Gist Like Barresi?

The Tulsa World’s big headline today, Tuesday, January 20, is not about Garth Brooks. It’s about Tulsa Public Schools’ possible superintendent candidates. While we can’t know for sure, according to Andrea Eger’s article, it appears that Deborah Gist and Millard House II are the two finalists for Superintendent Ballard’s job.

My first and only encounter with Ms. Gist was when she appeared on a panel with former Oklahoma State Superintendent Janet Barresi. They had been invited to speak at the Circle Cinema after a showing of the anti-public school propaganda film (my words) Waiting for Superman. What a serious waste of time that “documentary” is, by the way.

If you liked Janet Barresi and her high-stakes testing, pro-charter school, anti-teacher union, bulldozer approach to public education, then you’ll love Deborah Gist. I don’t know her, but based on what she said on the panel and her past performance as Superintendent of Rhode Island Public Schools, I don’t hold out much hope if she is chosen as Tulsa’s superintendent. Unless, of course, you appreciate the type of “reform” that Gist apparently supports.

On the panel, she bragged about supporting a mass firing of teachers at a school district in Rhode Island. Maybe the teachers at Central Falls High School, one of the worst performing schools in the state, deserved to be fired. Teachers were being asked to work a longer day and to add a variety of other tasks, most of which they agreed to do, but ultimately the two sides couldn’t agree on the pay rate, so 93 people were fired. Most were subsequently rehired. The firing may have gotten people’s attention, but didn’t solve the real problems facing the school. As George McLaughlin, a guidance counselor at Central Falls, said in a CNN report:

“We have the most transient population in this state. Nobody comes close to us. So when they say that 50 percent of the people graduate, a very high percentage of our students leave our school. They return. They leave again. They go back to other countries,” he said, noting that three times as many of the school’s students are accepted to colleges now than they were five years ago.

He also knocked the superintendent, saying she “has been with us for a little more than three years.”

Gist is also, like Barresi, a member Chiefs for Change, which I’ve blogged about before. The mission of Chiefs for Change sounds great, but in Oklahoma, we’ve seen those “reforms” in action. They’ve been a disaster.

Gist does have an impressive resume, including being named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in 2010. I’m not sure that I would trust Time’s perspective. Does anyone remember the cover story that Time did on Michelle Rhee, the former Chancellor of D.C. public schools, shortly after she started her job? The article touted her as the person who would “fix America’s schools.” Her reform philosophy is very similar to what Gist has done in Rhode Island. Rhee, however, did not fix the D.C. schools as promised, and her tenure at the D.C. schools was tainted by a huge cheating scandal, which Time never reported on. She now makes $50,000 a pop doing speaking engagements.

I know that Gist is not Michelle Rhee, but I see similarities in the two. And if Gist is a founding member of Chiefs for Change, and both she and Janet Barresi adhere to that philosophy of public school reform, then I hope the Tulsa School Board does its research. We can know people by the company they keep. Didn’t someone say the definition of madness is to keep doing the same thing hoping to get different results?

Board members (and you parents who care) might start by reading this blog about Deborah Gist from educator Diane Ravitch, which includes an article in the Providence Journal. It’s long, but worth reading:


Carole Marshall is a retired teacher in Rhode Island who explains how State Commissioner Deborah Gist’s insistence on standardized testing has discouraged educators and students across the state. The most pernicious effect of this policy, Marshall shows, has hurt poor and minority youngsters the most.

In an article in the Providence Journal, Marshall writes:

The Oct. 15 Commentary piece (“R.I.’s diploma system brings out the best”) by Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, is yet another demonstration of her ability to say what she wants to be true, as if the saying of it makes it true.

Among the many half-truths and untruths in her screed is the insinuation that students who score badly on the New England Common Assessment Program tests, i.e. urban students, have been subject to “years of poor, inadequate education,” while students who do well have teachers who, by contrast, “provide great instruction that engages students on many levels and teaches key academic skills.”

This malicious slur on urban teachers is the ultimate in hubris from a young woman who spent a handful of years teaching in an elementary school and since then has glided up the professional ladder on the shoulders of right-wing politicians and millionaires like Jeb Bush and Eli Broad. If there are any urban teachers who didn’t know what the commissioner thought of them before, they know now.

I left urban teaching before I had planned to for one reason only: I could not be a participant in what top-down, standardized testing does to destroy education in urban schools and, by extension, the lives of students who are already hanging on by a slender thread to the dream of a successful middle-class life.

Before the systematic destruction began, I would have held my school, Hope, up against any other school in the state in terms of who was providing great instruction. Hope’s faculty included a significant number of advanced degrees, Ivy League graduates, and national-board-certified teachers. With the support of then-Commissioner Peter McWalters, we taught literacy across the curriculum, shared rubrics for scoring work, and created a system for student portfolios. We were doing the slow, careful job of building a climate characterized by rigorous, accountable learning.

Then high-stakes testing arrived on the scene and to nobody’s surprise, urban schools’ scores were worse than the scores of suburban schools; the same pattern repeats itself year after year in every corner of this country.

Why? There are a host of extremely well-documented reasons for this. To name just a few: Urban schools have a hugely disproportionate number of students who are new to the language; a hugely disproportionate number of students with learning disabilities; and large numbers of students with serious behavioral problems, including those sent from their suburban districts to group homes in the cities.

That is in addition to the reality that students from impoverished environments are often handicapped by circumstances beyond their control, such as vocabulary deficits, health problems, unstable homes, hunger, and the list goes on. We can all wish these conditions didn’t exist, but we can’t, as Commissioner Gist likes to do, simply ignore them away. Throwing tests at urban students does nothing to solve their problems. The disparities will only grow wider as mandatory test preparation steals more and more time from real education in urban schools.

On the subject of test prep and teaching to the test, Commissioner Gist is correct about one thing: “schools with students who perform well on state assessments do not focus on test preparation.” Pretty tautologically obvious in my opinion; the schools with students who perform well have no reason to focus on test preparation.

On the other hand, in the schools that are being threatened with closure solely on the basis of test scores, you can be sure administrators are not just sitting around, waiting to lose their jobs. The specter of low scores powerfully encourages test preparation and teaching to the test.

This year, the turn-around company hired for $5 million to raise scores in Providence schools hired tutors who spent every school day during the month of September prepping 11th graders for the NECAP assessments.

The students were missing their regular classes every day, even in subjects like physics and foreign languages, so that the schools could show improvement. Suburban parents would never have allowed this; urban parents were not informed.

Students are disingenuously told that this is all happening for their own good. Any reader of this newspaper who truly believes that the testing juggernaut is about benefiting the students is sorely uninformed.

The textbook publishers who sell the test and test-prep materials will make their billions, the so-called turn-around companies will make their millions, and carpetbaggers like Ms. Gist will continue blithely along their career paths, leaving behind wrecked schools and crushed dreams in the cities.

Carole Marshall taught at Hope High School for 18 years, retiring in 2012. Before that she was a business correspondent for the Observer of London and taught journalism at Fairleigh Dickinson University and the University of Rhode Island.

Categories: Editor’s Blog