Gist’s most enthusiastic supporters were champions of a market-driven approach to education reform that took root with Southern governors like Lamar Alexander and came into full bloom with No Child Left Behind.

The approach has long troubled teachers’ unions and left-leaning academics. But it has come under increased scrutiny of late with the persistence of the achievement gaps — between rich and poor, white and black — that helped give rise to the reform in the first place.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian who served in George H.W. Bush’s administration and once championed the standards movement, has emerged as its most potent critic.

Ravitch says No Child Left Behind, which demands that 100 percent of students reach proficiency, created absurd expectations. And when the schools fell short, she says, it fed a narrative declaring public education a failure and insisting that a market-based approach to reform is the answer.

That faith in the market has persisted in the face of the recent financial calamity is “breathtaking, to say the least,” Ravitch says.

“I mean it isn’t just Enron and WorldCom,” she says. “The collapse of almost the whole economy in the fall of 2008 should have persuaded people that there’s a reason we don’t trust the markets to support community functions.”

And given the mixed record of the market-based approach, she says, the argument for taking it to scale is weak: why invest so heavily in the unproven, she asks, and risk destroying public education in the process?

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a key figure in the free-market camp, acknowledges the modest results of the reform: there have been successes, but no one has figured out how to replicate them.

The replication problem, though, is no reason to revert to more traditional tactics, he says. “The sort of ‘do what you’ve been doing before but do a little more of it’ approach hasn’t worked,” Hanushek says.

When a school fails year after year, he says, you’ve got to do something, and “just because we don’t know the optimum [thing to do] doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on failure.”

‘SHE CAN BE BRUSQUE’
Gist, for her part, rejects any label. She has signed the manifestoes of both the market-driven and traditional camps and argues that there is more overlap between the two than is often acknowledged.

And supporters insist the commissioner, however driven, defies the easy caricature of the market-driven reformer. She came from the classroom, while many of her cohorts did not. And if the overhaul of Central Falls High School seems radical, Gist’s approach to turning around failing schools is more nuanced than the mass firing would suggest.

When she targeted Central Falls High and five low-performing Providence schools for reform, she gave district officials a number of options — including a management-union partnership that seems to be working out quite peaceably in the capital city.

Supporters add that Gist is more inclusive than, say, Rhee. The commissioner has made a point of visiting every school district in Rhode Island. She regularly convenes a group of top-flight teachers for feedback. She possesses strong interpersonal skills and a mischievous charm.

“I don’t think she’s seen as a volatile player,” says Elena Silva, a senior policy analyst at Washington-based think tank Education Sector. “She’s a little steadier. And I think that is probably a good thing.”

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