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The Self Shelf: Pulling the rug out from under the students of Central Falls High: A response to ‘School critique falls short’

Published: April 9, 2010
Section: Opinions

Recently, I wrote an article titled “Giving Failing Schools an F.” I was very excited to receive my first response ever as a columnist from one Ned Crowley, titled “School Critique Falls Short.” I would like to thank Crowley for caring enough about this issue to actually write back. We columnists can get the impression that we’re talking to ourselves after a while.

Nonetheless, I have a few problems with his critique, which force me to further clarify my position. I would start with his solution to the problem of failing schools in Central Falls, which is to “extend federal and state funding grants to struggling schools with pedagogical and administrative decisions staying in the hands of the City and school community.”

In my article, I called for fully funded schools that would provide better teachers and better facilities in addition to subsidizing students for academic excellence. Perhaps my solution was normatively optimistic but I believe that Crowley and I are referring to the same basic idea. I did not, as Crowley purports, state that Central Falls must pay for all of this. I stated that many other districts already employed the tactic of giving money to students for good grades. To be clear, I am perfectly comfortable with federal aid being given to Central Falls in order to achieve positive change.

The thrust of my solution was to treat the roots of the problem which is a lack of funding due to the carrot and stick nature of the No Child Left Behind Act. Right now, Central Falls is getting all stick and little carrot. I would argue that the school system is failing because it cannot meet the national benchmarks for significant government funding, but it cannot meet the national benchmarks for aid because it is failing. Thus, what we have here is a vicious cycle which will only get worse.

Next Crowley attacks my assertion that education is not usually the students’ main prerogative at Central Falls High School, citing that “Central Falls High produces some of the best students I have worked with” and asks “what experience, then, has informed this gross generalization?” I have no doubt that some of the students at Central Falls High are achieving their maximum potential.

Yet more than half of the students at the school are failing every subject and only 7 percent of the students are proficient in math (CNN). These are the statistics upon which I based my “gross generalization.” In fact, this is the reason that Central Falls finds itself in its predicament in the first place. Thus I stand by my statement.

As to what experience, however, I base these claims upon, I call not upon myself but upon my father. He has worked in the New Bedford school system for five years now, a city in which similar circumstances of poverty abound. I have heard countless tales of children who have had to take care of their siblings and work secondary jobs in order to help their families make ends meet.

As a result, their grades suffer. I believe that something similar is most likely taking place in Central Falls High and the statistics back my assertion. While I agree with Crowley that some students are indeed defying the odds, there are far too many who are crushed beneath the weight of poverty. Crowley writes that he “can attest that these kids have the potential and motivation to exceed these circumstantial and structural obstacles more often than not” but clearly, the statistics show that that is not the case. Perhaps if the students were given an extra incentive, like federal money for better grades, these obstacles could be mitigated or removed.

Yet I did not blame the situation entirely on the students. Crowley refutes my notion that the teaching at Central Falls is most likely sub-par simply by stating, “I know professional educators in Rhode Island who praise the teaching quality at Central Falls High.”

I was not, however, declaring that all teaching in Central Falls High is faulty. My main point was that many experienced teachers most likely would not want to teach at Central Falls due to its reputation.

The main charge in Crowley’s letter, however, is that I declared faultily that the educators at Central Falls were being fired for incompetence. I will admit that I did oversimplify the process (I am usually limited in terms of word count) but I believe that the actions of Superintendent Frances Gallo are tantamount to firing the teachers for incompetence.

Crowley argues that this technique “is a union-busting tactic on the part of the Superintendent” in order to meet government standards and that half of the teachers will most likely be rehired next year. This may be true but, as of now, as the headlines report, all of the teachers at Central Falls High have received their pink slips. Finally, none of them can be absolutely sure of having a job next year–I consider that being fired.

They have received these pink slips because the school cannot qualify for government funding due to the bevy of failing students. Thus, the teachers are being terminated because of underperforming students; I would call this incompetence although I concede that I did oversimplify the situation.

The superintendent had two options with which she could qualify for necessary government funding. The first was the transformational model which required the teachers “work a longer school day of seven hours and tutor students weekly for one hour outside school time … have lunch with students often, meet for 90 minutes every week to discuss education and set aside two weeks during summer break for paid professional development” (CNN).

The teachers agreed to these concessions but the two sides could not come to an agreement on pay rates for the hours of extra work. Only after this did the superintendent exercise the second possible option which includes the liquidation of the entire teaching staff at the high school, over 90 staff members in total. I believe that the harms of the second option outweighed the possible costs of the first.

Meanwhile, I still believe that this solution hampers any kind of consistency that Central Falls High could enjoy. Even if half of the teachers are rehired, that’s still 45 teachers who won’t be back on opening day and 45 new teachers who will have to adapt themselves to Central Falls High. Additionally, even if you don’t believe that Central Falls High carries a stigma for experienced teachers, it most certainly does now. Mass firings of this scale do not generally entice better-qualified teachers to work at schools.

Thus, I would posit that the teachers who take over for those fired will most likely not be any better qualified than those who were let go and will probably be worse due to their lack of familiarity with the environment. How is this possibly going to help foster change for the better in Central Falls? Isn’t the loss of any sort of stability and cohesiveness from year to year worth an extra round of negotiations?

My disagreement with Crowley is thus not one of petty misunderstanding but of ideological difference. We are both looking at the same situation but have come to different conclusions. I am happy to concur with his idea of using federal grants to help these struggling schools and hope this can occur in the future.

Yet I wouldn’t chip away the foundations of Central Falls High. Busting a union is one thing but pulling the rug out from under already failing students simply isn’t worth it.