Teaching Profession

UPDATED: ‘Turnaround’ Not Only Policy Issue in R.I. Teacher Firings

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 24, 2010 2 min read
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The decision of Central Falls, R.I., Superintendent Frances Gallo to fire every teacher in a high school building is making big headlines in Rhode Island, attracting outrage from teachers’ unions and from AFT President Randi Weingarten, and becoming a big education reform story now that The New York Times has picked it up.

Under No Child Left Behind’s 1003(g) school improvement grants, which are doled out by formula to states, the Obama administration outlined four possible models for dealing with the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title I and Title I-eligible schools. Gallo initially wanted to use a “transformation” model with extended learning time and other changes to instruction but couldn’t reach agreement with the union about how to compensate teachers for putting in extra hours. So now she’s going with the “turnaround” model, which requires teacher firing.

A couple things to keep in mind: This is not, repeat NOT the first time that teachers have been fired in the name of federal law. NCLB allows for teacher firing in schools reaching the “restructuring” phase of sanctions.

So the reasons this is especially newsy are twofold. First, the Obama administration’s requirements for the grants are stricter than the NCLB law is—and much more prescriptive than the Bush administration sought to be when Congress first gave the 1003(g) program money back in 2007. It’s clear from this example that the beefed-up program is going to come as political cover for districts that want to take aggressive action.

Second, Arne Duncan is already quoted in Jennifer Jordan’s story (linked above) as saying that Gallo’s decision is in the best interest of kids. That’s pretty tough talk given that Duncan had promised to prioritize labor-management collaboration (vague though the term is) over top-down fixes.

What’s too bad, though, is that all of this political stuff appears to be overrunning other important policy issues. Without a doubt, this story is about union v. the district with all the requisite finger-pointing over wages and bargaining in good faith and so forth. But it’s also about questions that the education community doesn’t have really good answers to: How should extended learning time be implemented? What changes will need to be made to contracts, school supports, time schedules, and compensation? And is it possible to do those things in a cost-neutral way?

UPDATED: The local teachers’ union has apparently called in the cavalry. Weingarten has a statement out where she blasts Gallo and state superintendent Deborah Gist for “resisting” her overtures to meet. She also takes a dig at Arne Duncan, who she asserts “didn’t get all the facts” or talk to teachers before weighing in on matters. (Call me cynical but it hardly seems surprising that he’s backing up his department’s own school-turnaround model.)

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