Guestblog: Trying to make sense of Central Falls [update]

By Karen Marlow-McDaid

I’ve been trying to educate myself recently about the teacher situation at Central Falls High School. In a nutshell: After years of underperformance, the Superintendent has threatened to fire all 74 teachers at Central Falls High School if they do not agree to a list of work changes. The Union wants a role in negotiating these work changes, and wants teachers compensated for all additional work; the Superintendent has said that this is not possible. The RI Education Commissioner backs the Superintendent and unless something shifts dramatically, 74 pink slips will be handed out on 2/22. No more than 50% of the teachers may be re-hired if they choose to re-apply for their jobs.

As you can imagine, the rhetoric on both sides is adversarial and inflammatory. It’s difficult, at this point, to wade through the rants to figure out the true history or to evaluate any potential solutions to this problem. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the Central Falls Schools are not functioning well.

I’ve never been to Central Falls. It’s a small (I mean REALLY small – 1.5 square miles) town north of Pawtucket. With 18,000 people, it is one of the most densely populated towns in the country (it even made Ripley’s Believe It or Not). According to a SALT report done in 2006, 96% of the school population qualifies for free or reduced lunch, 65% is of Hispanic origin (13% white, 14% African American), 25% receive ESL services, 21% of the students are on IEPs. Their 2007-2008 graduation rate is 52.2%, compared to 73.9% for the state.

The District web site describes several initiatives put into place after the SALT visit in 2006. NECAP (standardized test) scores have increased since then, in reading and writing. Math scores, at 7% proficient, remain extremely low, and the aforementioned graduation rate continues to be a problem.

I find this whole situation deeply disturbing, as a citizen of RI, as a parent, and certainly as a teacher. Please bear with me while I try to articulate what’s giving me icy pains in my stomach about this.

First, the reliance on standardized test scores is an old song, but an important one. As long as we continue to evaluate schools based on what’s easy to measure, our efforts will focus, not on educating kids, but on raising scores. They are not the same thing.

Second, at this point, this school seems doomed. There is such animosity between factions, and so much finger-pointing, that any constructive suggestions for school improvements are drowned out.

Does anyone truly believe that firing the entire faculty will result in better learning for students? How long do they expect the payoff to take? In order to truly believe that replacing the entire faculty will create a better learning environment one must make several absurd assumptions:

  1. that teachers control student performance on tests (if we did, dontcha think we’d have made everyone proficient by now just to get the government off our backs?);
  2. that teachers become worse teachers as they gain experience (since by all accounts, those most likely to apply for these jobs will be inexperienced teachers who can’t find work elsewhere);
  3. that student-teacher relationships described as critical by all parties (including the Superintendent) are more easily built among complete strangers.

Apparently there are enough people who truly believe that kids don’t learn just because teachers are lazy and that teachers go into education for the money. (As someone who took a 40% pay cut in order to return to teaching, I can tell you first hand that the second one’s not true.) The cynic in me wants Central Falls to go ahead and try this boneheaded approach, because I believe it will fail so badly, but the cynic is overruled when I think of all the student and teacher lives at stake. The price is too high for this kind of foolishness.

When I read the Commissioner’s list of options for failing schools, the one factor they seem to have in common is undercutting unions. In Rhode Island, the options are to fire the principal and change curriculum (already done in Central Falls – more than once, apparently), fire the teachers, bring in Charter school management, or close the school. Community involvement is conspicuously missing from this list.

Also missing? Evidence that any of these strategies actually work. The only precedent for this type of action that I’ve heard mentioned was the firing of teachers at Hope High School in Providence in 1999. I’m not sure of the sequence of events, but by 2003, Hope High was described as being “in free fall” and required a complete re-organization into 3 semi-independent schools. Several changes implemented at Hope in 2003, including block scheduling and a rigorous, structured advisor system, were implemented at Central Falls in 2006. Perhaps I am missing the research, but surely there are success stories in other parts of the country (or the world) that can provide examples of best practice.

But here’s the thing that might be bothering me most of all. With so many willing to cast teachers as the problem, we’ve got to do more to present ourselves as part of the solution. There is no one more qualified to improve education than the teachers themselves and, while we may feel that our voices aren’t heard within our schools or our districts, we’ve got to find ways to make them heard.

As I was poking around on the internet, I wanted desperately to find two things: a list of the steps Central Falls teachers have taken to improve student performance and a suggestion list from Central Falls teachers of specific actions they feel could improve the schools at this point. The district web site has a description of some initiatives taken in 2005-06, and I’ve seen teacher comments talking about a lack of discipline and administrative support for behavior and truancy, but nothing that approaches recent talking points.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that teacher quality is the single most important factor affecting student learning. And yet, most attempts to “improve” the quality of education try to take teacher individuality out of the mix, standardizing to the point that the teacher, theoretically, becomes irrelevant. It’s an unattainable, and deeply undesirable goal.

