Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Rhode Island Department of Education
I know that we are preventing most poor children from achieving the American dream by failing to provide them with a quality education. Poor, urban children can excel. Today — more than ever before — we know what needs to be done to provide the quality of education that will enable that success.
As a child, Deborah Gist always knew she wanted to be an educator. But when she completed a seventh-grade project at Nimitz Junior High School in Tulsa, Okla., called, “My career as a preschool teacher,” Gist never imagined that career choice would lead her to the superintendency of the same district she attended as a student.
Gist’s path to system leadership, indeed, 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. Because of that experience, her focus today remains what it was more than 20 years ago: classroom teaching.
“As a teacher, my classroom was my world,” Gist said. “I would always think, “What do you know about my classroom?’ and ‘Who are these people making these decisions?’ Remembering what that felt like has never left me… 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 decisions have been anything but weak-kneed. While serving as state education commissioner in Rhode Island, Gist pushed for a statewide graduation assessment to ensure that when students graduated from high school, their diplomas had real value. She also established 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 hiring and assignment decisions were made, ensuring that expertise and student need, not seniority, were 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 put it to good use, creating a system that follows the growth of each student, tracking how quickly they are improving and gaps in achievement and opportunity are narrowing. Gist also used 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.
That hard work won 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. She also attracted national media attention, being named one of The Atlantic’s “Big Thinkers” and to the TIME 100 list.
Through it all, Gist keeps an upbeat, accessible public profile. Her more than 10,000 followers on Twitter tune in regularly to learn what she is reading (The Power of Habit), what she appreciates about her hometown (among other things, “Tulsa’s thriving arts community!”), what she’s working on (waking up early for education roundtables on Twitter with #OklaEd) and even what music she listens to (Bruce Springsteen).
And when Gist speaks about her passion for educating children and “coming home” to lead Tulsa Public Schools, you can almost imagine some of Springsteen’s iconic lyrics playing in the background — lyrics about taking a stand for hard-working Americans seeking a leg up as they try to make a good life for themselves and their families.
“Professionally, I truly believe that serving as superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools is the opportunity I’ve been preparing for my entire life,” said Gist. “As a city, we have to really turn this into a conversation — a very real conversation about equity. We have to make sure all of our students are growing and achieving, and no student is prevented from achieving their maximum abilities.”
Photo by Christopher Morris
Elementary School Teacher
Senior Policy Analyst, U.S. Department of Education
State Superintendent of Education, District of Columbia
Commissioner, Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Superintendent, Tulsa Public Schools