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Crossing the Rubicon: Central Falls High School

I couldn't resist clipping this ironic juxtaposition ... two different approaches to accountability (CBS website).

We were all shocked by the decision made in Central Falls, RI last week to fire the entire staff of its high school. For many of us who are “long in the tooth” there may even be a sense of deja vu if you look at this as an impasse in a highly charged collective bargaining process.

It appears that, as an alternative to the more draconian proposal of closing and reopening the school, a longer school day and tutoring were proposed, and the union rightfully sought compensation. We don’t know all the facts, but it appears that the superintendent disagreed and the school board, in essence, says, “a pox on all their houses – we’ll fire them all.”

I hope that we were also shocked that Secretary Duncan almost immediately rashly  issued the equivalent of a profile in courage award to the Central Falls Board of Trustees. Let’s hope that he recants his comment as at best premature, or even a misstatement, as he did when he recently suggested that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that has happened to public schools in New Orleans.”

In any event, the Central Falls decision puts a face on what we can expect when decisions are made affecting the future of 5000 of America’s lowest performing schools. I was reminded of a meeting of an NCLB advisory committee convened by then Commissioner Ted Sergi, probably in 2002, to talk about how Connecticut would deal with the implementation of the new law. We were looking way down the road to when schools reach the restructuring sanctions. I recall reflecting to the group that day that there would be no greater test of our mettle as an education community than how we implement this provision. It seemed like a long way off, but here we are.

Secretary Duncan has committed to turning around 5000 of the lowest performing schools in the United States over the next five years. The good news is that there is serious money in the School Improvement Grant for perhaps the first time. The bad news is that the same administration that described NCLB as too prescriptive has put the prescription on steroids.

School turnarounds of the kind approved in Central Falls have little in terms of a track record, in fact, there is a body of evidence suggesting that, where tried, they have not worked. There is no question that these schools need a dramatic change of direction accompanied by a dramatic infusion of resources, but let’s hope that the most important lesson that we take from the unfortunate process in Rhode Island is that how we make these difficult decisions is almost as important as what we decide.

Connecticut thus far has taken a different approach to the difficult work of turning around underperforming schools. CEA, for its part, initiated the broad coalition that advanced the CommPACT Schools legislation: a demonstration that true collaboration can advance the ball.

The School Improvement Grant guidelines, adopted by the federal Department of Education, are intended to encourage draconian solutions, in spite of much comment pointing out the lack of a research base in support of these approaches. Charter school operators around the country have indicated a reluctance to get into the business of turning around the most difficult schools because they know how great the challenge is. Secretary Duncan, in his zeal to advance his agenda, damaged his credibility with teachers and their unions. Let’s hope that the shameful process in Rhode Island does not become the template.

We should know better and can certainly do better. Only time will tell.

  1. Pam Berthelette #

    Having grown up in RI, I was dismayed to learn that the teachers at Central Falls High School are slated to be fired. Central Falls, even back in 1969 was one of the poorest areas in RI. It had more bars and taverns per block than just about any community and was known as “the armpit of RI.” Many of its students came from homes where English was not the dominant language. Poverty, unemployment, alcoholism, and drugs were huge problems forty years ago. I can’t imagine how desperate things must be today, given shrinking tax revenues, increased illiteracy, unemployment, truancy, and crime. It is amazing that teachers could be found to struggle against all odds to work in such a hostile environment. RI has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. Firing the teachers isn’t going to cure the festering ills of Central Falls. Perhaps innovative collaborative programs between corporate entities (if any still remain in RI) and the high school could revitalize the educational program. Surely, there are huge obstacles that must be overcome in Central Falls, as in many post-industrial cities. Will firing all the teachers rectify the situation? Surely, there must be a better solution.

    March 9, 2010
  2. Jana #

    “there is a body of evidence suggesting that, where tried, they have not worked”

    I would like to read the evidence. Can you provide a reference?

    Thank you

    March 9, 2010
  3. The following is what CEA Communications Director Kathy Frega has told reporters.

    “Whether the Central Falls situation could be repeated in Connecticut is unlikely. Labor law is complex. Connecticut statutes have a long history – one that is influenced by years of case law. Add to that reality the fact that federal school reform law is just emerging and, in some instances, apparently contradictory. Certainly, no one would want to wager that Central Falls will happen here. It would be degrading, enormously disruptive, and yield nothing for school improvement.”

    @Guy – Bob really is a nice guy. I’ll let him respond himself though, if he so chooses.

    March 9, 2010
  4. Guy Semon #

    Bob your comments disappoint me when you refer to Secretary Duncan.

    Saying you “…hope that he recants his comment …” is sure being a real nice fellow. Hope it gets you some where. Is it because his boss is seen by the political left, NEA, and CEA as the ‘anointed’ one , mr. hope, mr. ‘yes we can’, mr. change? Would you use the same nice language in your BLOG if it were the Republican Secretary of Education supporting the Central Falls School Board?

    Bob, your liberal Democratic Party bias bleeds through on this one . You should be slamming Duncan, Obama, and the past Bush administration boys for their ignorant stand on the RI situation and on public education in general. It should not matter which political party is in power supporting this anti-union , anti-teacher action of the Central Falls, RI school board. Get fired up and find that angry pen. This is about teachers and their students!

    March 8, 2010
    • Bob Murphy #

      Your point is well-taken. My sense of outrage with both the secretary and President Obama is understated – there is a thin line in trying to balance fact and opinion in these posts and in this instance I did hold back.

      As to your perception of my “liberal Democrat bias” I would only say that there are very few liberal democrats left in Washington that meet my standards and trust me, Barak Obama and Arne Duncan are not among that diminishing circle. If you look at the posts I have written
      on Duncan over the past year I have been critical without bombast. Over the last seven years, I believe that I was just as critical of Arne Duncan’s predecessors Rod Paige and Margaret Spellings. It’s been a long time now since anti-unionism has been the exclusive province of one party or the other. That is true in the United States as it is in Britain since Tony Blair and New Labor, and most recently the labor government in Australia, which looks to Joel Kline and New York City for guiding its “get tough” education reform efforts.

      At the risk of appearing defensive after 40 years of experience as a teacher and union activist, I understand all too well that “this is about teachers and their students”, but thank you for reminding me.
      Finally, I don’t think anger has ever served me well in my writing, my teaching or my life, but passion is another matter. There’s no shortage of anger on the education blogosphere if that is where your appetite leads you. I will try harder to ensure that my passion finds expression
      in my writing.

      Thanks for taking time to comment. Let’s hope that others join the conversation.

      March 9, 2010
  5. Mike Breen #

    I’m not so sure that the same thing couldn’t happen here in CT. There’s enough ambiguity in the teacher tenure law to give one pause… plus, if our future Federal education dollars are going to be tied to compliance with these sorts of “reform” initiatives, our legislation will change accordingly. This is simply bad policy that should be fought at every level.

    March 8, 2010
    • Jeff Leake #

      I’m with you on this one Mike – seems that many are taking the Federal guidelines to supercede state laws – and by the time we argue these actions out in a court of law, teachers could be on the unemployment lines. This is bad policy and we definitely need to object at every level.

      March 9, 2010
  6. @Sue – The same exact thing couldn’t happen in CT as we have different laws. Check out this article from the CT Post for more info:

    March 8, 2010
  7. Sue Weber #

    What I don’t understand is, wasn’t there some kind of due process afforded these folks? How can any system just up and fire all the employees of a school? Could that kind of thing happen in Connecticut?

    March 8, 2010

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