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PowerPlayer: Education Commissioner Deborah Gist

Monday, February 20, 2012


This week’s PowerPlayer is Education Commissioner Deborah Gist. Commissioner Gist was kind enough to chat with GoLocalProv about her first two years in Rhode Island and her vision for the state’s education system.

1) Education appears to be a big winner in the Governor's budget proposal. Tell us about your relationship with the Governor and what it means to have leadership that cares so much about schools.

In order to transform education in our state, every Rhode Islander must truly believe that our students can achieve at high levels, that our teachers and school leaders can be excellent, and that our schools can be America’s best. Establishing this climate of belief requires the commitment and leadership not only of those in the education field but also of our leaders in government. We are fortunate that Governor Chafee has taken on this leadership role and has spoken out in Rhode Island and in national forums in support of our students.

I am very pleased that Governor Chafee’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget increases support for education – even in these difficult fiscal times. The Governor’s budget increases overall education funds by $67 million (to $913 million). Rhode Islanders have made generous investments in support of public education, and we must ensure that we use these investments wisely to improve teaching and learning across our state. In the face of all of fiscal challenges we are facing this year, Governor Chafee’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget provides much-welcome support for public education.

2) What are the three biggest issues facing Rhode Island's schools right now and how do we address them?

First of all, we need to continue to prepare our students for success, which means raising achievement levels statewide, closing achievement gaps that separate some groups of students from others, and improving our graduation rates.

Second, we need to make sure that we have excellent teachers in every classroom and excellent leaders in every school. Doing so involves continuous improvements in recruiting, developing, mentoring, evaluating, retaining, and promoting teachers and school leaders.

Third, we need to be sure that our schools and districts have the resources they need for success and that educators are using these resources well, which entails maintaining adequate funding, ensuring that we distribute this funding equitably, and making sure that districts seek out efficiencies so that we always invest our resources wisely toward improving student achievement.

Our strategic plan, Transforming Education in Rhode Island, goes into detail about our priorities for meeting each of these objectives, including specific strategies, goals, and timelines. We have posted the plan on our website.

3) Take us through a day in your life.

It won’t surprise you to learn that my typical day is completely devoted to education. I often begin the day by meeting with a group of educators or meeting over breakfast or coffee with a community leader or another friend of education. During the work day, I spend a lot of time visiting schools, where I enjoy seeing examples of great teaching and learning. At the office, I work very closely with the R.I.

Department of Education team and with the Board of Regents, and I hold many meetings with educators and others as we develop policies and proposals and as we move forward with our many initiatives and grants, such as Race to the Top. As often as possible, I try to stay in touch during the day with others who are thinking about and working on innovations in education. I also try to reserve some time, including elevators wait-time and walking, to manage my e-mail, Facebook, and Twitter accounts. In the evening, I often attend board meetings and other public gatherings or community forums. As you may know, I am a student as well – so at night I devote most of my waking hours to my class-work, as I pursue a doctoral degree in education.

4) It took a long battle to bring Achievement First to Rhode Island. Do you think other charter organizations may be scared off by the opposition or have we turned the corner to prove we can open more charter schools in the state?

Thanks to our two Race to the Top awards, our excellent results on the most recent “Nation’s Report Card” and in Education Week’s Quality Counts, and our forward-thinking strategic plan, educators around the country know that Rhode Island is committed to innovation that advances student achievement. We welcome applications from other charter-school operators with a track record of success, and we also continue to encourage our school leaders and others in Rhode Island to come forward with innovative proposals for locally managed charter public schools.

5) Tell us something nobody knows about you.

I once considered myself an amateur herpetologist.

Quick Hitters

Role Model: My mom, because she has grit and is joyful even in the face of hardship.

Favorite Restaurant: With all the wonderful restaurants in Rhode Island, my favorite tends to be the one I’ve gone to most recently. Flan y Ajo is a new favorite.

Best Beach: I am embarrassed to say that I have not yet been to a beach in Rhode Island. The last two years have been very busy! I will be able to answer this question after next summer.

Best Book You've Read in the Last Year: I read voraciously, and it is difficult to choose the best. I really appreciated The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, by Frederick M. Hess.

Advice for the Next Deborah Gist: Have faith, never lose your love of teaching and teachers, and believe in our students.


Photo credit: Frank Curran

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"we need to continue to prepare our students for success, which means raising achievement levels..."
Commissioner Gist you state we must raise the achievement levels yet you support and condone the practice of social promotions. It sounds like you pick what ever sounds good at the time to promote your own agenda.

Comment #1 by Chris MacWilliams on 2012 02 20

I had the pleasure to attend the Innovation Powered by Technology Conference a couple of weeks ago in which Ms Gist presided with a great leadership attitude and backed it up with content.
Talk about coming out of the dark ages in RI in education. There were over 300 teachers and state education leaders as well as a renowned group of out of state educational leaders that contributed to this technology conference and what an eye opener.
I am an advocate of the need to improve our education in RI and to think outside the box to make our schools perform the best. We have a long way to go but the attitude and commitment that I saw and heard is very gratifying and gave me the feeling that there can be positive progress made in RI.
I am keeping in mind that the attendees were all committed to improvement as the meeting was on a Saturday and there were only 300 people that could attend. There was no posturing; it was all about improvement of our kids’ education.
Just one of the many productive things that Ms, Gist is doing for our educational system in RI.

Comment #2 by Gary Arnold on 2012 02 20

Hogwash! Gist is an empty suit. Wake up Rhode Island and take back the Department of Education. Gist has done nothing to improve the quality of education in this state. Relying on federal grant money to tell local districts what to do is NOT educational leadership. Please point to one thing she has done except add confusion to the mix. Gist is an out of state drone that relies on personal connections to Duncan to make sure her over-inflated sense of worth is "Broad"-casted to a state that has to get back to basics. This state has a history of independence so why are we letting this carpetbagger tell locals how to educate our children. How about her mandate that every high school is responsible for a student after he/she leaves the district for another state - and will mark that district deficient if they can't prove that kid graduated. She preaches the gospel of technology but won't release Race to the Top money for basic computers. Forces districts to hold onto troublemakers, chronic truants, criminals and sexual predators without coming up with alternative placements. Holds teachers responsible for poor test scores but never once said parents are the most important motivators in this whole mess. Wake up, shake the tree and get rid of her. Local school districts can best serve the needs of the children in their towns and cities.

Comment #3 by Joseph Fazio on 2012 02 20

@Joseph F. The schools were going in a downward spiral for 20-30 years in RI, Gist has been here 3 years and she is making the old school ways go away as in "they were not working".

Comment #4 by Gary Arnold on 2012 02 20

Sure, and you believe that? Don't listen to the press machine that Gist brought in from D.C. or the nonsense that her mentors at the Broad Foundation cook up for public consumption. As CEO of the State Education machine it's on her watch that the "test scores" flat lined...so follow her formula for success, fire someone and I say Gist goes. She is quick to point fingers and hand out golden apples to parochial school teachers, but slow to say "I'm didn't do my job."
She wants to expand the Teach for America and Teaching Fellow program but the Summer Class of 2011 has lost 65% of those fresh eyed folks. So see ya Deb. I'm sure Arne Duncan can get her a job....somewhere.

Comment #5 by Joseph Fazio on 2012 02 21

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