LINCOLN – Despite all the hubbub about “high stakes” standardized testing as a graduation requirement, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce Friday, “no student in the state will be prevented from graduating if they are truly ready to graduate.
“Anybody who is telling you we are obsessed with standardized testing is not fully aware of the whole system we have put into place,” the controversial education chief asserted, “because it is not just based on that, but the truth of the matter is, for most students, they should be able to show what they know and can do through that consistent test that’s given statewide.”
Gist has been under fire for months from teachers and teacher unions who claim that valuable instruction time is eaten up with paperwork such as student and teacher evaluations and with preparing for the standardized tests given to students at regular grade intervals.
She acknowledged that the criticism “has gotten pretty personal, in terms of my leadership and what I have been supporting for our state. I take very, very seriously the feedback that I am getting from teachers: their opinions, their viewpoints, their concerns about where we are, their description of many of the things they are seeing, like the amount of paperwork.”
The fact that the Department of Education is listening, “is not a new thing,” she said. “We have been listening.” Gist said in her first two years, she visited each of the 36 school districts at least once and she has now visited each about three times, she has been to nearly every school in the state.
“Through those visits, through conversations with teachers, through surveys we do, focus groups, we are collecting information,” she said, “and not only are we listening, we are acting on that information.”
Making wholesale changes to something like the education system in Rhode Island is going to entail some disruption and hardship, Gist conceded.
“We are making changes that are not just surface-level, not just making things prettier, but really touching some things that are deeply held things that have been in place for a really long time, or changing things that are part of the culture and expectations,” she said. “That feels very, very uncomfortable. It is important for us to acknowledge that, when you are doing something like that, there is going to be disruption. We don’t want it, we don’t seek it out – it’s not that it is disruption for the sake of disruption, that would be unproductive. But we also have to acknowledge that making that kind of change does come with disruption.”
She gave as an example the eliminating of seniority as the sole choice for teaching assignments.
She said that, under the old system, a top-grade, award-winning kindergarten teacher with 10 years of experience, could be frozen out of a kindergarten teaching assignment by someone with 10 and a half years seniority, but no experience at the kindergarten level.
Gist stopped the practice of holding teacher “job fairs,” claiming she has the authority to do so under the state Basic Education Plan. That is still being challenged in the courts, with no indication of when a decision could be forthcoming.
She allowed that “everything we have been doing for the past four years has been important, and really, really necessary, but in so many ways, they are things that we should have already been doing well in our education system – developing curriculum based on high standards that are internationally benchmarked. We should have already had high expectations, we should have already had curriculum and tools available to our teachers that are aligned to those expectations.”
Now, she said, “I want you to know how grateful I am for the support of Governor Chafee and (Board of Education) Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso. They have been very supportive of me.”
Gist’s contract with the state expires June 7, the Board of Education plans to vote June 6 on whether to keep her on as commissioner.
Gist acknowledged that she and Gov. Lincoln Chafee “got off to a bit of a rocky start” when he took office. “He was not so sure about the direction education was going in this state. I give him a huge amount of credit for keeping his mind open.
Asked whether Chafee’s recent move to the Democratic Party, where he will need the help of teacher unions in a primary race, might affect her contract renewal, Gist told The Times, “I don’t really have an opinion on that.” She said the governor “is a very independent thinker and we have a good relationship. I feel confident about the way we are moving things along, so that’s not something I’m concerned about.
In recent weeks, Chafee spokeswoman Christine Hunsinger has said the governor supports a contract renewal for Gist, but when he was asked about that Thursday, Chafee said, “nothing’s changed, we have a good board and I look to the board to make good decisions, not just on contracts but on everything – teacher evaluations, graduation requirements.
Does that mean he wants Gist to get a three-year contract renewal?
“We’re still working on it,” Chafee said.