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TULSA, Oklahoma — On a fall morning in 2018, veteran technology teacher Abraham Kamara was working with his robotics team at Memorial Junior High School when Tulsa school superintendent Deborah Gist entered the classroom with a TV news crew. Gist was there to surprise Kamara with the school year’s first Golden Apple Award, recognizing him as one of Tulsa’s “outstanding teachers.”
“We have heard so much about everything you do … making sure your kids have all the tools they need to be successful,” said Gist, her exuberance matched by the candy-apple red blazer she wore for the occasion. Handing him the palm-sized trophy, she continued, “We also recognize that you go above and beyond in this room, often at your own expense,” adding that the award comes with a $500 classroom grant.
Gist launched Tulsa’s Golden Apple Awards when she took the helm of the district three years ago, partnering with the local Fox News affiliate, where the awards are a regular morning show feature, and cable operator Cox Communications, which funds the grant.
Kamara, a native of Sierra Leone who fled the country’s civil war, was nearly moved to tears by the award. It’s a gesture of appreciation that goes a long way in a school district beset by steep budget cuts and a long-standing teacher shortage. According to the most recent available Department of Education figures, Oklahoma spends less money per pupil than all but three states. First-year teachers in the state earn less than $38,000 a year, making them some of the nation’s worst paid, and 40 percent of Tulsa’s teachers have less than five years of experience, district officials say.
After years of budget cuts and low teacher pay, Oklahoma has become the latest flashpoint in a roiling national debate over education spending. Last spring, teachers in the state staged a walkout, marching 110 miles from Tulsa to the state capitol in Oklahoma City to demand higher salaries. Last week, a Republican state representative introduced a bill that would not only make future walkouts illegal, but ban teachers who participate from ever teaching in the state. It’s the latest sign of the ongoing animosity between state lawmakers combatting what they see as union overreach and educators rallying against the lack of resources in their schools.
Gist has put Tulsa, the state’s second-largest school district, at the forefront of this battle. She joined union members on the walkout last spring, and has consistently called for the state to not only pay teachers competitive salaries but adequately fund school districts routinely facing crippling budget cuts.
It’s been a dramatic transformation for this longtime education reformer. Back when she arrived in Tulsa from Rhode Island in 2015, she was the last person local teachers would have imagined as their standard bearer. With a national reputation as a hard-charging school reformer willing to shake up the status quo in pursuit of excellence in the classroom, she was better known for firing teachers than marching with them.
Her shift from teachers’ union adversary to ally is part of a turning tide in the education wars. For most of the past two decades, those battles have been waged primarily among East Coast liberals over standardized testing and charter schools. But in the past few years—under a Republican Congress and a White House whose tax cuts for the wealthy have set the course for a trillion-dollar deficit, threatening deeper cuts to education—the battle lines have shifted to deep-red states, including Oklahoma, West Virginia and Arizona, where chronically low pay has starved schools and led to teacher walkouts. Now the fight is less about how public schools can achieve excellence, and more about how they can survive.
“In states that underfund education … they tend to see the more contentious issues as distractions they can’t afford,” says Jeffrey Henig, professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.) “Rather than these bitter battles between reformers and teachers, you see things — like teacher strikes — that are broadly popular because almost everyone recognizes that there’s a problem of underfunding.”
In this conservative right-to-work state where funding dipped so low that some districts had to move to a four-day school week, Gist has become a vocal advocate for her district’s teachers. When she pounded the pavement with union members along Oklahoma highways last April, she used her platform to talk not about grand ideas of reimagining education, as she used to do in Rhode Island, but about the need to pay teachers a living wage. In Rhode Island, with infusions of federal cash and stable state funding, a reformer like Gist could afford an adversarial relationship with the teachers’ union. In Tulsa, she needs all the bodies in her classrooms she can get.
“I knew coming into Tulsa that Oklahoma spent less than half per student of what Rhode Island did,” says Gist. “What I didn’t anticipate was the continued cuts we’d be receiving. I didn’t fully realize what that would mean in terms of the lack of adults in our schools … and the pressure that creates.”
This shift of emphasis from disruption to funding coincides with a nationwide retreat from the my-way-or-the-highway approach to reform that sought big change as fast as possible. In the past decade, in large urban school systems, even those with stable funding, a roster of outside reformers like Joel Klein in New York, Michelle Rhee in Washington and John Deasy in Los Angeles gave way to more consensus-driven successors. (Over the summer, L.A. swung decidedly back to the reformer model in selecting a former investment banker. Teachers there staged a strike last month.)
