WITCH-HUNT IN RHODE ISLAND

By Jane Weinkrantz  

3/17/10

 

"We can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed." --- President Barack Obama’s “Back to School” speech 9/8/10

 

"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 any sign 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."

President Barack Obama, speaking in support of the Central Falls teacher firing, 3/1/10 .

 

 It is ironic that a President whose understanding of complex and underlying causes often left him without an easily quoted sound bite during election season has now caved in to a simple and stupid solution for a complex problem. Specifically, I am referring to President Obama’s support of the Central Falls School District’s mass firing of high school teachers as an appropriate response to low standardized test scores.

            Believe me. I am all about teachers making a difference in the lives of struggling teens.  I have great faith in my colleagues across the nation and the tireless work they do to keep their students on the path to educational achievement and success. But, I also know that sometimes the circumstances surrounding children make it more difficult for teachers to achieve their professional goals. In much the same way that we can give a learning disabled child “extended time” to do his work, I would argue that in areas where prevailing socio-economic conditions are the enemies of learning, schools should be given “extended time” to meet state and federal standards.

         In the case of Central Falls School District , circumstances have created a “perfect storm” for making parenting, teaching and learning extraordinarily difficult. According to a presentation of the 2009 Rhode Island Kids Count Factbook by research analyst Elaine Budish at the Central Falls Public Library on November 2, 2009, Central Falls has the highest child poverty rate in the state, with 41% of its students living below the national poverty line which was $17,346 in 2008 for a family of four. Many poor families in Central Falls subsist on half of that figure. However, only 14% of those living in poverty receive cash assistance from the state’s government. According to Burke Bryant, Executive Director of Kids Count, “The high rate of unemployment in Rhode Island along with a reduction in the length of time that families can receive cash assistance may leave families without a safety net, resulting in a rise in deep poverty, hardship and homelessness.” In fact, 63 families seeking homeless shelter services last year identified Central Falls as their last permanent hometown. The constant stress of poverty and threat of foreclosure, eviction and homelessness certainly affect student performance. How easy is it to do homework if you have no home other than the sofa at a family member’s home or a temporary space in a shelter?

         Hunger, or what has been euphemistically referred to lately as “food instability” currently affects 1 in 8 American children. In Central Falls , those figures increase dramatically. The city has Rhode Island ’s second highest number of income-eligible children participating in SNAP , a program that provides funds for the purchase of food at grocery stores and farmers markets. Additionally although 2,895 Central Falls children were eligible for the Universal School Breakfast in 2008, only 837 participated, suggesting that families in Central Falls are not only poor and hungry, but lacking the information necessary to enroll their kids in programs that would benefit them. Twenty two percent of the students in Central Falls are classified as English Language Learners.      

  Poverty, homelessness, hunger and language barriers are only some of the obstacles to education. Consider the health of Central Falls students. The city has an infant mortality rate of 8.4 per 1000, meaning that a baby has a better chance of survival if she is born in Qatar or Cuba than Central Falls , Rhode Island .  Also, teens have the state’s highest pregnancy rate. The city has the second highest rate of delayed pre-natal care and the second highest rate of childhood hospitalizations for asthma. (According to “Out of Breath: Childhood Poverty, Asthma and Housing” pediatric asthma is often linked to poor housing quality where factors such as excessive moisture, poor air quality, second hand smoke and vermin droppings can act as triggers.) Six percent of Central Falls children have had confirmed cases of lead poisoning. The rate of documented child abuse in Central Falls is nearly twice that of the state as a whole.

Now, think back to your days in education school and try to remember what they taught you about solving problems like poverty, hunger, abuse, illness, teen pregnancy, poor pre-natal care, lead poisoning and homelessness. You probably know that you’re supposed to report cases of any and all of the above to some combination of administrators, the school nurse, school social worker or Child Protective Services.  You may also possess a sympathetic ear and a kind heart that makes kids feel that they can confide these horrors to you. Most likely, that and a knowledge of social studies, art, English, math, science, physical education, a second language, special education, music, business, home and careers or technology are all you’ve got to offer in response to these problems. Doesn’t it seem likely that kids who are facing the problems Central Falls suffers might be a little pre-occupied, a little harder to teach in spite of their own and their teachers’ best efforts?

