If you went to an impoverished, high-crime part of any city and, based on the statistics, decided to fire police officers, you’d think that’s crazy,” says Bruce Marlowe, a professor of educational psychology and special education at Roger Williams University, who has been critical of the commissioner’s approach.
In a state plagued by an often stagnant political culture, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist has proved a startling bolt of energy.
Just 10 months into her tenure, she has won a major charter schools expansion, ratcheted up standards for would-be teachers, and taken control of the troubled Rhode Island School for the Deaf.
In January, the commissioner called out six of the state’s lowest-performing schools and demanded wholesale reform, setting the stage for the headline-grabbing dismissal of the entire staff at Central Falls High School.
And these days, she is pressing the General Assembly for a prize that has eluded reformers for years: a funding formula that would add some equity to a haphazard and often unfair distribution of education aid.
Gist, 43, walks briskly, maintains a packed schedule, and accepts no excuses.
“She’s changed the nature of the game,” says Robert A. Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-
But if the shake-up owes much to the quirky determination of a figure who once scaled Mount Kilimanjaro with an Ellen DeGeneres banner in tow, it is also a reflection of a striking moment in education reform.
Eight years after President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, President Obama has emerged as a neoliberal champion of the market-driven reform movement ushered in by his predecessor.
His education secretary Arne Duncan, originally viewed as a compromise between the free-market camp and the traditionalists aligned with teachers unions, has proven a strong proponent of the market-driven approach.
And the administration’s signature education initiative, the $4.35 billion Race to the Top grants competition, has served as a remarkably effective inducement to change in the cash-strapped hinterland.
In Rhode Island, the prospect of millions in federal aid proved a powerful incentive to raising the cap on charter schools. And it could play a major role in securing passage of the funding formula.
But when Gist won a spot among 16 finalists in the first round of the Race to the Top contest, the coup merely added to a larger sense of momentum around education reform here.
The state school board is eager for action; the departing governor is determined to leave an imprint; the philanthropic community is on board; a group of mayors, led by Cumberland’s Daniel J. McKee, is pursuing a new kind of charter school. Observers say they have never seen the state’s leadership so aligned around education reform.
But for all the momentum, the announcement last month that Rhode Island did not prevail in the first round of the federal dollars chase marked a setback both financial and psychic: the state’s surge into the finalists’ circle had not only stirred visions of some $126 million in federal aid, it had also stoked hopes that Gist’s take-charge style could make a winner of a state that often seems destined to fail.
Instead, critics were left to ruminate on the drawbacks of the uncompromising approach that makes Gist so appealing: the feds rejected Rhode Island’s first-round application, in part, because the commissioner failed to line up significant union support for her plans.
But as Gist regroups for a second-round application, and pledges to move forward with reform whether the federal dollars materialize or not, a more fundamental critique of her project lingers.
Critics say Gist and like-minded reformers across the country — Joel Klein of New York, Michelle Rhee of Washington DC, and Duncan, among them — are pouring huge sums of money and political capital into a model that is unworthy of investment.
Indeed, more than a decade into our experiment with free-market reform, it is far from clear that the initiatives at the center of that effort are working: charter schools, on average, perform no better than traditional public schools; and turnarounds of the sort contemplated in Central Falls have done little to boost achievement.
But if the overall record is mixed, there are examples of success. Adherents of the free-market school say reform, if properly executed, can have a real impact.
And Gist, her supporters insist, can deliver for the state — by sheer force of will, if necessary.
‘A SENSE OF JUSTICE’
Rhode Island’s education commissioner averages five hours of sleep per night. She runs marathons. She has flown in an F-18 with the Blue Angels. She claimed a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, for a couple of years, after collecting 112 kisses on the cheek in a single minute.
And there is more to do, it seems. In her black shoulder bag, Gist carries a spreadsheet laying out her goals in three categories — annual, ongoing, and life. Some she declines to reveal — not very “commissioner-
But the rest speak to a woman of eclectic enthusiasms: flying lessons, a visit to the salt flats in Bolivia, and at least one date per month with her husband Jock Friedly, a former investigative reporter.
