The Dilemma in Central Falls, RI

March 19, 2010 at 10:00 am | Posted in Politics, Ramblings, Situations | Leave a comment
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Sorry for the lack of posts, everyone. And I won’t even make a joke about how everyone = my cat. Dang it, I just did. Alright, let’s move on.

I’ve been mildly interested with the news coming out of Central Falls, Rhode Island lately. If you’re unfamiliar, Central Falls is the mecca of bourgeois lifestyle the smallest town in the smallest state in the union, measuring at about 1.5 miles in diameter. The population of the town is about 18,000 people, making it the most densely populated 1.5 miles in the United States, according to Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Small town; big story.

On February 18, 2010, every teacher at the Central Falls High School was summarily fired after a meeting of the Central Falls school Board of Trustees. The vote was 5-2 in favor of their firing. How did this happen? Check this out:

Central Falls has continually turned out some of the worst graduation rates in the country; less than 50% of the students graduate. This year, only 55% of the students were considered proficient in reading, and only 7% (that’s not a typo) were considered proficient in mathematics. New federal guidelines, implemented by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, state that schools that are performing at this level of mediocrity need to do something about it, and they will get federal help in order to facilitate the process. Rhode Island was the first state to apply for new federal funds to fix faltering schools, and they stood to gain $12.4 million, as allocated by the state. According to the Providence Journal, there are four proposed methods to make a school applicable for these funds: “school closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation which requires a longer school day, among other changes; and ‘turnaround’ which requires the entire teaching staff be fired and no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.”

The Superintendent, Frances Gallo, proposed ‘transformation’, which included some guidelines to make the scores and graduation rate go up. Some of the proposals included setting aside one hour a week to tutor kids outside of school time, and having lunch with the kids once a week. Also, their work days would be extended to seven hours (instead of 8AM-2PM, it would become 7:50AM-2:25PM). Also two weeks were to be set aside every summer for ‘educational development’. The teachers apparently agreed to most of the terms, but wanted to be compensated for their extra work.

I would like to pause here and discuss that the median income for Central Falls, a town that is 65% Hispanic, is approximately $22,000. The vast majority of the teachers at the high school made between $72,000-$78,000, which is the highest pay rate in Rhode Island for teachers in the secondary education level.

Getting back to the story, Gallo agreed with their desire to be compensated. However, they could not agree as to what the compensation should be. This is where the teachers union comes in, and I remind you that the teachers had agreed to this ‘transformation process’, as it is called. Gallo offered the teachers $30 an hour for only some of the extra duties. The union demanded $90 for each extra hour of work. Talks broke down shortly thereafter.

This ‘transformation’ model was suggested by Gallo and was summarily turned down by the teachers. So, Gallo opted for the more drastic ‘turnaround’ model, also accepted under federal law. This firing was not illegal. She went to the Board of Trustees and received the aforementioned 5-2 vote in favor of their firing. The union didn’t blink, and neither did she. Gallo has gone on record as saying it was not the option she wanted, but she needed to do something. The status quo has been working just fine for the teachers who made over $70k a year, but it hasn’t been working for the kids who were dropping out more than they were staying in. It wasn’t just sad, it was embarrassing.

But this is not the end of the story. It only gets better.

President Obama even chimed in on the story. The president, a liberal Democrat who is supported heavily by teachers unions across the United States, publicly lauded Superintendant Gallo, saying, “(I)f a school continues to fail its students year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability, and that’s what happened in Rhode Island.” He also said, “Our kids only get one chance at an education and we need to get it right.” This only incensed the teachers even further.

The teachers, for their part, have been allowed to work to the end of the school year (otherwise no one would be teaching the kids), and they are understandably bitter, since they will learn of their individual fates in late May. They promised not to let their acrimony taint their lesson plans, and yet newspaper articles and columns about the firings have been hung up in nearly every classroom for the kids to see. Not only have they been recalcitrant, but union members have openly mocked Gallo. Gallo has also received hate mail, some of which is too monstrous for me to reprint.

According to CNN, rumors started swirling a few days ago about an effigy of President Obama a teacher had made in the school. Gallo found it hanging by its feet with a sign saying “Fire Central Falls Teachers.” The teacher, whose name has not been released due to union contract stipulations, has been confronted and has since apologized to his students. Accordingly, he now faces disciplinary action.  This child was teaching children, and chances are he will not be one of the 50% allowed back to teach in September. Hopefully.

The teachers are obviously upset, but public opinion is not in their favor. Even the president, who is typically a union backer, realizes the profundity of the problem and did not back his constituency in this case. They have been chronically underperforming as teachers, and while perhaps the student body is not as receptive as it could be, the aforementioned statistics are unacceptable.

According to the New York Times, one teacher was quoted as saying: “They sat up there, looked us in the eye, told us we were not good enough. That’s an embarrassment.” Well, according to the data, you were not doing a good enough job. The embarrassment is all those kids who will likely never amount to much because their circumstances overcame their talents and abilities, and the system let them down.

To be fair to the teachers’ side of the story, they claim the reason for such low numbers is that the population is itinerant and many of the freshmen do not stay on to become seniors because they move, and this is included in the low graduation rate.

The union has gone on record as saying that they wanted to negotiate, but Superintendent Gallo was not willing to. She didn’t “bargain with them in good faith.” Whether that’s code for ‘she didn’t give us what we wanted’ is unclear. What it comes down to is that the unions once served an invaluable purpose: to defend workers from unfair business practices. Now they have become the power-hungry, monetarily obsessed machines they once fought. Is it possible that Gallo was sending a message? Maybe, but it seems unlikely. To fire 93 teachers and workers is not something to do lightly. And while I’m not on their side, I realize that being fired is tremendously difficult, particularly if there are families involved. Surely not every teacher in the school is bad at their job, but some of them are. The good ones will hopefully be re-hired, should they choose to be.

The teachers union has filed three charges against the Central Falls School District: failure to negotiate; refusal to provide information to the union; and the terminations themselves. Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said that “If what happened in Central Falls is upheld, it will set a precedent across the United States.” I hope she is right.

One good thing that has come out of this is that poor performance, in this instance, was not encouraged or tolerated. It was put down and shown for what it was. Kids have been screwed by a system that favors the teachers, and while teachers should be rightly compensated, it should not be at the expense of their students. The United States is falling hopelessly behind other countries in terms of education, not because we’re doing poorly (an F), but because we’re just ‘average’ (a C) while other countries, such as Japan, Korea and Finland excel (an A). And yet, the salaries of the teachers continue to rise regardless of performance levels, yearly in most cases. Perhaps they fail to understand the gravity of their employment. Being a teacher is certainly not easy, but there are good ones out there. I would recommend the bad ones follow their example.

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