Gist: teacher quality matters most

Improving teacher effectiveness is job one says Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s controversial education commissioner, in a CommonWealth interview.

. . . in everything that I have experienced, both as a teacher and in my role as an administrator, and in everything I’ve read about the research about student achievement, the quality of the classroom teacher is the most important factor. It’s the greatest lever that we have to be able to improve the quality of education of our students.

Firing the staff at Central Falls High — no more than half will be rehired — was necessary, Gist argues. The school was on improvement lists for eight years. “Tinkering around the edges” didn’t work.

Failing school require a culture change, Gist says.

Many teachers begin to believe that because their students come from difficult circumstances or have challenges in their lives, they can’t achieve at higher levels. Just that shift in the thinking means that the expectations are lowered.

She talked to a young college student who lived in a group home in high school and used her problems to get special treatment from teachers.

She says [that], looking back, she really wishes that her teacher had said, with as much love and support as possible, “Look, I want to make sure you have all the supports that you need, but here’s what you need to do, and here’s when you need to do it, and here’s the quality that I expect.” Because now she’s in college, and she’s struggling. That was a clear example of the way in which the love that teachers have for our students can sometimes cause us to lower our expectations. It’s not enough to care.

Central Falls High teachers can reapply for their jobs this week. Their union has filed a lawsuit challenging the dismissals.

Gist has made the Time 100 list for 2010 under “thinkers.”

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  1. tim-10-ber says:

    Yes, teacher quality and effectiveness is critical to students excelling but this means teachers need a high quality of education of their own…many have not had at the college level or prior…

  2. Richard Aubrey says:

    What educational experience makes a good teacher? What, I mean, besides the usual ed school stuff everybody gets now?
    A MA in methods?

  3. bill eccleston says:

    Dear Ms Gist,

    “It’s not enough to care.”


    It’s also not enough to be a good teacher.

    What we most need, Ms Gist, is a curriculum, a real one that’s rich with knowledge and sequenced carefully from K on up. We don’t have that in Rhode Island and we won’t have that in Rhode Island until you or your successor starts knocking some heads in that Cloud Cuckoo Land of local college teacher’s ed departments and the “players” they’ve spawned who have been pulling the strings in Rhode Island for a generation.

    Certainly you know by now that Rhode Island is in the forefront of the Caring Curriculum movement? Look at Hope High. Outstanding success, right? That’s what your backers at the Providence Journal tout every chance they get! And you can’t escape Julie Stieny, the Journal’s ed columnist, who’s been preaching the power of compassion for two decades now. And in the absolutely critical field of teacher education in reading instruction, I can’t believe that a person in your position could be unmindful of what the National Council for Teacher Quality’s report, “What Education Schools Aren’t Teaching About Reading,” said about the instruction at Rhode Island College.

    And yet, what do you do? You beat up on teachers!

    It is absolutely true that the Central Falls teachers have done everything that’s been asked of them. Every idiotic educational “innovation” that’s come down the pike and the teachers of Central Falls and everywhere else in Rhode Island have swallowed their doubts and dutifully implemented it. But who gets the blame when these schemes fail?

    You say its us!

    It’s not. It’s you. The soft bigotry of the Caring Curriculum is entirely the creation of the people at your pay-grade.

    Do something about it!

    Bill Eccleston, Burrillville Middle School

    PS: And stop mis-naming the infamous secondary school in Central Falls. The official name of that school, carried on its stationary, is, correctly, “Central Falls High School, a University of Rhode Island Acadmeny.”


  4. Great response, Bill. You are very right. Teachers are routinely ordered to do things that degrade education. Why aren’t the masters held responsible for their harebrained ideas?

    Perhaps it’s different in your middle school, but in mine few teachers resist. They lack a coherent critique of what the leaders are telling them to do. How can they criticize when the “reforms” all harmonize with the theories they were taught in ed school?

    It is somewhat encouraging to hear some of my colleagues talking about Diane Ravitch’s new book –seditious material has made it through the Iron Curtain. I agitate at faculty meetings and at any audience I have with the superintendent. I urge everyone to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Knowledge Deficit. Were it not for the union, I would probably be fired for not being a “team player”, not “sharing a common vision” for the school. They’re right, I do not share their vision of an infantilizing, content-lite, discipline-free, data-crazy child-care center.