Teacher firings and Obama comments stir serious backlash
The firings of all of the educators at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island -- and President Obama's comments praising the move -- seems to be sparking a backlash against federal officials among public school teachers far beyond that state.
Support for the fired teachers is being sent from around the country -- and from Canada as well -- and now some are discussing a national march on Washington so that teachers can personally deliver this message to Congress and the Obama administration:
Stop blaming teachers for everything that is wrong with our troubled schools. Leave us alone.
“We feel so beaten down,” said George McLaughlin, a veteran counselor at Central Falls who is one of the 93 people recently told that they would be out of a job at year’s end. His wife, too, will lose her job; she is a chemistry teacher there. The soon-to-be jobless couple has one child in college and another entering this fall.
“President Obama is going to alienate every school teacher in the United States,” he said. “We want to march over to the White House and hand a petition signed by tens of thousands of teachers, even more, that says, ‘Leave us alone. Let us do our jobs.' ”
For years, teachers have been complaining that the mechanisms under No Child Left Behind aimed at improving student achievement have instead turned classes into test-prep factories and left teachers wholly responsible for the academic failings of their students.
Now teachers are saying that Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s new Race to the Top initiative, which is the successor to No Child Left Behind, is even worse because of its rules linking teacher's pay to how well their students do on standardized tests.
I've long wondered why, with all the protest marches held in Washington, there hasn’t been a massive march on the city by public school teachers demanding that sanity be returned to federal education policy.
Whether this moment becomes the turning point for that kind of action remains to be seen, but it is clear that the firings in Rhode Island have touched a nerve that other school restructurings have not.
It is not every day, for example, that the president feels the need to publicly comment on what a local school district did to its high school teachers. But Obama did yesterday after news of last week’s firings became a hot topic across the country and Duncan came under criticism (from many people, including me) for calling the action courageous (which, it most decidedly, was not).
In a post yesterday I wondered aloud whether anybody has actually explained to Obama that restructuring schools -- though mandated in No Child Left Behind for “failing” schools -- hasn’t actually worked well. It’s been tried several thousand times already and very rarely has it turned a school around enough to meet NCLB requirements.
Still there are some differences in Central Falls. In other restructurings, fired teachers who are not rehired (in many of these cases a certain percentage of teachers are brought back to the school; sometimes it's as many as half) have the option of finding a job somewhere else in the school system.
Central Falls High School is the only high school in Central Falls, which is the smallest and poorest city in Rhode Island. There is no place for these educators to go; many are Central Falls natives who left to get an education and returned to teach at their alma mater. This was noted in an opinion piece written by Monica Teixera-DeSousa, an assistant professor of law at New England Law |in Boston.
There is also no other higher achieving high school to which students can transfer. That is one reason no charter school company was interested in taking over the school, according to the Providence Journal. Charter schools like to attract a variety of students from different areas. So the turnaround model is what is being used, which means getting rid of all of the adults and starting over, Teixera-DeSousa also noted.
One problem is that the school has started over in various ways before, over and over. There have been, according to McLaughlin:
Seven principals during the past six years at the high school.
Twenty-six different administrators (including superintendents, assistant superintendents, principals, assistant principals, etc.) directly involved with the high school during the past five years.
Six months before the firings, the school underwent a massive restructuring into content-specific academies. Isn’t it a little early to know if they are working?
Meanwhile, school district officials have cited statistics to show how badly the students -- and therefore the teachers -- are doing at the school, though the teachers say they are exaggerated.
For example, it was said that half the students graduate. The teachers say that figure includes students who returned to their native countries (many after an illegal immigrant raid in New Bedford, Mass.), and left for another high school with an honors program (because the honors programs at Central Falls were eliminated).
Another figure thrown out was that 7 percent of 11th graders were proficient in math in 2009.
That is objectively, and sadly, low, but statistics don’t tell a whole story when they are without context.
Of the students at the school who participated in the New England Common Assessment Program, 22% were identified with Limited English proficiency with English as their second language, compared to 3% for the state. Twenty-three percent had an individualized education plan designed for students with special needs, compared to the state average of 17% and 85% were classified as economically disadvantaged compared to the state average of 35%.
Meanwhile, the number of college applications by Central Falls High School seniors has tripled during the past 5 years, according to McLaughlin.
I assume there is a lot about this story that I don’t know, and I am speaking soon with the state’s Education Commission, Deborah Gist, to learn more. Gist worked in education in Washington D.C. for years, and she worked there with integrity.
It is also important to say that school districts need to find a faster, fairer way to remove teachers who are incapable of doing their jobs. Every district has some. I don't know a teacher who would argue with that. But federal policy has turned from allowing teachers freedom to do what they think students need, to dictating what should be done, and, it simply has failed.
So has the practice of removing entire staffs to start over. That approach sounds like it should work, and I wish that it did. But putting together staffs of teachers, counselors, administrators and others to work with populations of students who often come to class with enormous handicaps is not a science. It is an art, and it is very hard to get right. If, it worked every time, we'd be embracing it as the silver bullet. Since it rarely works, it isn't worth the turmoil it creates -- and I don't mean for the adults, but for the students.
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| March 2, 2010; 2:50 PM ET
Categories: Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Teachers | Tags: fired teachers, restructuring schools
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