Amanda Ripley

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The TIME 100

29th Apr 2010 posted in Education

EVERY YEAR, TIME MAGAZINE PUBLISHES A LIST OF THE 100 most influential people in the world. The new list came out today, and there are people you would expect (Steve Jobs) and people you could debate (Ashton Kutcher). Then there are people you’ve never heard of.

Introducing Deborah Gist. I didn’t get much space, which is just how these things go, so I’ll take a second here to tell you a little more about why Gist made the list.

When Deborah Gist took over as commissioner of Rhode Island’s schools last summer, she made a battery of bold, smart decisions that would be considered common sense in almost any industry but are shocking and rare in education:

Gist sent a letter to superintendents explaining that all staffing decisions would be based on student needs and teacher qualifications—not just seniority. She also began building a new teacher evaluation system, in which, first of all, teachers will get annual reviews (a radical practice that happens in only 15 other states, according to a 2009 National Council on Teacher Quality report). And 51% of the review will be based on performance—whether a teacher’s students improved on test scores or other metrics over the school year.

Gist made other changes, too—almost all focused on teachers, the one school-based factor that makes the most difference in student learning, according to decades of research. When she learned that Rhode Island’s teacher-training programs had one of the nation’s lowest “cut scores”—or minimum entry requirements for SAT or other tests—she asked a staffer to find out which state had the highest score. Then she set Rhode Island’s score one point higher.

To be sure, Gist is not the first education leader to make audaciously sensible decisions. But she is different from other reformers in that she speaks with a natural compassion for teachers—and she was herself a teacher for 8 years, in Florida and Texas. She seems willing to fight, but she doesn’t seem to enjoy the kill. “She’s not unkind, and she’s not mean. She doesn’t put anybody down,” says Julia Steiny, an education columnist in the Providence Sunday Journal. “She’s just aggressive.”

This spring, Gist made national news after one of the state’s superintendents, acting with her support, fired all the teachers at Central Falls High School, one of the state’s worst-performing schools. The superintendent acted after the union refused to agree to a series of reforms. Yesterday, the union filed suit against Gist, the school district and the superintendent in an effort to block the firings.

It’s still unclear what will happen at Central Falls. But so far, Gist seems to be working hard to prioritize the interests of the school’s students, who have been failed by the system for many years.

In February, Gist did a live “chat” with readers of the Providence Journal. One man, who identified himself as Matt, asked her to apologize for having said in the past that American school leaders recruit the majority of their teachers from the bottom third of high school students going to college.

Gist’s reply was exquisite: “Matt: As a traditionally trained teacher, I know this is difficult to hear. I don’t like it either. Unfortunately, it is true. While there are many extraordinarily intelligent educators throughout Rhode Island and our country, the US—unlike other high performing countries—recruits our teachers from the lowest performers in our secondary schools based on SAT scores and other performance data. If you have a source that shows otherwise, I’d love to see that.”