Saturday, March 06, 2010

Lets Fire the Teachers

An interesting post from Diane Ravitch.  Years ago she was an ardent advocate of NCLB. One additional issue.  President Barack Obama should find out more of the facts before he makes comments about the teachers who were fired in Rhode Island. It was a cheap- political shot.

Historian, NYU professor
Posted: March 2, 2010

First, Let's Fire All the Teachers!

Imagine that you are a teacher in a high school in a high-poverty district.
Many of your students don't speak English. Some don't attend school regularly
because they have to earn money or babysit with their siblings while their
parents are looking for work. Some come to school unprepared because they
didn't do their homework.

But you are idealistic and dedicated, you work with each of the students, you
do your best to teach them reading, writing, science, math, history, whatever
your subject. But despite your best efforts, many of your students can't read
very well (they are struggling to learn English), and many of them don't
graduate. If your school eliminated all its standards, you could easily push
up the graduation rate.

About 45 minutes away is another high school in a much better neighborhood.
Its statistics are far better than yours. The children are almost all born in
the U.S., and their parents are almost all college graduates with good jobs.
Their kids don't go to school hungry, they have their own room and their own
computer, and they have stellar test scores to boot. Their graduation rate is
very impressive, and most of their graduates go to college.

What is to be done about the first school? President George W. Bush signed a
law called "No Child Left Behind," which required constant improvement. The
Obama administration wants to rename the law but they too reject any excuses
for low performance and low graduation rates.

Recently, the school committee of Central Falls, Rhode Island, voted to fire
all 93 members of the staff in their low-performing high school. Central
Falls is the smallest and poorest city in the state, and it has only one high
school. Those fired included 74 classroom teachers, plus the school
psychologist, guidance counselors, reading specialists, and administrators.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thought this was wonderful; he said the
members of the school committee were "showing courage and doing the right
thing for kids." The kids apparently didn't agree because many of them came
to the committee meeting to defend their teachers.

President Obama thought it was wonderful that every educator at Central Falls
High School was fired. At an appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce
on March 1, the President applauded the idea of closing the school and
getting rid of everyone in it. At the same meeting, President Obama
acknowledged Margaret Spellings, who was President George W. Bush's Education
Secretary, because she "helped to lead a lot of the improvement that's been
taking place and we're building on."

Well, yes, the President is right; his own education reform plans are built
right on top of the shaky foundation of President Bush's No Child Left Behind
program. The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and
Obama, is measure and punish. If students don't get high enough scores, then
someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then
someone must be punished. This is known as "accountability."

President Obama says that Central Falls must close because only 7% of the
students are proficient in math, and the graduation rate is only 48%. Sounds
bad, right?

But the President has saluted a high school in Providence, Rhode Island,
called "The Met" whose scores are no different from the scores at Central
Falls High School. At Central Falls, 55% of the kids are classified as
"proficient readers," just like 55% at The Met. In math, only 7% of students
at Central Falls are proficient in math, but at The Met--which the President
lauds--only 4% are proficient in math. Ah, but The Met has one big advantage
over Central Falls High Schools: Its graduation rate is 75.6%.

But figure this one out: How can a high school where only 4% of the students
are proficient in math and only 55% are proficient readers produce a
graduation rate of 75.6%? To this distant observer, it appears that the
school with lower graduation standards rates higher in President Obama's

President Obama has said on several occasions that he wants to see 5,000
low-performing schools closed. So, yes, there will be plenty of teachers and
principals looking for new jobs.

The question that neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan has answered
is this: Where will they find 5,000 expert principals to take over the
schools that are closed? Where will they find hundreds of thousands of superb
teachers to fill the newly vacant positions? Or will everyone play musical
chairs to give the illusion of reform?

As it happens, Central Falls High School had seen consistent improvement over
the past two years. Only last year, the State Commissioner sent in a team to
look at the school and commended its improvements. It noted that the school
had been burdened by frequently changing programs and leadership. With more
support from the district and the state, this improvement might have
continued. Instead, the school was given a death warrant.

Will it be replaced by a better school? Who knows? Will excellent teachers
flock to Central Falls to replace their fired colleagues? Or will it be
staffed by inexperienced young college graduates who commit to stay at the
school for two years? Will non-English-speaking students start speaking
English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready
to learn because their teachers were fired?

It would be good if our nation's education leaders recognized that teachers
are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter,
including the students' effort, the family's encouragement, the effects of
popular culture, and the influence of poverty. A blogger called "Mrs. Mimi"
wrote the other day that we fire teachers because "we can't fire poverty."
Since we can't fire poverty, we can't fire students, and we can't fire
families, all that is left is to fire teachers.

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and
punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a
host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at
all for the students.

Diane Ravitch is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American
School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic

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