Rhode Island rocks the boat and brings attention to education reform
In a small, poor city in Rhode Island sits a low-performing high school with a graduation rate of 48% and a math proficiency rate of 7%.
Within the same school sit teachers—many making over $72,000 a year—who do not want to take on reform responsibilities without significant pay increases. They have the union’s backing.
Enter School Superintendent Frances Gallo, who is under pressure from Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist to reform Central Falls High School, which is one of the worst performing schools in the state.
About a month ago, Education Commissioner Gist tells Superintendent Gallo that she has to use one of four models to reform Central Falls High School. Gallo chooses the “transformation” model, which allows her to work with existing staff members to improve the school’s abominable performance.
Gallo lays out six conditions. She tells union leaders and staff that if she can’t adopt the “transformation” model by getting their cooperation, she will resort to the “turnaround” model, which means that everyone will be fired and the district will be able to hire 50% or less of the staff back for the next school year.
The six new staff responsibilities Gallo presents are:
25 more minutes added to the school day, some tutoring shifts before and after school, once a week eating lunch with students, undergoing more extensive evaluations, attending teacher planning sessions once a week, and 2 weeks of training during the summer.
Gallo can only offer $30 an hour and only for some of the additional duties, but the union leaders say the teachers should earn $90 an hour and for all of the additional duties.
As a result, the union leaders say no, we do not agree to your six conditions. They, I conjecture, effectively try to strong-arm Gallo and call her bluff.
They find out that Gallo wasn’t bluffing because she fired them all. Every teacher and administrator.
And from this situation a major media story erupts that asks a lot of fundamental education reform questions.
Here’s a transcript on the subject from Anderson Cooper 360, which shows a classic battling of heads between an education reformer and a teacher’s union president:
Anderson Cooper 360, 2/22/10
COOPER: Really interesting story out of Rhode Island. There are 74 full-time teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. But by June all of them could be out of work; fired for failing to turn around one of the lowest performing schools in the state. Less than half the kids graduate. Only 7 percent are proficient in math. Almost all of the kids live in poverty.
Last week the dozens of teachers who earn at least $72,000 a year received letters recommending their termination. They were sent by the school’s superintendent. The board of trustees votes on the measure tomorrow. It’s not against the law. The fact is it’s one of six options mandated by the federal government to fix struggling schools.
The superintendent says the decision came after the Teachers Union balked at other options that would have required faculty to spend more time with students. The move sparked both outrage and support.
Joining us, two sides: Randi Weingarten, is the president of American Federation of Teachers which represents the teachers at Central Falls High School; and Steve Perry, our education contributor. Appreciate both of you being with us.
Steve, many teachers already put in a lot of time helping students both in and out of the classroom. What’s wrong with asking for a little more money by the teachers for all that extra time?
STEVE PERRY, CNN EDUCATION CONTRIBUTOR: Nothing if the community had it. The community doesn’t have any money. They’re paying $72,000 a year for these individuals to be in a school in which they’re graduating just 50 percent of the students.
And as you said, 93 percent of the children are not performing at proficient at math. They’re asking for more money? They can’t stay after for 25 minutes? It takes you ten minutes to get your coat on.
COOPER: Randi, the teachers rejected the school’s original plan which would have saved all their jobs because they wanted more money for this extra time that they would have had to spend with students. You know, critics like Steve are saying they’re basically putting their salaries ahead of the needs of kids.
RANDI WEINGARTEN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS: Well actually, Steve, from what my understanding is the story is a bit different than that. And I know the teachers would very much like to negotiate this and I know that some of the officials in Rhode Island have called for mediation. We want to keep that school open. We want to keep that school open for kids.
We agree with you and we agree with Steve. Seven percent math proficiency is totally unacceptable but so is the amount of poverty in that school. What we need to do is we need to make sure we create a place where all kids can achieve in some ways like the place that Mr. Perry has created in Capital Prep.
COOPER: What does that mean?
PERRY: Right. Thank you. One of the things that…
COOPER: Steve, go ahead.
WEINGARTEN: Can I finish? Sorry.
COOPER: Steve, go ahead.
PERRY: One of the — one of the things that’s important, if poverty is this immovable object for that faculty we understand that maybe it’s not their group of students that they can educate. Let’s free the students.
Why would we keep a school open that has already proven that it simply cannot educate the children in the circumstances within which they’re in? We operate a school in a poor community. There are thousands of educators all over the country who have the capacity to educate children where they are. We don’t need to change poverty. We need to change who’s teaching children in poverty.
WEINGARTEN: Well what we actually need to do is we need to do both.
But look, we have thousands of schools, as Mr. Perry said, that work. Let’s look at what it is that makes them work. We have…
COOPER: But doesn’t accountability work? Holding teachers accountable?
