Challenges for new RI Education Commissioner Deb Gist
The appointment of Deborah Gist as the next Commissioner of Education for the State of Rhode Island marks a turn for both my home state (R.I.) and my adopted “state” (the District of Columbia).
Gist’s hiring was met with high praise from many education leaders throughout the country (as noted in this news release from the RI Department of Ed) — and the praise earned from both AFT President Randi Weingarten and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, is remarkable, as those two often represent opposing sides of various issues (though they have been known to work together to make several improvements in New York). Gist’s achievements also receive high praise from Teach For America founder and CEO Wendy Kopp and from many of the District of Columbia’s political and educational leaders. And over the last few years as D.C. has seen upheaval in the changes that Chancellor Michelle Rhee has set into motion, Gist’s leadership has been seen by many as more understated, but very effective.
Gist has overseen many changes in the oversight of education in DC: moving to improve short and long-term data tracking and accountability systems for student performance; improving management of special education; and tackling—though not yet solving—DC’s disastrous system of managing federal grant money from the US Department of Education.
So in terms of a track record, her achievements as an administrator and as a teacher (earning Teacher of the Year awards in both districts where she taught) seem solid.
Now, about the jobs…
Gist moves from the role in Rhode Island will be somewhat similar to the one she is leaving in DC in terms of responsibilities, and the size of the operations will double, with approximately 140K students in RI public schools, vs 70K in DC (~45K in DCPS and ~25K in charters, who she responds to key differences will mark her ability to be successful in driving—and continuing—improvements in Little Rhody.
Both areas have been hard hit by the economic collapse, with Rhode Island’s unemployment figures being among the highest in nation, and DC’s being higher than those in neighboring Maryland and Virginia. But Rhode Island’s workforce is in general more educated than DC’s, and so job training and improving the CCRI system may be key areas for growth.
There are huge structural differences between the two systems:
- Districts: While RI is only twice the size of DC in terms of school-aged population, the District is has one major school district (DCPS ) and about 50 charter organizations, many operating only one school each. Meanwhile, Rhode Island has an incredibly decentralized set-up, with almost 40 full school districts, most of which operate their own K-12 systems and are under significant local control. (The legacy of the Independent Man runs strong in Rhode Island, and regionalization of schools is as politically difficult as closing churches or consolidating boy scout troops).
- Charters: DC has one of the highest concentrations of charter schools in the US, including two separate approval routes, Rhode Island has only 11 charter schools, due in part to the decentralized district system mentioned above.
- Unions: The only union presence in DC is the Washington Teacher’s Union, an AFT affiliate, while DC charter schools have no union presence. In Rhode Island, teachers in local districts are represented by a conglomeration of NEARI locals and AFT affiliates, depending on the district. And the needs and demandsof the unions differ as the schools span from urban (Providence, Central Falls, Pawtucket, etc.) to suburban and even semi-rural (Chariho).
Finally, education in DC is about making order out of chaos, as Gist’s previous role worked with several superintendents and chancellors during her time. Rhode Island, on the other hand, had one of the longest serving state leaders in the country, in Commissioner Peter McWalters, and he is someone who miaintains deep respect from all quarters. Gist’s role will be to evaluate the programs already in place in Rhode Island—which include some very progressive and promising programs, including portfolio-based graduation and subject-specific standards, as well as some leading arts education efforts—and to ensure that she is able to continue the good while strengthening the areas that can be improved, rather than looking at this as a place that needs to start from scratch.
As for the gaps to be filled in yet another leadership turnover in DC… that’s a different topic for another post.