“There has been a little tarnish on the idea that the way to improve education … is to come in and just shake things up,” says Henig, who notes that few of the tough-minded reformers have been able to deliver successful results in the classroom. “What you see now are less sharp elbows and more attention to the work of improving instruction and supporting teachers.”
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Marching in solidarity with union leaders is a far cry from the controversial teacher evaluations Gist spearheaded during her last gig, as commissioner of the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE). From 2009 to 2015, Gist embarked on an ambitious mission to reform education in a state tiny enough to make it a perfect petri dish for quick and dramatic change. Along with her strong support for charter schools and the Common Core curriculum, Gist was convinced that great student outcomes could be directly tied to teaching excellence. She made educator effectiveness the centerpiece of her agenda.
Gist’s debut on the national education stage began with her decision in 2010 to authorize the firing of the entire school staff at low-performing Central Falls High School, an episode that garnered widespread coverage when President Barack Obama weighed in supporting the ouster. Although most of those who lost their jobs were eventually rehired, the episode set the tone for what would be a rocky relationship between Gist and teachers throughout her tenure.
Inheriting a system based largely on seniority, she ushered in a new set of standards for the teacher evaluation process, one that would use measurable data to determine teacher tenure and compensation on an annual basis. That data would come, in large part, from student performance on standardized tests. This was met with immediate opposition from teachers, who felt they were being made scapegoats for poor student results.
But in an era of bold, no-nonsense school leadership, the standards plan put Gist on the map as a rising star in education. In 2010, Gist’s department was awarded $75 million through an Obama administration Race to the Top grant to implement her reforms. That same year she made Time magazine’s annual list of the most influential thinkers, joining Elizabeth Warren and Elon Musk.
Gist was riding a wave of education reform that began under President George W. Bush but gained much of its momentum under Obama: a bipartisan push to use accountability and high-stakes testing to turn around struggling, largely urban, school systems, as well as a nationwide expansion of charter networks. It was a movement that strained alliances between Democrats and long-standing political allies, such as labor leaders who saw in the largely nonunion charter school staffs a threat to teachers unions already dealing with contracting membership. The unions’ continued support of Democratic candidates was only because the alternative — Republicans — was even more unpalatable.
But the untested reforms and their lofty rhetoric met with messy realities. States around the country grappled with the consequences of grading their teachers, and parents in well-funded progressive districts mobilized against the rising emphasis on tests and the tougher new Common Core standards in an opt-out movement.
In Rhode Island, mounting opposition to Gist’s teacher evaluation reforms forced her to make a series of compromises. In 2010, she agreed to lower the impact of student test scores on teacher evaluations; the following year, she acquiesced to a gradual rollout of the entire program and eventually reduced the frequency of evaluations for teachers who had received high marks in the past.
The concessions did little to improve Gist’s standing with teachers. In the spring of 2013, a phone survey commissioned by one of the state’s teachers unions found that 85 percent of its members opposed Gist’s contract being renewed. The state’s education board disagreed, and approved a two-year renewal.
Frank Flynn, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teacher and Healthcare Professionals, diplomatically described his working relationship with Gist at that time as “cordial,” but noted that “her [teacher] evaluation models … created a lot of friction … as well as her expansion of the charter school system, which we felt was creating a parallel school system in some of our districts.”
By 2015, with the board’s support for another renewal seeming less certain, Gist announced that she was leaving Rhode Island for another position. Her departure wasn’t a surprise. But the destination, a district-level job in Tulsa, a city largely defined by the boom and bust cycles of the oil industry, did raise a few eyebrows.
“She was a state commissioner, and now she’s a district superintendent. … It’s not the normal [career] trajectory,” says Flynn. Gist, however, who was born and raised in Tulsa, saw an opportunity to come home. “You bloom where you’re planted,” she says.
Gist grew up among working-class Tulsans. As a child, she and her family moved around a lot. She jokes that she knows Tulsa’s schools so well because she attended so many of them, graduating from Memorial High School in 1984.
She knew early on that education was her calling. From behind her desk, on a recent fall afternoon, she pulls out a faded portfolio titled, “My Career as a Preschool Teacher.” She made it as an eighth-grader at Tulsa’s Nimitz Junior High School for a project researching career options. She flips through pages of impeccable cursive handwriting extolling the importance of teaching, interspersed with magazine photos of students in 1970s-style plaid sweaters and bowl haircuts.
“For this project, I had to interview Mrs. Means, my old preschool teacher,” Gist says. “I’ll never forget, my dad drove me to her house, and I sat down, asking her questions.”
After getting a degree in early childhood education from the University of Oklahoma, Gist embarked on a career that took her from being a classroom teacher in Texas and Florida to positions in the nation’s capital, first as a policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Education and later as Washington’s inaugural state superintendent before becoming commissioner in Rhode Island.
