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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 05/17/2010

Why Obama, Duncan should have kept quiet about Rhode Island teachers

By Valerie Strauss

Lo and behold, several months after every teacher at a low-performing Rhode Island high school was fired so the school could get a fresh start, and after Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised the firings as an act of “courage,” and after President Obama declared that the firings showed a “sense of accountability,” well, after all of that, the teachers have been rehired.

In the end, officials in the Central Falls School District decided that firing everybody at Central Falls High School wasn’t the best way to reform the school and lift student achievement. After months of tough negotiations, they reached an agreement with the teachers union over the weekend.

“We’ve had 3 1/2 months of misery and mounting distrust,” said veteran counselor George McLaughlin, whose wife also works at the school and also was in line to lose her job. “We’ve only lived on hope.... We may say at the end of this that there is a god after all.”

High school senior Valerie Florez, who is set to graduate June 11, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that rehiring the teachers was a good idea.

"It’s not the teachers’ fault that students don’t want to learn," she said.

Presumably, Obama and Duncan won’t really think that this is a bad ending to the controversy.

If they spend more than a few seconds thinking about the facts in the case, they may even see that this is a far better resolution for Central Falls. And if they are really introspective, they might conclude that perhaps they should have kept quiet after all and let the situation play out.

Now about 90 teachers and counselors and librarians and other staff who weren’t supposed to return next fall to the only high school in the smallest and poorest city in Rhode Island, will keep their jobs, though they will be working for a new principal.

The pact, which will be voted on today by union members, also calls, among other things, for a longer school day, more after-school tutoring, a recommitment by teachers to their jobs, a new teacher evaluation system and better professional development.

The drama started last February when the trustees who oversee the school district, which was under a state mandate to take action to improve the school’s performance, decided on the firings. At that time talks had broken down between the union and the district.

The mass firings were not unique to Central Falls. Restructuring schools is a “reform” tool that administrators use after other attempts to improve student achievement have failed. It is the last resort in the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that school systems meet specific student achievement targets. If they don’t, all the adults in the school are supported to be fired, though up to half of the teachers can be rehired.

Thousands of schools have been in various states of transformation in recent years, but Central Falls made national news, in part because Duncan and Obama felt compelled to publically support the people doing the firing.

Duncan said the district officials were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”

And then Obama spoke out, saying in part, “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”

Nobody would argue with that. But the problem with the get-rid-of-all-the-teachers approach is that it hasn’t actually worked well for most of the schools that undergo the process.

What do you think would have happened if Obama and Duncan had not taken sides when the teachers were first fired, and instead had urged the opposing sides to work harder to reach a better solution?

I think it is fair to assume that the negotiations would have reached success a lot sooner, sparing the Central Falls community a lot of grief.

Let’s hope this is a lesson not just for the folks in Central Falls, but in Washington D.C. as well.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 17, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  No Child Left Behind, Teachers  | Tags:  central falls high school, central falls teachers, rhode island teachers rehired, teachers and rhode island, teachers fired in rhode island, teachers rehired  
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It's just silly to believe that, if Obama and Duncan had not commented, the negotiations would have been more productive. We have seen teacher's unions drag their feet time and time again. Their goal is not to improve education, but to maintain the unsatisfactory status quo for teachers. Our education system is a failure and teacher's unions do not want to improve. Obama and Duncan left the union with no choice but to negotiate and meet the demands of the parent who want nothing more than a good education for their children.

Posted by: Ogman | May 17, 2010 7:14 AM | Report abuse

Out of the mouths of babes...

"High school senior Valerie Florez, who is set to graduate June 11, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that rehiring the teachers was a good idea.

"It’s not the teachers’ fault that students don’t want to learn," she said."

Aha! So it may not be the teachers' fault that students don't apply themselves to their studies! So it may have something to do with lack of parental firmness, student pre-occupation with their social lives and romances, students working long hours in violation of child labor laws and a dozen other things over which teachers have no control.
It may also be due to the fact that Central Falls High School has the highest proportion of Hispanic students in the entire state and many of them are not native speakers of English.
Just try taking a series of tests in a language not your own native language, and see how well you do relative to the students in whose native language the tests are given.
If Arne Duncan thinks the low student achievement at CFHS is due to poor teaching, then he is demonstrating an appalling lack of knowledge about the factors which influence student achievement and is, therefore, unqualified for the position he holds. Obama should fire Duncan and do what he promised during the campaign which was to hold students accountable. Have you seen any student accountability measures coming out of Washington? Not a one.

Posted by: jrsposter | May 17, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

So why do you think workers in the private sector work hard? That's right, it's because they might lose their jobs if they don't.

If you cannot lose your job, then you will not work as hard. That's not a criticism of teachers, that's just human nature.

Posted by: vinyl1 | May 17, 2010 7:16 AM | Report abuse

I still don't understand how grandma and grandpa managed to learn what they know w/o modern education, but I suspect it had something to do with attendance, paying attention, discipline and parental involvement.

Posted by: gpsman | May 17, 2010 7:21 AM | Report abuse


We have a "checker-player" for a President playing the game of "chess".

He "thinks" two steps ahead....instead of ten!

Posted by: analgesic33 | May 17, 2010 7:25 AM | Report abuse

I would like to know how many times school boards have actually fired every teacher. The author of the article makes it sound like it happens often.

Some stats please.

