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Posted at 2:50 PM ET, 03/ 2/2010

Teacher firings and Obama comments stir serious backlash

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Next: 'Transparency' and credibility in Race to the Top



Thank you so much for being a voice of reason. It's obvious that you actually know your subject.

What really perplexes me is that President Obama is a brilliant man who seems to have the same understanding that you do. In this month's Essence magazine he had this to say:

"It remains absolutely true that you can have all the money in the world, you can have the fanciest classrooms in the world, the best computers in the world, nicest textbooks in the world, but you are not going to succeed if parents aren't instilling in their child at a very early age -'We are going to set high standards for you. I'm going to check that you do your homework. I'm going to read to you until you get to the point where you're reading on your own and then I'm going to make sure you're reading books instead of watching TV and playing video games. I'm going to constantly talk to your teacher. I'm going to look at your report card and make sure that you are not settling for Cs when you could be gettin As.' Without that, we're not going to be high performers." And then he continues with this gem of wisdom:

"I know in my own life it's only because I was pushed and prodded by my folks that I was able to succeed." Yes, there it is, the "secret" to a good education.

I campaigned hard for President Obama; harder than at any other time in my long life but today I see him in a different light. Why is he scapegoating teachers when he knows that they can do only so much? Is he supporting his friend, the basketball playing Duncan? Is he bowing to corporate interests? What is going on here?

Even though I live in CA, I will gladly go to DC to march for these unfairly treated teachers. These people are among the hardest working individuals in our country and they deserve the respect and gratitude of our leader and our citizens. Obama will lose my support if he doesn't reverse himself on this.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 2, 2010 3:47 PM | Report abuse

At last, a real policy issue where Palin makes more sense and shows better judgment than Obama

Posted by: mamoore1 | March 2, 2010 4:23 PM | Report abuse

"When Superintendent Gallo points to standardized test scores that supposedly show Central Falls failing she doesn’t point out, on the 2009 NECAP reading scores (teaching year), Central Falls is right in the middle of the state’s large urban high schools. At 56% proficiency they are behind the lower-poverty ones (Tolman, 64%; Shea, 62%; Woonsocket, 60%), tied with The MET and Providence Academy for International Studies, and ahead of Central (51%), Hope Leadership (49%), Hope IT (47%), and Alvarez (44%) in Providence.

The Hope schools are of particular note since they went through a “fire the teachers” restructuring process a few years ago. There is no particular reason to expect the results of Central Falls restructuring to be any different. Now, I don’t believe that standardized tests show you much outside of household income, but Central Falls ranking among similar schools is never mentioned nor is the fact that these same students at Central Falls only had 22% proficiency on the 7th grade tests, 5 years earlier."

Posted by: edlharris | March 2, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

I believe teachers are very hard working. But now that you have pointed out some facts,
I am wondering about something. If the kids are English Limited Proficient, why are they doing so poorly in Math? One would expect the reading scores to be lower. I would like to know how many of the kids spent their whole school careers at that school and what their scores are.

All those different administrators is a bad sign and it would be hard to work there. Why did they leave?

Posted by: celestun100 | March 2, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

We did not elect President Obama as school board chair. As wrong-headed as his latest policies are, I wouldn't turn my back on him anymore than I would have abandoned FDR on any one issue. These education disputes have been a longstanding civil war among liberals. I wish we could get the dispute to de-escalate, being more of a family matter. I wish we could just agree to disagree on these sorts of issues. I'm afraid that the President has made this his Sista Soldja issue, showing he can be tough standing up to his friends. That's a shame, but that's politics.

By the way, the R.I firings, I'd argue are wrong. But 1/2 of the teachers or more at my school will be fired soon over the same issue. But when an auto plant closes, good auto workers get hurt too. We teachers shouldn't ask for more rights than other workers. We must never stand for having fewer rights.

And that would be a good compromise. Regardless of what data-driven reformers believe is righteous, they should agree to not push the limits of the law, like Michelle Rhee does, or retroactively challenge our legal rights. I hope the R.I. teachers have a case under labor law. But when President Obama is on the other side, I don't want to damage his presidency or sidetrack other peoples' agendas for helping kids. I just wish the "reformers" could understand that their agenda is their agenda, not something chiseled in gold in heaven. We are just as dedicated to kids as they are. are

Posted by: johnt4853 | March 2, 2010 5:28 PM | Report abuse

Central Falls High School, like almost all American schools, is doing exactly what it is designed to do. It is failing poor students so rich kids like the Obama girls will face less economic competition. That is exactly the system Henry Barnard designed in the 1840s, and it is exactly the system which our President embraces today.

Standardized testing based in age-based "grade-level expectations" ensure that the poor and minority and special needs students will begin school behind, and will never be able to catch up.

And the Obama/Duncan focus on competition is a way of ensuring "The Matthew Effect." In any "Race-to-the-Top" the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer.

