PROVIDENCE – On the day that Education Commissioner Deborah Gist delivered her annual State of Education address to a joint session of the General Assembly, the state’s two major teachers unions released a poll that they say shows teacher morale is “abysmal” under her leadership and that 85 percent do not want her contract to be renewed.
Despite that, Gist painted an optimistic picture of the state’s education effort, citing progress in technology, early education and international competitiveness.
“All of us understand that our schools – and our children – represent the future of Rhode Island,” Gist said in her address called “Stepping up for Success,” adding that “all of us understand that every step we take to advance public education will help advance the economic prosperity of our state.”
She lauded the Burrillville and North Smithfield middle schools for making “dramatic four-year improvements in both reading and mathematics.”
Gist singled out Central Falls High School, the Tolman, Shea and Walsh high schools in Pawtucket and three other high schools in the state for volunteering to pilot an initiative to better understand Rhode Island schools’ performance compared to schools from across America as well as the world’s highest-performing countries.
“In our state, we have the capacity, the policies, and the public support we need to make our schools America’s best – and among the best in the world,” she told the lawmakers. “Our global competitiveness will depend on innovations, including digital learning, as well as the growth of efforts such as early-childhood education and world-language programs. It will also depend on our ability to educate our students well in core academic areas.
“We are making progress,” Gist said, “but we have a long way to go before we meet our goals. This year, 72 percent of our students in grades three through eight are proficient in reading, and 61 percent are proficient in mathematics.
“These results are not good enough,” the commissioner asserted, “although the long-term trend remains positive. Since NECAP testing began in 2005, proficiency levels are up 13 points in reading and up 11 points in mathematics.”
Gist told The Times she hadn’t had an opportunity to study the poll commissioned by the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals but said, “I certainly look forward to reading it because there were a number of different questions that they asked and I’m quite sure that in looking at it, I will have a lot to learn and a lot to think about.
“The work we have taken on in this state is hard, it is complicated,and it means big changes; sometimes that can be uncomfortable,” she said, adding, “teachers’ support absolutely matters to me so I will be taking a serious look at it,”
Commenting on the poll, Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals President Frank Flynn stated, “For too long Commissioner Gist has spoken of her support among classroom teachers. We decided to put that notion to an independent test. This survey found that she is not supported by classroom teachers. In fact, there is overwhelming evidence that her leadership is almost universally rejected.”
Robert Walsh, executive director of NEARI, chipped in that, “It is imperative that RI’s classroom teachers be heard on the important matter of Commissioner Gist’s contract renewal. On behalf of RI’s roughly 10,500 public school teachers, we are calling on Governor Chafee and the Rhode Island Board of Education to hold a public forum on this important matter. These results go far beyond a simple ‘no confidence’ vote in Commissioner Gist’s leadership. They spell out a serious need to immediately address the lack of leadership facing Rhode Island’s education community today. “
Conducted by the Cumberland firm Fleming & Associates, the poll surveyed a computer generated random sample of 402 Rhode Island public school teachers whose telephone numbers were provided by the unions. The phone calls were made between April 22 and 24, the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.
The teachers were also skeptical, if not downright critical of two of Gist’s signature initiatives over her four-year tenure.
Asked about the Race to the Top program, 60 percent of teachers called it a “waste of money,” 22 percent thought it was “somewhat ineffective,” 13 percent said it was “somewhat effective and only 1 percent deemed it “very effective.”
Likewise, 72 percent of the educators said the controversial statewide NECAP assessments should not be a graduation requirement while only 21 percent said it should be.
On the question, “to what extent do you think RIDE (RI Department of Education) policies reflect what teachers feel to be in the best interest of students, 28 percent said “not at all,” 47 percent chose “very little,” 23 percent said “some,” and 2 percent chose “a great deal.”