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The Providence Public School Takeover: Interview with Dr. Emily Qazilbash

Image via Brown University

This is the first installment of The Providence Public School Takeover, a BPR interview series on the state of Providence public schools and the lessons the state takeover can teach us. Emily Kalejs Qazilbash is a Professor of Practice in Education at Brown University. Dr. Qazilbash most recently served as Chief Human Capital Officer in the Boston Public Schools. After beginning her career as a teacher in Baltimore and Boston, she conducted research on teacher quality and worked on issues such as educator evaluation, teachers unions, school reform efforts, and Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs. She holds degrees from the University of Virginia and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Qazilbash currently teaches Education course “Turning Hope into Results: The Policy Ecosystem of the Providence Public Schools District,” a Community-Based Learning and Research course that engages students with community stakeholders in the realm of education equity and reform. 

Ben Ringel: What is a state takeover?

Emily Kalejs Qazilbash: In the United States, local governments have historically controlled the schools. You’ve got school boards or school committees that oversee a lot of the policy decisions for school districts, a superintendent who is sort of the CEO of the district, if you will, and the mayor has some involvement too. A state takeover is a transfer of power away from that locus at the school district level to the state agency. It can be done in many different ways. If you hear that a district has been taken over, you might know that power and accountability have somehow shifted, but you don’t know exactly how.

BR: State takeovers offer really powerful insight into the ways in which urban school districts and systems of power more generally fail to uplift or empower the kids they’re intended to serve. State takeovers may appear as a niche, bureaucratic issue. Why is it something that’s worth paying attention to? What themes does it reveal about how we prioritize or aim to enact social mobility? 

EKQ: I think they’re interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, urban districts enroll 24 percent of all public school students in the United States. At least 35 percent of students come from families with lower incomes, and at least 43 percent are students of color, so the urban schools in our district are serving families and students that we really care about and figuring out how to serve. In general, it’s hard to figure out what works at scale. We can find examples of amazing teachers and examples of schools that are invigorating places to learn with fantastic principals who are ensuring that teachers are serving kids well. You can find these examples at the interpersonal level and the school level, but when you get to a large system, it can be hard to disentangle the question of why we are not seeing the results that we want to see for kids. I think a takeover situation allows us to start pulling apart the pieces. Is it a question of resources getting to the schools? Is it a question of who’s making the decisions? It just allows us to question what’s going on and investigate it carefully.

One of the most important things we know from educational research is that the teacher in the classroom is the most important school-based factor in a kid’s learning. When I think about where we go with this research, I am interested in how districts structure themselves to get the resources to the school level so that the principal can then support teachers in reaching all students. I think a situation where you have changed decision-making structures allows you to dig in and see if you can figure that out.

BR: Could you set the scene for us? What was the state of the public school system in Providence prior to the takeover, why did it happen, and who made that decision?

EKQ: Immediately prior to what ended up being the takeover, there was a report that was commissioned by and written by Johns Hopkins University, which involved researchers going into schools, scouring data, interviewing parents, teachers, and principals, and writing a comprehensive account of the state of the Providence Public Schools. That report outlined some conditions that were not new, but it codified what was used to put in motion the steps that led to the state taking over power. The report outlined conditions around teaching and learning that involved what observers saw as very low levels of academic instruction, low expectations for student learning, low teacher morale, high teacher turnover, lack of professional development for teachers, and lack of high-quality curriculum. There were reports of facilities that were falling down, no materials, no science lab materials in the science labs, and that parents felt marginalized and demoralized. This report, which was written and then released around June 2019, was coming out at a time when Governor Gina Raimondo had appointed a new Rhode Island Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Angélica Infante-Green. It was this report that was used to justify invoking the Crowley Act, a state law that enables local control to be taken from the state, and this is done by the commissioner. 

BR: What was the public’s reaction?

EKQ: I think it depends on who you ask. With a state takeover, there are local people who lose lots of power to the state. There were community members who had been involved at the local level who were very upset by this. There were other community members who felt like conditions in the Providence public schools were so dire that something had to be done. I think some people really thought that something big had to be done. Sometimes a shift in power structure can allow there to be a focus on a couple of big initiatives, and one of the findings of the Hopkins report had been that the system was overburdened with multiple overlapping sources of governance and bureaucracy that can paralyze action and stifle innovation. I think there was some hope that this could undo a bit of that. 

BR: Since the takeover happened, what sort of changes have been implemented in Providence? What do you think that those have taught people?

