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Feb. 24 2010 - 12:07 pm | 1,008 views | 1 recommendation | 25 comments

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

via Central Falls High School.

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    Teacher’s unions are a huge problem. Teacher’s pay and benefits are totally out of line with the private sector. In the case of Central Falls, the teachers were asked to contribute a small amount of time to improve the school. They refused. So, they got fired. They had it coming. Now the administration can lower salaries and benefits which will make it able to HIRE MORE TEACHERS that maybe actually want to teach. Municipal unions across the country are strangling the economy. It the times of plenty the negotiated unsustainable compensation packages and for the most part, elected officials are afraid to cross them. Local, state and Federal workers are by and large overpaid. Their pension obligations are the albatross around the neck of every taxpayer.

    The school board did the right thing.

    • collapse expand

      Your comment is so stupid, mean, ignorant, and generally vile, that the only answer it deserves is ridicule. Why don’t you work for free? Whatever you do for a living, I’m sure there’s somebody willing to do it for less $ than you get. YOU’RE FIRED. You can have your old job back if you’re willing to accept McDonald’s pay and benefits- heck, I’ll bet that your field will now be flooded with highly skilled people wanting to do quality work for crap wages, and zilch benefits. So, where’s your sense of patriotic sacrifice? I’m sure that whatever you do is more important than doing the day-in, day-out grunt work of actually teaching children. Unless you’re retired, in which case we can get the government out of your Medicare, and break the Teacher’s Unions by shipping all the schools to China. Anyhow, congrats- I notice that your spelling and punctuation are perfect. Looks like some teacher (a union public school teacher?) did their job. Why don’t you go back and thank that person by asking them to work for free, or give up their pension? Or maybe just spitting on them? Then you can get back to crying out for tax cuts for rich people that hate you, or whatever it is you spend your internet time on.

      (Patti- apologies for the rant. But, the meme that teachers- and specifically teacher’s unions- are the problem with education is just infuriating. My mother spent her working life as a public school teacher, and when I think of how hard she worked, and how much she cared, that, well, that particular little inversion of the truth- I take it a bit personally. So personally, that galen66666 is lucky he didn’t bleat it to my face. You can’t reason with these people- AM radio rams this crap into their heads, they lap it up, beg for more, and think they thunk it themselves.)

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        You are simply an apologist for the union. To set the record strait, I am a life-long Democrat and, foot that I am actually SENT MONEY TO OBAMA (boy I wish I had that back).

        The fact remains that the pendulum has swung to far. Unions have overreached. Not only the teachers but the police, fire fighters and standard-issue municipal employees. Their salaries, pensions and health care are simply unsustainable. The nation, states and counties can’t afford the labor costs. These particular teachers took the hard line. If they REALY cared about the students, they would have gave some concessions. But nope, they would not budge. Now the ALL got the axe. The school administration now will get to cherry-pick from those who want their jobs back. Sure, there may be some lag getting things back to order, but in the long run, a blow has been struck for accountability. It’s about time.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Thanks for straightening the record re your politics. (You ain’t the only one who regrets supporting Obama; had I known the man for the utter corporatist that he is, I’d have sat on my hands last year, come McCain or high water.) I take back some of the heat, and you have my conditional, limited apologies. I still think that your point is indefensibly stupid.

          For the record, I’ve spent my working life in manufacturing, and I’ve worked at union shops twice; I can testify to problems with those unions. There was some protection of incompetence, especially where nepotism was involved. Some union policies did interfere with production. (All those Union Brothers sure loved Ronald Reagan, cause he made them feel good about America.) That’s all moot now- those jobs are now in China, and those Locals have disbanded. I’m sure you approve. I could point out that Teacher’s Unions operate significantly differently than manufacturing or transport unions, but that’s moot, too- I’m not defending Unions, and you’re not attacking them. You’re attacking teachers.

