Blunt Tools in Sharp Relief
How mass layoffs in Rhode Island illustrate fundamental imprecision in current federal education policy
On February 23, 2010, Rhode Island’s Central Falls School District Superintendent Frances Gallo fired the entire staff of Central Falls Senior High School, including teachers, administrators, and staff support, a total of 93 people, as the final move in a negotiation with the teachers’ union. Termed a “turnaround,” this model of school reform was one of four options Superintendent Gallo faced after the teachers’ union balked at the district’s previous offer. Journalists, pundits, and bloggers have written much about the union’s gall in demanding contract salaries for extra work and about the district’s nerve in taking this drastic action.
Almost all of this writing is misguided or misinformed. To understand what happened in Rhode Island, we need familiarity with a federal program called Race To The Top, terms like “turnaround” and “reconstitution,” and the processes involved in teacher compensation. What we need most, however, is familiarity with the classroom and community context in which this occurred. We can access this context through publicly available, raw data.
Let’s start with what Race To The Top (RTTT) actually is.
RTTT is the most recent incarnation of market model-driven education policy and the flagship policy of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Like No Child Left Behind (2001), the Goals 2000: Educating America Act (1994, 1996), and the Improving America’s Schools Act (1994), RTTT enacts increasingly interventionist and punitive measures on schools deemed to be inadequate or failing. It accomplishes this by setting standards and benchmarks for districts, schools, and states and then rewarding them with disbursement of federal funds for subscribing to its provisions and meeting goals. Schools, districts, and states that do not comply with RTTT programs are not eligible for those federal funds, and schools and districts that do not meet federally-defined educational goals are penalized.
If you’re paying attention, that last paragraph should have raised the following questions:
- What are the standards and who sets them?
- What form do the interventionist and punitive measures take?
- What defines an inadequate or failing school?
The federalization of educational standards began in earnest in the mid-1990s, when Congress passed Goals 2000, the first piece of legislation that required states to set academic standards. Districts would oversee the implementation of standardized tests, administered by teachers, to gauge student achievement, and professional development would be made available to teachers. States were not quick to effect this policy, so when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was written as a successor to prior federal ed policy, included were various forms of punitive action to take against schools, districts, and states that did not comply or meet standards. The new millennium brought with it an unprecedented era of federal requirements and intervention in America’s classrooms.
Standards as defined – or not defined – by NCLB are the current metrics of today’s educational assessments, standardized tests being their primary vehicle. Tests are mandated yearly for grades 3-8, plus at least once more in grades 10-12. Each state must set testing goals for its schools, targets which are called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). Schools failing to meet their AYP goals two years running are dubbed “In Need of Improvement” and subject to various forms of restructuring if future AYP goals go unmet.
Secondary schools must consider another metric in measuring their academic success: graduation rates. In order for a high school to avoid being labeled In Need of Improvement or as making Insufficient Progress toward its AYP goals, it must meet both testing and graduation quotas.
George W. Bush’s administration passed NCLB, and now Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack H. Obama’s administration has established RTTT, which adopts the structure of tying state-set standards to federal designations, funds, and interventions.
Let’s pause here and look at the situation in Rhode Island, where we have a sadly illustrative example of the application of this policy.
Central Falls Senior High is one of the most densely populated school zones in Rhode Island. The school has a carrying capacity of 960 students but exceeds this with an enrollment over 1,000. All of these students are drawn from the same square mile and a half. A majority of CFSH students are Hispanic and a quarter receive English as a Second Language instruction. A fifth receives Special Education services. The families of these students are staggeringly poor – commentators are reporting average yearly incomes of $22,000 – and nearly 80% of the students are classified as economically disadvantaged. They are also largely immigrants and in many cases itinerant. This is reflected in the school population, where a third of students cease regular attendance before the school year is out. We are speaking of a poor, unstable population that would present attendance challenges, to say nothing of instructive challenges, to the Platonic form of teachers.
The Central Falls teaching workforce has come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks. The common claim has them earning average yearly salaries of up to $78,000, a number which should raise eyebrows among those familiar with teacher compensation. Fortunately, real numbers are available on some Rhode Island-based state watchdog databases, including TheMoneyTrail.org, from which I was able to obtain some information about the teaching workforce that has gone unreported. Of 62 non-special education teachers fired:
- 28 (45%) hold Master’s degrees or other advanced degrees.
- 41 have advanced to the highest step of their contract salary schedule, indicating long employment with the district and hundreds of hours of professional development over their careers.
- In 2007-2008, these teachers earned $3.94 million for an average base salary of $63,780, a cool $14,000 less than what is being touted so loudly by commentators. By way of contrast, the district administrators take home an average yearly salary of $123,230.
