We’ve all heard or read a lot lately about the state of
education in Rhode Island. The recent round of RICAS (Rhode Island
Comprehensive Assessment System) scores has left parents, educators and
policymakers frustrated and pointing fingers — especially when compared to the
test results in neighboring states.
One way we’re trying to address the problem in the legislature
is by solving the disparity that exists between the established educational
standards and the curriculum. If passed, this bill (2019-H 5008) would direct the
commissioner of education to develop a statewide curriculum. Our hope is that
this would close the gaps that exist in the standards/curriculum/testing
process by making sure these three things are all aligned — that every school
and district is on the same page.
The goal is to give parents a clear map of what their children
will be learning, and have it be consistent statewide. This is important for
two reasons. First, Rhode Island is very small. There are school districts in
the country that are as big as Rhode Island. There’s no reason why we can’t
have a curriculum that is consistent throughout the state. Second, and more
importantly, there is a high rate of student mobility in Rhode Island that
reaches the 22 to 24 percent range in some communities. Consistency will help
students who move from school to school or from district to district, and keep
them from being overwhelmed by substantial changes in what they’re learning.
But there’s a bigger problem we need to address. Desks in Rhode
Island classrooms are routinely empty. In fact, Rhode Island is one of seven
states where more than 20 percent of students are chronically absent, according
to federal data. In some high schools, that number approaches 50 percent. Not
only is this shocking, but it’s the single biggest problem our education system
has to surmount.
Besides the obvious fact that children who regularly miss school
are not learning the curriculum, they also tend to become disengaged
academically and socially, risking failure or dropping out entirely.
As you might imagine, chronic absenteeism, which is defined as
missing 10 percent or more school days in a year, is largely a reflection of
demographics. Black, Hispanic and Native American students are more likely to
miss school. It’s counterintuitive, but students who have English as a second
language are actually less likely to miss school than their counterparts who
are proficient in the language. As always, high poverty is a major factor.
And you don’t need to be an educator to figure out that missing
school on a large scale sets students back academically. Average reading and
math scores across the nation show a significant drop-off in test scores for
children who miss school regularly — regardless of the demographic.
I have introduced legislation (2019-H 5009) that would
direct the state Department of Education to establish a chronic absenteeism
prevention and intervention plan by Jan. 1, 2020. The bill would require an
attendance review team in any district with a chronic absenteeism rate of 10
percent or greater. It would also require a team at any individual school with
a chronic absenteeism rate of 15 percent or greater.
We need to develop a community response that does a better job
of interacting among students, teachers and parents, not only identifying what
works in reducing absenteeism, but what doesn’t work. Identifying strategies
that improve attendance has to be part of any school intervention.
There’s no perfect, universal approach to absenteeism when you
consider the varying and complicated reasons why students are absent. But it’s
clear that an intervention is necessary. Because, the hard truth is that we can
have the best educators, the best funding and the best curriculum in the
country. None of that matters if the students don’t show up to school.
The author, Rep. Joseph M. McNamara (D-Dist.
19, Warwick Cranston), is chairman of the House Health, Education and Welfare
Committee. He resides in Warwick.