As her career flourished, her thoughts never strayed far from Tulsa: “I’ve often said this would be my dream job, coming back home.”
The homecoming wasn’t embraced by everyone, including the city’s teachers. “We expected the worst,” says Patti Ferguson-Palmer, president of the Tulsa Classroom Teachers Association, the district’s teachers’ union. “I blame the education reform movement for making teaching an unattractive profession.” In February 2015, when Tulsa’s school board convened to vote to approve Gist’s hiring, Ferguson-Palmer and her union members walked out of the meeting in protest.
Gist rejects the idea that in Rhode Island she was an inflexible reformer who ran roughshod over teachers, pointing out that local districts always retained the flexibility to develop their own evaluation standards. She views her legacy instead through the prism of the state’s transformation into a national leader in personalized learning, a technology-based classroom approach that enables students to master material at their own pace. Supporters view the model as crucial for creating independent and self-directed learners. “Gist really laid the foundation of what we’re talking about today for personalized learning,” says Megan Geoghegan, RIDE’s current communications director.
A lot of teachers have gotten behind personalized learning and similar teaching models. But many view the push for personalized learning, and the Silicon Valley giants who support it, with as much skepticism as test-based teacher evaluations and the Common Core. A push led by frustrated teachers and parents in Maine, for example, led to a statewide rollback of proficiency-based learning, in which students work at their own pace without hard deadlines and are offered multiple opportunities to demonstrate that they’ve mastered material, in favor of more traditional methods.
Gist, however, says she learned many lessons from her time in Rhode Island. In her doctoral dissertation, a self-analysis of her first few years as commissioner, she acknowledges that the mass firing at Central Falls High School “damaged my credibility with many of our teachers,” and that the ensuing lack of trust, coupled with the failure to maintain productive working relationships with teacher representatives, only made matters worse.
Gist now considers widespread buy-in a prerequisite for any type of significant change. “If you issue these declarations and don’t allow choice or flexibility,” she says, “you get pushback and failed implementation.”
Eager to get things off to a better start when she accepted the Tulsa offer in 2015, Gist made it a priority to reach out to teachers early on, holding an informational session with Ferguson-Palmer and her union board in which Gist encouraged them to ask her anything, no matter how uncomfortable. The meeting left a positive impression on union members but didn’t eliminate inevitable disagreements.
“We’ve had some real fights, but I feel like we’ve reached a place where we understand each other,” says Ferguson-Palmer, whose union office sits directly across the street from district headquarters. Early on, Ferguson-Palmer says, they agreed to reach out to each other directly with any problems before going to the press.
The enormity of the funding challenges has made cooperation easier. There is simply no alternative.
In some ways, the Obama-era school reform skirmishes were a problem of luxury. For all the debate between teachers’ unions and change agents, the question was how to best allocate the billions of funds the federal government was directing toward schools. The recession-bred federal stimulus package helped camouflage the drastic cuts some state legislatures were making to education budgets. Now, those extra funds are gone, and in last year’s budget proposal, the Trump administration called for $3 billion in cuts to the Education Department (along with an increase for school choice programs).
Oklahoma made the deepest cuts to education during the recession of all 50 states, but schools there have had to scrimp for a generation. Thirty years ago, when Gist began her career in an elementary classroom, she, like many Oklahomans with a desire to teach, left the state to do so. “Oklahoma would have paid me $15,000 a year, but I could earn $21,000 in Texas. And the gap is much greater today,” she says.
Now, after decades of hemorrhaging potential talent because of the low pay, Tulsa faces a chronic teacher shortage. This fall, more than 300 of its roughly 2,000 teachers were working under emergency certification status, a designation that allows the district to hire teachers who have not yet met state teaching requirements. It’s not a desirable tool, but Gist says it has been necessary. In her first summer as superintendent, she found 75 classroom vacancies looming for the upcoming school year with just a few short weeks to fill them.
“I was personally calling candidates who were on the fence,” she says. “I took balloons to one teacher’s house who had left the district. I showed up at her door and was like ‘You have to come back.’”
The vacancies were eventually filled by the start of the school year, but several members of her staff spent a week or two covering classrooms for 11th-hour teacher hires still waiting for paperwork to clear before starting the job. Gist herself volunteered, serving as a teacher at Marshall Elementary School for the opening weeks of school.
Compounding the teacher shortage is the bare bones state-level funding that annually requires Gist, like her predecessors, to make significant cuts to the school budget. In her first year, Gist ordered an efficiency audit of district finances and identified areas where spending could be reallocated. “My plan was to take that money and … reinvest it back into classrooms.” But when Oklahoma lawmakers approved their annual budget, Gist found she was looking at a $13 million reduction in spending. Instead of putting the money she’d found into teacher and classroom supports, she had to cut it altogether to balance her budget.
