Duncan Offers Support, Recommendation for Rhode Island’s Gist

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is praising the reform efforts of Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist just as the state’s Board of Education is getting ready to consider giving her a new contract. During a conference call with reporters earlier this week, Duncan said that thanks to Gist, the state was “heading in the right direction” and that should be the chief factor in the decision on whether she keeps her job rather than any personality or political conflicts.

Gist’s spokesman Elliot Krieger explained that she is seeking an extension on the contract that is set to expire this week. Her request for an extension is being vigorously opposed by the state’s teachers unions who have come out against a number of Gist’s reforms, including a new teacher assessment system and a set of stringent high school graduation requirements.

Gist is also supported by Chafee and Board of Education Chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso, but the two have stopped short of endorsing a three-year deal for the commissioner. The full 11-member board will vote on Gist’s future Thursday evening.

Duncan said he did not speak with Chafee or Gist before offering his support for the commissioner. He said he is confident Rhode Island is moving in the right direction, and argued it is important to have “continuity” when the state is “showing progress.”

It’s hard to say how Duncan’s weighing in Gist’s efforts will sway the board members, but the Education Secretary, who previously headed Chicago’s school system,  said that his views on Gist’s contracts are swayed by the fact that her reforms have had a positive impact on the performance on Rhode Island students. He was clear that he wouldn’t have offered his official support had it been otherwise.

Although Gist enjoys support from reform advocates and business leaders who feel that her focus on tougher standards is the way forward towards improving the state’s education system, her efforts have been continuously dogged by complaints from teachers that her approach to the job is damaging morale.

In April, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals commissioned a poll that showed 85% of teachers believe Gist’s contract should not be renewed. The survey also found that 82% felt less respected than they did when she was hired in 2009.

Gist has acknowledged that she needs to improve her relationship with the unions, but she has not backed down from her positions on the need to improve teacher quality and ensure that students are properly prepared for life after high school. In all, 40% of Rhode Island 11th-graders will need to improve their NECAP score in order to receive a diploma in 2014.