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Fantasy (Rhode) Island

By Nancy Flanagan — February 26, 2010 2 min read
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Heard enough about the mass firing of teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island yet?

It’s a story that serves as a convenient vehicle for whatever low-information opinions one may have been harboring about public schools in America: teachers make ridiculous amounts of money (read: more than I make), teacher unions are the embodiment of greed, failing schools are the norm in America, generational poverty and lack of opportunity are merely excuses--every teacher should succeed with every child. Or start packing. Don’t let the door hit you, etc.

It’s disconcerting to stand at the sidelines and listen to the nastiness. Especially considering that most people know pretty much nothing about the school in question, except that its test numbers are exceptionally low and its teachers decided not to agree to more work for the same compensation. While it’s true that ethnic make-up, student transience, language issues and per-capita income should be factors that can be overcome, leading to school success, the headline stories weren’t about the influence of such variables or working to find potential solutions. Instead, the torch-bearing virtual mob has been pursuing the monster: bad teachers.

Over at the Huffington Post, Tom Vander Ark wants readers to understand that in some ways, the Rhode Island teachers got off easy--up to half may be able to re-apply and get their jobs back, unlike schools that choose the “restart” option for reviving failing schools under Race to the Top specifications. He suggests more precision around the language describing RTT-funded school turnarounds, and gives props to the Democratic USDOE for taking names and kicking rears. Vander Ark: If you think Central Falls coverage has been hysterical, just wait until RttT funds flow.

Steve Perry and Campbell Brown gave us a muddle of conflicting information on CNN, although the sensational phrase “mass firing” got a good workout. How much, exactly, do teachers in Central Falls make? What, precisely, were the superintendent’s demands? You wouldn’t know if you watched CNN, where “facts” were hard to come by. Steve Perry, CNN’s go-to education expert-- a man who sent 80 kids to college in four years of running a charter school, according to one breathless news story--seemed bent on painting veteran, unionized teachers as the roadblock to reform.

Valerie Strauss, at the Washington Post, raises the obvious question: Who replaces the teachers who get the axe permanently? Recruiting the best educators should be easy, especially when you can offer them life in a very poor town and a job with no security. We can throw the bums out--but replacing them all with dynamic, effective teachers is a fantasy.

My favorite response to the Rhode Island story comes from TFA Teacher Matt Brown who compares the story to what happens when teams in the NBA clean house. Brown’s brilliantly named blog--Relentless Pursuit of Acronyms--is well worth the read, a different and thoughtful perspective on what happens when high-paid players aren’t notching enough wins, and owners decide to run the franchise on inexpensive but promising rookies. It’s all about building a viable team.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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