It’s a pattern that is destroying the morale of educators and fraying the district’s ability to function, Gist says. It’s also part of a pattern that sent teachers on strike last April. But despite all the publicity generated by last year’s walkout, the statewide union, whose membership has declined since the state’s right-to-work law was enacted, ended up settling largely for what lawmakers had offered before the walkout began: a modest increase in school funding and a $6,000 raise for teachers, their first increase in 10 years, and one that Tulsa union head Ferguson-Palmer says is not adequate.
“I just had two members call me asking for funds to help pay their bills,” she says in her office. “Every month I hear from at least one person who says, ‘I can’t pay my rent this month.’”
Gist is adamant that the trend of scrimping on education can’t simply continue indefinitely. The district has already merged schools and eliminated teaching positions to avoid a four-day school week or other, more drastic decisions.
“We cannot cut our way out of this budget crisis,” Gist told new principals in a meeting at the Mayo Demonstration School in early September. And this year, she says she’s “taking a pause” from annual budget cuts, opting to plug the upcoming deficit using $8 million from the district’s fund balance, reserves that are typically meant for emergency contingencies and to cover cash outlays until state reimbursement funds arrive. It’s a one-off strategy that Gist hopes will buy the district time to make longer-term decisions.
Even in the face of such steep budget challenges, Gist, drawing from her days as a future-minded reformer, harbors big ambitions for Tulsa schools. But she has picked projects that are less politically fraught and has had to be creative in pursuing them.
Two of the biggest moves Tulsa has made during her tenure — launching a data and analytics team and opening a Montessori school — were made possible largely through private, rather than state, funding.
Data often has a negative connotation in education because it’s been tied to student testing and to identifying poor-performing teachers, Gist says. Her new initiative is meant to empower teachers by giving them one-stop access to student metrics like attendance, grades, graduation credits and counseling interventions in a user-friendly, app-like dashboard they can access at any time.
“Our data and analytics are very high in teacher surveys on what they like,” Gist says. “We want teachers and school leaders to see data as a tool to build knowledge that allows us to serve kids better.”
The data team has nine employees, only three of whom are on the district payroll. The rest are funded through philanthropic efforts secured by the Foundation for Tulsa Schools, a nonprofit entity that works with the school district to secure outside funding.
The Montessori school is another idea with widespread appeal that Gist hopes will make Tulsa a more attractive environment for teachers to work in. It’s perhaps telling that the latest billionaire to begin investing in education, Jeff Bezos, chose to invest in Montessori over the much more controversial emphases of earlier funders like Bill Gates, who went big on Common Core and charter schools. Although the school in Tulsa demands a lot from teachers, many were eager to sign up for the school’s two-year professional development program. Gist reached out to existing Montessori schools to help devise the training, all paid for through the Foundation for Tulsa Schools’ fundraising.
Still, no amount of coalition building, private philanthropy or partnering with nonprofits is ever going to replace adequate statewide funding, and in Tulsa, Gist and her teacher allies are girding themselves for the political battles ahead as they try to convince the Republican state legislature to make education a priority. Gist also hopes that the private partnerships can yield results that show lawmakers additional funding would be worth it.
“At the local level, this is not a red/blue issue,” says Andrea Gabor, author of After the Education Wars. “The battle to save schools crosses party lines, with activists being deliberately nonpartisan in seeking support.”
“Our membership is 60 percent Republican,” says Tulsa union head Ferguson-Palmer. Since April’s teacher walkout, she says she has heard from members who have changed how they feel about the Republican Party after its hardline stance against funding increases. And that has led to political action well beyond staples like voter registration. Four union members running for state government won their primaries last year. Both a classroom teacher and assistant principal from Tulsa went on to win election to statewide office in November. But in a deep red state with a conservative governor and legislature, any changes will be incremental.
As for Gist, she knows the budget and staffing challenges are steep, but she relishes working at the district level where her decisions can have a direct impact on local communities.
“Everywhere I’ve ever been, I’ve believed in the role of education as a driver to improve, strengthen and make people’s lives better.” She insists there’s no place she’d rather be.
“My faith is very important to me. I believe that the work that I’ve done, the places that I’ve been and the experiences I’ve had are not by accident. Being home in Tulsa … is very special. Not as a professional steppingstone opportunity but as an opportunity to make a difference.”
Perhaps it is in Tulsa that she will achieve reform of a different sort: finding a way, through innovation and partnerships with local civic and business leaders, to convince those even in a fiscally conservative state that education is an investment worth making.