School & District Management

Aftershocks From R.I. Mass-Firing Plan Persist

Decision to dismiss staff draws praise from some, irks teachers’ union.
By Dakarai I. Aarons — March 05, 2010 7 min read
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The recent decision to fire the entire professional staff of a Rhode Island high school has placed intense national focus on the implications of such radical efforts to turn around low-performing schools using the school improvement models promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

The 93 staff members of the sole high school in Central Falls, R.I., the state’s poorest school district, were told they would be dismissed, using federal regulations as a justification, after negotiations between the district superintendent and the teachers’ union broke down over compensation.

The Feb. 23 move made national news and attracted the attention of President Barack Obama, who praised the decision, as well as the executive committee of the AFL-CIO, which denounced the teacher firings.

The situation remained in flux late last week after the local teachers’ union released a proposal that mirrored much of the district’s initial plan. The Central Falls Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said it was “ready to collaborate with the district and work toward changes that will ultimately give our students the education they deserve.”

Frances A. Gallo, the superintendent of the 3,200-student Central Falls district, responded with a statement of her own, saying she pledged to “remain open” to again considering the “transformation” model of turning around the school—a less drastic remedy. Such a move would rescind the firings, which are scheduled to take effect at the end of the school year. Talks between the district and the union were expected to resume soon.

Precedent Elsewhere

Sandy Capelli, a West Warwick, R.I., teacher attends a rally to support the Central Falls High School teachers who may be fired at the end of the school year on March 4 in West Warwick, R.I.

The removal of most or all of a school’s staff is not without precedent: Superintendents, primarily those in big-city districts, have done so with some regularity since gaining the authority under provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act and state accountability laws, in attempts to improve lagging schools.

Schools have been overhauled in cities such as Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, as well as Chicago, where U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan served as chief executive officer of the school district before joining Mr. Obama’s Cabinet.

The Central Falls case has garnered so much attention because of what it represents, said Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting scholar at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington.

“I think what sets this apart is that it is giving people a sense we might be on the front edge of a new era,” he said. “Under NCLB, states and districts had opportunities to do serious things with failing schools, but often they took the path of least resistance,” he said. “This suggests some states and districts are planning to do something different.”

But others say wholesale staff turnovers won’t necessarily fix the problems faced by schools such as Central Falls High School that are persistently poor performers.

“Bold action must be taken in persistently low-performing schools, but sometimes the solutions we go after don’t always match the reality of the problem,” said Barnett Berry, the president and chief executive officer of the Hillsborough, N.C.-based Center for Teaching Quality.

For example, he said, teachers need training in how to work with special populations, such as the large number of English-language learners at Central Falls High.

“Actually preparing teachers to work in high-needs schools is a bold move, but it’s something we often don’t do,” he said. “I would suggest that before we think about firing every teacher, we should look closely at whether those conditions are met.”

Obama Weighs In

The controversy gained more traction after President Obama’s remarks this week about the planned firings.

“[I]f a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, ... then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,” the president said, citing the Central Falls actions approvingly during a speech in Washington on education.

Some others voiced similar sentiments.

“Clearly the kids in this school need a huge change,” said Bryan Hassel, a co-director of the Chapel Hill, N.C.-based Public Impact, an education research and consulting firm that has produced work about school turnarounds. “We shouldn’t hamstring a bold superintendent who wants to do what’s necessary for results.”

Deborah A. Gist, the Rhode Island commissioner of elementary and secondary education, initiated the action in January when she selected Central Falls High and five schools in Providence as candidates for turnaround under the federal school improvement guidelines and ordered school leaders to choose a turnaround model in accordance with those guidelines.

Ms. Gist is one of the first state leaders in the nation to initiate school transformations under the regulations embedded in the federal Title I School Improvement Grant process. Separately, Rhode Island last week was named one of 16 finalists in the competition for $4 billion in Race to the Top grants under the federal economic-stimulus law; states’ applications were judged, in part, on their commitment to turning around low-performing schools. (“Race to Top Enters Home Stretch,” this issue.)

The commissioner said the controversy over Central Falls shows the challenges involved in making needed—and often politically volatile—changes at lagging schools. She rejected statements painting her efforts as anti-teacher, saying her focus is on boosting student achievement and graduation rates.

“What I want people to understand about these efforts is this is not about blaming the teachers in the building. The turnaround effort is acknowledging that it is not just one thing that needs to be fixed,” Ms. Gist said.

In opposing the move, the Central Falls Teachers Union has received the backing not only of its national parent, the AFT, but also of the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO, of which the aft is a member.

The local union has filed three unfair-labor-practice charges against the district early this week, maintaining that the district had refused to negotiate, had retaliated against union members by firing them, and had refused to provide information to the union.

“The teachers have been unfairly targeted, and we will fight to have them reinstated,” Jane Sessums, the president of the union, said in a statement. “Instead of trying to fix the system with a successful model, the [district] administration has decided to scapegoat the teachers.”

Classic Tensions

While national union leaders and policymakers have used the Central Falls firings to amplify their policy points to a wider audience, what happened in the city of more than 18,000 was far more ordinary: a labor-management dispute primarily over compensation for extra work.

Ms. Gallo, the district superintendent, said she started meeting with Central Falls High School teachers and other staff members last fall to work on a plan. She disputed the charge that she’d failed to work in a collaborative way with the union.

The initial plan was to use a so-called “transformation” model , in which the principal is replaced but the staff largely remains. Transformation also would have included an extension of the school day, common planning time for teachers, after-school tutoring, and third-party evaluation of the high school’s teaching staff.

Under the “turnaround” model now in place after the board’s vote, no more than 50 percent of the school’s staff can be rehired. Ms. Gallo said she expects to bring back a significant number of teachers, as well as hiring from among prospective recruits she says are now flooding the district with interest.

Union officials locally and nationally are not pleased.

“Over the past two years, there have been gains, including reading scores that have risen by 21 percent,” aft President Randi Weingarten said of Central Falls High in a statement. She said that “firing all of the teachers is a failed approach and will not result in the kinds of changes necessary to improve instruction and learning.”

The school has failed to make adequate yearly progress for seven consecutive years under the NCLB law, Ms. Gallo said. Last year, just 7 percent of its students scored as proficient in math, and 55 percent passed its reading test.

Ms. Gallo said she acknowledges that the school has made significant gains in its scores in recent years, but that much more work has to be done and that the turnaround process offers an opportunity.

“We still have an enormously long way to go,” she said. “The change of [the school’s] culture, I absolutely believe, will have an impact on closing the achievement gap.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as Mass-Firing Plan in R.I. Sparks Debate on Turnarounds

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