When she moved on to a school district job, she recalls, her first meeting with “grown-ups” seemed hopelessly slow: “Everyone was sort of getting their coffee and sitting down and chit-chatting,” she says, “and I just remember thinking, ‘This is what you guys do every day?’ ”

Gist moved up quickly. In the waning days of the Clinton Administration, she took a job as a senior policy analyst in the US Department of Education, hoping an Al Gore victory would prolong her stay.

That was not to be, of course. But she would remain in the capital. Former Washington DC Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed her to run the district’s modest state education office in 2004. And when Mayor Adrian Fenty took control of the schools in 2007, she became DC’s first state superintendent of education.

It was an odd title — Washington is not a state, after all — for an odd job. Gist was technically a rung above Rhee, the district’s high-profile, take-no-prisoners schools chancellor. But Rhee had day-to-day control of the schools and something approaching carte blanche from Fenty.

Gist, by contrast, reported to a deputy mayor on the organization chart. And when she attempted to assert oversight of the chancellor’s wide-ranging plans to turn around Washington’s failing schools, city lawyers overruled her.

Gist says she did not chafe under the capital’s awkward school governance structure. She was fully engaged, she says, in the work of building the state superintendent’s office. And Sekou Biddle, who serves on the Washington DC State Board of Education, says he never heard Gist complain about the limits on her power.

But it was clear, Biddle says, that there was not room in the capital for two ambitious reformers. Rhee, he says, “has really sucked a lot of the air out of who’s in charge of education in DC.”

By the fall of 2008, Rhode Island’s Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education was on the hunt for a new schools chief.

Education Commissioner Peter McWalters, who was planning to leave his post after some 18 years on the job, had built no small legacy. He expanded the office’s role during the No Child Left Behind era and made some important gestures toward reform.

The regents strengthened high school graduation requirements under his watch. And just before he left office, McWalters gave the Providence schools the power to disregard seniority in placing teachers — a power that his successor would grant to districts statewide.

But a board increasingly dominated by Governor Carcieri’s appointees was growing frustrated by the intransigence of Rhode Island’s education troubles: the state ranks near the top in per-pupil spending and near the bottom on standardized test scores; the “achievement gap” separating white and Latino students is among the worst in the country; just 55 percent of the state’s high school graduates go on to college, ranking 43rd in the nation.

High-tech entrepreneur Angus Davis, a Carcieri appointee to the board, was co-chair of the search committee for a new superintendent. And one of his first chats, just days after Barack Obama’s victory in the presidential election, was with Duncan, then CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

Duncan demurred when Davis asked if he would be interested in the Rhode Island post. But he recommended Gist. And her name kept popping up, in calls to New York and Washington and Los Angeles.

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