EKQ: First, there were changes in formal authority. The school board loses power, and there are changes in how things happen. For example, the teacher’s union before the takeover was negotiating with the city, but now the teacher’s union is negotiating with the state Department of Education. There were also numerous leadership changes, including a new superintendent. Additionally, in response to the Hopkins report, Providence public schools wrote the Turnaround Action Plan, which is updated every six months or so to update their progress on their goals. 

For example, the district and the union negotiated 30 minutes of extra instructional time for elementary, middle, and high school students, and they also increased some of the class blocks for middle and high schools. This is important because one of the things we know from research is that one of the couple strategies that has been shown to, more often, lead to improved student achievement is increased time on academics. The district also has in place, in conjunction with the state, higher quality curricula in some of the core subjects. They’ve increased the number of students who are attending preschool programs. They’ve increased student attendance from about 41 percent in the 2022 fiscal year to 50 percent in the 2023 fiscal year, and they’ve done some work around teacher retention. The report contains all of the statistics but these are some to note. It’s important to note that many of the changes look like they’re going in the right direction, but the actual percentage change that pertains to students or teachers is small. It’s marginal. 

BR: Speaking of statistics, what does the research on state takeovers say?

EKQ: I gave you some rationale for why people invoke it, but the research shows that in the vast majority of cases when districts have been taken over—and there are a couple of exceptions—usually state takeover has not been shown to benefit student academic achievement. Political scientist Domingo Morel has found that state takeovers, when implemented in majority-Black districts, decrease the number of Black local elected officials. However, he finds that the reverse is true in majority Latino districts, where a takeover appears to increase the number of Latinos who are in elected positions. There are still so many unanswered questions. 

BR: If the research is mixed, why do state takeovers still happen? Was there any precedent of state takeovers in other districts, or has it been shown to work?

EKQ: There’ve been about 114 takeovers since the 1980s, and they’ve become a little bit more common over time. The first one was in New Jersey in 1989. They are usually in districts that serve high concentrations of low-income students of color, so there are some big equity considerations when we talk about takeovers. It is often used as a strategy when you have a very large district with student achievement data that is very low.

The rationale can sometimes be that there are concerns with fiscal oversight, but sometimes it is this rationale that student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, is very low. Sometimes, I think it’s used because it’s hard to think of reforms that will really, on a large scale, change anything in these larger urban districts. It’s hard to think of any strategies that on such a large scale have been successful, and it gets to just a sense that we need to try something. 

BR: What will it take for the schools to be handed back to local control?

EKQ: There is a commission that’s meeting right now to make some recommendations for what local control would look like, and many community members have opinions about what this could look like. The Rhode Island Department of Education will be doing a comprehensive report in the spring and making some sort of decision then. Initially, the date for transition back to local control was around 2024 or 2025, but it’s looking to be closer to 2027 because of the pandemic. 

BR: One critique of state takeovers is that they strip the local community of their autonomy, which can be problematic for a variety of reasons. What are your thoughts on that?

EKQ: In general, schools have not yet figured out how to effectively and efficiently involve families and community members in child education. There are a number of structures in place in Providence called community action boards. There’s a parent advisory council, a student advisory council, and then there are school improvement teams. There are these structures by which people are supposed to be included, but there’s a difference between what’s on paper and what’s implemented well, which is an area where we have to pay attention. What information is brought to these bodies? When are people asked for their input? Before decisions are made or after, and what are those decisions? By nature, when you centralize a system like a takeover would, you are taking power away from those closest to the students, and you need to mitigate that danger by getting these bodies engaged and really making sure that you’re asking them good questions and getting input ahead of decision making time.

BR: How do we even decide if state takeovers are successful or worth doing? Is there some sort of guidance on how Providence, once the state takeover ends, can say whether or not it was worth it? Or is that just not really an answerable question?

EKQ: I think it has to be an answerable question, and not only was it worth it, but what do we do now? Which parts of the changes that were made were successful, or at least are trending in the right direction that they want to continue, and which things were not successful? I think the ultimate question in talking about whether a reform or a change is successful is you have to decide what your measure is, so I always feel like it’s important to think about the students and their experiences in schools. So of course, there are different ways to look at learning in classes. There are student test scores, which for all their drawbacks, still have advantages in that we understand generally what students know and can do in their core subjects. I think the other measures that people will be looking at are graduation rates, college enrollment, and even talking about what students say and parents report. Is their experience in classes engaging? Are they getting exposed to interesting ideas? I think those are really important. 

 *This interview has been edited for length and clarity.