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Saturday, August 16, 2014

With Gist, theory and practice don't match

State Senator John C. Sheehan was one of many people in Rhode Island who wondered what State Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist wrote in the dissertation she completed in June 2012. It was about creating a new teacher evaluation system for the state, and Gist would not allow anyone to read it.

Sheehan eventually got a copy of the embargoed dissertation, and he understood why she wanted to keep it under wraps. The theory she wrote about was leadership based on respect and collaboration, on trust and “buy-in,” but her practice was heavy-handed, confrontational, and top-down.

Sheehan recalled the mass firing of staff at Central Falls High School, then the mass firing of teachers in Providence.

Sheehan wrote:

“As soon as students underperformed on tests, teachers were blamed for the failure, resulting in unprecedented low morale. The Gist reaction was on national display when all of the teachers at Central Falls High School were fired. The individual merits of the teachers did not matter nor did it matter if students had applied themselves or were disadvantaged. Under Gist’s leadership philosophy (corporate reform), all teachers were held strictly accountable for low school test scores. Educators were again broadsided by the mass firing of all of the teachers in Providence, a year later. What hurt the commissioner’s credibility in Providence was her defense of wholesale firings, calling them a “good and just cause” [ignoring RIDE’s own case law which would have prohibited firing all teachers].”

“Good leaders lead by example. If Gist were to do so, she would hold herself to the same standard and consequence for performance failure as she does teachers. In the new evaluation, teachers must develop Student Learning Objectives to be used to demonstrate their students are continually making progress based on standardized tests or other measures of student performance. If teachers do not meet this standard, they can be deemed “ineffective”. If teachers do not improve after a year, they face termination as had teachers in Central Falls Ironically, the Department of Education, at Gist’s request, has set 33 targets for statewide student performance. The bulk of them are related to closing the achievement gap while a few involve graduation rates and how students do after high school. In 2012, the state reached just 1 out of those 33 targets. In other years, under Gist’s leadership, RIDE did not fair much better. Yet, the commissioner is not held to account for these dismal results.”

He added:

“Gist failed to get the level of “buy-in” necessary to create a fair evaluation system that would garner the support of a majority of teachers. That failure was not due to teachers’ fear of change or being held accountable, but to the Commissioner’s own poor leadership ability. Befittingly, 82% of public school teachers polled had a negative view of Gist’s job performance! All things considered, I can appreciate why she wanted to keep her dissertation out of the public eye as long as possible.”