          You say that they’re incompetent and uncaring. You say that they’re paid too much, that their heatlh care is too good, that their pension are too big. You say that they’re more interested in keeping their jobs cushy than teaching children. You say that they’re the core problem with education. Looks like an attack on the profession and the people who practice it to me.

          Anyhow, you’ll get your happy ending. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan aren’t any more interested in fixing public education tham Junior Bush and Rod Paige were. They’re interested in privatizing it.

          (By the way- on what planet are unions not being slowly strangled out of existence? Just curious. Oh, never mind.)

          In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          Indeed. Collective bargaining has become collective extortion on the part of the unions. Time to get back in balance.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      “Teacher’s pay and benefits are totally out of line with the private sector.”

      Are you serious? Teachers pay is way below the private sector. When good teachers leave the profession, and many do, they end up making much more in the private sector. I have a math degree and work in the private sector. To teach, which I would actually like to do, I would have to take a 40% cut in pay now, and the highest pay I could eventually earn teaching would be less than 1/3 what I can make eventually in my current profession. I would also take a hit on benefits.

      You cannot expect to have well educated students unless you pay teachers better and provide them with supplies they need.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      You are so right on! Teachers are really over paid, they should stop bitching and get back to work.

      The school board did it for $$$, you jack ass

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      You are absolutely correct.
      Good post.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I’ve seen first hand what happens when mass firings are used as a tool to oust “poor performers.” There are other examples as well. When President Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers on strike in the 1980s, the air traffic system was set back many years while new blood was brought in, trained, and got experienced.

    That’s the problem here. This school will have a hard time attracting new talent and the new staff will take time getting up to speed. In the end, the new people will have some good talent, and yes, they’ll have a few losers too.

    The school would have been better served by negotiating with the Union to loosen the hiring and firing criteria because of the school’s poor performance. Then the dead-wood could be identified and sent packing.

    But no union will agree to that. And there lies the problem. The teachers union did this to the teachers. Most of the time unions assume this is a bluff. And the sick thing is that if they’re wrong, they lose a few members. Meanwhile the teachers lose their jobs. This sucks for everyone, including the students.

    There has to be a better way.

    • collapse expand

      You’re assuming that deadwood among the teaching staff is the major problem here. None of the classic, well-known problems of urban schools- underfunding, crowded classrooms, old textbooks, aging school infrastructure, a poverty-stricken student base- apply. OK. Let’s say you’re right. How much of the teaching staff is “deadwood”? 15%? (I’m being generous to your argument here, it’s almost certainly less.) Congratulations, you’ve just fired 79 good teachers. Now what? You have to staff 93 positions, in a hurry, with people who are willing to do more work, for less money; so you’re going to have to accept less experienced and qualified people. AND you haven’t even started to address those other problems I mentioned, and you admitted that some of the new teachers will be “losers” too, so, good luck with that.

      You’re also assuming that the teachers union is being unreasonable here- are they? The union reps- all full-time professional teachers in the school they represent (that’s how teachers unions work)- are being asked to take a hit for something that they know won’t work; further, they know that they’re going to be blamed when it doesn’t work. Face it, Jake, you’re just looking for a way to blame unions here. The NEA is not the Teamsters.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I think you overlook the impact of keeping terminally incompetent people employed in a position from which they can not be fired. The administrators are not able to get rid of those who aren’t performing. The students know it, their teachers know it, and the administrators know that incompetence is being rewarded –so why try harder?

        I’m not “blaming” unions. I’m saying they’re being inflexible because they can afford to be.

        Meanwhile, it is true there are extenuating circumstances here because the parents are not taking sufficient interest in their own child’s education. So while we’re at it, let’s consider that there have been some very notable situations where smart leadership has lead schools in the depths of poverty to academic excellence. If such leadership can be found, then perhaps it is time to get rid of the administration staff as well and replace them with people who understand who they’re supposed to serve and how.

        This situation didn’t happen overnight. It is the culmination of many sad decisions and omissions over time.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Lincoln Chaffee offered to mediate, but nothing. No reports have shown which side refused to negotiate, although it seems that that further discussion would have served the students, the teachers, and the community better. Where do you find evidence that this is a union stalemate?
      In response to another comment. See in context »
      Reply to this »

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    Having been a teacher for 33 years I am going to say something that nobody has the nerve to say. Look to the parents. All teachers know this, but it is not considered politically correct to put the blame where it belongs. Children from caring homes with caring parents always do better than those who are not. “Better” does not necessarily mean getting straight A’s. It means working up to your potential no matter what it is.

      • collapse expand

        Yes, except that there are many examples of poor people who do well in school against the odds–Asian immigrants come to mind, who consistently outscore and outperform their peers, regardless of ethnicity and socio-economic status. Poverty is a factor, but not the whole story. Cultural attitudes toward education are huge, as are parents who demand a good school work ethic.

        Look at Barack and Michelle Obama–they both came from very humble means and achieved greatness because their families put a high priority on doing well in school.

        I think you can put the greatest teachers in an under-performing school and still have bad outcomes, if parents have low expectations.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    Teachers in that town are paid on the order of 2x-3x the median wage, have summers off, and are holding the town’s children hostage for their demands. I happen to think that the district would do well by putting all that salary money to better use, perhaps by hiring more less-expensive teachers (perhaps 3-4 teachers for the salary of 2 current) and/or putting in results-based pay incentives.

    It’s time for coddled state workers to put on their grown-up pants and live in the real world with the rest of us, where we are judged by our performance and capability, and let the chips fall where they may. And if that means we need more PATCOs and NUM-killers in our leadership, then I’m all for it.

    Then again, it’s Rhode Island, anyone who _could_ escape probably already has, and it’s not my problem until the FedGov decides to ’spread the money around’ from the (relatively) prudently-run ‘ant’ states to the profligately-spent ‘grasshopper’ states.

  5. collapse expand

    I’m always fascinated when people blame teachers for student non-performance. Students have to want to learn, and it’s best if they have support at home for learning. If the home doesn’t believe that academic achievement means something, or if the parents are among the many who disparage “booklearnin’”, it’s much harder for students to do their best.

    Students have some responsibility for learning, and no teacher can force a student to absorb knowledge.

    Is there deadwood in the schools? Sure. But teachers are not the only active ingredient in this problem and it’s not productive to act as though they are.

    • collapse expand

      Student, parents, teachers and the school system all have a part to play. In this particular instance, with a litany of horrible student outcomes the norm, and a backdrop of funding issues, the administration asked for some minor changes. The intractable union refused, as they always do. This will be their undoing and it’s happening all over the country.

      As an experiment, the school system should select a few kids at random and pay for their private school education, then measure the difference upon graduation. Would probably be eye-opening.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        I think you can see a high-achievement trend revealing itself in some “charter” schools — schools in the same underprivileged communities as low-achieving schools — that are doing so much better. Parents literally weep and beg when a good charter school can only accept a certain number of students and must reject the rest. We need to support their successes and call for replication when their methods are proven beneficial.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          The studies on charter schools are all over the map. They are either failing dismally or exceeding all expectations — depending on who conducted the study. The verdict is not out on charter schools, which present a ton of problems and contradictions. That said, if I were a parent in Watts and some corporate guy came in and said he was going to sweep out the bad and create a school where kids were safe and educated and prepared for college, I would take it seriously.

          That said, the issue of charters is a quagmire. For a later discussion.

          BTW, nice to “see” you here.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    This has been a vibrant discussion that reveals the wide array of thinking on the issue of failing schools: Blame the teachers. Blame the unions. Blame the parents. Blame the students. (Not much of: Blame the government. Blame the curriculum. Heck, Blame the custodial staff.)

    Blame doesn’t help the kids. What’s the solution? I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    • collapse expand

      If there was a silver bullet that could fix this problem with one shot, I think it would have happened already. The disease is that people don’t care any more. This is death by a thousand paper cuts.