Teaching can be an isolating profession. When I was in the private sector (earning the big bucks, with the gold-plated benefits), I collaborated on every presentation I made, every contract I wrote, every report I provided. We proofread each other’s work and gave each other feedback. I had responsibility for my projects, but it was never sole responsibility. As a classroom teacher, I am a lone adult among students for most of my day. While I have formal evaluations, I don’t really know how my teaching compares to that of others in the school. When we ELA teachers get to compare notes, it’s always illuminating.

I think most teachers see teaching as a highly individual profession, in which the teacher’s interests and personality play an important role. While most teachers I know are very willing to share lessons and ideas, most teachers like to put their own spin on things and are reluctant to speak for other teachers or tell them what to do. As a result, it’s difficult to get teachers to speak with one voice, except in negotiations, when we recognize the practical value of doing so.

What we miss here is that people outside the classroom – from school administrators to the general public – DO tend to see us as one group. And, apparently, are quite willing to hold us accountable for results over which we, as individuals, have very little control. Positive or negative, we are painted with the same brush. If we don’t take steps to affect those perceptions and raise the visibility of our many effective strategies and creative ideas, the haters and blamers will control the debate.

I don’t know how to do this. I’m exhausted at the end of the day, as most of us are. If I weren’t on vacation, I certainly wouldn’t have had the time to read this, let alone write it. I know trying to schedule more meetings is not the answer. Maybe being able to share ideas and support each other in a facebook group, as some of my teacher friends have suggested, is a start.

If you’re still reading, you must have a stake in this. Please tell me what you think. How can we raise the voice of reason on behalf of our students, in a world where failure to meet arbitrary goals has devastating (if equally arbitrary) consequences? We must make our ideas heard, and move our schools in the direction of effective solutions, before we get to the nightmarish dysfunction of Central Falls. If we can’t find a way to do that, we truly are part of the problem.

Full disclosure: Karen and I are married, and she gave me permission to repost this from her Facebook page. She is a middle-school teacher who formerly held a consulting position in the private sector and has an MBA from Wharton.

Update: Karen's post was picked up by RI Future.


I feel compelled to add that I also have an M.S.Ed. from Bank Street College. Earning that degree actually took more work than the MBA.

Or I thought it did, my bad, I should have listed both.

Best Regards.

Hi John, Karen:

Full disclosure first...I am the daughter of an English teacher (in NY), the daughter in law of a teacher (elem) and married to a CCRI prof (union member).

I however work in the private sector. I can tell you that the sentiment I hear from my friends is that we ALL in this economy are asked to do MORE for no additional pay. Having gone 5 yrs without a raise, it irks many in the private sector to see teachers agree in principle to the additional hours/tutoring/lunches but ONLY FOR MORE PAY!! I have a tough time disagreeing that the experience helps, but new teachers can offer innovation and enthusiasm I often note in older teachers who admit to marking time till retirement.

I think education (like healthcare where I work) is not a simple "company", however I personally have not seen a ton of benefit to students and families from unions. I have seen grievances filed over who emptied garbage, and little incentive for collaboration to improve the situation.

Central Falls is a tough population, agreed, but if this is not the teachers responsibility, and not the kids and not the parents.......then who?

Thanks for your comment, Chris.

I have certainly seen job descriptions change without changes in compensation, both in the private sector and in education. I have no first-hand knowledge of the negotiations that took place in Central Falls, but I suspect that the issues are more complex than you describe. In my experience as a union member, briefly in the private sector, and now, disagreements frequently revolve around participation in the process at least as much as compensation.

This is one of the main points of my post -- it is unfortunate that the only message heard from teachers has to do with negotiations (or lack thereof). It's much harder to find information about the changes teachers have put into place or their suggestions for improving the school.

You ask who should bear responsibility, I assume for better educating Central Falls students. I said that teachers have no control over test scores, not that we have no responsibility to educate. As professionals, we do have a responsibility to strive to reach our students, to present material in ways they can hear and absorb, and to stay current with recent thinking in our field (among many, many other things). Sometimes, but not always, this work translates into higher test scores. There are as many reasons for low test scores as there are low-scoring students.

Fixing a failing school requires shared responsibility. Teachers play an important role, certainly, but so do students, parents, administrators, members of the community, and government officials. There are no quick fixes or magic formulas. Scapegoating is always counterproductive.