Gist, who grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can’t quite pinpoint the origin of her drive. “I don’t know, actually, because I’m very different from my family,” she says. “They thought I was some strange creature that was dropped from the sky.”
But Gist says she knew, early on, that she wanted to work in the classroom. In the seventh grade, she completed a project titled “My Career as a Pre-School Teacher.” And Gist’s ambition was cemented a few years later when her high school class adopted an impoverished family at Christmas.
Bearing food, presents, and a tree, Gist and several classmates set out for the family’s home and encountered a scene of deprivation that remains with her decades later. There were mattresses on the floor, she says. The cabinets were bare. A faulty heating system left a strange smell.
“I was just deeply affected by their circumstances,” Gist says. “And it was at that point that I made the commitment that what I wanted to do was teach — and teach children who most needed a quality education to lift themselves out of those kinds of circumstances. I just felt, from a sense of justice, that people shouldn’t have to live like that.”
Gist went on to work in classrooms in Fort Worth, Texas and Tampa, Florida, picking up school-level “Teacher of the Year” awards in both cities. And she showed early signs of ambition: in Tampa, she founded a center on environmental education and a countywide reading program.
When she moved on to a school district job, she recalls, her first meeting with “grown-ups” seemed hopelessly slow: “Everyone was sort of getting their coffee and sitting down and chit-chatting,” she says, “and I just remember thinking, ‘This is what you guys do every day?’ ”
Gist moved up quickly. In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, she took a job as a senior policy analyst in the US Department of Education, hoping an Al Gore victory would prolong her stay.
That was not to be, of course. But she would remain in the capital. Former Washington DC Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed her to run the district’s modest state education office in 2004. And when Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the schools in 2007, she became DC’s first state superintendent of education.
It was an odd title — Washington is not a state, after all — for an odd job. Gist was technically a rung above Rhee, the district’s high-profile, take-no-prisoners schools chancellor. But Rhee had day-to-day control of the schools and something approaching carte blanche from Fenty.
Gist, by contrast, reported to a deputy mayor on the organization chart. And when she attempted to assert oversight of the chancellor’s wide-ranging plans to turn around Washington’s failing schools, city lawyers overruled her.
Gist says she did not chafe under the capital’s awkward school governance structure. She was fully engaged, she says, in the work of building the state superintendent’s office. And Sekou Biddle, who serves on the Washington DC State Board of Education, says he never heard Gist complain about the limits on her power.
But it was clear, Biddle says, that there was not room in the capital for two ambitious reformers. Rhee, he says, “has really sucked a lot of the air out of who’s in charge of education in DC.”
THE RHODE ISLAND CHALLENGE
By the fall of 2008, Rhode Island’s Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education was on the hunt for a new schools chief.
Education Commissioner Peter McWalters, who was planning to leave his post after some 18 years on the job, had built no small legacy. He expanded the office’s role during the No Child Left Behind era and made some important gestures toward reform.
The regents strengthened high school graduation requirements under his watch. And just before he left office, McWalters gave the Providence schools the power to disregard seniority in placing teachers — a power that his successor would grant to districts statewide.
But a board increasingly dominated by Governor Carcieri’s appointees was growing frustrated by the intransigence of Rhode Island’s education troubles: the state ranks near the top in per-pupil spending and near the bottom on standardized test scores; the “achievement gap” separating white and Latino students is among the worst in the country; just 55 percent of the state’s high school graduates go on to college, ranking 43rd in the nation.
High-tech entrepreneur Angus Davis, a Carcieri appointee to the board, was co-chair of the search committee for a new superintendent. And one of his first chats, just days after Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election, was with Duncan, then CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.
Duncan demurred when Davis asked if he would be interested in the Rhode Island post. But he recommended Gist. And her name kept popping up, in calls to New York and Washington and Los Angeles.