Ms. Strauss is right, this kind of "school reform" does not work. Facts prove that. The reform does not work because teachers, like most other humans, respond to their environment, and the "environment" - the design of the American school - is the problem.

But Obama/Duncan like the design. They think of students as products, and so they believe that when the production line is failing, it is either the fault of the "raw material" - which meant that Duncan replaced the students in Chicago schools to improve test results, or the fault of the "workers" - so we have Central Falls.

Obama/Duncan have not moved one inch from the form of US schools in the 19th Century. Of course, back then, 90% of students left after 8th grade, and most did badly. Because, yes, that was the intent.

So if you want schools with different results, stop trying to replace the students, and/or the teachers, and start re-designing the system - embracing universal design and individualized education, backed by real resources, and a funding system which gives high needs schools what they need.

Posted by: irasocol | March 2, 2010 6:28 PM | Report abuse

c'mon john4853, grow a pair. We're not turning our backs on Obama - we're facing him head on.

What he's done is not just politics. It's stupid and wrongheaded and goes against all the evidence. He's making a fool of himself. We're trying to help him out of the mess he put himself in - and is putting all the future students and teachers in -- except the ones in private schools of course. somehow what's so necessary for the public schools has no value in private schools.

Posted by: efavorite | March 2, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

If there's a march here in DC, I hope a lot of teachers come.

They shouldn't have trouble finding a place to stay. There are plenty of teachers here and other sympathetic citizens who I bet would be happy to take them in.

Posted by: efavorite | March 2, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

As for the recently unemployed McLaughlin couple with two college tuitions to pay - maybe they can appeal for financial aid to some of the wall street bankers who got bonuses in the millions for screwing up the economy.

Odd, isn't it, that teachers are punished by losing their entire livelihoods for something beyond their control(the socio-economic status of their students), but bankers are richly rewarded for screwing up their primary responsibility, for which they are already well paid.

Posted by: efavorite | March 2, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse

I am VERY frustrated to hear of President Obama's comments regarding the teacher firings in Central Falls, Rhode Island.

As the child of educators and the mother of a school-age son, I know how hard teachers and school employees work to give every child the best education possible.

I am sick of hearing teachers carry all the blame for under-performing schools.

Teachers do not choose the students admitted to their classrooms.

Teachers do not choose the curriculum they are instructed to teach. By the way, when principals and curriculum supervisors institute a "new" program, it only lasts as long as that principal/supervisor. The next one to fill that position usually throws it out to implement his/her "pet" program. So there's no way for teachers to get traction and usually no accurate measure of the success of the program.

Teachers also don't make the school calendar.

They don't decide what professional development the district will offer.

They don't get to force parents to get involved in their children's education.

And when they do hold students and parents accountable, the administration fails to back them up.

Maybe if we had a TEACHER instead of an ADMINISTRATOR as Commissioner of Education we would get better, more accurate information about what makes schools work and how to make them better!

Posted by: kathycoulnj | March 2, 2010 8:40 PM | Report abuse


Thank you for your support. Teachers really need to hear that. They are among the hardest working people in our nation and all they're getting for their efforts right now is a kick in the teeth. Fortunately many of our citizens, like you, are witnesses to the work that teachers do.

By the way, isn't firing all the teachers in the RI school just a perfect example of the phrase "rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?" I just never expected such foolishness from THIS president.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | March 2, 2010 10:29 PM | Report abuse

President Obama's foot-in-mouth:
Rhode Island’s Met Center, a state-operated school, when, according to the 2009 RI NECAP Results (Table 16) their High School Math results are even WORSE than those in Central Falls. Central Fall’s results are far from what is desired,but at least they were improving in the last 3 years. (3%, 4%, 7%)
Rhode Island’s Met Center’s percentages of students who met the Math Standards were, 4%, 5%,4% .... and the President is praising such accomplishments?
Please go to this site if you need hard evidence of how poor is the performance of several RI schools?
So, why is Central Falls High School being singled out? (page17) Report.pdf

Posted by: edlharris | March 2, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

edlharris - unfortunately, the way things are going, when Obama sees the stats on the other schools, he'll fire all those teachers too.

Posted by: efavorite | March 2, 2010 11:45 PM | Report abuse

That poor school had 7 principals over the last 6 years? And over 25 administrators involved in the school in the last 5?

Unless they were all in the classroom, teaching side-by-side with the staff in a heroic effort to shore up the troops,you can only shake your head in dismay at the apparent administrative ineffectiveness and chaos.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 3, 2010 1:26 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for such a well-written article and for getting those facts out to the public. Could you please also point out that statewide in RI only 27% of 11th graders are proficient on that NECAP math test? In 2012 it becomes mandatory to pass that test to graduate. What will happen to the other schools in RI when the math scores don't come up? Will all those schools be shut down too?

