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Rhode Island teacher firings, a Race to the Top case study


(AP Photo/Stew Milne)Central Falls, R.I., teachers union president Jane Sessums

One of the first high-profile examples of President Obama's public education reforms comes from Rhode Island, a participant in Race to the Top (RttT).  

Superintendent Frances Gallo, overseeing the persistently failing Central Falls High School, decided to fire all the school’s teachers after the teacher union proved to be the road block to reform.  The superintendent was set to initiate an intervention program at the high school which involved many changes including a longer school day, lunch with the students, and more after school tutoring.  The union rejected the proposal because there was not enough monetary compensation attached.  Because the intervention plan was refused, the superintendent had to resort to a different model of school reform – the turnaround model -- which involves firing the majority of the faculty and staff.  Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s new education commissioner approved the turnaround model for the school.
The mass firings came about because of Rhode Island’s participation in RttT.   Such bold moves are required of the states participating in the RttT.  The question remains, what will firing all the teachers actually do to improve this particular low-achieving school?  Does RttT actually address the core issues?  Can RttT bring about real change or will it be just as ineffective as previous federal public education reforms? 

Does RttT deal with teacher unions effectively?

President Obama spoke up about the controversial mass firings at the Rhode Island 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. As my Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says, our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.
However, if teacher union membership were not required in states like Rhode Island, this particular high school would now be implementing the changes deemed necessary to turn the school around.  Instead, the school will be looking to hire an all new staff and faculty. In Right to Work states, teachers would be able to decide on their own if they wanted to quit or go forward with the new requirements.  In essence, a top road block to true public education reform, teacher unions, was glossed over by RttT.   
RttT requires states to remove legislative roadblocks in order to compete like state legislation blocking or limiting charter schools and blocking the connection between teacher pay and student achievement, for example. There is nothing in the RttT that would allow states to remove roadblocks that would limit forced unionization, which would then limit the power of the unions.
Now, the Central Falls Teachers Union has offered its own reform solution to fix the school, making itself an official player in reform right along with the parents, community, administration, teachers, and staff.  Adding yet more players to the reform game complicates public education reform efforts even more.
Does RttT effectively deal with rewarding and retaining teachers?
A recent Washington Post article, “Survey: Supportive leadership helps retain top teachers”, reported the results of a national survey of more than 40,000 public school teachers.  To retain teachers, 68% responded that supportive leadership was “absolutely essential”, 45% said that higher salaries would work, while only 8% of teachers said that performance pay would work.  A huge chunk of the RttT teacher component relates to giving merit pay for effective teaching.  But ,according to this recent survey, merit pay is not seen as a magic pill by anyone other than the policy wonks who thought it up.
Does RttT offer comprehensive fixes for bad schools? 
 Generally, bad schools continue to exist because students, teachers, parents, administration, staff, have no choice but to be there.  Bad teachers are hired at these schools and they are allowed to stay because there is no one to take their place should they be fired.  New teachers are frequently hired at these schools, again, because no one wants to teach at these schools.  New teachers either quit, transfer as soon as they are able, or become bad teachers themselves.  More experienced teachers head to other schools as soon as there are openings elsewhere.  It is a vicious cycle. 
There are good teachers who want to teach at challenging schools in low-income, disadvantaged areas.  They are frequently driven out due to constant administration changes, frequent reform plan started and never completed, and frequent district, state, and federal hoops that must be jumped through which do not exist elsewhere.
Reform efforts cause problems of their own.   Teachers at bad schools –regardless of their abilities, talents, or track records—are lumped together and are all given same bad teacher label.  Teachers, regardless of effectiveness, are then required to go through the same retraining and team building exercises that are thrown about with abandon at persistently low-performing schools.  Unfortunately, It just does not make sense for good teachers to stay.
Most of these persistently low-performing schools have been through years and years of reforms that did not work.   Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post warns of relying too much on such reforms, “And we are talking about a lot of experiments in restructuring that didn’t work; in 2007-08, more than 3,500 public schools across the nation were in the planning or implementation stage of restructuring, an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous year”.   Turning many of these schools into charter schools will not necessarily change the situation either.
In Texas, Dallas Independent School District alone has 48 chronically underperforming schools.  When RttT comes to Dallas in the form of a district-level RttT, some of the very same challenges will be faced.  More than likely, this will not be the first reform attempt at these Dallas ISD schools either. 
President Obama’s RttT is no less ambitious than No Child Left Behind, yet it may suffer the same fate because it is repeating the same mistakes of reforms gone by – too little of the right interventions and glossing over many of the true impediments to public education reform.
For more info:  see a CNN opinion article and a Washington Post opinion article with different takes on the Rhode Island teacher firings.

For more on Bridgette: Subscribe to get her articles in your inbox or visit her Public Education Blog


  • Fed Up 5 years ago

    Obama has no intention of adequately funding education. Race to the Top is a joke. Schools need FUNDING. I voted for Obama, and now I regret it. He only cares about Wall St crooks, and he thinks that his base will vote for him no matter what. Well, I am part of the Democratic base, and I will NOT vote for him in 2012!!

  • tyrel 5 years ago

    go try and teach a bunch of disinterested schwartzers in harlem. see how far you get. fire all the teachers -good idea!! but please leave all the CEOs bankers goldman sachs etc. Yes they fund campaigns and "kickback" to the machine " OBAMA=SELLOUT

  • Kensley Stewart 5 years ago

    This was absoluely the best thing that could have happened for the students AND for education as a whole. I have not a clue about "Race to the Top (RttT)" but it sounds like another "Yes we can" catchword from Plouffe.

    The fact that the teachers average salary was DOUBLE the income of the parents of the students and they refused to try a LITTLE harder to DO THEIR FRIKKIN JOB... It was proper, just and RIGHT that they ALL be fired.

    I HOPE we see MORE mass firings of union employees!!! By and large they're mostly good people - but the union officilad are ALL corrupt, company-mooching BLOODSUCKERS!

  • rjgmart 5 years ago

    The middle class only exists because of the G I bill and Unions. Without those two the "market" would exert the same downward forces as we see today; people working longer, harder, afraid and for less money. Hard to tout the private sector as they slash jobs of good people because the "profits" are down.

  • thelink 5 years ago

    "Generally, bad schools continue to exist because students, teachers, parents, administration, staff, have no choice but to be there."

    Congratulations! This has got to be one of the most inane comments I've read in some time.

  • Bridgette 5 years ago

    My article was a case study on a bad school. So, it isn't a stretch to talk about the fact that everyone participates in making it bad.

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