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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

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Live from RI: “I Love It When a Plan Comes Together”

By Rick Hess — May 17, 2010 3 min read

Big news yesterday out of Rhode Island’s Central Falls--the city where Superintendent Fran Gallo dusted off the dreaded “turnaround” bomb earlier this year--as the Central Falls Teachers’ Union folded and acceded to Gallo’s demands. In return, Gallo backed off the mass firing she’d launched. Some observers might regard Gallo’s move as a disappointing reversion to powder puff school management, especially after reading the weak-kneed press release stuffed with promises that all the union ever wanted is “what is best for our students.” But such concerns are misplaced. Gallo’s play shows how stiff-spined management is supposed to work--by forcing unions and other claimants to come to their senses.

In February, Gallo had fired every teacher at Central Falls High School after teachers at the school refused to get on board with her efforts to transform the poorly performing school. This was after they had embraced the transformation model because it would protect their jobs, so long as there weren’t any transformational measures that would, you know, actually transform the school.

Gallo had asked Central Falls High teachers to agree to a series of school improvement measures: nutso stuff like lengthening the school day, adding ninety minutes per week of common planning time, asking teachers to do a week of paid summer professional development at $30 dollar per hour (the union wanted $90 per hour--or at a rate of a mere $187,000 per year), and asking teachers to eat lunch with students once a week. The teachers rejected the proposals out of hand, triggering Gallo’s escalation.

Gallo’s move worked just like tough-minded management is supposed to, creating the conditions where a sensible deal could be struck. Just yesterday, word came that the Central Falls Teachers’ Union ultimately opted to fold when it came down to it. The union agreed to accept all of Gallo’s initial requests, including two weeks (rather than one) of summer professional development at her preferred rate. (Now, some of us might think that having to coerce teachers to do summer P.D at a rate better than $62,000 per year is ludicrous, but that’s a debate for another day).

Crucially, the agreement stipulates that Gallo and the new principal will have the authority to select an outside evaluator next fall. The evaluator will provide support and intervention where needed, and identify teachers who need to be removed. Teachers will not be able to grieve the evaluation process, and fired teachers will have no bumping rights. In short, Gallo and the principal will have everything they need to identify weak teachers and get them out of the system. Some might fret that this is too slow a pace, but with a new principal on tap for next fall, this offers the chance to determine who should stay and who should go and to start recruiting early. It also gives the new school head a chance to eyeball current staff in changed circumstances.

Frankly, it’s not clear how many teachers should be fired at Central Falls High. The school is doing poorly overall, with a 48 percent graduation rate, but we don’t know how much value a given teacher is contributing. Rather than randomly clean house, smart management starts by surveying the assets and talent in place and making sure they are being put to good use.

What brought the union’s change of heart? Well, for once, the union saw that management was serious. Between Gallo, rock-ribbed R.I. Superintendent Deborah Gist, and supportive words from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, it became clear that no one was going to bail the teachers out. More than 800 applications had already flooded in for the school’s 93 teaching jobs, meaning the fired teachers saw they were going to have stiff competition if they reapplied for their old jobs. Also, while no Central Falls High teacher dared to publicly say that they thought eating lunch with the kids was a good idea, folks in R.I. report that many teachers privately murmured support for much that Gallo proposed.

The R.I. story is a really hopeful development. As with Michelle Rhee’s new contract in D.C. or Commissioner David Steiner’s ability to win new language on teacher tenure in New York last week, this shows how leaders with backbone can eventually force union leadership to accept a new reality. Good management is about discipline, not blood lust. The point of school turnarounds is not to count scalps, but to win necessary changes, force out lousy teachers, and reset the board. Check.

Just saw an ad for the new A-Team movie. It put me in mind of “Hannibal” Smith, George Peppard’s iconic character, who used to light a cigar and then growl near the end of every episode, “I love it when a plan comes together.” I wonder if Gallo is a cigar smoker.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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