Monica Teixeira de Sousa: In Central Falls, it’s a race to the bottom
09:26 AM EST on Monday, March 8, 2010
By MONICA TEIXEIRA De SOUSA
The dramatic firing of Central Falls teachers is really an attack on Rhode Island’s residents themselves. Having already endured the closure of once productive mills and sustained further blows from a sputtering economy, they must now endure an assault on their core public services.
The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, placed Rhode Island in an untenable position with the “Race to the Top”: forgo an opportunity for much-needed resources or compete for funds by dismantling public education. This is one race in which it behooves us to walk, not run.
The heart of the Central Falls community was torn apart as almost 100 educators, the entire staff of the city’s sole high school, were let go. Duncan was quick to support the termination of the teachers, which he did without bothering to speak to them. Had he done so he would have learned that some are local success stories: the kids who made it and later returned as educators and role models. They now face unemployment.
It’s ironic that this joblessness is the result of actions prompted by Rhode Island’s effort to curry favor with Secretary Duncan, since the terminations were prompted by the decision to compete for federal “Race to the Top” funds. The $4.35 million initiative — a grab-bag of harsh and unproven strategies that include closing schools and wholesale dismissals of personnel — is itself funded through the economic stimulus package that was supposed to produce jobs.
By applying the Race to the Top’s “turnaround model” in Central Falls, calling for the termination of all staff and the rehiring of no more than 50 percent, our state is harming the very children that it hopes to help. It has been shown that the results of these draconian actions make it harder to attract new dedicated and well-qualified teachers while doing nothing to address the numerous socioeconomic problems that impede children’s progress.
Critics who point to low student test scores fail to put them in the context of concentrated poverty. The community’s many woes include some of the state’s highest rates for student mobility, children testing positive for lead poisoning, and childhood asthma hospitalizations. In Central Falls 41 percent of families have incomes below the federal poverty line. A median family income below $23,000 must contend with an average yearly rent greater than $11,000. Rather than addressing these root causes of failing schools in disadvantaged cities and towns like Central Falls, it’s more politically expedient and far less expensive to blame schools, blame teachers, and propose privately run charter schools as solutions.
But the events in Central Falls highlight the limitations of the reform strategies promoted by Secretary Duncan. The “school closure model” is not feasible because it assumes that there are high-performing schools within the district to which students may be reassigned. There is only one high school in Central Falls.
Under the “restart model,” Central Falls High School would become a charter school. Supt. Frances Gallo explored this option with no success. The Journal reported that no charter was interested in running a failing secondary school. This is not surprising, given that, with only one high school, the charter school would lose its “magic bullet,” the ability to cull students.
The “turnaround model” now recommended by the superintendent and supported by Education Commissioner Deborah Gist is the school-reform equivalent of detonating a bomb within a school. The collateral damage done already should suffice to give policymakers pause. The only sensible option is to implement the “transformation model,” which at least promotes a holistic approach to a complicated issue, focusing not only on teacher quality, but also on curricular reforms as well as partnerships with community and state agencies.
If the children’s interests are to be furthered, all stakeholders must agree to return to the table to resolve this dispute. With a lawsuit looming, perhaps a mediator can help the parties see that the “transformation model” is the only one that has the potential to help rather than harm the students.
The wisest course of action might have been to forgo the money available through “Race to the Top.” It is a competitive grant for which states were not required to apply, and few winners are likely to be announced. By implementing reckless educational policies, Rhode Island pays too high a price for a potential brief increase in funding. We will all lose if we permit the Central Falls high school teachers to be fired.
Monica Teixeira de Sousa graduated from Shea High School, in Pawtucket. She is an assistant professor of law at New England Law | Boston, where she teaches courses in education and class mobility, among other courses. Her law review article, “A Race to the Bottom? President Obama’s Incomplete and Conservative Strategy for Reforming Education in Struggling Schools or The Perils of Ignoring Poverty,” will be published this spring.