WEINGARTEN: Accountability is one aspect of it, but what I’m talking about, Anderson, is think about the schools that work across the country. Think about the schools that parents sometimes spend thousands of dollars to put their kids in.
They have well-prepared teachers. They have smaller classes. They have rich curriculum. What we’re saying about here Central Falls where there’s been five principals in the last six years, where there is one high school in the whole — in the whole little city which has become the focus point of the community, where hundreds of people last week were there supporting the kids and the teachers.
Let’s turn that school around like we have in so many other places.
PERRY: Right. And so here’s what’s important to note. She’s right. Attorney Weingarten is right. That we do need better teachers and the only thing standing in way of that are the teachers unions and seniority rules that won’t allow us to bring people in who are the most qualified and willing to teach in those schools.
If those folks in that one school cannot do it, then let’s free the children. Let’s let charter schools come in. Let’s let individuals who want to participate in the process come in. If the interest is the needs of the children, let’s do it.
She’s also right, let’s give the children what the children would receive in these private schools, the same things that the superintendent was asking for. Stay after school a little while longer. Come to school a little while earlier. Eat with the children once a week.
Are we really giving up our jobs because they’re asking us to eat with children once a week? And finally, over $30 — $30 additional dollars. The community has double-digit poverty. There’s no more money.
It’s unreasonable and irresponsible to ask a community that’s already given to the teeth for more money, especially when the product that they’re receiving is below standard. At some point we have to acknowledge that the children are more important than the adults who have degrees, certification, and 401(k)s. We have to focus on the children.
COOPER: Randi, I want you to be able to respond.
WEINGARTEN: Look, the children are more important, and as I said to you I talked to the superintendent of schools last Thursday and I said, let’s restart these negotiations, let’s not close the only high school in Central Falls.
I have worked across the country and have seen high-poverty schools including, Mr. Perry, the two charter schools that I started in New York City, turned things around for kids. What we need to do is have strategic common sense reforms that I know my members can do for kids in Central Falls. We need a chance to do that.
COOPER: Randi, your critics will say — what is essential is the ability for a superintendent or principal to fire teachers. You seem — teachers’ unions obviously are opposed to that notion of being able to fire teachers.
WEINGARTEN: Look, Anderson, we’re not opposed to the notion of if somebody is not performing to do what management has to do.
COOPER: But it’s incredibly hard to fire a teacher.
PERRY: They only make it harder. I mean it takes at least a year to fire a teacher, at least a year. That’s 120 students in a class, under a teacher’s responsibility. It takes them at least a year. If Ms. Weingarten is saying that she’s in favor –
WEINGARTEN: Mr. Perry, can I — get a word in..
COOPER: Let him finish, then I’ll let you finish.
PERRY: If what she’s saying is she’s in favor of children, if you’re in favor of children then your members have to move out of the way. I’d be willing to bet that some 40 percent of the teachers in that school don’t agree with the union leadership. In fact, I bet if they were given the opportunity they would return without any cause. They wouldn’t even require anymore –
COOPER: Randi, I want you respond then we have to go.
WEINGARTEN: As I said, the teachers want to negotiate. We have been shut out of that by the superintendent. We’re willing 24/7 to do it.
The bottom line is this. It’s not union contracts. Look at the best state achievement in the United States. Maryland — wall to wall union contracts. The issue is, how do we make sure we get the well- prepared teachers to have the smaller class sizes, the safe environment that kids need so we help every single child in Central Falls?
COOPER: Ok. Randi Weingarten, appreciate your time; Steve Perry as well.
If you’re as fascinated by the news story as I am, here’s another article link (with an excerpt) to satisfy your curiosity:
Every Central Falls teacher fired, labor outraged
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
By Jennifer D. Jordan
CENTRAL FALLS, R.I.
The state’s tiniest, poorest city has become the center of a national battle over dramatic school reform. On the one side, federal and state education officials say they must take painful and dramatic steps to transform the nation’s lowest-performing schools. On the other side, teachers unions say such efforts undermine hard-won protections in their contracts.
“This is hard work and these are tough decisions, but students only have one chance for an education,” Education Secretary Duncan said, “and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”
Duncan is requiring states, for the first time, to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools — those that have chronically poor performance and low graduation rates — and fix them using one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and “turnaround” which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.
State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist moved swiftly on this new requirement, identifying on Jan. 11 six of the “persistently lowest-performing” schools: Central Falls High School, which has very low test scores and a graduation rate of 48 percent, and five schools in Providence. Gist also started the clock on the changes, telling the districts they had until March 17 to decide which of the models they wanted to use. Her actions make Rhode Island one of the first states to publicly release a list of affected schools and put into motion the new federal mandate.
Gallo and the teachers initially agreed they wanted the transformation model, which would protect the teachers’ jobs.
But talks broke down when the two sides could not agree on what transformation entailed…