PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Outgoing Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said Friday she believes Rhode Island schools are heading in the right direction, but acknowledged frustration with the culture of confrontation she encountered during her six years on the job.
“In terms of any place I’ve ever lived, I’ve never seen that kind of expectation that the way to approach a problem is that ‘we’re going to get on one side, you’re going to get on the other side and we’ll see who wins,’ rather than ‘we have a problem, here’s how we’re going to address it,” Gist said during a wide-ranging interview on WPRI 12’s Newsmakers.
Gist is leaving the state for a job as superintendent of schools in her hometown of Tulsa, Okla. Her contract expires June 30, but Gist said she expects a transition to take place sooner. She said she was first approached about the Tulsa job last fall.
Throughout her tenure, Gist had a notoriously rocky relationship with the state’s teachers’ unions, which opposed many of the key education reform initiatives she implemented early in her tenure as commissioner. In 2014, state lawmakers sided with the unions over Gist when they voted to scale back teacher evaluations and postpone the standardized testing portion of the state’s high school graduation policy.
Gist said she believes her support for a decision to fire all the teachers in Central Falls in 2010 “put me off on the wrong foot” with the unions, but indicated there would have been “negative impressions made of me no matter what” because union leadership opposed her.
“We don’t have to approach every situation as a battle and we don’t have to wonder who’s going to win at the end,” Gist said. “We can all win, we can come together and say ‘we don’t agree with a certain thing but let’s work it out’ because ultimately I do believe that everybody wants what’s best for this state and what’s best for the kids.”
Gist touted statewide improvements on the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) exam and higher graduation rates – particularly among black and Latino students – as the highlights of her tenure in Rhode Island.
Despite the improvements, Rhode Island was unable to meet 32 of 33 performance measures established by the R.I. Department of Education during the 2013-14 school year. A report released by the department said 18 goals have seen improvement but have not been met while another 14 goals have not shown statistically significant growth.
The majority of the goals aim to cut the achievement gap between white and minority students, economically-advantaged and economically-disadvantaged students, and students with and without learning disabilities in the fourth, eighth and 11th grades.
The only goal where the state has exceeded its expectations is having at least 70% of high school students who enroll in an institution of higher education within 16 months of graduation complete at least one year’s worth of college credits, the report showed.
So were the goals too ambitious for Rhode Island?
“I think they were,” Gist said. “Given if we knew then what we know now, I don’t think we would have set our sights quite so high, but the point is when you set really high goals, even if you don’t meet them, you make a lot of progress and that’s what has happened.”
Asked whether the city of Providence’s decision to oppose the state’s high school graduation policy last year affected her ability to oversee education statewide, Gist said the capital city “has a lot of work to do.”
“What I would say about it is it is hard for us to make progress as a state if Providence is not making progress as a district because they are such an important part of the state overall,” Gist said. “And I think Providence has a lot of work to do. And I think Providence has to step it up.”
Gist indicated she has not spoken to Gov. Gina Raimondo about choosing a new education commissioner, but said “it is really important for people to have an open mind listen and use multiple sources of information before drawing conclusions about what people are about.”Dan McGowan ( email@example.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan