Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grannan: Time for Obama to meet with the Central Falls 93, and gain some compassion – and a clue

Guest post by Caroline Grannan:

The word “backlash” is actually being used about a so-called school reform maneuver so shortsighted and coldblooded that almost no one is speaking up in support of it – almost no one but President Obama.

Last month, all 93 members of the faculty, administration and support staff of Central Falls High school in Central Falls, R.I., were told that they’re fired as of the end of this school year.

Then, on Monday, President Obama spoke up, according to the New York Times. “Mr. Obama said he supported the school board’s decision to dismiss the faculty and staff members. ‘Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right,’ he said.”

(Obama’s lightweight, resume-faking Secretary of Education praised the move too, but he’s not really worth devoting blogosphere bandwidth to.)

Despite the current climate in which blaming, bashing and demonizing teachers has become a comfortable and popular theme in all kinds of commentary, Obama’s remark actually seems to have provoked dismay and outrage. In the most current news article showing online as I write this, the Providence Journal uses the term “wildfire.”

“The wildfire of national debate over the mass firings at Central Falls High School spread further Tuesday, when the executive council of the AFL-CIO unanimously condemned the removal of all 93 teachers, support staff and administrators at the city’s only high school.

The executive council said its members were “appalled” that President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had endorsed the terminations in recent comments, and said the firings will not help the 800 students at the high school, which is one of the poorest and lowest-performing schools in Rhode Island.”

Well, I have a proposal. Those 93 teachers, support staff and administrators should get together, pull the necessary strings (which are in their reach right now while the story is hot), and request a meeting with the president – all 93 of them. If Obama could have a beer with Henry Louis Gates and that cop whose name I’ve now forgotten, surely he’s willing to spend a little time hearing the viewpoint of 93 people whom he has essentially attacked sight unseen. While it would be hospitable for him to invite them to the White House, it would be a lot classier for him to have a soothing spot of tea catered in at Central Falls High School. (And he desperately needs to show a little class right now; his supply is perilously low.) I’m sure the cafeteria has enough room to seat the Central Falls 93, Obama and his entourage.

Two years ago, it would have been impossible for me to imagine saying this, but I also propose that President Obama emulate something San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom has been doing. I’m not normally Newsom’s biggest fan, with the exception of back in February 2004 when his then-revolutionary gay marriages were spreading joy through San Francisco. But lately, my city's mayor has been doing something admirable after being challenged by Patricia Gray, the longtime rock-star principal of San Francisco’s Balboa High School. Newsom has been spending Saturdays calling the homes of students who are chronically truant from their San Francisco public schools. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier and Ross political insider column wrote about this in a Jan. 31 column (not available online.)

“It has been a real eye-opener,” Newsom told the Chronicle. “In just about every case,” Matier and Ross wrote, “the family is in crisis.” In other words, truancy isn’t all the fault of inept teachers and uncaring schools after all, Newsom is learning.

At last week’s overflowing Town Hall meeting called by San Francisco parents to address the current budget crisis, Newsom brought up his calls (and visits) to the homes of truants, and reiterated that point quite emphatically. The truants are almost always living in households battered by the worst life can dump on them, and it’s unrealistic to expect educators to magically cure it all, and to blame them for not working miracles.

Well, if Newsom – who I never would have thought could hold a candle to Obama in depth and thoughtfulness – can accept Patricia Gray’s challenge and gain such new understanding, where’s the president?

I hope to read about that meeting in the Central Falls High School cafeteria soon.

For more on the Central Falls firings, here’s a snippet of commentary by veteran Washington Post education writer Valerie Strauss (now apparently writing as a freelancer, speaking of employment turmoil):

“…93 names were called for firing -- 74 classroom teachers, plus reading specialists, guidance counselors, physical education teachers, the school psychologist, the principal and three assistant principals, according to the Providence Journal. Not one was good enough to stay.

Some of the teachers at the city's only high school cried, but the committee held firm.

It's no wonder that Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded the move, saying the committee members were "showing courage and doing the right thing for kids."

Courage, indeed.

Now, all they have to do is find 93 excellent professionals to take their places. Recruiting the best educators should be easy, especially when you can offer them life in a very poor town and a job with no security."

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The Perimeter Primate adds:

Sign this petition in support of the teachers and staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.