Disagreement in the process??? Forgive me, what I have read in the paper was that the teachers union was willing to implement all the requests, provided there was adequate compensation. The perception, and that is all I can provide here, since I have union family members, and am closely related to several teachers, is that "we agree more must be done, but not without pay" If this is not reality, then NEA-RI and the CFSD union need to put out other info.

Not scapegoating, just going by the stuff I read, and the perceptions in our community.


Thanks for your passionate introspection. I wonder much of the same as you do.

You mention "First" the reliance on standardized test scores. I agree that standardized testing provides at best only an incomplete and inadequate measure of learning. But, it isn't enough to complain about metrics. Education professionals must propose some means by which we can measure whether we are accomplishing what we are setting out to do. If not standard test, then what?

Perhaps that question can't be answered until we define what it is we are setting out to do -- what is the mission of modern K-12 education? As best I understand the history of all this, we in America have not evolved our basic educational structural paradigm since the current systems arose in the mid-1800s which were based on the Prussian compulsory approach designed to churn out competent factory workers. We need to look at what we're really trying to do in light of our place in the world competitive marketplace, and only then can we talk about how we deliver it and what metrics we use to measure it.

This goes way beyond Central Falls of course. It goes to American education at large which lags behind many other countries.

And, if we are to determine (as I think we must) that the teaching profession must change because education is changing, then it simply cannot be the case that teachers get paid to change, any more than buggy whip manufacturers were paid to change.

Thanks, Maddie, for your kind words, and for continuing the discussion.

I completely agree with your questions about standardized tests. I've been asking the same question since grad school, more than 10 years ago, and I have yet to find a satisfying answer. I'm still looking, though. :-) One possible improvement would be to track individual or cohort performance from year to year rather than measuring this year's 11th graders (e.g.) against last year's.

As to the mission of modern K-12 education, you raise intriguing questions, for which I have no answers right now, but I promise to keep thinking about it. I read an article recently -- "Education in the Flat World" by Yong Zhao, from the Mar/Apr 2007 issue of EDge. He argues that standardization in education is killing the creativity and individuality that is the US's historic advantage in the global marketplace. He says lots more. You can find the abstract at

Karen, I am a fellow teacher who believes in everything you stated. I read your post on RIFuture and had to contact you. I would love to have more of a voice in our teaching community and make changes. I am POSITIVE that there are many more comrades that share our belief system. Let's do it! If are interested in sharing ideas, please email me at I look forward to hearing from you!

Central Falls certainly poses a very difficult and delicate situation. There are several factors that need to be evaluated and determined. First, since there appears to be a rather high percentage of children with IEPs, some questions that come to mind is; Are the appropriate services available to meet the needs of the children? Do the teachers have the tools and/or assitance they need to meet these needs? Does the school have the resources to meet the needs of all the children? If the teachers lack the resources or maybe even training to deal with issues at hand, then this would account for the low scores.
I admit that I am not farmiliar with all the details, but IF it's true that the school administration is not following through with the proper discipline or not providing the needed resources, this could be a major problem.
Perhaps what is needed here is a group of individuals comprised of not only teachers, but some parents and students as well to pinpoint the underlying causes here.
If the teachers are lacking any type of resources or skills to fullfill the students needs, then asking them to work more for no additional compensation will be like trying to build a sandcastle in a hurricane.

Hi Karen,
Thanks so much for raising so many important questions that everyone should be talking about, not just teachers. As an active member of the NEA, I often feel defensive about anti-union tactics in the state, especially tirades from the Providence Journal. However, I agree with you that we need to get our message out more clearly, including our teaching experiences, both the positive and the difficult, gray-area ones.
Often, friends have an I-didn't-think-of-that moment when I talk about issues at school, like responsibilities for IEP's, PLP's and ELL students, while supports are increasingly cut. People don't realize that when "frills" like reading specialists or Special Education aides are cut, the "average" students feel it, too, in reduced teacher attention.
It may just come down to a discussion on how much we value education, or at least public education, in our country. So far, we have chosen to cut education spending instead of paying a few more dollars a week in taxes while making ourselves feel better about it by making teachers out to be greedy slackers. If it's the case that we can't afford quality education for public school students, we should just say it honestly and move on from there.

Hay is Central Falls High an unaccredited school? Because if it is not and I must suspect that it is not then all of this getting rid of the staff is for nothing and doesn’t really make sense. Now on the other hand if it is an unaccredited school then for the good of the students that do strive to graduate the school should be closed and the students sent to regional schools or charter schools because those students deserve a real high school diploma not a certificate of attendance.

