No single factor controls a school’s effectiveness|Guest column

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 25, 2010

Much has been said about the wholesale firing of teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, both in opposition to and agreement with the firing.

We have learned that only 50 percent of the students there graduate, and 7 percent are proficient in math. The superintendent hasn’t been on the job very long and her goal is to create a place where all kids can achieve. Seventy seven teachers were fired, plus the principal, three assistant principals and other administrators — a total of 93.  The firings came after the district and teachers’ union failed to agree on a plan for teachers to increase their time with students to improve test scores.

Anne W. Foster, a former school board official in Texas now lives in Jackson where she is president of Parents For Public Schools. E-mail her.

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I am sure that many people look at those statistics and agree with the firing of all the school’s teachers. It seems reasonable at first glance. It seems ridiculous to keep teachers who are getting those results with their students.

A caveat to this firing is that some of these teachers may be hired back. That alone suggests that they may not have been a bunch of scoundrels. This is an issue that calls for finer tuning and closer observation. I’ll be the first to say that sometimes some teachers need to be fired. Some can’t make it in the teaching profession, and others do specific things for which they must be fired. But to blame dismal results solely on teachers and fire all of them is naive and may ultimately hurt public schools. Why couldn’t the district and teachers’ union reach an agreement on the issue and allow teachers to continue?

Teachers cannot succeed in a vacuum — certainly not in a school challenged with this degree of poverty and mobility. The questions that need to be asked and answered are: What kinds of support and resources did these teachers have to do their job? Where was the central administration of the school district? Where were the community and parents?

Schools with a high percentage of poor students require more resources to educate those students than schools with middle class and affluent students. It simply costs more to successfully educate poor children — more money, more staff development, more community resources and more support from the district. Did the Central Falls High School teachers have the support and resources they needed to get the job done?

The good news is that there are public schools with high concentrations of poverty that are achieving academic success with their students. They are doing so because they have every piece of the puzzle in place. The community is in the schools, offering help in the form of tutoring, mentoring and social services. Parents have been drawn into these schools as partners in their children’s education and have been made to feel welcome. Parents and citizens who care about all children have been appointed and elected to school boards. They have committed themselves to providing an equitable education to all students, with the resources that it requires. Voters have passed bond elections in order to provide additional resources and facilities.  School districts have created an environment of high expectations for all children and then provided the framework and staff development to achieve those expectations.

For some people, this may seem too much to ask. And yet we know that these are the things that work. We must hire and retain the best teachers, and then we must give them the support they need and deserve. Teachers must be committed to the success of all students and must believe that all children, including poor children, can achieve — and be willing to roll up their sleeves to make it happen.

Many other school districts have their share of failing schools. Teacher quality is important to the conversation about how to improve these schools and we must insist on quality teachers and quality teaching. But we need to be very careful about the message we are sending here — that it is all up to the teachers. It doesn’t help us attract the teachers we need over the long haul. Public schools belong to and are accountable to the public. Who is the public?  It is all of us – parents, citizens, communities, the media, policymakers and lawmakers. Only when all of us do our part can teachers truly be successful with what we are asking them to do.