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I wrote this week about a new report detailing systemic dysfunction in the Providence, R.I., public school system that has left conditions hazardous to the health of students, teachers and everybody else inside some school buildings.

This is the second part of that post, details taken directly from the report. Yes, some of them are stomach-churning, but read them anyway. Thousands of kids and adults have to deal with them every school day.

The report, by researchers from the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy, revealed miserable conditions and governance issues in the schools that have helped create an environment in which the vast majority of students don’t learn at or even near grade level, and adults and kids feel unsafe in their schools.

Teachers don’t have training to help support special-education students or provide social emotional help for students suffering from trauma, the report said. One school reported dealing with 70 cases of “suicidal ideation among students” during the 2018-2019 school year, with several suicide attempts.

Providence is not the only school district to degenerate this way, and the process everywhere has played out over many years, with a lot of culprits, some of them well-meaning. But it is a reminder of the uneven health of public school systems in this country, which most often work well for the well-to-do but poorly for the poor.

The debacle in Providence is a reminder of something else: The ineffectiveness of years and billions of dollars spent on school reform, which has failed to adequately address some of the most important factors that affect how children learn and how teachers do their jobs. In some cases, reforms have made troubled situations far worse.

It seems worth noting that in the first debate of Democratic presidential candidates, which took place with 10 of them Wednesday night, not a question was asked about Providence schools — or, for that matter, any schools.

Here are details straight from the report, which you can read in full here (paragraphs in italics are mine, not the report’s).

Facilities

One elementary school stood out as having excellent building conditions: the furniture and paint appeared to be new, and the classrooms were well appointed and spacious. This proved to be an exception, as the schools varied considerably in their physical condition. The worst reduced seasoned members of the review team to tears.

For instance, in one school,

  • “Students here wanted my [review team member’s] magic wand to fix the ‘crumbling floors;’ they wanted locks on the bathroom stalls; they said that ‘sometimes the water is brown.’”
  • We interviewed teachers at the end of the day and many of them brought up similar concerns, including lead in the drinking water. Our team later took a picture of a letter from the EPA that was posted above the drinking fountain on the first floor confirming the lead story.
  • Teachers told us that there was lead paint falling from the ceiling on the third floor, and that kindergartners were not allowed up there but that the fourth grade was housed on that same contaminated floor. One team member witnessed brown water coming out of a tap. The teachers confirmed that the water was brown and had stained the sinks.
  • Our team saw that “the paint on the ceilings on the third floor were peeling in sheets. We didn’t see any actually falling off while we were there, but teachers reported that it actually does come down in sheets from time to time.”
  • The teachers said that there was also asbestos on the third floor. A staff member told us that the gym was on the bottom floor, and that there was a leaking raw sewer pipe in the ceiling for over a year. It dripped on the heads of the children as they passed through the threshold, and they had had to dodge the drips and the puddle. He had asked to have it fixed, had filed grievances, and finally posted the issue on social media. This seems to have produced results; although he got called into the office, the problem was fixed within a couple days after posting it publicly.
  • Teachers also told us there were rodents in the school, and that students had sticky mouse traps stuck to their shoes.
  • Also reports of constant leaks — one teacher said s/he had 8 buckets in her room all year. Students interviewed in this school told the team they didn’t feel safe — several said “we feel safer at home.” They reported 32 students in a room without enough chairs so they sat on the floor.

One team member from JHU, with deep experience of visiting the most physically run-down schools in Arkansas and Georgia, reported that “nothing s/he saw was like what I witnessed in Providence.” Such extreme problems were not ubiquitous, but facilities problems did seem to occur frequently.

  • In one school, students and teachers spoke of floors and ceilings in need of repairs. Our team saw that “the walls were visibly crumbling, the lighting was too dark, the water fountains did not work, and many tables were badly chipped.”
  • In another, our team member noted that “the smell of stale urine in the physical therapy room was so strong that I had to hold my breath.” It was clear from interviews across the system that getting repairs done is a haphazard business. One principal reported that to get a broken window fixed took “from one day to a month.”

Transportation is also problematic; in one school, children who want to attend after school clubs cannot participate, because there is no bus available.

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The report says that the district allows only one paid day of professional development (PD) for teachers a year; everything else must be paid as overtime. The Hopkins team “heard repeatedly that even on that one day, much of the time is used up on how to use ‘data planning,’ often ‘in the form of outdated checklists,’ “rather than on teaching and learning. Principals “reported that there were no funds for principal conferences or training.”

There are other consequences to the lack of professional development, the report said. Teachers don’t have the ability to help special education (SPED) students and fulfill their Individual Education Plans (IEPs), which are federally mandated, nor can they support students’ social and emotional learning. It said:

