Union head, Gist clash over NECAP tests, federal grant money

The head of the Providence teachers' union told several hundred teachers Monday that the Department of Education is more of a hindrance to education and it is more concerned with focusing on compliance rather than supporting teachers.

"Dismantle RIDE, keep a few of them there. Take that money, put it to the district, put it to good use and put it to the kids," said Steven Smith, president of the American Teachers Federation, Local 958.

Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who was at a retreat of the state Board of Education, passed Smith's comments off as grandstanding.

"That's something (Smith's) saying to be controversial rather than being productive," Gist said.

She said the state couldn't even receive federal grant money without a Department of Education.

Teachers said they were relieved that their jobs won't be judged entirely by student performance on the New England Common Assessment Program, a decision made by Gist on Friday.

Providence Superintendent Susan Lusi said she's glad the test won't be the only measure of a teacher's performance.

"Until we get it right we shouldn't hold people accountable for their livelihoods based on something that may or nor be perfected," she said.

Gist says the test is still an important tool.

"Our state assessment is an excellent assessment, and respected to be one of the best assessments in the entire country," she said.

The test was part of the application for the $75 million Race to the Top grant, an application that Smith supported but questions now.

"Initially when I signed on, I thought the lion's share of the money was going directly to districts. I'm not sure that's the case," Smith said.

"I hope that (Smith) read the application when we worked on it together because we're spending it exactly the way it was designed from the beginning," Gist said.

She elaborated that the grant money was never intended to supplement districts' budgets, and the spending has been on program to benefit students across the state, and not limited to any particular schools.