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Deborah Gist
Deborah Gist (Photo by Frank Curran)

Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, has implemented some major reforms since assuming her role in 2009. She has raised the score required to pass teacher-certification tests and allowed a superintendent to fire all of the teachers at a school that was resisting reforms. Perhaps most notably, she has overseen the implementation of a new teacher-evaluation system. The Hechinger Report recently interviewed Gist about her state’s new approach to evaluating teachers.

Since changing your teacher-evaluation process in 2009 to include students’ standardized test-scores and yearly evaluations of teachers and administrators, what has the feedback been? Where are you at as far as implementing the changes, how is it going, and what have you learned?

From the outset, we have worked hard to engage teachers in the process of designing and implementing the evaluations. For example, after the Board of Regents approved our first Educator Evaluation Standards, we established the Rhode Island Advisory Committee for Educator Evaluation Systems (ACEES). This committee is made up of 25 members: The Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education; Commissioner of Higher Education (or designee); one representative from each of the state’s teacher unions (Rhode Island Federation of Teachers & Health Professionals and the National Education Association – Rhode Island); one superintendent; one school committee representative; principals and teachers representing elementary, middle, and high schools; professional support educators; one special educator; one secondary student; one parent; and one representative from the business community. Members of this committee are nominated for a two-year period.

ACEES works to ensure that all members of the education community are deeply engaged in the development and implementation of the Rhode Island Model for educator evaluation. ACEES acts in an advisory capacity to provide us with:

  • feedback on key evaluation system deliverables; and
  • direction for overall system development through the design principles.

This year, we are in a period of “gradual implementation,” which we describe this way:

An effective evaluation system is key to developing, supporting and improving the effectiveness of our educators as well as recognizing the outstanding performance of our most effective teachers and leaders. While it is substantial work to implement a new evaluation system, it is the right work. We owe it to our educators and our students to work together to overcome the challenges to implementing this new system. Before the Rhode Island Model is fully implemented in school year 2012‐13, we want to ensure that educators get a chance to practice implementing the system and provide feedback to the Rhode Island Department of Education. Gradual implementation allows districts to identify challenges and begin developing solutions before full implementation begins in 2012‐13.

During gradual implementation, teachers have set only two Student Learning Objectives and one Professional Growth Goal, and they will have only two classroom observations (one long, one short). Under full implementation, teachers will set up to four Student Learning Objectives and at least three Professional Growth Goals, and will have at least four observations.

We are continuing to gather guidance and feedback from educators across the state to ensure success next year when all districts move to full implementation.

In other states like Tennessee that now require yearly observations, there have been reports that some teachers feel the observation system is unfair and not indicative of how well they teach. Has there been push-back from teachers in Rhode Island? If a teacher disagrees with his or her rating, what can he or she do?

In Rhode Island, as part of our commitment to multiple measures, our system includes multiple observations of practice over a period of time, as well as other evidence of professional practice, so teachers have been largely supportive of this aspect of our educator-evaluation system. I truly believe that educators are proud of their best work and that our teachers are eager to show their colleagues teaching at its best.

Of course, it is also important that an evaluation system includes procedures for review and for appeal, which ours does. My hope and expectation is that teachers will invoke this process rarely (if at all), but we want to be sure an appeals procedure is available if needed.

What has been the most challenging aspect of changing the way Rhode Island evaluates its teachers?

Evaluations are a cultural change for some districts, and they are a challenge for all of us because we have to work really hard to ensure that our evaluations are fair, transparent and useful to educators.

We have to continue to engage educators in the process as we implement our evaluations. It has been important that we explain to the field that our evaluations are based on multiple measures, including but never limited to state assessments when appropriate. As our educators are becoming increasingly familiar with the Student Learning Objectives and the Rhode Island Growth Model, I am confident that teachers and school leaders across the state are committed to making our evaluations a success.

What lessons do you think other states can learn from what you have started in Rhode Island?

Communication is the key, beginning with involving teachers in the development and design process. Last year, as we were designing the evaluation system, I met with teachers in every district in the state to discuss with them face to face their ideas and concerns about evaluations. Throughout this year of gradual implementation, we have been holding webinars, panel discussions and meetings with groups of teachers and their leaders regarding the evaluation process. We truly want to know how the work is taking shape in the field, and it’s important to keep the channels of communication open and often—both ways.

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Letters to the Editor

5 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

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  1. A comprehensive Teacher Evaluation System is needed to allow teachers to reflect and be apart of the evaluation process. Evaluation data must readily available to teachers and principals must lead reflective conversations.

    Please feel free to review my system at:

    I also have a FREE iPad Teacher Evaluation System available at the itunes store.

  2. Dear Ms. Gist,
    I’m happy to hear that your surgery went well. I have an eleven boy that had the same brain tumor in 2010. My son’s was grade two and because he is a child and they are rare in children, he is monitored very closely. My son’s name is Colby he is the light of my life. I would love for you to meet him when you are feeling better. Colby attends Deerin Junior High School in West Warwick. My family has learned through this illness that we appreciate life and live each day to the fullest. My family wishes you the best!!
    Hope you feel better soon,
    Joyce Knott

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