LINCOLN – For a little over an hour Wednesday night, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist fielded queries from parents, teachers, Town Council and School Committee members and others about the status of education in town and beyond.
Before that, however, she spent approximately 30 minutes discussing how the Lincoln School District stacked up against others statewide, and how Rhode Island's test scores relate to those nationally and internationally.
She showed via slides and graphs 2009-10 school year statistics on chronic absenteeism (Lincoln is at nine percent, Rhode Island 16); graduation success (Lincoln 81 percent, the state 75); and dropout rate (the town eight percent, Rhode Island 14).
As for how Rhode Island compares to the United States in reading and math, she indicated, in Grade 4, the state sat at 36 percent for proficiency in reading, four percentage points ahead of the national average. In math, Rhode Island scored one percentage point higher at 39 percent.
By Grade 8, though, state scores in math were at 28 percent proficiency, while the country stood at 33 percent. And, by Grade 11, Rhode Island was even farther behind in math proficiency at 27 percent, a whopping 50 points behind the U.S. average.
Gist also revealed her goals for statewide education through what she called a “Star Chart.” At its base stands three “rays,” those of which included world-class standards and assessments, user-friendly data systems and equitable and effective investments.
In a gray oval about those rays offered “Great Schools,” that surrounding a purple oval calling for “Excellent Educators.” Inside the bright yellow star above that read “All Rhode Island Students Ready for Success.”
Above the entire chart was an umbrella indicating education, family, student, community and civic leadership all must be involved in creating successful students.
All this and more took place at what Gist called “A Community Forum: Transforming Education in Rhode Island.” Some seemed excited about the information the commissioner provided, others a bit more worried about certain issues pertaining to transformation.
Attendees included Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond; Superintendent of Schools Georgia Fortunato; School Committee Chair Elizabeth Black Robson and other members; Town Council President Keith Macksoud and fellow members John Flynn and Kenneth Pichette; and other dignitaries.
“The middle circle (i.e. Excellent Educators) is our highest priority,” Gist stated. “The most important thing is to have an excellent teacher in every classroom, and for them to have the skills and resources to excel. We want to lift up the student's performance in every district in the state.
“Your community does not have (teaching) skills that persistently are stalled,” she continued, noting five schools in Rhode Island do have chronic low-scoring schools, including Central Falls High and four others in Providence.
Gist mentioned the $75,000 “Race to the Top” grant awarded to Rhode Island and 11 others states last year will be pivotal in creating a curriculum shared by each and every district.
“I thought the data she presented about Lincoln was positive, and I thought it was really helpful in giving us all a snapshot of what's taking place,” said Mary Anne Roll, for the past six years a School Committee member. “We're doing virtual learning at the high school, where the students are taking courses we can't offer.
“It's all done on-line … and I believe it helps accelerate learning,” she added, explaining these teens are taking Advanced Placement courses with other students world-wide. One, in fact, is taking Advanced Placement Mandarin as a language.
The plan now is to introduce over the coming months the same opportunity for virtual learning at the middle school.
The greatest issue facing education statewide is having a curriculum aligned with standards and assessments, Gist said.
“For a very long time in Rhode Island, every district had its own curriculum,” Roll noted. “There wasn't a unified curriculum. What the state assessments have demonstrated, and what became very clear, was that kids were being tested on content that wasn't being taught … Teachers were teaching based on their district's curriculum, or a textbook.
“The bottom line is we had an assessment system developed before we had addressed the curriculum … What she's doing is moving from content-driven instruction to a standards-based system of both assessment and curriculum.
“It's all about alignment,” she continued. “Everything has to work together. In the ideal world, curriculum would have come first. Now we're moving in that direction. It's now clear: The 11th grade math testing in Rhode Island is at 27 percent, and Lincoln is a little better than that. One of the things we've learned from this testing system is these are things the kids are missing. Our kids aren't getting the proper instruction to be successful on the NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) test because there;'s no common curriculum.”
