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Gist Sparks Debate by Pronouncing RI Schools Best in Nation

Friday, April 04, 2014


Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) Commissioner Deborah Gist's current Facebook picture of Gist with a poster proclaiming, "Welcome to Rhode Island, Home of America's Best Public Schools," has prompted dozens of comments -- as well as an oftentimes heated debate as to the current state, and future, of Rhode Island's public education system.

Gist initially posted the photo to her Facebook page in January 2013, and as recently as yesterday, commenters were still voicing their opinions on the benefits -- or drawbacks -- of the photo.

Providence resident Denise Mel-Clark was one who took issue with the sign.

"Shame on you. This is false and quite frankly not even close. I commend what you are trying to do and think you are doing great things. This statement is very difficult to look at when I live in a neighborhood where the top rank schools are present in this state but these schools are still well below national average," wrote Mel-Clark. "This slogan is a GREAT goal, but as an advertisement is misleading, and quite frankly irresponsible of you. May I suggest you use, "Welcome to Rhode Island where we are working hard to have the best public schools."

Elliot Krieger, spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Education, explained that the photo, which has over 200 likes on Gist's Facebook page,  was meant to be "aspirational."

"In her first year as Education Commissioner here in Rhode Island, she met with a lot of people across the state and at one point someone – I think it was Neil Steinberg, president & CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation – said he would love someday to see a sign on Rhode Island highways welcoming people to the “home of America’s Best Public Schools.” Someone produced this poster, and Commissioner Gist enjoyed posing with it a few times for various photo projects," said Krieger, of the photo taken by Jim Hooper in 2012. 

Mel-Clark countered, "It wasn't until faced with the facts that she back peddles to the "aspirational". It is misleading and irresponsible of her to represent our failing schools in a public forum in this manner."

See How Rhode Island Schools Have Ranked BELOW

In the course of the Facebook discussion, Krieger and Gist pointed out the gains that Rhode Island has made.   "Maryland is ranked first in [Ed Week's] Quality Counts report, and has been for several years (not sure if it's 5); Rhode Island was ranked 31st in 2011, 20th last year, and 17th this year, as Deborah has noted," wrote Krieger. 

While a majority of respondents online were supportive of the picture, others took issue both with the photo standing on its own -- as well asl with the outlook for success in public education in the state, given current circumstances.

"I welcome the Commissioner’s enthusiasm and hope of one day being able to see Rhode Island’s schools designated as the best in America. But as a result of RIDE’s misguided high stakes testing requirement for graduation, what is being left by the side of the road are our most vulnerable children – special education students, English language learners, the poor and racial minorities," said Steve Brown with the RI ACLU. "Unfortunately, we will not start getting the best public schools as long as teachers are forced to spend precious time teaching to a test rather than encouraging a love of learning among their students."

High stakes testing -- and RIDE policies -- came center stage last week, when NEARI President Larry Purtill tweeted that "teachers have been told not not to speak out because speaking out against RIDE can have a negative impact on evaluations," which a RIDE spokesperson said was "ridiculous."

"Do I think we have great teachers and administrators doing great things with students? Yes, and to me that defines a great school. Can we do more? Absolutely and what will help get there; all day K in every community, preschool for all who need it, summer programs for every student at risk and modernization of schools for technology," said Purtill. "People like to discuss the achievement and skills gap, but it is really an opportunity gap for those who are often economically disadvantaged."

Determining "Good Schools"

As for what makes for good public schools -- and whether Rhode Island has them --  answers were varied among community leaders.  

"I think the big question has to be "What do we mean when we say best public schools?" posed Raymond Watson, Executive Director of the Mount Hope Neighborhood Association. "What is the end result would be my question. To say that they did good in school based upon the requirements we set for them, or to say that because of their educational experience they are fully and productively contributing to our community?"

Jim Vincent with the Providence NAACP said unless achievement gaps - specifically racial and economic -- were addressed, Rhode Island could never "top" the best list.

"Rhode Island is one of the most diverse states in the country. Until we make solving the racial and economic achievement gaps among students the number one educational priority, Rhode Island will never have the best schools. That's a reality we should accept and embrace," said Vincent.  

