The auditorium at Cranston High School West had standing room only Monday for an education forum coordinated by the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI) and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP).
While moderator Frank Flynn, RIFTHP president, said all opinions were welcome, the position of speakers over the two-hour session was unanimous. In particular, the audience of roughly 600 educators called for denial of the contract renewal of Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.
“Tell her to take her little show on the road,” said Warwick teacher Darlene Netcoh.
She says Gist has been insulting teachers from the start, and believes the commissioner is using Rhode Island as a political stepping-stone.
Gist did not attend the forum, but in a statement last week remained resolute on her policies.
“As Commissioner of Education, I am well aware that I must at times advance policies and initiatives that require our professional educators to change current practices, and that these changes can prove to be challenging and uncomfortable, at least initially,” she said. “While it is important to take into account all points of view, including the teachers’, I cannot and do not base my decisions on public outcry or popular opinion. Rather, I base every decision I make on what is in the best interest of our students.”
Despite the many comments made criticizing Gist, Flynn said the forum was a means for educators to have their voices heard at the state level. Gist’s contract is up at the end of June and will be discussed at the Rhode Island Board of Education’s meeting on Thursday at URI. The comments made Monday will be shared with the board Thursday. Colleen Callahan from the board attended the forum to listen to what the statewide educators had to say.
“This isn’t about attacking the commissioner,” Flynn said. “This is not a union event today; this is a teacher event. We want to tell your story.”
In terms of teacher satisfaction with the commissioner, Bob Walsh, NEARI executive director, says he has never seen numbers this bad. In their internal polling, 73 percent of teachers said they find Gist to be somewhat ineffective or ineffective, and 82 percent say they feel less respected under her tenure. A staggering 85 percent said they do not think the commissioner’s contract should be renewed and 61 percent say they wouldn’t have become teachers if they knew then what they know now.
“That breaks my heart,” said Walsh.
Warwick Teachers Union President James Ginolfi said local surveys show even more dismal figures. When asked if the new evaluation process has made them more effective, 97 percent of Warwick teachers said no. When asked if morale has suffered, 96 percent said yes.
“There’s no leadership here,” he said.
Gist says she is ready to face the board as they consider her contract, and said she would take the opinions and suggestions expressed this week into consideration.
“As we work together to transform education in Rhode Island, I believe that all educators, myself included, should receive regular evaluations that provide us with feedback to help us improve our performance as professionals,” she said in a statement. “I welcome this feedback, just as I welcome specific suggestions from educators as to how we can build a better mutual understanding to improve student achievement. I am hopeful that in the coming years we can avoid acrimony and focus on our common goal of preparing students for success.”
Providence teacher Dan Wall does not believe the current climate is conducive to student achievement. He says the voice of educators has been marginalized, and the focus turned to testing.
“It has served to narrow our educational focus and curriculum,” he said.
Wall believes that Gist is too far removed from the “everyday realities of the classroom,” and said the disconnect between state leaders and rank and file educators cannot be repaired as long as she stays in office.
“It has been said that every now and then, a leader ought to look back and see if anyone is following. Deb Gist has never,” he said.
Educator morale was a common thread throughout the forum, with many teachers saying they cannot wait for the school year to end, and find themselves dreading the start of a new year.
Bristol teacher Brian Chidester said low morale impacts student achievement.
“Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” he said.
If Gist’s contract is renewed, Chidester went as far as to say that “civil disobedience” could be likely among educators.
Pat Dalfonso, vice president of the West Warwick Teachers Alliance, read a letter on behalf of her president, Sean Doyle, that said that teachers are physically and emotionally tired, with morale at an all-time low.
“This commissioner has not led, she has bullied. We, and the profession we love, have been abandoned by our state leaders,” Doyle wrote.
Heather Rodrigues, who teaches at Tolman, said she is sick of teachers being painted as villains. She got into education because she loves working with children, and said the same is true for her colleagues.
Rodrigues says she continues to teach to the best of her ability, despite being in a classroom with a four-foot hole in her ceiling covered by a garbage bag.
“I am not a cricket,” she said, referencing a previous comment made by Gist about how few teachers came out in opposition of her teacher evaluation proposal. “I am a teacher and this is my union.”
Rodrigues’ comments earned her a standing ovation, one of several throughout the forum. As speakers stepped to the podium, the sound of crickets played in the background.
One issue brought up consistently is high-stakes testing. Alfred Pannone, a teacher from Cranston West, said the NECAP test and its relevance to teacher evaluations is punitive to educators. He believes classroom performance should take precedence over all other factors when gauging the effectiveness of a teacher.
“The students’ performance on these assessments does not affect their grade, it only affects the teacher’s evaluation,” he said.
Mary Bettez from Coventry added that student learning objectives (SLO) is likewise an unfair measure of assessment, as the needs, abilities and progress of students is varied. Instead, it puts stress on teachers and takes up valuable classroom time.
“Much of my time is spent helping teachers record data and helping administrators to understand the data teachers have recorded,” she said. “I’m very concerned about what is not being taught, and you should be too.”
Providence teacher Alex Lucini said he was brought to tears recently when he walked into a sixth grade classroom to see a display about why the students should learn to read English. One student wrote, “knowledge is power” and another said they wanted to own their own business.
The third student wrote, “So I can pass the NECAP.”
“It seems like our job is to comply with RIDE mandates,” he said. “Our students deserve more than what they’re being given.”