This spring Governor Raimondo held meetings with various stakeholder groups to find out what characteristics they would want in an education commissioner. According to the Providence Journal article of July 7, “Common themes emerged, with each group calling for a leader who listens and is collaborative, thoughtful, and student-centered.”
In my view, the choice of Ken Wagner, currently senior deputy commissioner for education policy in New York state, does not meet these criteria.
According to the information that the Governor’s office put out about him, Dr. Wagner “led the development of EngageNY, a free curriculum aligned with new [Common Core] learning standards.” The rest of the story is that EngageNY has become an expensive fiasco in NY State. The NY State Education Department had originally contracted with three groups to create scripted module lessons for schools across New York at a cost of $12.9 million dollars of Race to the Top money. As educators began using the modules they found numerous errors, gaps, editing mistakes, and other problems. Is this the work of a thoughtful leader?
Dr. Wagner believes in the value of high stakes testing, and considers the Opt Out movement to be misguided. The failure rate across NY State on their Pearson developed Common Core Tests continues to be about 70%, with much higher failure rates for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Since these tests were not independently validated, and many authorities who examined the practice tests and released items believe the questions to be developmentally inappropriate and unnecessarily confusing, how can a “failing” label be trusted? How concerned was he about the well-being of the students who were labeled failures?
New York state is one of the major areas of the country to see significant opposition to Common Core-related testing. Several hundred thousand students were opted out of the testing in April. Did Ken Wagner listen thoughtfully to the articulate and passionate parents in NY state who determined that these tests were not in their children’s best interest? Apparently not, since Wagner told New York Magazine, “we really believe that these tests are not only important but irreplaceable.” (By the way, NY state recently jettisoned Pearson for a different test developer.)
Of significance to parents concerned about the privacy of their children’s personally identifiable information, is the fact that Wagner was a stalwart defender of NYSED’s connection with inBloom, despite tremendous backlash from parents. inBloom was a company created and funded by the Gates and Carnegie Foundations with $100 million, and was designed to collect confidential, potentially personally identifiable student and teacher data from school districts and states throughout the country. There was the real risk that even de-identified student data could be re-identified when shared with software companies and other for-profit vendors, a practice allowed by a weakened federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
After much turmoil and several legislative hearings, the state legislature decided it had no option but to make inBloom illegal in order to stop it. Is this the way to collaborate with those who hold a deeply held and reasonable position different from your own?
Governor Raimondo’s introduction of Ken Wagner to RI stated that “Education is a ladder to the middle class, and investing in education will grow our economy because businesses want to locate near a pipeline of well-educated, well-trained workers.” Presumably Ken Wagner agrees. Is this really what RI parents and communities want from their public education system—workforce development? What about education for self-empowerment and for participation in a diverse and vibrant society?
I am distressed but not surprised at the governor’s choice. It is impossible not to consider potential influence from her husband Andy Moffit, who has worked in education reform for the global consulting firm McKinsey and Company. He also collaborated with Sir Michael Barber (formerly at McKinsey, now at Pearson) in the writing of Deliverology 101. This is troubling in that this book is a manual for consultants and managers to perpetrate a testing, data, and accountability mind-set, which is adopted from a soulless economics/finance/micro-managing paradigm misapplied to the most human of tasks–nurturing the next generation of self-actualized members of our society. The ultimate result, whether intentional or not, is the dismantling of public education as we know it and delivering it up to privateers.
Rhode Islanders need to do some serious homework and then express displeasure with this choice for commissioner and what it will inevitably mean for Rhode Island public school students, teachers, families, and communities.