LINCOLN — Words were not minced during a stern discussion on Wednesday morning about the status of the state’s education, featuring Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, as Angélica Infante-Green said it was high time for the state to get on the same page and band together to be “rowing in the same direction.”
The conversation with the new Commissioner of Education was hosted by the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce as part of the monthly “Eggs and Issues” breakfast with the local business and education community at Kirkbrae Country Club.
In her month-and-a-half on the job, Infante-Green said she’s encountered some “unfortunately very low expectations,” which have troubled her. The time for excuses, she said, is over.
“Expectations matter, what you get in is what you put out … Our job is to push, push, and push and offer a high-quality education,” Infante-Green said. “If we think kids can’t achieve, they will not achieve.”
Ensuring a child reaches their full potential is a personal matter for Infante-Green, specifically referencing her 11-year-old son Asher, who was diagnosed with autism when he was 18 months old. She recalled crying over the matter, saying she and her husband were both confused and devastated. But when she asked her husband “Why us?” he quickly responded “Why not us? We’re the best family for this job.”
She also remembered an instance where an evaluator visited the family and suggested to not teach Asher another language, as it had the potential to confuse him. At that moment, Infante-Green asked the evaluator to leave her home and said “nobody was going to tell me my child was not going to be bilingual.”
Now in fifth-grade, Asher is fully bilingual in English and Spanish and is in the process of learning Chinese.
“That’s what drives me. There’s no such thing about creating these imaginary caps of what children can and cannot do…” Infante-Green told the assembled crowd on Wednesday morning. “All kids are different, every child in every classroom is different, our teaching has to be different but the expectations have to be the same.”
“I love being here but I’ve learned quickly that every municipality thinks they’re the best. Everybody’s doing it well. ‘It’s not me, it’s the other district.’ Every one of the districts I’ve been to can do more,” she later said. At that point, her attention turned to the state that has been at the center of Rhode Island’s focus on the future of education – Massachusetts.
Massachusetts, in its pursuit of the best possible education, has stayed the course, Infante-Green, and Rhode Island is going to do the same.
“It’s not about the shiny new thing, but really supporting what works, which is a curriculum that is high-standard, that meets the standards,” she said. “We have standards that we are very proud of, an assessment that measures those standards, now we’re working on the curriculum.”
“I feel that there’s a desire to do more, a desire to work together, a desire to move the agenda,” she later said. “I’m already a Rhode Islander, so I am invested in the work that we’re doing and I need us to stand side by side as we do this work. I don’t need luck, I need partners. I don’t have a magic wand, I don’t have unicorns in my office. Massachusetts really invested in its education system, the health of this state is dependent on what we do in the school system.”
When asked by a member of the audience what her expectations were going forward, the Education Commissioner said she had “high expectations of everyone.”
“I believe that our business has true professionals, but there’s always two or three that taint the water. We know who those teachers are in the building, we know the staff. It is all our collective responsibility to say that’s not OK. If the kids are not performing and the teachers are supported, then you have to have conversations,” Infante-Green said.
With that, Infante-Green said she would be starting an initiative this September to reinforce Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s third-grade reading proposal, in which the governor said that by 2025, three-quarters of the state’s third-grade students will be reading at grade level.
She also said she had a “proposal” for the members of the business community in attendance on Wednesday morning. Citing a campaign in 1980s New York City – during which students received free ice cream sundaes from McDonald’s if they brought their report cards to the fast-food joint or where local libraries donated old books – Infante-Green said evolving Rhode Island’s education system would be a “community effort.”
“It has to be a Rhode Island effort, this can’t just be about educators. I’m going to be coming back with a proposal for third-grade reading and how we stay the course and how we support the entire state of Rhode Island to continue to improve the education system,” she said.
“We’re going to be moving ahead and there’s going to be some long-term wins and short-term wins,” she said. “I need you to help me win both. What will it look like at the end of the day as we stay the course?”
And while she may be in a bit of a honeymoon phase at the moment, where everyone is excited to meet her and happy to interact with her, she said that will not always be the case going forward.
“The reality is it’s going to get tough. If I walk by a classroom that I think is mediocre and I don’t say anything, I’m setting a new standard,” she said. “If it’s not good enough for my kid, it’s not good enough for any kid.”
“It’s a big charge we have ahead of us … You wouldn’t allow it in the business sector. If you don’t perform, you’re done,” she said to conclude her remarks on Wednesday morning. “There’s a bottom line, our bottom line are the test results, our bottom line are children learning in the classrooms.”
Jonathan Bissonnette on Twitter @J_Bissonnette