Also, according to all the research I have seen (Williamson & Blackburn, 2008) the number one effective way to raise achievement in the classroom is through quality teachers; the second most important way is through a quality principal. No effective school "turn-around" has happened without a quality principal. A lot will be weighing on that person's shoulders come Fall.

Also, it sounds like the teachers are blaming the students for "not wanting to learn." Students need to be engaged, think the material is relevant, and have the support necessary to achieve. Apparently, the teachers believe they are lily-white in the matter. From what I read of the situation, part of the reason all the teachers were laid off was because they did not want to provide after-school tutoring and other support for the students to keep their work day to 8 hours. As long as they are invoking this "contractual rights" and not going the extra mile for the students, it will be a long haul for them to get students up to par. Part of being an effective teacher is putting in the hours--48-50 hour weeks or more. I know: I have raised my student state reading scores from ~55% to +90% by working hard AND holding students accountable.


Williamson, R., & Blackburn, B. (2010). Rigorous schools and classrooms: Leading the way. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education

Posted by: jelmulti | May 17, 2010 7:31 AM | Report abuse

The Teachers refused to work 2-4 hour overtime per day for free. Wouldn't you?

You can lead a horse to water; but you can't make him Drink.
You can send a kid to school; but you can't make him think.

Posted by: ddoiron1 | May 17, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

There are some articles that are just so absurd, they don't even warrant a comment. And, this is one of them.

Posted by: nepeebles | May 17, 2010 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I think it is an interesting article and I think that firing everyone always was a simplistic solution to a complex problem. I do not believe that all the teachers there are good or bad, nor that tutoring will necessarily solve the schools achievement problems. From what I have read, more needs to be done for that population of kids who "want to be on the street", maybe at the middle school level, before they are too old.
While the language difference is a factor, there should be classes to teach English and extra help available. Sounds like the school needs more resources, maybe teacher aids and bilingual personnel to help the kids catch up.

Posted by: celestun100 | May 17, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

In Diane Ravitch's book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System", she recounts how 40 to 45% of the teachers considered excellent based on their students performance would be rated poor only a few years later, once again based on their students performance. By definition 50% of students must perform poorer than the median level of performance but No Child Left Behind mandates that all children must perform at or above Proficient (which is close to the median) by 2014. This is lunacy! And to punish teachers who try to teach the poorest and least-intelligent kids is monstrous. It is like punishing a talented and devoted heart surgeon who takes on only the most challenging patients who are likely to die and has more patient deaths than the practioner who cherry-picks his patients to improve his outcomes.

Posted by: reegospamoni | May 17, 2010 12:52 PM | Report abuse

President Obama declared that the firings showed a “sense of accountability

Make Obama take accountability by firing him.

Posted by: resc | May 17, 2010 6:52 PM | Report abuse

When kids speak Spanish in the home, the neighborhood, the playground, and in the community at large - and only speak English at school they are not as proficient as kids who are exposed to more English. For example, if a child speaks Hindi at home, but English in the neighborhood, the playground, and in the community - they much more fluent in English than the Spanish speaking child.

The Spanish speaking child will have a much more difficult time passing a standardized test because they are not as fluent as the child who only speaks Hindi at home.

This is something so profoundly simple to understand that I do not understand why Obama or Duncan could miss it. I can understand if the average person who is not involved in the education of hispanic students doesn't understand it. But Duncan was the CEO of CPS which has a large hispanic population. If he doesn't know this there is huge problem.

Posted by: resc | May 17, 2010 7:03 PM | Report abuse

"The pact, which will be voted on today by union members, also calls, among other things, for a longer school day, more after-school tutoring, a recommitment by teachers to their jobs, a new teacher evaluation system and better professional development."

Hey, what about focusing on the fact that the students aren't as fluent in English as they need to be in order to do academics in English. Why wasn't that taken into account?

Posted by: resc | May 17, 2010 7:14 PM | Report abuse

Here's another thing about using standardized tests to judge student progress - they are written in white English.

Black students growing up in primarily black areas are exposed to black English, which has grammatical and structural differences from white English. Many of these students only hear white English on TV or from their teachers. As a result, white English is a dialect to them and harder to understand than black English.

When these students take standardized tests written in white English it is not as familiar to them as it is for students raised primarily with white English. As a result the tests are harder for them to understand.

The fact Duncan does not appear to understand this shows me he is not accountable.

Posted by: resc | May 17, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

As a Rhode Islander, I have no doubt that this was nothing more than political grandstanding on the part of Commissioner Gist. She didn't make a name for herself in DC & moved here with the same proposals and is using our students via facebook to help her complete dissertation. She lost round one of RTTT & I will bet that she agreed to the negotiations so that she can have union support for round 2.

Obama did not have his facts when he spoke out against Central Falls. He praised a charter school that had worse test scores than Central Falls. The charter school also placed 40th out 52 in the state!

Still think the Commissioner is in it for "our children?"

Posted by: grace_antunes | May 18, 2010 5:39 AM | Report abuse

Awesome article, Valerie! Thank you for some genuine journalistic wisdom and excellent advice to our so-called leaders.
The never-ending assault on public education persists in missing the target. And when the Secretary of Education and the President join the mindless critics who always blame the messenger rather than the message, there doesn't seem to be much hope. But we teachers and awesome support staffs just keep plugging away and doing our best.

Posted by: LexProf | May 19, 2010 6:43 AM | Report abuse

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