Thursday, Apr. 29, 2010

Deborah Gist

When Deborah Gist became commissioner of Rhode Island schools in 2009, she pledged to make every decision in the best interests of children — something we've heard before and rarely seen happen. Then she started doing it.

At first, no one outside Rhode Island noticed. Gist, 43, announced that staffing decisions would be based on teacher qualifications, not seniority. She also launched a new evaluation system in which teachers get annual reviews — an idea practiced in only 15 other states. When she learned that Rhode Island's teacher-training programs had one of the lowest test-score requirements for entrance, she found out which state set the bar the highest — then raised Rhode Island's one point above it.

Recently, the rest of the nation took note when a superintendent, acting with Gist's support, fired all of the teachers at one of the state's worst schools after they rejected a series of proposed reforms. In March, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and President Obama enraged the teachers' union by voicing support for the move.

So now Gist is caught in a familiar storm. But so far, she is navigating the tumult with grace — talking about teachers with the respect that comes from having been one, while still putting students' interests first.

Ripley is a TIME contributor who writes about education reform and other topics from Washington

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