Failing schools are a drain on the state's already sluggish economy and require wholesale transformation, not just minor tinkering, state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist told lawmakers Wednesday in a speech on education reform.
Gist, whose reform efforts led to the firings of all teachers and staff at one of the state's worst-performing schools, said test scores in the state need vast improvement, the graduation rate must grow and too few high school graduates — just more than half — are heading directly to college.
Improving schools is critical to the economy in Rhode Island, a state with nearly 13 percent unemployment, since students who drop out will struggle and be a cost to society, Gist said in an address to the General Assembly.
"We cannot thrive in a knowledge-based marketplace if 45 percent of our high-school students cannot do math and 39 percent cannot do science at the very basic level," said Gist, who is in her first year as commissioner of elementary and secondary education.
The commissioner annually addresses the Legislature.
Gist had identified the high school in January as among the worst-performing in the state and ordered its leaders to pick from one of four reform plans. Superintendent Frances Gallo elected to fire the staff, effective at the end of the school year. The teachers union is appealing, and its president has said she's optimistic that negotiations can avert the firings.
President Barack Obama has called the firings an example of the need to hold failing schools accountable, and Gist on Wednesday said failing schools will continue to need drastic action.
"We can no longer tinker around the edges of our persistently lowest-achieving schools," she said. "They urgently need a total transformation: of instruction, data, programs, partners, training, governance, and an excellent teacher in every classroom and an excellent principal in every school."
Rhode Island was one of 16 finalists in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition for education grants. The state lost out but hopes to be more competitive in the second round, Gist said.
She said she expected the state would gain points because of legislation signed by Gov. Don Carcieri last month to raise the cap on charter schools from 20 to 35. She also called on lawmakers to create a formula for school funding based on district size and student need.
Gist said she was troubled by the state's continuing poor test scores, noting only 17 percent of low-income students were proficient in reading, according to the 2009 Nation's Report Card.
But she did single out some accomplishments, including establishing a state-funded pre-kindergarten program and creating a statewide evaluation standard for educators.
Rep. Joseph McNamara, a Warwick Democrat, said he respected Gist's aggressive approach to failing schools.
"It is an economic issue that has to be addressed, and it is in everyone's interests to make sure that we do reform graduation rates," McNamara said. "If we don't have an educated work force, we will continue to flounder economically."
But Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said there are other ways to improve failing schools besides firing the teachers.
Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.