Jean Ann Guliano: What Gist’s Supporters Are Forgetting—Students

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


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Last week, many members of the Rhode Island business community and many school committees sent letters to Governor Chafee in support of Education Commissioner Gist. For the most part, many business leaders will admit they appreciate the strong stand the Commissioner has taken towards unions and union practices such as seniority and tenure. This has enabled school committees to win back many of the management rights that have been lost over the years when school committee members have not been savvy enough to negotiate with unions. She has also set goals of rigorous standards, intervention protocols, accountability, data driven decision making, focus on effective teachers and leaders, etc.

Business leaders and many political leaders like these goals and tend to believe that schools should be run more like a business. For example, using charter schools as a market incentive to improve quality, or using standardized tests for teacher evaluations and graduation requirements, fill the need for demonstrating accountability and return on investment. Good, sound business practice. They believe we need to produce students who represent the best and brightest of our state so they can start their own businesses or rise within the ranks of domestic and international commerce. Schools should be able to take these raw materials (our students) and mold them into outstanding workers and leaders. Businesses will then have their choice of the best and brightest to work for and run their companies. In fact, their success depends on hiring excellent employees. Excellent schools = excellent teachers = excellent students = excellent employees.

As a former school committee member, business person and interested parent, I was an early supporter of Race to the Top and Commissioner Gist when she came on board in 2009. I also signed off for my district on the RTTT application. The goals sounded promising. Who wouldn’t want every child to receive an excellent education? Many of the numerous high profile goals of RTTT, especially those that have appealed to the business and political community, have been vigorously addressed. These include areas such as funding reliability, increase in charter schools, elimination of seniority-based promotion, teacher evaluation systems, data gathering, progress monitoring, accountability, etc.

However, with all of these accomplishments, the one thing that has not improved is the outcomes for our most vulnerable students. The original goals of both No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top were not about turning schools into businesses or testing companies into a cottage industry. They were about improving the educational outcomes for those students on the fringe - those who are economically disadvantaged, have limited English proficiency and special needs. These students generally don’t have powerful lobbyists. Businesses don’t necessarily line up to hire these students, and even schools even know that these are the students who bring down their test scores.

With 83% of the state’s special needs students and 90% of the state’s limited English students scoring substantially below proficient on the last NECAP math test,* even with remediation many of those students will likely not graduate in 2014. Even more troubling is that the gap between these students and ‘average’ students has actually increased over the past 4 years; as has the gap for low income students.** Let’s be honest, many people, including several in the business community, aren’t that concerned whether these kids graduate or not. These aren’t the young people they will want to hire. Those who do care, the students and their parents, are confused, bewildered and genuinely afraid for their future – and many are close to giving up. Teachers who work with these students have been so overwhelmed with data reporting, effectiveness ratings, outcomes, forced curriculum, test prep and standardized tests (which they know are not valid or reliable assessments for these students***), are close to giving up, too.

So, while everyone is rallying around the Commissioner and the current policies, I’d like to ask that someone think about what is happening to these particular children. And, not just what is happening to them right now, but what will happen to them in the future. Schools can’t send back defective ‘raw materials’ nor do they only get the best and brightest to work with. I guess that’s the difference between businesses and schools.

Everyone always says ‘it’s about the kids.’ But, apparently it isn’t about “all” the kids. Maybe someone in the business community will write a letter of support to the Governor for them. Someone. Anyone.

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Jean Ann Guliano served as School Committee Chair, East Greenwich, served on the Rhode Island Special Education Advisory Committee, and is proud parent of a special needs child.


*Fall 2012 - Beginning of Grade 11 NECAP Tests, Grade 11 Students in 2012-2013 Rhode Island

Disaggregated Mathematics Results

**Rhode Island’s NECAP Math, Reading, and Writing Results for Grades 3-8 & 11

October 2012 Test Administration, Table 14. Student Group Achievement Gaps by Grade Level on the NECAP MATHEMATICS Test: 2005 to 2012

***Digital Test Delivery: Empowering Accessible Test Design to Increase Test Validity for All Students, Michael Russell, Vice President of Innovation, Measured Progress, Inc.

***Reaching students in the gaps: A study of assessment gaps, students, and alternatives

Rhode Island Enhanced Assessment Instrument 2004-2006, provided with the consent of the New England Compact (2003-2007)


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