Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist urged lawmakers to pass a series of bills aimed at improving school safety in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting during her State of Education speech on Tuesday. She also urged passage of the governor’s budget which increases funding for public schools, colleges and universities.
Gist highlighted increases in test scores at the high school level but acknowledged the state still has plenty of room for improvement. She made special note of several schools she believes are making good progress toward meeting new test-based graduation standards, including North Providence High School and Mount Hope High School.
Speaking before her address, Gist told RIPR she is committed to staying in Rhode Island.
“I’ve said many times is that our goal is to have the best public schools in America, and there’s nothing preventing us from getting that done, but we have a long way to go, so there’s a lot of work to do,” Gist said.
The controversy that has accompanied Gist's policies, including the new high school graduation requirements, followed her to the Statehouse. As she addressed lawmakers, students from Providence staged a counter speech, accusing the commissioner of failing to give a full picture of Rhode Island’s public schools.
The students, members of an advocacy group called the Providence Student Union, criticized the state’s focus on standardized test scores, saying they would be better served by an increase in hands-on classroom projects. They also called for more funding to improve and update school buildings.
On the issue of standardized testing as a graduation requirement, one student suggested Rhode Island look to a group of New York schools for a better alternative. The schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium use assessments that include analytic writing, completion of a social studies research paper and a science experiment demonstrating mastery of scientific method.
“These schools outperform New York schools using high-stakes testing,” said Classical High School Junior Cauldierre MacKay. “And we can see why.”
Gist also received strong criticism Tuesday from both of the state’s two teachers unions, who accuse the commissioner of failing to support teachers.
The unions released the results of a telephone survey of 402 randomly selected teachers. The study found 82 percent of Rhode Island teachers feel less respected today than they did when Gist took office. 68 percent of teachers reported low morale, and 85 percent said Gist’s contract should not be renewed. Just 8 percent of respondents felt Gist does a good job of communicating with teachers.