Roll herself asked Gist how she felt about the frequent “teacher bashing” that takes place in the media, and that her concern was being able to attract superb teachers in the future.
“There's another report how the world's best educational systems got to be that way … and Finland is one,” Gist replied. “One of the things that must be considered is that teachers are respected and revered in Finland. They're truly valued. I told teachers earlier that when I first came to Rhode Island, folks were very negative about educators. I'm still reflecting on it. I have some theories about it.”
She stated she had seen the many news stories, but claimed, “I believe it's a vocal minority. It's not everybody … There's no question we have to get young people who are driven to become outstanding teachers.”
Stated Roll: “I agree with the commissioner that it's vocal minority, but it's so loud, so unchallenged, that I really do fear who's going to be teaching my grandchildren. She talked about attracting the best and brightest educators, and I believe we need to have a core of teachers for every generation.
“Finland is often used as the example of who we (the states) should be emulating. Those students have their tuition paid for. In the late 1980s, they decided if they were going to move forward economically, it was about educating their children to take them there. To do that, they had to recruit and best and brightest teachers.
“I'll also say (teachers) are very well-compensated, and they are also held in very high esteem. The interesting thing is that they're also unionized. Those who believe that the unions are the problem, there are too many exceptions to that rule. I do believe that's part of the current hostility regarding teachers here.
“I don't believe we value the work of our teachers. I've heard people say, 'You don't have to be smart to be a teacher,' and I just say, 'Walk for one day in their shoes.' The commissioner has had to make some hard decisions in order to move the state forward, but I truly believe she understands it's all about the kids. Student achievement isn't going to improve without having a really good teacher in the classroom.”
Gist stated that once public information is transformed in Rhode Island, all students will attain the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college, careers and life; all parents will have easy-to-use reports on their child's progress in order to participate in their education; and all teachers will continuously improve their ability to teach the nation's best curricula to each student.
Likewise, all administrators will provide the supports necessary to teachers and students to improve learning in every school; and all Ocean Staters will have America's best public schools, and a workforce prepared to succeed in 21st-Century careers.
Gist addressed educators' tenure and seniority, saying she believes tenure should be awarded, not simply issued to someone who has taught in the same district for three years. She also indicated she's in the process of forming a proper evaluation system.
“I truly believe that one of the things that will come from an effective evaluation system is, one, every teacher will get better; and, two, good teachers will be protected,” Roll offered. “I think teachers need to know they're doing a good job. It's very difficult to switch that mindset where they believe they're being critiqued, but I think it's very important they know it's about them becoming better.
“I believe it's a way for teachers to be able to demonstrate that they're doing their jobs, and doing them well,” she added. “In Lincoln, we care about teachers, and value what they do both in the classroom and outside it, too. Our goal is to support their efforts. As a school committee, we want to support them and what they do every day. After all, they're the critical player in this.”
For the past 11 years, Crystal Houle has been a Pawtucket special education teacher, but she also is a mother of two within the Lincoln School System.
“I think what Ms. Gist is doing is very important,” Houle said after the forum. “A month ago, I went to the Pawtucket forum as an educator, but I'm here (at this one) as a parent. As you can see, my teacher hat isn't off.
“I must say I'm very happy with the elementary education program, and the one at the middle school, too,” she added. “The parent who commented on having an elementary school teacher focus on a specific area such as reading or math, with another focusing on, say, science, I think you're risking taking away the child's relationship with the teacher.
“The way it is currently, he or she is able to meet the child's need throughout the day. As for Mary Anne's question about all the bad things said about teachers, I do hear it on the news or from the community, that people aren't happy with teachers.
“I also believe that's human nature because we're discussing our most precious commodity – our children. Still, I don't worry about that personally. I meet kids every day who say they want to become a teacher, and it's because they have had one or more great teachers.
“I just tell them it all starts with the heart,” she added with a smile. “I also say if they choose the teaching profession for the right reasons, they'll have a very fulfilling life … A forum like this is important and productive, as parents had the opportunity to hear Ms. Gist and have their questions answered.”