Raising the bar in Rhode Island

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Will student performance really improve if only smarter people become teachers? Rhode Island may find out. This month, the state's new education commissioner, Deborah Gist, with her Board of Regents, raised standards for prospective teachers and also increased accountability for those teachers once they enter the classroom.

Gist & Co. have increased the "cut scores," (minimum passing scores) that potential teachers must meet on the Praxis I basic skills test in order to be admitted into teacher training programs. Alongside Mississippi and Guam, Rhode Island had the lowest cut scores in the nation. Gist wants to go from worst to first by requiring the highest basic skills test cut scores in the country.

As expected, Rhode Island's ed schools balked. The dean of Rhode Island College's education school stoked fears that raising cut scores will shrink the teaching pool. To appease Eldridge and others, Gist has agreed to incrementally increase the required scores over two years.

Meanwhile the Board of Regents also approved new teacher evaluation standards, so that once teachers get into the classroom they can't disappear into the woodwork. The new standards, which take effect immediately, require annual evaluations for all Rhode Island teachers, and tie student growth and academic achievement to those ratings, a big switch for a state that had been one of only nine states with no evaluation policy.

Young Voices, a student group in the state (see here), had been lobbying the Regents to permit students to be a part of teachers' evaluations. While the Regents did adopt a sentence requiring educators to "solicit feedback from students and parents," they stopped short of allowing them to weigh in on the fate of their teachers. Nevertheless, Karen Feldman, the Director of Young Voices, is pleased with the result, pledging to work with the Rhode Island Department of Education in the coming months to create student evaluation rubrics that districts can elect to use.