You don’t have to go to college to know that America’s educational system is as embarrassing as our bloated, expensive health care system. Such wide-scale dysfunction inevitably undermines the integrity of America’s competitive future. The only thing more frightening than what we see today is the realization that the products of this system will eventually control the wealthiest, most powerful country on earth.
Some would argue that only radical change will improve the problems in our schools. Apparently, Frances Gallo, Superintendent of the Central Falls Rhode Island Public School System, got the memo. In a shocking move that has received national attention, Gallo instantly fired 93 teachers and other staff from Central Falls High school, a failing school with a 48 percent graduation rate.
The move was cheered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said that school administrators are “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” The decision also got the militant attention of teachers unions everywhere, who some believe to be standing in the way of education reform. As expected, many union leaders thought the move was outrageous, insensitive and hurtful to the student body.
Superintendent Gallo didn’t have to use the “nuclear option” on Central Falls High School. She actually had four options provided to her by the Obama administration. She could have closed the school down completely or had it taken over by a charter school. She also could have “transformed” the school, with longer days and other demands placed on faculty and staff. Instead, she went with the “turnaround” option, giving her the authority to boot teachers out at her discretion.
The teachers at Central Falls High school have gotten a very bad rap from the media: Their average salary, $72,000 dollars per year, dwarfs the town average income of $22,000 dollars. The salary differential is even more intriguing when one considers that Central Falls is in the bottom 5 percent of all schools across the state. One could argue that teacher performance certainly doesn’t match the high salaries, and that the recent firing gives the superintendent an opportunity to renegotiate inflated costs.
But the media hype doesn’t focus nearly as much on what Central Falls teachers are up against. First, 65 percent of the student body at the school is Hispanic, so English is not the first language for a large percentage of these youth. Secondly, 48 percent of the town’s children are in poverty, which distracts from the child’s ability to diligently pursue an education. It may likely be the case that for Central Falls High School, the superintendent’s corrective action was both unnecessary and unjustified. The courts will likely settle this issue over time.
Superintendent Gallo’s dramatic decision is a prominent example of the frustration that many Americans are feeling with America’s failed educational system. Her move draws attention to a growing problem that we are refusing to fix, and presents a ray of hope that well-intended superintendents will have the authority to do what is necessary to help our kids. Issues such as tenure for teachers and the difficulty of firing bad instructors must be addressed for us to produce both the positive and negative reinforcement necessary to remind teachers to do a better job.The worst thing in the world is the teacher who tells her students, “I get paid whether you learn or not.” Simultaneously, prospective teachers should be given financial incentives to enter into the profession so that our children can have access to the best and the brightest. Teachers who choose to stay after school, pass up on lucrative careers and go the extra mile for their children should be exhaustively rewarded for doing so. Finally, teachers should be given the funding they need to help children as much as they possibly can. The depressing conditions of inner city schools often serve to dampen the youthful idealism which leads many young teachers into their chosen discipline.
The idea of giving teachers lifelong tenure creates an unnecessary drag on state resources and presents an ugly, dying marriage between bad teachers and a bad system. Even giving tenure to college professors, who need their academic freedom to pursue controversial research, often leads to professors who become too complacent to do any work for anyone. Rather than giving tenure to public school teachers, perhaps 5-year contracts might do the trick, along with generous severance packages for those who’ve been laid off. Job security is important, but similar to China before the days of free enterprise, too much job security can create a welfare state within an industry, leading to terribly bad performance by a substantial subgroup of the population.
While we demand more from our teachers, we must also demand more from our parents. Thousands of teachers work hard every day, but are unable to overcome the lack of resources, poor parental support and serious behavioral issues in the schools. Ultimately, it will be a determined partnership between parents, teachers and the government that produces the kinds of schools our nation needs. Solutions must be bold, creative and empower us all with the willingness to tear some schools down and start all over again. Central Falls might be just the beginning.