Teaching Profession

A Dust-Up, Then Peace, Between Diane Ravitch, Deborah Gist

By Sean Cavanagh — May 13, 2011 4 min read
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Diane Ravitch is a former assistant U.S. secretary of education and one of the country’s leading historians of education. Deborah Gist is the education commissioner in Rhode Island and a nationally watched leader for her aggressive efforts to improve schools in her state.

But a meeting this month between the two became the source of unusual controversy, after Ravitch wrote a online item accusing Gist of cutting her off repeatedly during the discussion—an account that the Rhode Island official disputed.

As of late Friday, both sides indicated they wanted to move on. Gist had sent a conciliatory letter to Ravitch, who received it favorably.

The original disagreement arose from a meeting that Ravitch and Gist had with Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee at the state Capitol in Providence. Ravitch, who co-authors the Bridging Differences blog for Education Week, was in Rhode Island to speak at a teachers’ college, on a trip sponsored by the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers. She says she was under the impression that the May 3 meeting with Chafee was going to be a private one, but later learned that it would be attended by Gist.

Ravitch had a brief, private meeting with Chafee, and then sat in on a longer meeting that included the governor, the schools chief, a top aide to the governor, leaders of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, and a videographer who a state department of education official said is making a film on school issues Rhode Island.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the changes in school policy being debated in Rhode Island and nationwide, the meeting touched on some contentious topics, including how teachers should be evaluated and the proper uses of testing. Little attention was paid to the discussion after that, until a week later, when Ravitch posted an item on her blog accusing Gist of cutting her off repeatedly and attempting to take over the discussion.

“Gist is clearly a very smart, articulate woman,” Ravitch wrote on May 10. “But she dominated the conversation, interrupted me whenever I spoke, and filibustered to use up the limited time. Whenever I raised an issue, she would interrupt to say, ‘That isn’t happening here.’ ... In many years of meeting with public officials, I have never encountered such rudeness and incivility. I am waiting for an apology.”

Gist remembers things differently. In an interview with me Friday afternoon, she described the session, which lasted 50 minutes, as a “productive meeting and a good conversation.”

Ravitch has emerged as a prominent critic of what she sees as an overemphasis on high-stakes testing, and misconceived plans for paying and evaluating teachers based on student test scores. In an email, Ravitch said that during the meeting, she talked about the potential misuse of value-added testing measures and similar strategies. Gist said that in a few of those instances, she sought to point out that many of policies Ravitch was concerned about are not being used in Rhode Island.

“I certainly didn’t feel like I’d been disrespected, and I didn’t feel that I’d disrespected her,” Gist told me. “I feel like it’s unfortunate that any of us are spending time on it, because we all have more important things to work on.”

One prominent meeting attendee, Gov. Chafee, agreed with Gist’s account.

“We enjoyed a lively discussion about many aspects of education reform,” the governor said in a May 11 statement. “From my perspective, Commissioner Gist comported herself in an appropriate and respectful way at all times during this discussion.”

Gist, in fact, said she left the meeting on a sufficiently positive note to ask Ravitch to autograph a copy of her recent book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

Stephen R. Hourahan, the senior adviser to Chafee who also took part in the session, said the governor’s office asked Gist to attend the meeting. Hourahan said the discussion was cordial.

“She’s the commissioner of education,” Hourahan said of Gist. “When we have a meeting on education, we want her to be there.”

By late Friday, the controversy appeared to have cooled significantly. Gist had written a conciliatory letter to Ravitch. Gist’s spokesman, Elliot Krieger, said the letter was not meant as an apology but rather as an effort to get past any ill feelings.

“I enjoyed our lively discussion, and I am saddened that you left our state with the sense that you were disrespected during our meeting,” Gist wrote in the letter, which Ravitch provided to me. “I would never want that to happen. ... I welcome the opportunity for a dialogue with you at any time, and I hope that we can speak again sometime soon about how to transform public education and improve the lives of our students in Rhode Island and around the nation.”

Ravitch, in an email, told me she considered the letter “gracious” in its tone and message.

“I look forward to meeting her again and having time to talk at length,” Ravitch said. “I believe we will have an excellent conversation.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.