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

Reader Comment: 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. . . . .

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.

— Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Answer Sheet


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