Posted by: factcheckerRI | March 3, 2010 6:52 AM | Report abuse

Fantastic article! Thank you for continuing to address what happened. I also admire and appreciate the depth of your exploration of what happened, why, if it works or has worked, etc. I especially appreciate how you have begun researching the details behind the "facts" that were presented justifying the firings. I can't wait to read your post after talking with Gist. I thought Gist did a great job here in DC as well, and I was surprised to see her name come up with these mass firings. Teaching is a tough, low paying profession which everyone seems to freely criticize and, now many school leaders, like our Chancellor, not only lay the blame entirely on the backs of teachers but also routinely suggest that all it takes is a young, energetic body to do it. It is simply not true. There is no glory in teaching, no pay, no prestige, no respect. However, thousands of people dedicate their lives to it. Thank you again for writing this article, and, continuing to press forward on it.

Posted by: mfalcon | March 3, 2010 8:21 AM | Report abuse

this about the union selling out their membership, which happened here. they overreached and now the teachers lost their jobs. the union had a chance at 100% job retention but rebuffed it holding out for more money. got a problem with what happened in CF? then you have a problem with the union...

Posted by: funkey | March 3, 2010 8:22 AM | Report abuse

"I assume there is a lot about this story that I don’t know". that is putting it mildly. maybe get the facts before spouting off. the union served their membership poorly and cost the teachers their jobs. i will be watching for a retraction/correction to this post...

Posted by: funkey | March 3, 2010 8:53 AM | Report abuse

If this is "investigative, research journalism" then the WASHINGTON POST is in deep serious trouble.

When the Union rejected the TRANSFORMATION Model proposed by the RI Commissioner of Education, it was because teachers REFUSED to work an extra 25 minutes a day with students and demanded $90.00 AN HOUR during a 2 week summer session workshop.

Central Falls HS teachers earn between $72,000.00 and $78,000.00 a year plus benefits.

This year, their UNION reps filed GRIEVANCES because a federal breakfast program was being served to disadvantaged elementary school kids... with NO imposition to the teachers.

They filed grievances when the Commissioner reformed their Seniority "bumping" privileges...and picketed.

RI Union Reps Marcia Rebak and Jane Sessums did not comprehend the mandate delivered by Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan entitled "Turning Around the Bottom Five Percent"

Mr. Duncan's QUOTE:
"There are approximately 5,000 schools in this chronically underperforming category, roughly 5 percent of the total. About half are in big cities, maybe a third are in rural areas, and the rest are in suburbs and medium–sized towns. This is a national problem— urban, rural, and suburban.

I won't play the blame game, but I also won't make excuses for failure. I am much more interested in finding ways to fix these schools than in analyzing who's at fault.

States and districts have a legal obligation to hold administrators and teachers accountable, demand change and, where necessary, compel it. They have a moral obligation to do the right thing for those children—no matter how painful and unpleasant."

BTW: George McLaughlin, a former English teacher took his "seniority status" to become a guidance counselor.He said he was insulted an offended when asked to sit with students one day a week at their lunch period.

THE ONLY part of the article that was meaninful was: "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."

Next your research first.


These were the 4 mandated options from Arne Duncan that Supt. Gallo had for school intervention:

(1) Turnaround model: Replace the principal, rehire no more than 50 percent of the staff, and reorganize the school day.

(2) Restart model: Bring in a charter-school operator or other education-management organization to run the school.

(3) School closure.

(4) Transformation model: Replace the principal, institute schoolwide instructional reform, increase learning time and improve the school’s connections to the community.

Posted by: rimom1 | March 3, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Teachers and administrators needed to stay at the table and do what is right for kids and fair for teachers. They had already agreed upon the transformation model and negotiations broke down around the specifics. The devil is always in the details. This is painful and difficult work. But with a graduation rate of 48%, there is NO excuse for business as usual.

Jane Sessums, the union president and Fran Gallo, the superintendent, along with a skilled mediator and representative stakeholders (parents, board members, etc) need to go back to the table and get to work.

It matters very little in the big picture what the President or the Secretary have to say about this issue. But we already knew where they would come down on this issue if you've been paying attention to the policy agenda to date. I'm not sure why all the shock and dismay. These four options have been on the record for almost a year now.

Yes it's disappointing... but they will not be the ones who raise the graduation rates at Central Falls. The teachers, the parents, the students, the community will.

Does anyone know how serious this march is? Or who is organizing it? How can we find more information? I'm totally in support of a march, but I think we need to focus on what we want in terms of a policy shift. Let's keep our eyes on the prize.

Posted by: Imateachertoo | March 3, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

The powers that be all know what the real problem is- the lack of parental support. But, in today's educational world, teachers are just Walmart Associates, i.e., only there to 'serve their customers' which include the parents along with their children.

Instead of the onus being on the student and his/her family to take advantage of what's being offered, it is now put all on the teacher to meet every individual need of their 180 students they see each day.

You won't hear the politicians saying much about the parents' responsibilities because those parents send campaign dollars and vote. No, the easiest scape goat is the teacher who is already treated like a minimum-wage employee by their administrators. Shameful!

Posted by: hrobert02 | March 4, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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