UPDATED: Obama Gets Involved in R.I. Teacher-Firing Drama

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 01, 2010 1 min read
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This Central Falls, R.I., situation just keeps getting bigger and bigger. Here’s a new petition organized by the union protesting the situation.

Now President Obama has gone and waded into the controversy by saying he supports Sup. Jane Gallo and State Sup. Deborah Gist in their bid to fire all the personnel in the struggling high school.

So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution. We've got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But 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 last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests—7 percent. When a school board wasn't able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff."


American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten gets into the fray with this statement:

President Obama's comments today condoning the mass firing of the Central Falls High School teachers do not reflect the reality on the ground and completely ignore the teachers' significant commitment to working with others to transform this school. We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers, but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed."


The union is also fighting fire with fire, publicizing a 2009 report about a visit by state-level officials to the school that highlights turnover in leadership and a variety of conflicting reform programs.

I’ve no doubt that both superintendent and union believe what they’re doing is best for students. But let’s not forget that there are some pretty bread-and-butter issues on the table here about working conditions and pay, as I wrote about here.

The dueling rhetorical arguments at work—"blaming teachers” and “interests of adults v. interest of kids"—aren’t particularly new ones. Whether or not you think they apply in this particular instance is probably beside the point. What’s significant is that the AFT and a Democratic president are using them against each other, and that really is a novel phenomenon.

UPDATED: National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel gets in on the game:

It's time for federal officials to get out of the blame game and into the classroom. One thing is certain: Firing the entire faculty of a school that is on the path to improvement is no recipe for turning around a struggling high school. And relying on a magical pool of 'excellent teachers' to spring forth and replace them is naïve at best and desperately misguided. ... In reality, we all know that the solution is not blame, it is collaboration...collaboration among school employees, management, parents and communities."

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.