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State seeks to improve educator, school performance

Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist discussed a variety of public education issues, from standardized testing to the implementation of the new Common Core curriculum, with Rhody Young Republicans at an event the organization hosted Wednesday night.

Gist introduced a series of focal goals for the Department of Education, which are outlined in the state’s 2010-2015 strategic education plan, Transforming Education in Rhode Island.

Educator excellence is the first priority, Gist said, calling a combination of “experienced teachers and new faces” key to a good school. To ensure that every teacher performs well, the Rhode Island Department of Education issues educator evaluations designed to make sure teachers  are “up to date on practices and curriculum.”

Gist said she is focused on revising the teacher and principal improvement program. Students need a “high-quality” teacher base to succeed, she said.

In addition to enhancing teacher performance, the state must focus on the overall performance of schools, Gist said.

The state’s second priority is making schools as a whole function well. Gist said she wants to ensure “no schools are consistently failing students” but added that prescriptive tactics are often unsuccessful. “The ideal classroom for me may not be the same for another teacher or for some students.”

A common thread that has emerged between successful classrooms is an “engaging” and “collaborating” atmosphere, Gist said. “Schools in our state where students do well on tests are not practicing tests.”

Rhode Island should develop a “world-class” testing system to ensure the state’s students are all performing at a nationally competitive level, Gist said.

Akash Chougule, a 2008 graduate of the Rhode Island public school system, said he supports the mission of the New England Common Assessment Program tests, which are now implemented in all of the state’s public schools. “Standards are important,” he said, adding that Massachusetts has some of the best public education in the country due to its high standards. “NECAP gets close to achieving that.”

In addition to holding students to a high standard, Rhode Island should offer greater flexibility in choosing schools, Chougule said. A voucher system could offer a solution by providing parents with the choice to receive reimbursement from the government if they send their children to private institutions or prefer homeschooling.

The Providence Student Union has voiced concerns that new policies have led teachers to teach to the NECAP test, a strategy that creates a less engaging classroom experience.

“There is a lot of confusion about our diploma system,” Gist said, adding that teaching styles have always varied, and poor teaching cannot be viewed as a direct result of standardized testing.

The strategic plan states that the department should strive to use available resources effectively. High-performance students are sometimes bored by the curriculum in standard classrooms, Gist said.

“You cannot hold kids back,” Gist said. “Make no mistake — we are holding kids back.”

The bottom line, Gist said, is ensuring the state is “economically competitive and that students are competent” when they graduate.

“This really isn’t about politics,” said event organizer Barbara Ann Fenton, saying education affects every part of a community.

“There’s a blurring of partisan lines” when creating education policy, Gist said, but education is the most important issue in the state.


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