High Profile

overhauling Rhode Island’s education system in the public eye

by by Emma Berry

illustration by by Shay O'Brien

Deborah Gist describes her entry into education administration as almost accidental. Originally trained as an elementary school teacher, she was teaching in Tampa, Florida, in the mid-1990s when she wrote a grant to establish a family literacy program there. “I thought somebody should write it,” she said, “and nobody would.” The grant was awarded, and Gist was asked to run the program.

Now, Gist is the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education. In 2010, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, following similar awards for two other school reformers: former head of Washington D.C. schools Michelle Rhee in 2009, and Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp in 2008. All three women were portrayed as smart, tough-headed iconoclasts ready to take radical action to transform failing urban school systems.

But prominence has its drawbacks. Teach for America has attracted its fair share of critics. Rhee recently resigned her D.C. post following a series of unpopular decisions—including closing a number of schools and laying off hundreds of teachers—and the defeat of her political champion, Mayor Adrian Fenty, in the 2010 Democratic primary.
With the Rhode Island school system making national headlines, Gist’s agenda has come under fire—as has Gist herself.

Gist held her administrative position in Florida from 1996 to 1999 before earning a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. In 2000, she began working for various public sector agencies in Washington, DC, eventually serving as State Superintendent of Education there.

Gist has headed the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) since 2009, when the Board of Regents—a governor-appointed body that dictates broad education policy—brought her here by promising great latitude to make reforms. “I came to Rhode Island to make change,” she said. Without that latitude, she said, “I wouldn’t have come.”

Rhode Island’s school system needed change. During the 2008-2009 school year, the state graduation rate was 73.9 percent. Only 16 percent of high school students tested proficient in science. But most troubling were persistent achievement gaps: black and Hispanic students, non-native speakers of English, and students who attended urban schools all scored significantly worse on statewide tests than their peers. To address these issues, Gist accelerated work that had begun under her predecessor, Peter McWalters, while also introducing new reforms.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education was rolling out its Race to the Top competition, which awarded grants to school systems that were planning education reforms. “The timing of all that was really serendipitous,” Gist said. The program awarded states points for implementing certain reform measures, including “Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance” (58 points), “Ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools” (40 points), and “Using data to improve instruction” (18 points). Rhode Island came in eighth in the first round of grants but was not awarded any money. So for the second round, Gist fought to elicit broad community support for the plan—including a notable endorsement from the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. That revised proposal earned 451.2 out of a possible 500 points, and it won Rhode Island schools $75 million.

RIDE plans to use most of the money to develop statewide programs that will, among other things, train teachers, assess schools and students, and collect and disseminate data about their progress. Ellen Foley, the Associate Director for District Redesign and Leadership at Brown’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, said that the Race to the Top money increases the state’s power over local school districts, especially as those districts face budget shortfalls: “It’s an important chunk of money, and [the state will] have more leverage because they have it.”

Public Face
Gist’s high visibility is largely her own doing. Her face adorns the header of the RIDE website, and she keeps a rigorous schedule of public appearances and meetings at schools across the state. Rhode Island’s “size really lends itself to being able to build personal relationships,” said Gist, who plans to visit every public school in the state this year.

For Gist, being the public face of education in Rhode Island has its advantages and its disadvantages. “It can be helpful initially because it helps to bring a human element to the reform work and can be sort of a way in which to focus people in the state around the work,” she said. “But it absolutely is something I have to be very cognizant of and try hard to divert, because it can’t be about me. It can’t be about one person ever, no matter who that person is.”

The tension is even borne out on her Twitter account: @deborahgist. (Sample tweet: “This wk I read to 1st graders (got a hug), talked education w HS students, & met w parents in different parts of RI. Love being Commissioner!”) The RIDE website header describes her as a “teacher who happens to be Commissioner of Education for the state of Rhode Island.” But for the background, Gist chose to tile a copy of the cover of what Gist calls “the plan,” the state’s roadmap for education policy. (It’s officially named “Transforming Education in Rhode Island: Strategic Plan 2010-2015.”)

According to Foley, Gist comes from “the same vein of reformers” as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who espouse a form of educational neoliberalism that stresses, among other things, tying teacher pay to merit rather than years of service, investing in alternative educational models like charter schools, and designing ways to assess student learning. “The plan” mirrors these goals.

But while popular among policymakers, these ideas have their critics—particularly from teachers’ unions, which were incensed by Gist’s 2009 announcement that decisions about teacher hiring, firing, and placement cannot be decided “solely on seniority.” Though McWalters had made the decision shortly before he left his post, when the Providence Teacher’s Union sued to prevent the order from going into effect, its lawsuit named Gist.

In 2010, Gist defended Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo, who had fired all of the teachers at Central Falls High School after the teacher’s union refused to make concessions on its contract, like longer workdays and requirements to tutor and supervise students during lunch and before and after school. On February 24 of this year, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said he planned to issue notices of dismissal to all Providence teachers, announcing in a press release that the move would allow the city “to retain the maximum flexibility we could to manage significant cuts to the school budget.”

Along with the case of Central Falls, when the firings were related to Gist’s demand that the school undergo dramatic reform or face closure, Taveras’ announcement added fuel to a backlash against radical changes in the educational system. On March 2, hundreds protested the Providence firings, and the story received national news coverage, including a front-page photo in the New York Times.

Gist also drew criticism for her plan to institute a three-tiered diploma system based on test scores. The system, which would require students to show partial proficiency or significant improvement on standardized tests in order to graduate with a diploma, was supposed to go into effect with the graduating class of 2012. Students and parents questioned the proposal, as did advocates for minorities, the poor, students with disabilities, and English language learners—all of whom, critics argued, would be disproportionately affected. Other groups, including the ACLU, argued that the public had not had adequate time to comment on the project. Many detractors had collaborated with Gist on the Race to the Top application. In February, Gist announced that she would ask the Board of Regents to delay implementation of the plan for two years.

The future of educational reform in Rhode Island remains uncertain. Slashed budgets will likely lead to fired teachers, closed schools, and increased class sizes, especially in poorer school districts (though a proposed change in the way the state allocates education funds to local school districts may help alleviate some of the inequality). The recent election of Lincoln Chafee—who has already replaced several members of the Board of Regents and publicly questioned charter schools—has some Gist supporters worried that her days may be numbered: the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now, a group that supports Gist’s proposals, recently sent Chafee an open letter asking him to support her.

According to Foley, whether Gist’s proposals succeed or fail will depend on whether Rhode Islanders feel involved in the reform process: “Unless these ideas are really owned by a community [...] you can make some progress, but you can’t sustain it.” Gist agreed, saying that reform in Rhode Island “absolutely has to be about a shared piece of work, a shared commitment that the state makes to the plan and to seeing the plan through over many, many years—regardless of who the leaders are.”

EMMA BERRY B’11 gets hugs.