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Russell Moore: Let’s Lighten Up On Deborah Gist

Monday, May 27, 2013


There’s an old saying that goes something like this: “There’s three sides to every story. There’s your side, my side, and then there’s the truth.”

That’s how I feel about the debate centered on whether or not the state Board of Education, which is appointed by Governor Lincoln Chafee, should re-appoint Education Commissioner Deborah Gist to another term.

Whether or not Gist’s particular reforms are effective—focus on standardized testing, eliminating seniority as criteria for hiring teachers, and the new teacher evaluation system—are open to debate, as they have rendered few positive results. But whether or not we need improvement isn’t even a question.

According to Stephen Beale’s report last Thursday, statewide, only 77 percent of the Rhode Island students achieve a 4-year graduation rate in high school. That number is one percent higher than it was before Gist was hired—a statistical wash. And according to NECAP testing, which I do have concerns about, only 57 percent of the state’s students are proficient in Math, and 73 percent are proficient in English. One would hope that we can all agree that those numbers unacceptable.

The issue is bigger and there’s a lot more at stake than one particular woman’s persona or job. The issue is about whether the status quo in education is acceptable—and given the statistics, I’d say it’s not—and if not, how we’re going to improve it. I, for one, could not care less who the education commissioner is, as long as we’re improving our schools.

Those who oppose Gist’s methodology to improve education would do better for themselves by focusing on what they think should be done to improve education instead of making ad hominem against Gist. Criticism is easy, solutions are much more difficult.

It reminds me of what NEA-RI Executive Director Bob Walsh told critics of Governor Chafee’s plan to institute new sales taxes on services and goods previously exempt two years ago. (I remember this because I’m one of those critics, as I oppose regressive taxation.) “Offer alternatives, and be specific," Walsh said. With respect to education reform, those are my sentiments exactly.

Teachers have some valid points

I was at the teachers union rally to oppose the reappointment of Gist last Tuesday evening. I knew the teachers had serious concerns about the state of education in Rhode Island, and I wanted to be there to hear them. To be honest, I didn’t hear many specific alternatives to Gist’s brand of reform. I did, however, hear plenty of criticism.

Yet, some of that criticism is valid. It’s curious that at a time when higher education institutions, like my alma mater Providence College, are deemphasizing the importance of standardized testing, elementary and secondary education is moving firmly in that direction. While I can appreciate the desire to have a method of tracking student progress, I don’t see standardized testing as a reliable measurement.

Further, to evaluate teachers based on how students perform on standardized tests doesn’t seem fair either. Some students don’t test well, but learn nevertheless. Some students have parents who just do not care about education. If one teacher is weighted higher with those types of students, his or her students are going to perform less effectively. It’s easy to see how good teachers could have unjustifiable black marks on their record when we rely on criteria that are outside of their control.

There are factors outside of a teacher’s control that should be recognized. If some students aren’t getting proper nutrition at home, or motivation from their parents (in other words, discipline), you can’t expect teachers to perform miracles and get those students to perform up to par. Admittedly, it’s hard to judge a teacher based strictly on the performance of students.

I can also sympathize with the fact that when teachers are forced to fill out mountains of paperwork, it takes away from the time they should be using to help their students.

Some of Gist’s reforms are effective

There are other issues, however, that teachers oppose but simply aren’t logical. I commend Commissioner Gist for abolishing seniority as a means to hire or promote teachers. Picture two teachers, one hard-working, the other lazy. The lazy teacher has been doing just enough to get by for 20 years. The hard worker has been constantly innovating and putting in extra time to help her students for 10 years. Do teachers unions really want to argue that the lazy 20-year veteran deserves the job or promotion over the 10-year go getter? One would hope not, but apparently that’s the case.

Seniority should always be a consideration, but it should never be the only consideration.

And who can forget Gist’s key role in getting the equitable school funding formula past just three years ago? What Gina Raimondo was to pension reform, Gist was to implementing a school funding formula.

I also can understand the argument from teachers unions that it’s impossible to lead without the support of those you’re expecting to follow you. But it’s also incumbent on the rank-and-file to give their leader a chance.

I also heard this notion that Gist is some type of an Attila The Hun type-bully who discourages dissent and rules with an iron fist. Characterizing the Commissioner in such a way is a hard sell.

I still remember the first time I met Gist back in 2009, just days after former Governor Donald Carcieri hired her. I was a reporter at the Warwick Beacon back then, and Gist was on a media tour, introducing herself to members of the Rhode Island press. Gist knew that she didn’t have an easy job ahead of her. She said she knew that change wasn’t easy, but she thought her allegiance was to the students first and foremost. Reformers, she said, have to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions.

Like my friends in the teachers unions, I think that some of Commissioner Gist’s methods to improve education are ineffective and in some cases misguided. However, I think we’re more likely to improve education for our students if we all work together towards their best interest and build consensus.

Let’s reform the reforms that don’t make sense, like the overreliance on standardized testing, and mountains of paperwork teachers have to fill out. But I don’t see a reason to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water and give up on education reform. We should all be working together to find solutions for our students—not rabble rousing.

Whether they know it or not, our students deserve better.

A native Rhode Islander, Russell J. Moore is a graduate of Providence College and St. Raphael Academy. He worked as a news reporter for 7 years (2004-2010), 5 of which with The Warwick Beacon, focusing on government. He continues to keep a close eye on the inner workings of Rhode Islands state and local governments.


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