Portsmouth Pride

Superintendent Gallo has been in Central falls for 3 years. She taught the lower grades in Catholic schools, never high school, never public school. She erased the name on the building dedicated to Maureen Chevrette, a Central Falls girl who became a teacher in Cf and then the superintendent--for a total of 30 years. She was beloved and respected. Gallo told me when I tried to tell her the history of Central Falls that "History is dead now!" Two thirds of every thing she tells the press and the public is lies, and this will emerge in the coming days and weeks. We will begin exposing her at the rally to Support CFHS Teachers on Tuesday night at 6pm in Jenks Park on Broad Street in Central Falls. The vast majority of CF residents stand with the teachers because she is a liar. The law and our legally binding contract is also behind us. The wooden ideologues in the press and the radio don't and accept every thing Gallo says at face value.
If you are a person of good will, stay open and stay tuned. The truth is coming!

Hi cfteacher. It's interesting to hear from someone who is in the situation first hand.

Out here in Portsmouth, all I know about the CF schools issue is what I read in the papers. But I've been thinking about the basics of it, and here's what doesn't seem right:

Central Falls schools have poor performance by many measures.

Well, when a baseball team has poor performance the manager gets fired. The players by and large stay on, and I just need to point out that ball players are unionized too. But in Central Falls, the players have all been fired while at the same time the management team is staying on. I think Gallo advocating for a fresh start -- fire everybody -- might be more credible if the management team were fired too. But dumping the players while keeping the management? Something about this just doesn't ring sound. Keep the players and fire the management -- that's how billion dollar baseball business is run.

