Just hours after I was named Rhode Island’s commissioner of education in 2009, I visited Central Falls High School. Some of the students were excited to hear that I had just arrived from Washington. Do you know President Obama? they asked me. Will you bring him to visit our school?
Little did any of us imagine then that less than a year later, Central Falls, the smallest and most impoverished city in the smallest state, would be in the national spotlight. On March 1, President Barack Obama himself spoke out about Central Falls High School. In remarks at an education event in Washington, the president said:
“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. And that’s what happened in Rhode Island. … When a school board wasn’t able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff. As my education secretary, Arne Duncan, says, our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”
Those remarks made international headlines, but the headlines tell only the first act of the story. On May 17, after three months of mediated negotiations about transforming Central Falls High School and accelerating it toward greatness, the Central Falls Teachers’ Union and the Central Falls School Department reached a historic agreement. Superintendent Frances Gallo agreed to bring all of the teachers back to the school in September, and in return the teachers agreed to a number of important initiatives, including:
• A longer school day;
• Five to 10 days of targeted professional development every summer;
• Ninety minutes a week of focused common-planning time, which will take place after school, thereby also increasing the students’ instructional day;
• Personalization initiatives, including having lunch with students at least one day a week;
• At least one hour of weekly scheduled tutoring for students required of every teacher;
• A pledge to develop a streamlined collective bargaining agreement that will give the principal greater flexibility to implement education reforms;
• A screening process for all faculty members who wish to be rehired for the next school year;
• A new staffing policy that eliminates “bumping” and seniority-based teacher placement and restricts grievances regarding staffing decisions; and
• A rigorous evaluation system to be in place during the next school year.
This is an aggressive agreement that will put through dramatic changes at this high school. I can’t imagine that anyone looking at it would say we have backed off on our reform agenda. Quite the contrary. This agreement will provide the conditions necessary for the superintendent and the new principal to transform Central Falls High School. The teachers at Central Falls have stepped up and said they want to be an active part of the reform process, and we welcome them.
Schools that fail for years do so for a multitude of reasons, and we must respond to the problem on multiple fronts.
From the outset, my one commitment as commissioner has been to ensure that we provide the best possible education for students throughout the state, including at Central Falls High School. Replacing teachers and hiring new staff may sometimes be part of the process of reform, but not necessarily in every case. There is no one answer or one strategy that solves the problem of persistently low-achieving schools. Schools that fail for years do so for a multitude of reasons, and we must respond to the problem on multiple fronts.
One thing is certain: We can no longer tinker around the edges of persistently low-achieving schools, fixing one problem at a time. These schools urgently need a total transformation—a top-to-bottom upgrading of instruction, data collection, programs, partnerships, training, culture, and governance. And, yes, these schools need, as all schools need, an excellent teacher in every classroom and an excellent principal committed to instructional leadership, high expectations, and results.
Often, when we face the challenge of improving our lowest-achieving schools, the tendency is to try to determine who is at fault. Rather than assigning blame, we need to work together on solutions. The challenges may be complex, but that is no excuse for not acting with a sense of urgency. We must begin now, because if we wait any longer to solve the problem we will lose another generation of students.
To bring about this kind of real and lasting change, our state has pledged to work with schools and with teachers, as we are doing in Central Falls, and other Rhode Island districts are following suit.
When labor and management are focused jointly on reforming and working toward a common goal, students benefit. We believe that Rhode Island is the only state in the country that has made a “management-labor compact” one of the options for school reform—and that is the option the superintendent selected in Providence, the state’s capital and largest school district.
Outside the spotlight, labor and management in Providence are working in partnership on school reform. Superintendent Thomas M. Brady and Providence Teachers Union President Steven F. Smith sit at the table together, developing a detailed plan to improve the lowest-achieving schools in the city. On a visit to Providence in April, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was impressed by what she saw in the city’s schools. “You can’t buy trust,” she said. “It’s earned, not given. If we are going to engage schools, the pivotal piece is collaboration. That’s what you are doing here, and it’s breathtaking. I thank you for having the courage to do it.”
I completely agree. When teachers share a commitment to improvement and we engage them in the decisionmaking process, we show our respect for one another as professionals, we get the benefit of our shared experience and judgment, and we ultimately get better results.
School turnaround will not occur overnight, so it is essential that we preserve and maintain many options and strategies. I believe that most teachers are eager to take on the difficult work of school improvement, and that they want to be involved partners as we get this work done. Although partnership is ideal, partnership in and of itself is not the goal. We cannot hold back on making the necessary changes just for the sake of partnership or collaboration.
In May, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took note of the developments in Central Falls. “Turning around a high school is very tough work that asks more of everyone—students, parents, staff, administrators, and the community,” he said. “It is clear from this agreement that everyone is willing to give more in terms of time, training, and tutoring. It provides for more engagement among students and teachers, more support and collaboration among the staff, more meaningful evaluation for teachers, and a greater voice for teachers in managing the school and driving reform.”
We will keep those words in mind as we work to transform education. We know that we must be more than willing to work together with teachers, school leaders, students, families, and community members, but we must always hold steadfast to our guiding principles. If schools do not or cannot change their culture and improve their performance, we must not hesitate to change them and to give all students the education they deserve.
At the end of the day, we must always act—truly act—in the best interest of our students. That is why I am an educator, and that is what education must be about.