Central Falls at the Center of Education Reform Debate

The decision to fire all its high school teachers has put Central Falls at the center of a national debate over how best to reform education. Here is more from the must-read The Providence Journal report:

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. …

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. …

B.K. Nordan, one of two trustees who voted against firing all the teachers, nevertheless delivered some of the harshest words of the evening to the high school’s teaching staff. Nordan, a graduate of Central Falls High School, now works as a teacher in Providence.

“I don’t believe this is a worker’s rights issue. I believe it’s a children’s rights issue,” Nordan said. “…By every statistical measure I’ve seen, we are not doing a good enough job for our students … The rhetoric that these are poor students, ESL students, you can imagine the home lives … this is exactly why we need you to step up, regardless of the pay, regardless of the time involved. This city needs it more than anybody. I demand of you that you demand more of yourself and those around you.”

Of course the unions are crying foul and using every term in the book to decry this move—immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful, and disrespectful, as union leader George Nee put it. Well, what about the fact that less than half of students graduate and exactly half are passing their classes? Or that 75 percent of students are substantially below proficient in standardized math tests? Or that their teachers can’t be bothered to spend an extra 25 minutes a day teaching class and are demanding $90 an hour, rather than $30, for an extra two weeks of training? What would you call that Mr. Nee?

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