      We need to make unions more aware of the situation and more responsive. We need better leaders who can impress upon parents that they can’t throw their kids at the school and expect magic to happen. We need to introduce the notion of minimum requirements for getting from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school.

      We need to acknowledge that not everyone is going to become an academic and teach accordingly. We need to give teachers more latitude to deviate from strict textbook and lesson plan prescriptions, especially as they develop better and better experience with their craft.

      There is so much more, that I’m almost certain I could write a book. Many have. And there is no shortage of people out there with prescriptions of their own.

      Fundamentally, people attend schools for different reasons. Some are there to learn. Some are there to socialize. Some are there only to get noticed by sports recruiters.

      We need to consider what goals people have and whether they are really being well served by their “education.” Some are there for religious reasons as well. The reason I think charter schools are a better solution here is that they offer some varieties and features that parents can select so that their children can take full advantage of the best a school has to offer.

      The days of a one size fits all approach in a school isn’t working and needs to end.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      So blaming is unproductive yet in your article you do nothing but blame.

      Were these teachers incompetent? Your article doesn’t dispute their incompetence. Put it another way, would any of them have a job teaching at a private school? I doubt it, given that a large portion of people that go into teaching have the lowest GMAT scores of all graduate school applicants.

      Yes, obviously there are many factors that contribute to poor student performance, and poverty/family life is a big one.

      The thing is that the state can’t remove these children from their family environment. The state, however, can remove incompetent teachers, who influence the lives of these children for six to eight hours of the day.

      And by the way, teachers can and do foster an atmosphere that is hostile to scholarship.

      When I was in high school, I repeatedly witnessed a guidance counselor suggest to students in trouble to “just drop out”.

      Another guidance counselor (the school only had two) refused to give me a letter of recommendation when I was applying to the top schools in the country. She incredulously asked me, “Are you really going to go if you get in? What makes you think you can get in?” All she would give me is a letter stating my class ranking.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      I don’t think there is a single solution. And quite honestly, I don’t believe schools should be held responsible for non-performance when the causes are rooted in society’s ills.

      I’ve mentioned this non-profit on another blogger’s post on this site: it’s called A Place Called Home. http://www.apch.org They started in the tougher neighborhoods in Los Angeles with the goal of providing a safe and supportive environment in which kids can do their homework, get tutoring, and get guidance toward a college education. They’ve had amazing success stories against all odds. I think more should be done to replicate this model all over the country in the school districts that have the toughest time moving the needle in a positive direction.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      There are some ideas that can help. Many tests I have read about show that disadvantaged students do best the least amount of time they are out of school. So to start:

      1) Make school go all year long with a couple of two-week breaks through the year.
      2) Make the school day longer (which was proposed in this case)

      Personally, I think school spending should be equalized across the board – no extra funds for special ed kids OR GT kids. Everybody gets the same. Also I think mainstreaming of special ed kids is horrible for both and especially disruptive to the classroom. Also, way to much is spent on school administration. Also, schools need to be able to quickly address discipline problems for the good of the kids who are trying to learn. One huge advantage privates schools have is they can kick disruptive students out.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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    About Me

    I spent a good chunk of my adult life as an arts reporter/critic/columnist for the Boston Globe. Among other things, I covered the cultural wars of the early 1990s (remember Mapplethorpe?), reviewed theater, and profiled all sorts of interesting characters. I also wrote an early column about online culture, which led me to become one of the first online war correspondents during the conflict in Kosovo, an odd but exhilarating gig for an arts maven. While I was a fellow in the National Arts Journalism program, a colleague handed me a gloomy article called “Print is Dead.” I eventually got the message and took a buyout from the Globe in 2001. I had vague dreams of saving the world, but instead had three kids in 17 months. Therein lies my newfound interest in public education. I am hoping to create a dialogue about what’s wrong, what’s right, and what’s up in our schools today.

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    Here’s a piece on new ideas in education, in the Boston Globe Magazine.