The first thing we do is fire all the teachers
And that’s exactly what they did last night in Central Falls, RI.
In a dramatic showdown, the School Board of Trustees fired all the teachers at the scrappy city’s struggling high school. Each teacher’s name was read aloud in a massive firing list — 93 names in all, some 74 of them classroom teachers, the others specialists.
Central Falls is the state’s most underperforming school, and given fresh incentives linking federal funding to school performance, the state’s education commissioner demanded that drastic measures be taken to improve the high school in the tiny, densely populated city (1.3 square miles). The superintendent had offered four different proposals to “reform” the school, but the first choice to transform the school got bogged down in a battle with the teacher’s union, whose members opposed doing extra work for no pay. Former senator Lincoln Chaffee offered to mediate, apparently with no success.
So rather than talk further, the trustees opted for the preferred method of Education Secretary Arne Duncan: the school turnaround. It’s what he did in Chicago, and depending on who you talk to, it’s either a miracle or a recipe for disaster. It goes like this: School scores are low, graduation rates are dismal, so fire all the teachers, hire back no more than 50 percent of them, and start anew with an entirely different staff.
The plan, of course, doesn’t take into account the lack of continuity for students, the loss of familiar adult faces, the emotional impact such draconian measures take on students, not to mention the complete and utter erasure of institutional memory. Last year, a student was killed in Chicago at a turnaround school, and some thought the reorganization created a toxic environment that made the school even less safe than it already was.
And many of the news reports surrounding the turn of events in Central Falls don’t mention a few simple facts about the city and the high school itself. Poverty is what’s plaguing this school, and a massive firing of teachers doesn’t even begin to address these grim statistics.
Here’s a quick look at the student population, taken from the high school’s web site:
* 96% of students are eligible or free or reduced lunch
* 65% of the student body is of Hispanic origin, 13% White, 14% African American, 8% other
* 25% of students receive ESL services
* 21% receive SPED services
Some 30 percent of residents fall below the poverty level. What does firing the teachers do to address that? Might not poverty be the reason more kids aren’t passing standardized tests? Might the fact that 96 percent of these students are on free lunches have something to do with the fact that they are struggling?
Folks on both sides say it’s all about the kids, but it’s also a reaction to increased pressure from Washington to improve schools overnight. Some more thought needs to go into these disruptive get-rid-of-the-bums measures. Who says that “turnaround” works? Duncan swears by it, but a University of Chicago study published last year found that student learning suffered when schools were closed in Chicago under Duncan’s tenure. Another report argued that turnaround efforts, in particular, were often unsuccessful.
The Obama administration and his education chief are vowing to improve all the struggling schools in the nation, but that proved hard in Chicago. So it seems like the PTB in Central Falls might have given this a little more consideration instead of just opting for a drastic cleaning of house, which is leaving the city with a community divided, a fractious school board, and a whole load of kids who are feeling even more abandoned than they did before.