All of this indicates a seasoned and prepared workforce working in a tough setting with troubled students. By any rationale, these teachers should be making at least the purported $78k per year, if not more, especially those with advanced degrees. However, it is a truism that teachers make about one-third less than other professions of similar education levels, and so the common complaint is of an overpaid, greedy, and lazy teaching workforce. It did not take long for commentators to levy all three of these charges against the teachers and their union.
Here’s how it happened. Last year, Central Falls Senior High was identified as one of the six lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island, in terms of the two metrics set by the state (AYP and graduation rates). Having already earned the In Need of Improvement designation, district administrators were now under obligation to choose one of four models of top-down intervention to address the problem: turnaround, transformation, restart, or closure. The rather euphemistic first three are differentiated in whether and how much of the workforce of a school can remain employed there, and the fourth is all too clear. When negotiations between the district and the teachers’ union broke down, it was due to the district rejecting the union’s counteroffer for contract salaries for extra time worked. At that point, Superintendent Gallo sought and was granted approval to designate CFSH as a “turnaround” school. Under Race To The Top, a turnaround school must fire its administration, staff, and faculty, and is allowed to rehire no more than 50% of its faculty. (This model of intervention has its immediate progenitor in NCLB, where it was termed “reconstitution.”)
Put another way, under current federal mandates, once Central Fall School District decides to designate Central Falls Senior High as a turnaround campus, all the employees are fired, with the assumption that replacing the entire staff will improve student performance in Adequate Yearly Progress scores and graduation rates. Keep in mind the explicit goal of NCLB, taken from its title: “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice, so that no child is left behind.” So let’s take a look at the actual numbers from CFSH.
Here are the Adequate Yearly Progress scores from the last five years of testing at CFSH in English and Language Arts:
These scores are percentages out of 100 and indicate a generally positive trend. Every year shows improvement in test scores except for 2008. According to the state-adopted tests, the students’ language skills are improving, albeit gradually.
Here are the scores for Mathematics over the same five-year period:
Notice the initial jump in scores from 2005-2006, followed by a small but definite decline in average over the next three years. Except for economically disadvantaged students, the scores from tests administered in 2009 are still higher than those from tests in 2005. In particular, pay close attention to the decline in the scores of economically disadvantaged students from 2007-2009. This sharp drop strongly indicates an external factor at work.
Now look at the graduation rates for students enrolled at CFSH under the teachers whose salaries I discussed previously:
Graduation rates are notoriously difficult to measure, in part because they are so ill-defined at the federal level. For school accountability purposes, Rhode Island only counts students who receive diplomas from public secondary institutions toward graduation statistics. But this is another undeniably positive trend, with a strong gain from academic year 2005-2006 and small but measurable gains over the next two years.
However, according to the goals set by the state, CFSH did not improve enough from 2006-2007 or from 2007-2008 to shed its In Need of Improvement designation. In short, even where the students show decided improvement, they’re not doing it quickly enough for the school to retain its dedicated teaching workforce and staff support.
Now, the graduation rate fell drastically in 2009 to 52.5%. This statistical outlier suggests a factor external to classroom teaching, as the drop is widespread enough to affect students from many classrooms. For example, a sudden influx of immigrants to the Central Falls region would inflate the population of students at large; if these new students are not proficient in English they may experience less classroom success and be less likely to graduate; or maybe people have moved away from Central Falls. Perhaps the rising unemployment rate in Rhode Island, edging on 13% and one of the three highest in the nation, has pressured high school students to drop out and seek work to help support their families. Certainly something extracurricular is at play.
From all of these data we can conclude that Central Falls Senior High is a school with problems far outstripping the means of teachers in classroom. This is an overpopulated school in an undereducated, underemployed, and impoverished community, about to lose a well-trained teaching workforce under federal mandate as a result of its new, test-based designation. Superintendent Gallo has stated that the district anticipates resumes from Teach for America, which places teachers with no professional training into urban school, and a majority of them leave the teaching profession entirely once their contract expires.
The bottom line is that neither NCLB nor RTTT is interested in identifying the causes of academic failure measured by standardized testing and graduation rates that reflect little of the actual scholastic context. The primary directive of every one of RTTT’s four school reform models is a replacement or elimination of the scholastic workforce, which could be charitably termed myopic. At Central Falls Senior High, this has the ancillary benefit of busting the union, and newer, short-contracted replacement teachers will undoubtedly save the district money. The district, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and even President Obama have appealed to simple logic in finding fault with the school staff, and yet even a cursory look at the actual numbers and context suggests far greater issues than those touted in the media thus far.
In 2010, federal education policy is either unwilling or unable to identify the specific reasons for academic success or failure, and knows only how to fire and replace, at large, in a vacuum of test scores and graduation rates.
Welcome to the new accountability.