of efforts such as early-childhood education and world-language programs. It will also depend on our ability to educate our students well in core academic areas. We are making progress, but we have a long way to go before we meet our goals.
From my first day as Commissioner of Education, I have promised that every decision I make will be in the best interest of our students. It is in the best interest of our students:
• when we hold high expectations for what our students can accomplish;
• when we prepare our students with the knowledge and skills they need for success; and
• when we support our students as they work to earn a meaningful high-school diploma.
There is nothing our students and teachers cannot accomplish when they have the tools, the resources and the support they need and when they set their minds and hearts to the task.
For far too long, we have had low expectations for many students, and, in particular, for students of color and economically disadvantaged students. For far too long, we have passed students on toward graduation without preparing them for success. Together, we must stand up for these students!
We can no longer pass students on to the Community College of Rhode Island, where 75 percent of our recent high school graduates must take remedial courses at their own expense before they begin earning credits. Too many will drop out before they earn a degree. And too many will enter the job market without the necessary skills. Too many will find that the doors to opportunity have closed.
These students needed stronger instruction and supports years ago. But regardless of what happened in the past, we must help our students in the present – to prepare them for the future.
The right thing to do is to prepare our students for success now – while it is our responsibility, and while it is their right.
No doubt: Many students, parents and community members are concerned about the large number of students who must improve their skills in mathematics. I hear these concerns, and I share them – but not as a call to retreat, back off, or slow down. I hear these concerns as a call to action.
Students are stepping up. Once the NECAP results came back, students took the message seriously. At the start of the year, only about 300 students had signed up for our free online program to improve math achievement. Today, nearly 2,600 students have enrolled in this online program – and we are hoping for 3,000 by the end of the year: a 10-fold increase.
Parents are stepping up, too. The parents who reach out to us don’t want an education system that’s centered on “teaching to the test” – no one does. Yet, most parents understand that it’s not about the test. It’s about math, it’s about reading and writing, it’s about science, and it’s also about the arts, technology, history, civics, modern and ancient languages, career and technical education, and the other rich opportunities our schools provide our students.
Teachers and school leaders are stepping up as well. As I visit with students and teachers across the state, I see schools rallying around their students, putting programs in place to bring them the supports they need to improve their performance. Communication with families, summer programs, math tutorials, after-school classes, virtual-learning programs, and of course great classroom instruction – all of these initiatives are taking shape, right now, in our schools.
As a lifelong educator, I am confident that, when our state steps up, as we have this year, our students can improve their performance and earn a meaningful diploma. I am confident that we can rally around our students and help them move along the pathway toward college and careers.
Deborah A. Gist is the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Note: This submission is an abridged version of the State of Education speech that Commissioner Gist delivered to the General Assembly on April 30.