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:
- 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?);
- 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);
- 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.