Gist’s most enthusiastic supporters were champions of a market-driven approach to education reform that took root with Southern governors like Lamar Alexander and came into full bloom with No Child Left Behind.
The approach has long troubled teachers’ unions and left-leaning academics. But it has come under increased scrutiny of late with the persistence of the achievement gaps — between rich and poor, white and black — that helped give rise to the reform in the first place.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served in George H.W. Bush’s administration and once championed the standards movement, has emerged as its most potent critic.
Ravitch says No Child Left Behind, which demands that 100 percent of students reach proficiency, created absurd expectations. And when the schools fell short, she says, it fed a narrative declaring public education a failure and insisting that a market-based approach to reform is the answer.
That faith in the market has persisted in the face of the recent financial calamity is “breathtaking, to say the least,” Ravitch says.
“I mean it isn’t just Enron and WorldCom,” she says. “The collapse of almost the whole economy in the fall of 2008 should have persuaded people that there’s a reason we don’t trust the markets to support community functions.”
And given the mixed record of the market-based approach, she says, the argument for taking it to scale is weak: why invest so heavily in the unproven, she asks, and risk destroying public education in the process?
Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a key figure in the free-market camp, acknowledges the modest results of the reform: there have been successes, but no one has figured out how to replicate them.
The replication problem, though, is no reason to revert to more traditional tactics, he says. “The sort of ‘do what you’ve been doing before but do a little more of it’ approach hasn’t worked,” Hanushek says.
When a school fails year after year, he says, you’ve got to do something, and “just because we don’t know the optimum [thing to do] doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on failure.”
‘SHE CAN BE BRUSQUE’
Gist, for her part, rejects any label. She has signed the manifestoes of both the market-driven and traditional camps and argues that there is more overlap between the two than is often acknowledged.
And supporters insist the commissioner, however driven, defies the easy caricature of the market-driven reformer. She came from the classroom, while many of her cohorts did not. And if the overhaul of Central Falls High School seems radical, Gist’s approach to turning around failing schools is more nuanced than the mass firing would suggest.
When she targeted Central Falls High and five low-performing Providence schools for reform, she gave district officials a number of options — including a management-union partnership that seems to be working out quite peaceably in the capital city.
Supporters add that Gist is more inclusive than, say, Rhee. The commissioner has made a point of visiting every school district in Rhode Island. She regularly convenes a group of top-flight teachers for feedback. She possesses strong interpersonal skills and a mischievous charm.
“I don’t think she’s seen as a volatile player,” says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “She’s a little steadier. And I think that is probably a good thing.”
But if she looks different than other free-market reformers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that she is very much in their camp. Gist struggles to name a major initiative that would put her at odds with the market-driven crowd. And she trumpets the virtues of charter schools as reform laboratories, while acknowledging they are no panacea.
Even the commissioner’s configuration of her downtown Providence offices suggest an ideological bent: Gist has knocked down the walls and created a bullpen-style office of the sort that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg imported from Wall Street.
Gist, moreover, is a graduate of what may be the pre-eminent training program for free-market reformers: the Broad Foundation’s Superintendents Academy, a highly competitive 10-month course that schools private sector, military, and education leaders in “the business of urban education.”
Founded by billionaire financier Eli Broad eight years ago, the academy has watched its alumni secure key posts in some three dozen of the nation’s largest school districts.
Newly installed Kansas City Superin-tendent John Covington made national headlines when his school board voted to close nearly half the district’s schools after years of mismanagement and declining student enrollment. Vincent Matthews, appointed by the state of California to fix the troubled Oakland school system, has emerged as an important advocate of charter schools.
Gist, the first graduate of the superintendent’s academy to win a job as state commissioner of education, remains in the Broad orbit; she tapped Eli Broad’s foundation, along with the Aspen Institute and the Rhode Island Foundation, for help developing the state’s Race to the Top application.
And she has ties to other avatars of the new reform. There are connections to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. And she helped lure Teach for America, a non-profit that places graduates of top-flight colleges in some of the toughest public schools in the nation, to the state.
