Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Rhode Island Department of Education
The biographical summary on Deborah Gist’s Twitter profile says it all: “A teacher who happens to be Commissioner of Education for the state of Rhode Island.”
Gist’s road to commissioner began in the classroom, first in Fort Worth, Texas, and then in Tampa, Fla., where she created and implemented a family literacy program across more than 100 elementary schools. Her focus today remains what it was more than 20 years ago: classroom teaching.
“I cannot imagine wanting to do anything other than helping children to learn,” Gist said when she was appointed in 2009. “I will never – even for a moment – forget the joys and challenges of teaching children every day, and that is the heart of every decision I make as a leader.”
Those early decisions have been anything but weak-kneed. Gist has established a statewide exit exam to ensure that when Rhode Island students graduate from high school, their diplomas have real value. She pushed for a more robust evaluation system to help educators continuously improve their instructional practices and a mentorship program to provide first-year teachers with the professional support they need. And she implemented new policies that required a sea-change in the way teacher assignment decisions were made. Now qualifications and student need, not seniority, are the primary drivers.
“Professionalism is about being respected for the work that you do, being acknowledged for the work that you do, and being accountable for the work that you do,” Gist says.
For her efforts, Rhode Island won $75 million in federal Race to the Top funding. Gist has put it to good use, creating a system that follows the growth of each student, tracking how quickly they are improving and gaps are narrowing. Gist also is using the grant to transform the state’s funding formula to respond to student needs, make school performance and finance data more transparent for families and incorporate technology into the classroom.
Rhode Island is winning results, too. In 2013, the state’s fourth and eighth graders outperformed the national average in math and reading for the first time in history. And Gist isn’t done yet. She’s pushing to boost graduation rates, close achievement gaps and continue advancing the mission for the state’s students and teachers.
Through it all, Gist keeps an upbeat, and accessible, public profile. Thousands of Twitter followers tune in to see what she is reading (The Power of Habit), what she loves about Rhode Island (plentiful pictures of the coast), what she’s working on (waking up at 5 a.m. for education roundtables with #EdChatRI) and even what she likes to wear. In a riff on the famous saying of her former home state, Gist loves the T-shirt that reads, “Don’t mess with Rhode Island either.”
But she’s eager to replace it with a different one.
“My goal,” she says, “is to see people wearing a t-shirt that declares: ‘Rhode Island: Home of America’s Best Public Schools.’”
Gist Prioritizes Teachers' Needs
Photo by Christopher Morris
Elementary School Teacher
Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Department of Education
State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia, 2007-2009
Currently State Education Commissioner, Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education