Former US Education Official Rips Commissioner Gist & RI’s Reform Efforts
Friday, June 22, 2012
A former assistant U.S. Secretary of Education is taking Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to task for implementing reform efforts that focus too heavily on test scores and teacher evaluation and not enough on the burdens imposed by poverty.
In a wide-ranging interview with GoLocalProv, Dr. Diane Ravitch, who has become one of the loudest critics of charter schools and the Race to the Top program in the country, said too many educators are currently emphasizing high-stakes test scores and supporting charter schools while failing to address the problems public school teachers face every day.
In the short post, Ravitch discussed Rhode Island’s Race to the Top efforts, the attempt to woo the Achievement First charter management organization to the state and Gist’s role on a national education reform group known as Chiefs for Change.
“I personally don’t think Rhode Island is the worst state, as compared to states like Louisiana, Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Indiana,” she wrote. “But it deserves credit for moving in the same direction and seeking to earn its spurs in the competition for worst.”
Negative Consequences for High-Stakes Tests
Ravitch, who was appointed an assistant Secretary of Education by George H.W. Bush, was once known as a leading reformer who favored the charter school movement across the country, but has since changed her tune and started leading a charge against what she considers efforts to privatize public education.
Last May, Ravitch and Gist had a public falling out after she felt slighted by the Commissioner during a visit to the Ocean State. In a letter published on her blog, Ravitch criticized Gist for constantly interrupting her during a short meeting. She also demanded an apology from the Commissioner.
But the issue was put to rest after Gist sent a letter to Ravitch that cleared the air.
That changed this week.
Asked specifically what she feels Gist is doing wrong in Rhode Island, Ravitch focused mostly on the emphasis of test scores. She said that when stakes attached to tests get too high, the measures are “corrupted and become meaningless.”
“Tests should be used for information and diagnosis, to help students and teachers, but at present they are being used for high-stakes purposes,” she said. “That gives them far too much importance and leads to negative consequences, such as narrowing the curriculum, gaming the system, teaching to the test, and even cheating.”
Ravitch pointed to several states that have attempted to remove job protections from teachers and tried to make them fearful for their jobs, which she believes has led to “massive demoralization” among the nation's teachers.
“That's bad for the profession and bad for students,” Ravitch said. “We must stop the negative talk and the blaming of teachers and make conscious efforts to give them the respect they deserve.”
Gist Pushes Forward
Despite Ravitch’s pointed criticism, Gist did not wish to comment for this story.
“The Commissioner has a lot of important issues before her and would not want to concern herself with a response to these remarks,” spokesman Elliot Krieger said.
Gist has remained popular among education reformers in the state and has developed a strong relationship with Governor Lincoln Chafee despite their differing views on public education. Chafee was elected thanks in large part to the support of teachers unions who have never seen eye to eye with Gist.
Gist has earned national praise for her efforts to turn around Rhode Island’s underperforming schools. Since coming to the state, Gist helped the state pass an education funding formula, led the charge to win a $75 million Race to the Top grant and implemented a stronger teacher evaluation system.
During her State of Education speech last month, she emphasized the fact that for the first time last year, Rhode Island students surpassed national averages on the Nation’s Report Card. She also said the state has steadily improved in other national rankings.
But Ravitch maintains that Gist’s crowning achievement — a robust teacher evaluation system— places too much of an emphasis on test scores. That methodology, promoted by Race to the Top, has never been validated, she said.
“States across the nation are imposing this untried and inaccurate way of measuring teacher quality, and teachers are rightfully angry because they know that many if not most of the reasons scores go up or down are outside their direct control,” Ravitch said. “The methods now in use are inaccurate, unreliable and unstable. Of course, this is one of the elements of Rhode Island’s Race to the Top plan.”
Race to the Top a Bad Idea
Ravitch said leaders have a responsibility to fix what is not working and to do what it takes to help schools succeed. She said building a strong sense of community and collaboration and making sure that the resources are there to do what students need should be the primary focus.
She also said she believes history will show Race to the Top was a bad idea.
“They will wonder: Why were we racing? What is the top? And whatever happened to equality of educational opportunity,” she said. “And why was so much effort expended to test so much? And why did we drive away so many experienced teachers? And didn't anyone wonder about the harm they were doing to our public school system by diverting hundreds of millions--no, billions--of dollars to private management companies?”
Dan McGowan can be reached at email@example.com.
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