Rhode Island school nears compromise on mass teacher firings

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Rhode Island school superintendent and union leaders, who have been at odds over a decision to fire every teacher at a struggling high school, signaled Wednesday that a compromise that would preserve jobs and overhaul the school may be possible.

"I am pleased to reassure the union their place in the planning process," Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said in a statement. She said she welcomes union input in developing "a dynamic plan to dramatically improve student achievement" at Central Falls High School.

Gallo's statement followed an overture Tuesday from the Central Falls Teachers' Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. The instructors have offered support for a longer school day, as well as more rigorous evaluations and training, among other steps.

That appeared to pave the way for reopening negotiations on the proposed dismissals.

The decision last month to replace the teaching staff at the end of the school year cast the spotlight on a new Obama administration policy: To qualify for a share of $3.5 billion in federal turnaround aid, local officials must close the struggling school or replace the principal and start over with a new academic game plan and perhaps a new staff. That significantly tightens accountability measures under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

Experts say there is little evidence to determine whether firing teachers en masse will improve a troubled school, despite President Obama's support for Rhode Island officials who appeared on the verge of taking that drastic step earlier.

On Monday, referring to the Rhode Island case, Obama said accountability was necessary for a school with perennially low test scores.

Outraged union leaders complained that the White House had taken management's side in a protracted labor dispute. Administration officials, sensitive to that charge, insisted that they simply favor bold reform, leaving details to local officials.

Despite Wednesday's developments, experts say the effectiveness of Obama's school turnaround strategy remains an open question.

"There just is very little evidence in terms of what works in quickly turning around a persistently low-performing school," said Grover "Russ" Whitehurst, a Brookings Institution scholar who oversaw education research under President George W. Bush.

Whitehurst said the federal Institute of Education Sciences pursued that question under his tenure but failed to find enough examples for solid answers. "There are certainly occasions when shutting down a school or firing everybody may be a precondition for reform," he added. "But the problem is, it's unclear what to do, after these schools are shut down, that will work."

Jack Jennings, a former Democratic congressional aide who is president of the Center on Education Policy, has tracked restructuring efforts since the No Child law forced schools to raise test scores or face a series of escalating sanctions.

In that time, educators have tried consultants and charter school conversions; replaced staff and management; and experimented with state takeovers and other ideas -- all to help schools that fall short at least five years in a row.

"We could find no evidence that any one particular approach worked better than any other," Jennings said. Obama's statement on the Rhode Island school, he said, shows that the president wants to crack down on academic failure, "but there's no assurance that kids are going to be any better off."

Removing all or most of a school's faculty, experts say, raises the obvious issue of finding effective replacements. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Wednesday that schools elsewhere have been rejuvenated after changing staff. His aides cited cases in Chicago, Colorado and Los Angeles.

"I will tell you what doesn't work," Duncan told reporters Wednesday. "Doing nothing."

In the District, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has replaced most of the staff in several schools since taking office in 2007. There are promising signs in some of those, experts say, but no huge breakthroughs.

Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, criticized the requirement that a principal be replaced in order for a school to qualify for federal funds; he said anecdotal evidence of success is not enough to justify it.

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