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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Obama's unfortunate comments on teacher firings

By Valerie Strauss | March 1, 2010

I have an uncle who was for years a Chicago public school teacher. Passionate and articulate about his subject, biology, Arnie cared a great deal about whether the kids learned in his class.

But here’s the disturbing thing he recalls about his career:

In the years that his classes were filled with kids from poor, broken homes who didn’t eat or sleep with any regularity, he worried that he wasn’t nearly as effective as he wanted to be. He reached some of the kids, sometimes, with some material, but not enough to his liking, no matter what he did or how hard he tried.

When he changed schools and suddenly was teaching kids from middle-class families who valued education, he instantly became a brilliant teacher. His students progressed at a fast clip, and everything he did seemed to work.

What some school reformers seem to forget is that the kids' circumstances outside school affect their class performance: how much they eat, how much they sleep, how many words they heard when they were young, how many books were made available to them, the abilities and the disabilities with which they were born, etc.

What happens in the classroom is incredibly powerful, but it is not the only thing that matters.

This is why it was so disheartening to hear President Obama wade into a debate about last week’s firing of all of the educators at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

The firings by the Central Falls school trustees made big headlines, not because reconstituting a school is new, but perhaps because it is the only school in the state’s poorest and smallest city, and because it was not reported as being the consequence of years of calculated efforts to fix the school (even if it was).

Education Secretary Arne Duncan immediately applauded the move, saying the committee members were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.”

And today, Obama felt the need to jump in, saying in a speech:

“So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution. We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after 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 last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests -- 7 percent. When a school board wasn’t able to deliver change by other means, they voted to lay off the faculty and the staff. As my Education Secretary Arne Duncan, says, our kids get only one chance at an education, and we need to get it right.”

One thing that Obama got right: the school board wasn’t able to deliver change, but, unfortunately, the school board didn’t fire itself. It fired all the administrators and teachers, as if they were the only things responsible for student failure.

I wish someone would tell Obama the truth about school restructuring.

What happened in Rhode Island was not unique; restructuring schools is a “reform” tool that administrators use after other attempts to improve student achievement have failed. It is the last resort in the No Child Left Behind law, which mandates that school systems meet specific student achievement targets. If they don't, in the end, all the teachers have to be fired (though some get rehired, as is expected at Central Falls).

The overall problem with this approach is that there is no proof that it actually works for most of the schools that undergo the process.

As I said in a post last week after the news of the firings at Central Falls became public, this has been true in districts around the country, including Washington D.C., and even in Duncan’s Chicago public schools, which he ran for years before becoming education secretary.

My colleague Nick Anderson noted in a 2009 Post story that Duncan had tried a lot of things during his more than seven years as Chicago schools chief: shutting down schools, hiring experts in turning around schools, and firing a lot of people. The record in Chicago was less than spectacular.

In her new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” education historian Diane Ravitch notes that studies conducted by the Washington-based nonprofit Center on Education Policy, concluded that restructuring “very rarely” works in improving student achievement enough to meet the requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

And we are talking about a lot of experiments in restructuring that didn’t work; in 2007-08, more than 3,500 public schools across the nation were in the planning or implementation stage of restructuring, an increase of more than 50 percent over the previous year.

So when Obama and Duncan talk about firing all the teachers and replacing them as if it is a last resort worth doing, they have it all wrong.

It is a last resort, but it doesn’t solve the problem and creates havoc not only for the teachers--many of whom do a good job--but for kids who have enough problems without being subjects in endless educational experiments.

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