Deborah Gist

In your first year as the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, you earned headlines for backing a plan to fire all the high-school teachers in the poorly performing district of Central Falls. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and even President Obama chimed in with support. Did the attention surprise you?

I think that just the visual for people was noticeable, and I think what exactly was happening was misunderstood. I think people seemed to feel that teachers were being blamed for the performance of the school, which was not the way we understood what was happening.

Perhaps overshadowed by the Central Falls controversy, you’ve put forth a dramatic reform agenda aimed at improving teacher quality. To help, you created a new evaluation system that requires an annual review of all teachers.

I think most professionals would be surprised to know [that annual reviews] weren’t already in place. 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. I meet teachers in our state all the time who are more than ready to be held accountable for their work and are very proud of the results that they’re able to see with their students.

What’s gotten the most attention is that evaluations will be primarily based on measures of student growth and achievement.

Critics say evaluating teachers this way puts too much blame on them for a lack of student achievement.

I think some of that reaction is responding to what is happening nationally. I think people have a sense of a “blame the teachers” [mentality]. Our thinking couldn’t be further from that. But that said, perception is important. We are constantly talking about how we can do a better job of communicating—how we can explain and engage and provide opportunities for feedback—and we’ll never stop.

You’ve spoken out against the idea that social and economic disadvantages are bound to contribute to low performance, saying such thinking creates a culture of low expectations. But these issues are real obstacles, aren’t they?

[As a grade-school teacher] I have worked in neighborhoods similar to the ones that we’re describing; I understand the kinds of challenges that families face and that teachers need to work through to make sure that students are achieving at high levels. I met a young college student who had been in foster care her entire life, and she would use the sympathy that her teachers had for her in order to avoid class work. She said to me, “I really wish my teachers had not accepted those excuses.” It’s not that you can’t be compassionate in your high expectations—you have to be. We want our students to know how much we care about them, but we also need them to know that because we care about them, we’re going to make sure that they get the education that they need and deserve.

Earlier this year, you called on the entire state to get behind education reform.

Our goal is to have the best public schools in America, and we can’t meet that goal with just our educators alone. This cannot rest on just our schools. Everywhere I go, people are stopping me and saying, “How do I help?” and “How can I be a part of this?” “What can we do?”

Where does your sense of urgency come from? What do you think is at stake?

Children’s lives. Right now only 75 percent of our students are graduating from high school statewide, and in our urban centers, that number can be lower than 50 percent. The chances for students who drop out of high school are dramatically diminished. I think we can’t underestimate how serious the work that we do is.

—Interview by Rachael Brown, associate editor at The Atlantic