RI Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist spent nearly two hours discussing a wide array of educational issues affecting students, teachers and parents of children from grades K-12 in the Media Center at Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School on Monday night.
At a session called, ‘How’s School? A Parent Forum’, Gist spoke before an audience of 35 parents, educators, Coventry School Committee members and other citizens. She was introduced by Pam O’Brien, Coventry PTA Council President and Rhode Island PTA President-Elect, on behalf of the RI PTA, a co-sponsor of the event open to the public and media.
“We are all here tonight to share a common goal,” Gist began. “We have a shared commitment to education for the love of our children with a connection to the community. The partnership between parents and schools is critically important and is a shared responsibility.”
“A good learning experience often starts at home," she went on to say. “Parents have to foster a love of learning and show how much fun it is to learn.”
In the open discussion, three educators said they were “excited” about the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Math and English/Language Arts being instituted in their schools, part of a state mandate. The state also joined PARCC, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, in 2010 which will help the state assess the progress and growth of all students.
“Our goal is to have every child graduate and be ready for success in college, the military, technical trades and in the work world,” Gist said. Members of the class of 2014 will be the first senior high school class in each public school throughout RI to be tested to see if they meet CCSS requirements.
“They will have to be at least partially proficient in Reading and Math and that is a minimum expectation,” Gist said. “That will help them get into community college and get a reasonable job. But we want students to do better than that.”
Gist emphasized children at every learning level and in any community have the ability to succeed. “All children can achieve at high levels. All children, even in high poverty areas, can learn with the correct support," she said.
“The No Child Left Behind Act ensured all students were reaching a minimum bar, but it didn’t measure student growth. Now we want every student to excel to their greatest ability.”
Evaluation and testing of students can be overdone, she noted. “There have been schools that have made dramatic gains and none of them practiced just taking tests. At these schools there was great instruction with amazing teachers engaging students in meaningful ways. And parents are also engaged in schools that work. There is misplaced emphasis sometimes on assessments,” Gist admitted.
“Learning is more than making assessments. That’s just one way of measuring growth. It’s also about students acquiring skills, knowledge information and abilities.” With other states also having to establish CCSS requirements in the next few years, "we will now have the same expectations as every other state in the country,” Gist said.
"So we can compare results with communities and schools of similar sizes. We will now have a shared language across states about content and thinking and applying that knowledge to the curriculum.”
Coventry School Committee member, Judith Liner asked if Rhode Island could follow other high schools who allow older students to start school later since many brain study results indicate they achieve better later in the morning.
“We should leave that decision to each local community because they have to decide how it could impact jobs and sports and other after-school activities,” Gist answered.
When asked if kindergarten should be extended full-day for all students, Gist said it should not be mandatory in every community, but added: “Many studies have shown it (full-day classes) is effective and saves on transportation and on other costs down the line.”
The commissioner said there should be “dramatic rethinking how schools are set up. We must look at how we can set up a different school day and use different models for learning.”
"Professional development is another essential key,” she said. “We have trained over 4,000 educators thus far, referring to the CCSS being implemented. “We want to promote a culture of continual improvement and professional growth. There is power in the feedback of professionals.”
Gist indicated virtual learning will likely play a bigger part in teaching with online courses. “Technology is changing so rapidly,” she said. “The governor’s budget has included investing in wireless technology and access to routers and servers.”
One parent said he could not understand what was being taught to his second-grade child. “We are setting up sessions to have teachers show the parents how to teach the kids,” said one Hopkins Hill School parent.
One educator in the audience said “the days of social promotion are gone” but worried about her child and others being “stuck in educational purgatory” if a student meets or exceeds standards ahead of their peers. “Some might be reading at seven words per minute and others at 180 words per minute. They get bored and lazy.”
“Don’t lump students into any one category,” said Gist. “Many gifted and special needs students have a lot in common. It is important to challenge them with a wide range of materials and that can be done in a classroom. We are developing more support for teachers on how to extend learning for students. We want every person involved in education to ask questions,” she explained.
“Parents should ask children their children every day: ‘How’s school? ‘ We should ask every teacher, ‘How can we help you?’ And we should ask our elected officials: ‘How’s school?’”
Within a few years, the commissioner hopes the process of setting and meeting higher standards in education for teachers and students will make a profound impact.
“I would like to have a sign along Rt. 95 that says: Welcome to Rhode Island, Home of America’s Best Public Schools,” she said. “Society sometimes sends a message that it is not good to go to school,” Gist lamented “On a talk show the other day they talked about students moaning and whining about coming back from vacation. We must change that with a stronger climate of belief to show the power and importance of education.”
For more information about the CCSS and other educational issues, go to www.ride.ri.gov.