Supporters say Gist is intent on using all of the tools at her disposal — the training, the connections — to improve the lot of Rhode Island students. And she is not all that concerned about pissing off adults in the process.
Indeed, while Gist listens to a broad spectrum of views, backers say there are limits to what she will tolerate. “She can be brusque,” says Robert G. Flanders, chairman of the Board of Regents. “She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She is someone who is all about the mission and how to get there.”
But Walsh, the affable union chief, suggests that approach could pose long-term problems in a state as intimate as Rhode Island: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down and there’s not a lot of Mary Poppins here.”
The main source of friction, at the moment: officials from the state’s two major teachers unions say Gist did not give them a meaningful opportunity to shape a Race to the Top application that will help guide reform in the state.
Labor only glimpsed the document when it was made available to the public just before it was finalized, Walsh says. Union officials were not allowed to take copies home for review. And the concessions the department made to their concerns were just around the edges.
‘A FEW FEDERAL SHEKELS’
Alienating the unions, a still-powerful if diminished force in Rhode Island politics, could have consequences for Gist’s agenda in the schools and the state legislature.
But Gist, for her part, says she has given labor a fair shake on Race to the Top. The unions had more access to top-level officials than any group during the development of the application, the commissioner insists. And she says the state had good reason to limit access to the document itself: the department, in competition with 40 other states around the country, did not want news of its most innovative proposals to leak out.
Now that Rhode Island’s major initiatives are in the public domain, Gist says, that kind of discretion won’t be necessary. And she has pledged to have an open dialogue with the unions as the deadline for second-round applications approaches on June 1.
But she seems unwilling to make significant concessions on top priorities, including a rigorous new teacher evaluation process that would make 51 percent of an instructor’s score contingent on student performance.
The unions maintain the system will be too rigid, given the disparities between the urban and suburban student bodies. Gist counters the system will give teachers in tough schools credit for student growth — even if those students continue to test below grade level. And while she is opening to some tinkering, the 51 percent standard will stay.
“For the most part, what I want to be engaging our teachers unions on is how we go about doing things,” she says, not “whether we do something. I’ve tried to be really up front about that.”
The commissioner appears to have the full support of the regents in this approach. Flanders, the board chairman, says the department of education will take seriously Washington’s push to boost union support for its reform program. But he adds that a state determined to press for wholesale reform, with or without Race to the Top dollars, will only go so far.
“We’re not going to sell our soul for a few federal shekels,” he says.
And they may not have to. The state, even if it makes relatively few concessions to the unions, could still have a solid shot at federal largess. Rhode Island ranked eighth in the first round of the competition, with only two states — Delaware and Tennessee — winning awards. And as many as a dozen states could get money in the second round. In fact, tempering the department’s plans could even hurt the state’s chances, Gist suggests.
But if the commissioner holds firm, critics say, she will be taking Rhode Island in a dangerous direction. Tough, radical reform of failing schools may sound good, they say, but it doesn’t do enough to acknowledge the complexity of the educational challenge.
“If you went to an impoverished, high-crime part of any city and, based on the statistics, decided to fire police officers, you’d think that’s crazy,” says Bruce Marlowe, a professor of educational psychology and special education at Roger Williams University, who has been critical of the commissioner’s approach.
But if the market-driven approach is flawed, many traditionalists acknowledge, their own answer to the challenges of public education — more pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, a better societal response to problems of poverty and hunger — is not terribly satisfying.
Gist bristles at all the talk of factors beyond educators’ control. “I get very concerned when I hear people tell me the litany of reasons why their students are not being successful,” she says.
Educators can no longer wait for better parents or the end of poverty, she insists. They must persevere. They must do better. And here, you can see where Gist’s ideology and personal experience converge.
Gist, the teacher, faced down poverty and hunger in the classroom. And Gist, the commissioner, is doing the same. These are the nation’s most stubborn challenges. And Rhode Island’s schools chief seems to believe that the human will, properly channeled, can break them.
David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@