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Draconian Measures at R.I. High School Are Misconceived

Whenever I attend a social function, I'm invariably confronted by other guests who can't understand why schools have gotten so bad. They are angry and frustrated. Truth to tell, if I hadn't taught for 28 years in a public school, I would probably feel that way too because the media are notorious for their coverage of all that is negative in the world of public education.

The latest incident along this line took place at Central Falls, R.I. on Feb. 23, when the Board of Trustees of the state's smallest and poorest city voted five to two to fire the entire teaching staff, guidance counselors, three assistant principals and principal of the high school. The reason given was persistent low test scores and a graduation rate of 48 percent.

The purge is the favored tactic these days to turn around failing schools. The stated rationale is that such draconian steps are necessary when all else has failed. But there is far more here if readers are willing to approach the matter with an open mind.

The fact is that all else has not failed because all else has not yet been tried. If Central Falls is even remotely similar to other communities where poverty is rampant, students bring to class huge deficits that schools serving affluent students simply do not face. As a result, teachers in Central Falls are forced to perform what amounts to triage on a daily basis before they can begin to teach their lessons.

This concept is rare in suburban schools, which are populated by students from upper socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, when the bell rings, teachers in these schools can get down to teaching subject matter - not be forced to attend to extraneous factors. I don't deny that students from affluent families have their serious personal issues, but I doubt that they come to class malnourished and exhausted on a regular basis.

I began to appreciate this reality when I had an 8:00 senior composition class. One of the students continually dozed off while the other students worked on their assignments. When I asked him after class why, he told me that he was exhausted because he had to work on the docks until late at night in order to bring home extra income. I verified his explanation.

Now imagine if I had a class composed mainly of these students, rather than just one. What chance would I have to teach them? And should I be held accountable when I failed to produce evidence showing progress, let alone proficiency? Yet this is precisely what is taking place in schools across the country that serve large numbers of disadvantaged students.

That's why teachers in Central Falls are being scapegoated. Factors beyond their control are largely responsible for the school's sub-par results. It will be interesting to see what their replacements can accomplish with the same students over time. And if the new hires don't do significantly better, will they too meet the same fate? If so, how many times will the process be repeated before the futility of this strategy is finally acknowledged?

I wrote this before, and I'll write it again: Learning is a partnership between teachers, parents, students and the community.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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