School Improvement – The Turnaround, aka the Sledgehammer Approach
A Rhode Island high school recently took one of the more radical steps towards school improvement when it fired 93 staff members. Citing an inability to reach agreement with the teacher’s union on a plan for teachers to spend more time working with students, the school board of the Central Falls School District voted 5-2 to terminate 93 staff members: one principal, three assistant principals, 74 classroom teachers, guidance counselors, reading specialists, physical education teachers and the school psychologist.
The simplistic, sledgehammer approach, often called the turnaround model, set off a firestorm with unions of every form. But while the step seems nothing short of hideous (are we to believe that not one educator in the building was performing up to expectations?), the situation does beg a simple question: What is the school board to do when the union rejects all proposals set forth to increase student performance at a poor performing school?
Central Falls High Data
By all data models, Central Falls High has been struggling. Of course, providing a quality education in a poverty-ridden school district is never easy.
The school is 65 percent Hispanic and for most of them English is not their first language. According to news accounts, half of all students are failing every subject. A total of 55% have been deemed proficient in reading; a mere 7% in math.
Central Falls High also had a reported graduation rate of 48%.
So, in one of the state’s tiniest and poorest cities, federal and state education officials are insisting that dramatic steps are necessary to transform this poor-performing school. But on the other side, the unions see the move as an attack on the very working conditions they have worked so hard to obtain.
Despite the poor performance label, the president of the Central Falls Teachers Union insisted that the teachers were simply being made a scapegoat. Union leadership also cited a 21 percent rise in reading scores and a 3 percent increase in math scores in the last two years as signs of progress
Furthermore, George McLaughlin, the guidance counselor who had been terminated, questioned the accuracy of the calculated graduation rate. Citing a transient population, he insisted that three times as many students are accepted to colleges now than five years ago.
In what has to be one of the toughest moments anyone could imagine, on the night of the 5-2 vote to terminate, the board read the names of every staff member being fired. In an effort to help put a face to a name, each teacher attended the meeting and stood as his or her name was read.
Many were dressed in red, one of the school’s colors. Some cried while others lashed out verbally at the board members and School Superintendent Frances Gallo.
Sadly, the situation came from a set of stalled negotiations. Gallo and the teachers initially agreed on what is called the transformation model (no one is terminated) but reportedly the talks broke down when the two sides could not agree.
Gallo wanted a set of six conditions that included teachers spending more time with students in and out of the classroom. That time included a longer school day of seven hours, a one-hour tutorial for students weekly outside school time, teachers having lunch with students, and a 90 minute session with students every week to discuss education. She also sought a commitment from staff to attend training sessions with other teachers after school and during the summer months.
Ultimately, the sticking point was not the time request – the deciding issue instead centered on pay. Gallo offered to pay teachers for some additional duties (not all) and to do so at $30 per hour. Union leaders sought $90 per hour.
When they could not come to agreement on the steps to take, the superintendent decided the best option was the turnaround model.
Opposing Views Rampant
Education Secretary Arne Duncan defended the termination action. “Students only have one chance for an education and when schools continue to struggle we have a collective obligation to take action.”
Indeed, the firings come directly from a step Duncan has taken to require states to identify their lowest 5 percent of schools according to their performance on standardized tests and graduation rates. As for fixes, there are four options: — school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation; and “turnaround.” It is the latter category that the Central Falls High board has taken – the step requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired.
And B.K. Nordan, one of the two dissenting votes, still blistered the high school’s teaching staff at the end of the meeting.
“I don’t believe this is a worker’s rights issue. I believe it’s a children’s rights issue,” Nordan was quoted. “…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.”
But comedian and social commentator Bill Maher clearly articulated some of the flaws in the strong-arm approach being used.
“It’s just too easy to blame the teachers, what with their cushy teachers’ lounges, their fat-cat salaries, and their absolute authority in deciding who gets a hall pass,” writes Maher. “We all remember high school – canning the entire faculty is a nationwide revenge fantasy. Take that, Mrs. Crabtree!
“But isn’t it convenient that once again it turns out that the problem isn’t us, and the fix is something that doesn’t require us to change our behavior or spend any money. It’s so simple: Fire the bad teachers, hire good ones from some undisclosed location, and hey, while we’re at it let’s cut taxes more.”
Maher went on to add:
“What matters is what parents do. The number one predictor of a child’s academic success is parental involvement. It doesn’t even matter if your kid goes to private or public school.”
An Indication of the Challenges
And therein lies the difficulties with school reform measures. On the one hand, poor performing schools are asked to work with students from families that do not value education. Students from poor families arrive at school having had more limited learning opportunities from day one and no academic reinforcement as their schooling progresses.
By the same token, it is clear that great teachers, and particularly schools with large numbers of quality educators can make a significant difference. As Nordan states, the kids at Central Falls are in desperate need of teachers willing to step up and to do so regardless of the pay and the time involved.
And that, in my estimation is what separates the really good ones in this noble profession. It is what has always separated those that make a difference with their students.
They are willing to step up, to do what needs to be done, irrespective of pay or recognition or the time involved. And though taking a sledgehammer to a high school seems a painful way to reinforce such a point, there is a lesson to be learned.
According to Duncan’s criteria, no more than 50% of those teachers may be rehired. There are no doubt some very talented individuals who will have to swallow some serious pride to find it in their hearts to reapply.
But those that do so will be applying for work in a school that is now setting a standard as to what it wants and expects from teachers. Nordan is right, this is not a union issue, it is a kid’s issue, and school leadership should be able to insist on steps it needs to take to ensure that the kids needs are met.
And that means that maybe some time a sledgehammer just might be necessary.