Kreiger noted how RIDE, under Gist's direction, is working to attain the outcome stated in the controversial poster.  

"Our goals are to improve proficiency levels, close achievement gaps, improve our graduation rates, and ensure that all graduates are ready for success in college and in challenging careers," said Krieger. "We are doing so by working with partners across the state to meet the objectives of our strategic plan for transforming education in Rhode Island: ensuring educator excellence, accelerating all schools toward greatness, establishing world-class standards and assessments, developing user-friendly data systems, and investing our resources wisely."

Supporting RIDE Goal

"The photo, in my opinion, represents where Gist wants to bring education in RI. RI does not have the best performing schools and our students do not have the most options post-high school. But the photo says Commissioner Gist wants to get there. It's like when you're saving for a house and you post a picture of the house. You're not there yet but it's your destination," said GoLocal MINDSETTER Don Roach, who continued, "Some schools are succeeding and some are failing miserably."

"It's a good visual reminder of what's possible if we commit to making it a reality," said Christine Metcalf-Lopes,  Executive Director of the educational advocacy group RI-CAN. "By multiple measures, we don't have the highest performing public schools in America. We may have some of the best teachers and some of the best students in the country, but we need to make sure all of our schools are striving to be better and meeting the highest expectations possible."

Metcalf-Lopes continued, "We need to focus on starting earlier, expanding choices, aiming higher, cultivating talent and reaching everyone to ensure success across the board."

Community activist Leah Williams Metts noted that while she supported the commissioner's outlook, she would not send her children to traditional public schools in Providence, unless they improved.  

"While I am encouraged by Deborah Gist's enthusiasm. I think the Rhode Island public school system, Providence in particular, have a very long way to go," said Metts.  "I believe [Gist's] basing her positive outlook on the fact that for the first time RI schools scored above average in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly known as the nation’s report card."

Metts continued, "RI ranks among the highest in the country in expenditure per student, but has one of the largest gaps between poorer and more affluent communities in student performance.  I have four children, all of whom will be attending charter, or private schools until I see a marked improvement in the quality of schools in Providence."


Related Slideshow: 10 RI State Education Rankings

Prev Next

4th Grade Test Scores


Rank: 26 out of 50

State Average Score: 241

National Average Score: 241


Rank: 18 out of 50

State Average Score: 223

National Average Score: 221

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2013 Mathematics and Reading Assessments.

Prev Next

8th Grade Test Scores


Rank: 27 out of 50

State Average Score: 284

National Average Score: 284


Rank: 25 out of 50

State Average Score: 267

National Average Score: 266

Source: National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 2013 Mathematics and Reading Assessments.

Prev Next

High School Dropout Rate

Rank: 10 out of 50

State Dropout Rate: 4.6%

National Average: 3.4%

Source: US Department of Education

Prev Next

High School Graduation Rate

Rank: 33 out of 50

State Graduation Rate: 76.4%

National Average: 78.2%

Source: US Department of Education

Prev Next

SAT Scores

Rank: 40 out of 50

State Combined Score Average: 1468

National Average: 1498

Source: College Board

Prev Next

High School AP Scores

Rank: 33 out of 50

State Percent of Class Scoring 3 or Higher on AP Exam: 14.6%

National Average: 20.1%

Source: College Board

Prev Next

Chance for Success

Rank: 21 out of 50

Grade: B-

National Average: C+

Source: Education Week Research Center

Note: Index that grades the nation and states on 13 indicators capturing the role that education plays as a person moves from childhood, through the K-12 system, and into college and the workforce.

Prev Next

K-12 Achievement Index

Rank: 27 out of 50

Grade: D+

National Average: C-

Source: Education Week Research Center

Note: Index that evaluates educational performance on 18 individual indicators that measure current achievement, improvements over time, and poverty-based disparities.

Prev Next

Per Pupil Expenditure

Rank: 5 out of 50

Amount Spent: $17,666

National Average: $10,938

Source: NEA Research, Estimates Database (2013)

Prev Next

Average Daily Attendance

Rank: 49 out of 50

State Average: 80.9%

National Average: 96.7%

Source: NEA Research, Estimates Database (2013)

Note: Figure reflects the aggregate attendance of a school during a reporting period divided by the number of days school is in session during this period.


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