  • Teachers reported that, as a result of no support or preparation, “they are not meeting IEPs.” This is clearly a larger problem (at one elementary school, SPED leads told team members that “SPED services are not being met by the school and have not been met for many years at [their school] and across the district”), but teachers in the elementary schools spoke extensively about training. --[Providence Public School District] “suggests PD but then offers none.” — Teachers at one school reported that “it is simply impossible to do our jobs” when it comes to meeting IEPs. — SPED Resource teachers in one school reported that they are not provided with any multi-sensory program to teach special needs children. They were told “make up your own — we don’t have the money.” — In another school, the review team was told that “half of the IEP students are inappropriately placed and the terms of their IEPs aren’t being met.” The team was also told that [Providence Public School District] “has 10 mild to moderate seats in the district.” — The school psychologist was “not seeing the number of students they are required to see,” and “parents were only sometimes being told about their children’s IEPs and then not fully.” When informed repeatedly of these issues, … central office “did nothing.” Only after staff went to [Rhode Island Department of Education] was there very limited responsive action. The review team was told several times that school-level administrators told teachers not to communicate with PPSD about the lack of student support services.
  • In another domain — Social and Emotional learning and support — teachers reported the same pattern, i.e., no support and no training. One group of teachers agreed that “75% of the children were in some kind of trauma” in their school, but that they had had no preparation on how to help effectively. The same teachers were told to write SEL (Social and Emotional Learning) goals, with no training to enable them do so.

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Classroom Observations

  • Elementary ELA. English Language Arts classrooms showed an overall lack of instructional rigor. While approximately two-thirds of observed texts were at an appropriate level, only about half of them met the quality standard for exhibiting craft, thought, or information to build knowledge. Most of the teachers’ questions were impressionistic and general rather than specific. There were only two classrooms in which there appeared to be a clear focus upon students’ drawing evidence from the text and upon language and other text elements. While most teachers attended to vocabulary, this was often in a simplistic or rote way. When the curricular materials (worksheets, texts) were of higher quality, we found a greater chance of teachers’ asking students to use evidence and attend to the qualitative nature of the text. In one school, we saw virtually no authentic reading, but only worksheets. Student engagement was wanting. In only two classrooms did instruction focus on students’ doing the majority of the work, and in many cases, students appeared eager to participate but were not given meaningful chances to do so. We observed no classroom in which there was genuine “productive struggle,” in which students are called upon to grapple with, and persist through, challenging skills or concepts. As indicated above, students were not pressed to look for evidence in the texts, and there were almost no opportunities observed for students to engage with one another in meaningful ways. Another important feature of a standards-aligned classroom is teachers’ “checking for understanding,” which in the classrooms we visited seemed largely rote and did not lead to any observed change in instruction or meaningful feedback. Finally, students were given infrequent opportunities to strengthen or develop foundational language skills. …
  • Secondary ELA. Secondary school ELA instruction is extremely weak. On the [Instructional Practice Guide], not a single category of instruction on a 1-4 scale attained an average score across classrooms of more than 1.75. The review team rated instruction in most classrooms at the lowest possible level. For instance, while many classrooms included grade-appropriate texts (e.g., The Poet X, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Antigone), teachers did not generally capitalize upon the texts’ literary qualities, nor induce students to engage with those texts in a meaningful and rigorous way. Tasks and questions were not well sequenced in order to build depth of knowledge, skills, or vocabulary. There was little to no “productive struggle.” Student engagement was minimal. Particularly in high school classrooms, it was not uncommon for only a small percentage of the students to be participating in the lesson. In such circumstances, teachers resorted to providing the best instruction they could to those students, and largely ignored the behavior or disengagement of others. Even where lessons were designed for students to undertake the majority of the work, few students engaged with the assigned tasks. Very few opportunities for productive struggle occurred, and when they did, students were not especially likely to persist at tasks. In only one observed classroom did students have a real chance to engage in written work, and very few opportunities were observed for students to engage with one another and share ideas. While we clearly observed some teachers engaging with students one-on-one in meaningful instruction, it was often not possible for them to do so with all students, especially those who were already disengaged.

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Student Supports

The lack of support for students, and the disconnect between students and teachers, came up frequently. Interviewees noted the following, specific challenges:

  • The demographic mismatch between students and teachers is on many people’s minds. One teacher said: “The students feel the teachers live in a different world, and they are right.”
  • Language barriers. — Teachers and administrators often referenced the large influx of immigrant students. In one school, 72 of 240 members of the graduating cohort were newcomers. “They spoke multiple languages without sufficient support for learning English.” — “I have a student in my intervention class who doesn’t speak English, and I have no idea if he can even read in Spanish.” — Another teacher said: “There is no information from the registration center about the educational background of new [ELL] students. There has been no improvement for ELL since the DOJ report. The report mandated that every teacher in Providence needed 10 hours of PD for teaching ELL. The PD was delivered poorly, there were no administrators attending, and it only lasted three hours total.”
  • Social Emotional Support. Although they acknowledged increased attention to the issue, teachers believe that much more support is needed for socio-emotional learning. Specifically, they need translators or counselors who speak languages other than English or Spanish. They also express a desire for more counselors and social workers in general.
  • Outside-the-school challenges. Many Providence students we spoke to referenced this issue. For example, one high school student said to the team: “They [teachers] say to me, ‘I don’t know why you’re so tired at 7 am, we all woke up early.’ I work from 5 or 7 pm until 4 am. I got points off my final presentation because I woke up late. I’m not sure if I can graduate.”
  • Teachers reported, in all the schools we visited, that SPED, ELL and other students often end up in the same classroom. We found repeated references to the lack of support for SPED children — and to passing them along unprepared: “Social promotion is a huge issue. Half of SPED students enter middle school with failing grades.”
  • One school informed us of 70 cases of suicidal ideation among students this year. The school has had several suicide attempts, though none successful. Students on suicide watch are not permitted to leave the classroom.