         Furthermore, the teachers of Central Falls are not responsible for the philosophies and programs the district employs to combat the students’ struggles; the administrators make those choices. Usually, a high school teacher’s influence on a child is limited to the five 40 minute periods a week that kid is in their class. For the average kid, that’s enough time to make a difference. But to those who were born into chronic poverty and instability, it just doesn’t always suffice.

         Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo made a presentation to the Board of Education before implementing the option of the “turnaround” model and firing the Central Falls high school faculty.  Here is a link to Gallo’s Power Point presentation. (http://www.cfschools.net/Documents/gateway-initiative.pdf) Twenty two percent of Central Falls students may be English Language Learners, but their fearless leader is entirely fluent in Educational Hogwash. Her presentation is so immersed in E.H. that it includes “a term wall of key planning vocabulary.” See if you notice any language in the presentation that addresses the real-life issues that plague this school district. Unfortunately, all you will read about are “stakeholders”, “exemplars”, “indices” and “practices.” Here is a list of the demands made on Central Falls teachers, without a guarantee of salary increases, taken directly from Gallo’s presentation:  

·        Increasing the length of the high school day so that the student day is  8AM – 3 PM    

·   Formalizing the high school teacher commitment of weekly tutoring for one hour outside of school time   

·   Teacher participation in communal lunch with students one day each week   

·   Agreement to continue paid professional development for two weeks outside of the typical school calendar   

·   Agreement to meet for 90 minutes each week in order to look at student work, assess data, plan units of study and seek continuous improvement in professional practice.  

·   Acknowledgement that third party evaluators will begin evaluation of all high school teachers on  March 1, 2010       

         Her presentation also includes a quotation from Doug Reeves. It states,  “Poverty and other socioeconomic factors influence student achievement, but specific teaching and leadership practices are even more effective.” Dr. Reeves is the author of 19 books and the founder of the Center for Performance Assessment and the Leadership and Learning Center , a for-profit organization that offers staff development and educational consulting.  (His bio webpage includes a link you can click if you want to book him for your next function. Unlike the Central Falls teachers, I bet no one asks Reeves to work for free.) This somewhat out-of-context and statistically specious quote, assuring us that poverty and hunger can be overcome by the right teaching strategies is the only hint in the presentation that Central Falls is not Mayberry R.F.D. The only other time the hardship apparent in Central Falls is mentioned is when it is used as an excuse for not paying the teachers for additional work.

         While some of the new initiatives such as after school tutoring seem sensible, the proposal doesn’t take into account that some kids might not even be able to attend tutoring because they may have after school commitments such as caring for a sibling or working to support their families. I am also going to go out on a limb and say that the teachers at Central Falls probably already spend 90 minutes a week planning lessons and evaluating work. Finally, as a high school teacher, I can safely state that the majority of teens in all socioeconomic strata don’t want to have lunch with their teachers.  

         Superintendent Gallo was surprised when the faculty refused to accommodate the district’s demands without fair remuneration. She actually said, “They  [The teachers] absolutely refused to work without pay...Eating with students, they considered it a duty, not as I had hoped a relationship-building opportunity.” My guess is that the teachers of Central Falls High School were working pretty hard already, without volunteering to teach extra hours. The district’s proposal adds up to several weeks of additional work. Do you think that your doctor would respond to the health crisis in America by working an extra few weeks without charging her fee? I didn’t think so.

         The fact that Central Falls High School is a school where only 48 percent of the students graduate in 4 years is certainly cause for serious concern. But how will firing the faculty create anything but a chaotic school where many students who lack stability in their lives will lose some of the most dependable relationships they’ve had and where a new flock of teachers will learn that their best is not good enough if it doesn’t show results on specific assessments in a certain period of time? Anyway, why would you apply for a job at Central Falls High School if you knew you could be fired---tenure or no tenure--- just for being part of the faculty of a failing school. That’s certainly going to inspire new teachers to work at struggling schools.

            The teachers’ union, Superintendent Gallo and state education officials recently met to discuss the school district and fallout from the turnaround model. As of this writing, nothing has been resolved. President Obama and Secretary Duncan owe teachers everywhere an apology for supporting a policy that exclusively blames our profession for poor achievement.  Yes, all children can learn, but perhaps some legislation to increase job opportunities and training for those living in poverty, subsidized day care for working parents, decent low-income housing and expanded food programs might help the kids in Central Falls come to school ready and able to learn. We should not give in to “the soft bigotry of low expectations” President Bush warned us about but neither should we give our colleagues in Central Falls to a witch hunt’s vengeance.  

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