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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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LMFAO!! Hey Leah Williams Metts, I wouldn't send my kids to any school in Providence either, especially with your nieces and nephews raising havoc. The Metts are one of "those family names" that you hate to see because of horrible behavior. I guess you would know!! LMAO

Comment #1 by lupe fiasco on 2014 04 04

The question always comes back to what is the problem with our educational system? Until the school systems and administration can come to grips with the problems then we will continue to make no or minimal improvement.
We hear we have great teachers, that is hopeful at best.
We hear that we have to spend more, everywhere, but we are already at the top on spending, are we putting money down a black hole?
The list goes on and on, the same dribble for decades.
The school system has not changed to the extent that the kids have changed, the school system is not designed for success its designed to pay people for putting in their time to a formatted minimum class content.
The apathy in our education is incredible.
We pay millions of dollars for teaching, administration and support without making it work to a positive outcome.
The bureaucracy has taken over and the kids/parents/taxpayers are
not getting a positive return on the investments being made in RI.
Gist is the only shining star in RI and she has to put up with the RI tried and true designed for failure system, change the system and education may improve. As far as the sign goes, let's just say is a hopeful spin for someday in the future. But I doubt it in RI.

Comment #2 by Gary Arnold on 2014 04 04

She can take tourists by the hand and personally bring them to CF.
Just about everything that comes out of this website (or out of RI for that matter) is a complete embarrassment and a joke!!

Comment #3 by pearl fanch on 2014 04 04

Ms. Gist needs a reality check. Obviously we all want better educated children. She continually ignores the kids with disabilities and the idiocy of the NECAP test, which once again, was NEVER meant to used as a method to determine graduation.

Thank goodness the legislature has new proposals to stop NECAP in its tracks, though the PARCC is lurking in the background now.

I'm all for excellent education and agree that something needs to be done as I see the end product as a teacher in higher ed (and believe me, it's scary, which is why I question her statistics), but the way she's going about it is just wrong. Teachers spend more time on paperwork and testing than then do teaching. The curriculum is changing changing changing, not a bad thing given the speed of the world and the knowledge that will be needed in the future. How is one to know what to teach in 2nd grade that will affect employment 10+ years later? 10 years ago we were not using apps on our phones and Google was just a search engine.

The main thing? Kids need to know how to read, problem solve, and calculate numbers. All the other stuff, it's fluff. It's nice to know about the Ancient Greeks and Romans (especially if you are going into politics!) but unless you hope to teach it if it's still being offered, it's not required to hold a job in this world.

Comment #4 by sharon terzian on 2014 04 04

Oh those strange late night posts on the internet. Under the influence of? ... a full moon? ... a wee bit? ... prescription meds? ... alien voices? ... This post could be used in the future as proof that this poor Commissar is prone to psychotic episodes.

Comment #5 by John McGrath on 2014 04 04

I have to agree with Sharon on the teaching the basics, but disagree on the NECAP graduation requirement. If the Young adults can't even rate PARTIALLY PROFICIENT in reading and math, then they shouldn't receive a HS diploma. Perhaps Sharon can design a test that can evaluate wheter a student meets graduation requirements.

Comment #6 by Jimmy LaRouche on 2014 04 04

I believe Rhode Island has some great teachers who want desperately to teach their students. I also believe that many of those teachers are hampered by our government's foolish rules and regulations and yes, the teachers' union as well. Until these roadblocks are addressed I believe Ms. Gist's wishes are just that, wishes.

Comment #7 by Joyce Bryant on 2014 04 04

if those are the best i would hate to see the worst

Comment #8 by Howard Miller on 2014 04 04

Maybe she meant best in salaries and benefits.

Comment #9 by David Beagle on 2014 04 04

The graduation rates will plummet if they use a standardized test.

Results are terrible not because of the teachers, who while vastly over paid, cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

School results are a logical extension of the welfare State and illegal immigrants.

Comment #10 by Jim D on 2014 04 04

Best in the nation?

Comment #11 by Robert Anthony on 2014 04 04

RI certainly does not have the best public schools. If these are considered the best, I would hate to see the worst. Public education in RI is an absolute joke. Sending our children to private school was the smartest choice we made - it's the best $42,000 a year we've ever spent, and we would double that amount if we had to just to keep them out of this terrible system. If there was free choice in this state (i.e. vouchers) we might see things start to turn around.

And shame on parents for not DEMANDING better. Parents need to pay attention. I tried to demand better in my community and I got targeted by the administration. The unions, the administration, the teachers, everyone is on the take for themselves and the kids are the big losers. Shame on all of you. This article was laughable.

Comment #12 by Amy Gallagher on 2014 04 04

RI Schools Best in Nation for Unions!

Comment #13 by LENNY BRUCE on 2014 04 04

To Lupe Fiasco at least the Metts family doesnt hide behind fake names. Just an FYI my nieces and nephews do not attend do not attend Providence schools. I believe you have the wrong person.
If I was you I would not slander any children publicly online or otherwise because we do have a great DCYF program here in Providence, RI. You should be reported!
Have a nice weekend!!

Comment #14 by Leah Williams Metts on 2014 04 04

To Lupe Fiasco at least the Metts family doesnt hide behind fake names. Just an FYI my nieces and nephews do not attend do not attend Providence schools. I believe you have the wrong person.
If I was you I would not slander any children publicly online or otherwise because we do have a great DCYF program here in Providence, RI. You should be reported!
Have a nice weekend!!

Comment #15 by Leah Williams Metts on 2014 04 04

Lupe! It's nice of you to take time out of your busy touring and recording schedule to slander one of the strongest and most positive families in Rhode Island. What a joke. Using a fake name to take shots at people's children.

Comment #16 by Jim Wright on 2014 04 04

She's delusional.

Comment #17 by G Godot on 2014 04 05

How else, though, can you move on to a bigger and better Federal jobbo without claiming "victory".

Comment #18 by G Godot on 2014 04 05

I am not opposed to gratuitous displays of pride

But when the statement that one is proud about is a lie, then there is a problem. RI actually has some of the worst public schools in the Country, according to US News and World Reports. Public and Private Colleges and Universities agree with US News.

Gist went in as a reformer, realized how tough the job would be and jumped in bed with the teachers union

Comment #19 by George Costanza on 2014 04 07

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.