"There's a reason why a time-based unit has survived for so long. And that reason is largely because we understand it. It's simple, it is universally understood, and it is the only measure that people have been able to come up with in all this time."
Indeed, it is easy to see limits in even the most promising efforts in the Providence schools.
No one expects after school programming, however smartly executed, to be a major driver of school turnaround. And programs like Teach for America, which can boast some impressive results, are not terribly scaleable.
TFA teachers reach a relatively small sliver of the nation's struggling students and are only obligated to stay in the classroom for two years (though many stay in education, in some capacity, for the long term).
And when it comes to the big, market-driven reform movement at the heart of American education for the last decade — charter schools, standardized tests, the new accountability — the record is mixed at best.
Since state Commissioner Gist, local champion of the market-based approach, swept into town four years ago, Rhode Island has made only modest progress toward testing goals.
Gist, in a recent interview at her office, said she was disappointed in the stagnant scores. But if the results are not there yet, she said, the state is making real progress on systems reform — rolling out a stronger curriculum and more rigorous teacher evaluations, making better use of data.
Still, she said, even these reforms won't go far enough. They are, in the end, "just improving what we should've been doing well in the first place."
In the long run, Gist suggested, the state needs to make far-reaching changes: it needs to overhaul its basic governance structures, for instance, and reimagine the high school — blurring the lines between school and college and career.
In Providence, Superintendent Lusi is outlining a radical transformation of her own. With 23 of the district's 37 schools in the turnaround process, she says, "we need to fundamentally rethink the district."
Lusi's vision: shrink the central office and push resources and decision-making closer to the schools themselves.
The new administrative unit, she says, could look something like United Providence! — an outside group, whether labor-management partnership or education consultancy, overseeing a cluster of three or four schools.
It is an intriguing idea: more of the autonomy that's helped schools like Pleasant View make strides, combined with the support — and accountability — offered up by figures like Miller-Williams.
But Lusi will have trouble selling the idea if UP! falls short. Just a little more pressure on a group that's already feeling it.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @d_scharfenberg.