I am an educator, and,yes, a union member. I have to agree with those of you (which is MOST of you) who state that teachers(and their unions) have not been very good at getting both sides of the story out. It's not prudent for us to shake our heads in disagreement and not speak up and relate not just what we know, but our point of view, from the proverbial "trenches."
Let me start by saying that I do not feel that I am an apologist for teachers and unions. I have trouble enough speaking for myself without speaking for large groups. Like most of you, I made the decision to become a teacher of my own free will. Like many teachers, I had the opportunity to work in the private sector, and chose teaching (I have a law degree). Also, like many of you, I have a family that I have a responsibility to raise. It is simplistic thinking to paint everyone in a group with a broad brush. There are some things that my union does that I don't entirely agree with, but the vast majority of union policies are there for the protection of the workers. Unions are NOT bullies. It is illegal to strike in Rhode Island, so technically, unions are not as powerful as people make them out to be. Unions NEGOTIATE contracts and policies, and, without the ability to strike, unions pretty much have to take what is offered if the other side takes a hard stand. If you don't like all the supposed benefits and large salaries teachers make, understand that those were granted as part of a contract in which at least two parties signed. A problem arises when one party decides it no longer wants to follow the agreement, and that party has shown, in the past, a propensity for changing her mind, even about the re-negotiated agreement. Then there is general suspicion that these alleged "small" steps will be followed with other steps not originally negotiated.
I can only tell you what I have heard, so this might not be true, either. I can also tell you what I think, and you can make of it what you will:
* There has been talk that this entirely stems from the teachers' unwillingness to do a few things without getting paid. This may or may not be true, but sounds suspicious. I know, from a union official in another community, that there is much more to this. Pay is not as big an issue as has been told here. The union objected to the agreement because Ms. Gallo didn't want an agreement at all, in the classic sense. She is following what Mrs. Gist has done in our community: She is refusing to put anything in writing that binds her to the exact terms of the agreement, and she wants the right to change her mind about any terms, including pay. That's not a contract, nor is it even negotiation. It breeds mistrust. So, union officials are supposed to sign an agreement that binds THEM, but not her? How many of you, in your work, or your lives, would sign such an agreement?
* Ms. Gallo is telling the press that it all turns on the greed of the teachers. This is another lie. How many of us REALLY believe that the union was going to risk the jobs of their teachers over supposedly harmless conditions? There is more to this, and I am frustrated that we don't know the total truth, and yes, frustrated with the union for not coming forward and telling us exactly what their stance is.
* Teachers rightly question her motives, when one of the conditions is having lunch with the students. Now, after laughing, we could say, sure, and go along with that, but really, what does this have to do with test scores and dropout rates? And this was a condition, from an "educator" with an advanced degree? Sit next to your students at lunchtime? How can you take this seriously? And the "staying late" option means adding about FIVE MINUTES to each class. In order to assume that this will actually make a difference, we will have to assume that the students WANT the extra time, because they just don't spend enough time trying to learn. They rush home, their parents insist they open their books and study, and they just get an ulcer over how there aren't enough hours in a day to learn, and those darn teachers just aren't teaching them enough. We have all sat in classrooms when we were in high school, where some kids wanted to learn, and their parents instilled in them the desire to learn, and we also sat next to kids who didn't, for one reason or another. You could add twenty hours to the school day, and it wouldn't mean anything to these kids. It's about QUALITY, not quantity, and it starts at home and in the kids' minds, not in teachers.
* REALLY want better schools? Want to take some of that great federal money and make every school better? Those people like Ms. Gallo and Gist, you know, the experts, have presumably read that the NUMBER ONE factor in student learning is TEACHER/STUDENT RATIO. Make the class size smaller, and I guarantee better instruction and learning. Look it up, folks, it's not an urban legend. And ask a teacher, any teacher, if it's true. They will all say yes. But, hey, don't take OUR word for it, right? We only have been there. But that would require a novel strategy of doing the right thing. It will mean taking that money and spending it on the kids by hiring MORE teachers, not firing the ones you have, in hopes of getting a college kid who can do much better. Keep the teachers you have, hire the college kids. Make classes smaller. Test scores will go up. there will be fewer failures. But, hey, who am I, right? just a guy with 25 years in the classroom and four degrees? What do I know? And, if we, as teachers know this would be a better use of the money, but THEY do not, that makes us wonder if those that are in charge have ulterior motives (ahem, busting the unions), or are just incompetent. So, which are, you, nefarious, or just not very good?
* It is true that in the private sector, people are asked to do extra work for no pay. Teachers do it everyday. We get a salary, and the extra work we do preparing lessons, tutoring, and correcting papers is expected of us, and we don't complain. But I would hope, especially if you have a family, that you are doing everything in your power to negotiate the best deal so you can adequately support your children. If you don't, then you are a martyr, if not a fool. If your boss asks you, sometimes, to do extra, fine. If the boss requires that you do extra, on top of the extra you already do, you don't even ask for extra pay for this? You spend less time with your FAMILY now, for the same pay, and that's OKAY? Or do you ask? And if your boss says, as I understand Ms. Gallo has done, "I MAY pay you, I may not, I may ask you to do more than that, for which you might be paid, but I won't tell you how much, exactly, if at all, and oh, by the way, even if you do all this extra work, I STILL might fire you," that would be okay, too? teachers are not zombies, fictional characters without families. We understand the sacrifices made in the job, and yes, welcome the time off and whatever benefits we get. I have never heard a teacher complain about lack of salary, and I have been doing this a LONG time. We get upset when OTHERS insult us by claiming we are greedy. If you claim you know many teachers, as some of you had, want to call them up and call them greedy to their faces? Oh, it's not THEM, it's their greedy unions, right, a nice faceless entity you can rail about with impunity. I am raising two children, and I want what's best for them. And, like MOST teachers, I freely spend extra time with my students. I give my LIFE to some of these kids. However, if I am FORCED to do the extra things, I will do them, but it would be NICE to get paid for it. Unreasonable? But when you are asked to do the extra things by someone you don't trust, and are not told details of what you will do and what you will be paid, if anything, is it not reasonable to turn to the boss and say, "When you want a REAL, BINDING agreement, we will talk, but not until then?"
* The current governor appointed Mrs. Gist, a person who failed in her last job, who has all of five years experience in the classroom, who makes an enormous salary and is allowed to take time off from work, PAID, to go to another state to work on her advanced dgree. Mrs. Gist makes at least twice as much as the highest paid teacher in the state, and nobody has approached HER, or Ms. Gallo, to take pay cuts, or work more hours, or lose benefits, or to accept accountability for the failing schools, as GOOD managers are supposed to do (except maybe on Wall Street).
* In the last twenty years in my community, the union has been asked, by the city, to come back to the table and renegotiate our contract at least five times. Not ONCE did the city call us back to give us a better contract. LOL. They wanted concessions on an already binding contract. They wanted us to take some kind of hit somewhere. And we did it, every time. Every single time, we said, okay, and gave something back. But the populace doesn't hear this. Whose fault? The unions for not being better at PR? I think the unions, in general need to be better at this, and we teachers need to, as well. The press? Look at the Providence Journal, a company that has a long history of treating its employees like dirt. In all its reporting, are there any quotes from Central Falls teachers or union officials about the substance of the issues, beyond quotes like, "It's a darned shame?" The national news and blogs, check them. CLAIMS are being made, most of which spinning this entirely in ONE direction, but what actual, verifiable FACTS are being reported? The claim is made that teachers wanted $90 per hour for the extra time, but who says this? What's the source? We are never told.
We need better than this. We need for all sides to insist on getting to the bottom of this. Then, and only then can we make informed judgements. I require that of my students. You should require it of yourselves, and your children. Let's all step to the plate, and stop scapegoating.