Rhode Island’s longtime efforts to boost the quality of K-12 public education have hit turbulence with teachers unions pushing to replace state Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist as her June 7 contract renewal date approaches.
Gist, who has the support of Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee and the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce, said she is committed to the many changes implemented during her four-year term. They include having student academic assessments weigh heavily on teacher evaluations and ending teacher seniority.
Teacher unions say Gist disregards their input on education issues, bases teacher evaluations on student academic performance that often is beyond teachers’ control, and has a disrespectful, even bullying, attitude toward educators.
“We’ve eliminated seniority, which I know is something many teachers disagree with me about,” Gist said last week in a telephone interview with Providence Business News. “I believe it is extraordinarily important to make sure we have great teachers in every classroom and the best possible teachers for our students. I stand by that decision very strongly.”
The day after a two-hour public meeting at Cranston West High School on May 20 sponsored by the state’s two teachers’ unions and attended by about 700 educators – most of whom were critical of her performance – Gist said she is in schools regularly, meets with teachers and is aware of their concerns.
“I think there’s no doubt, based on both the event last night and the poll that the teachers unions conducted, that there’s a lot of concern out in the field and these are concerns that I take very seriously and am listening to,” said Gist.
A poll conducted among Rhode Island classroom teachers in April found 85 percent think Gist’s contract should not be renewed, 90 percent said teacher morale is fair or poor and 84 percent said Gist’s response has been poor on concerns about using statewide assessments as a requirement for graduation.
“I know we’ve taken on a lot in the state. We’ve started educator evaluations at the same time as the transition to new standards,” Gist said. “While it’s a lot for a system to take on, it’s all very much related and I think, in many ways, needed to happen concurrently. Everything we’re doing is in our strategic plan. We’re very focused on implementing the plan as it was designed and put into place in 2009.”