Notice that when politicians and business leaders talk about education woes, you’ll rarely, if ever, hear them utter a word about the well-known, perpetual, and unbreakable connection between average academic achievement and social class – a connection which exists in every society on this earth, and always has, and always will. It is only when we start to convert our economy and government to a form which reduces our vast social class differences will we see a reduction in the achievement gap.

In the meantime, people who have attained higher status are simply not going to voluntarily switch their spot on the social ladder (or sacrifice their offspring's spot) with someone who is on a lower rung of that ladder. We happen to be primates who can't help but function according to a social hierarchy.

You will hear politicians and business leaders calling our public schools “failures” and “dropout factories” – only referring, of course, to the urban schools which happen to contain a lot of poor kids. It has become commonplace for our leaders to describe the teachers who work in those schools as “lazy” and “selfish." Declarations are made that the teachers are more interested in meeting their adult needs rather than those of the children. As I watched a public school teacher acquaintance grade his students' papers into the evening hours last night as he waited for his daughter to complete her after school lessons, I did not think of the adjectives "lazy" and "selfish."

If you pay attention, you’ll find that the people who spout this type of rhetoric haven’t ever personally experienced the types of schools they are denigrating. So, I ask, why do we listen to people who could not possibly understand what the urban school environment is like, nor have any idea about what the teachers who work in those schools do, or do not do – hour after hour, day after day, and year after year? It's as if the nasty feelings these outsiders express are some sort of psychological transference of the guardedness and overall contempt they have for the poor, co-mingled with a sense of patronization and superiority over those who are actually willing to have daily contact with poor kids.

Is not it obvious that at the heart of this broad, negative labeling of a whole group of people – such as the huge attack that President Obama lobbed at the Central Falls High School teachers – is simply propaganda using stereotyping and scapegoating to build up more negative public sentiment and mistrust?

And what you won’t hear is our top leaders and managers addressing any awareness of the fact that the U.S. has the highest childhood poverty rate of the industrialized countries. In the Central Falls school district, the poverty rate is 90 percent.

Consider the degree to which public opinion has been manipulated over time so that our public schools are now largely viewed as the singular entity to be held accountable for producing the cure for our nation’s poverty and extreme social class differences (by closing the achievement gap), not to mention to correct the side effects caused by the disintegration of our once-much-stronger social institutions, such as the family and neighborhood communities.

Diane Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” contains a chapter entitled “The “Billionaire Boys’ Club” which reveals the role of the CEO billionaire trio of Gates, Broad, and the Walton family who are funding the movement of school reform based on ruthless free market principals such as eliminating any labor force which is not perfectly compliant with what top management unilaterally dictates.

So, it is no accident that the incident in Rhode Island was generated by a 2008 Broad Superintendents Academy graduate, State Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist. The April 2009 press release announcing her appointment as the new R.I. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education stated, “We are thrilled that Rhode Island is the first state to attract a Broad Fellow as not only the superintendent of its largest schools system, with Tom Brady in Providence, but also a Broad Fellow as a State Commissioner who can partner in addressing the challenges of transforming the state's educational systems to a position of international leadership."

Yes, the first time a state has placed a Broad Superintendents Academy Fellow in such a position happens to be the first education department to take the lead to fire every person on the staff of an entire school. It is unprecedented, and reminiscent of when Reagan fired all the air traffic controllers.

What Commissioner Gist just engineered in Rhode Island, with the blessing of President Obama, is the type of measure expected and required of the CEO business model "educators" who follow billionaire public-school-manipulator Eli Broad’s vision of urban public school “transformation."

I guess we now know the type of change we were expected to believe in.

More background reading:

  • Read why the elite crowd just doesn’t sufficiently understand the dynamics in urban public schools. It turns out they have a social disability.
  • Learn how Obama decided to pick Arne Duncan
  • Here’s someone in a position of authority who dared to speak the truth


caroline said...

It's interesting that in the free market, industry leadership is expected to be closely familiar with the business, product etc. Bill Gates knows computer technology. Eli Broad knows homebuilding and insurance. The Waltons know low-cost, high-volume retailing. Yet they seem to think it's a great idea for education leadership to be as UNfamiliar as possible with what actually going on in schools, and to disdain the views and information from those who work in schools -- the more experience, the more contempt. Does this make any sense at all?

nikto said...

"...the more experience, the more contempt. Does this make any sense at all?"


But I could be wrong.

I'm just a Public School Teacher--The "dumb-scum" of
the Earth.

I have stopped thinking "self-esteem" is actually that important----I'm making it through every day single day without
any at all.

If I can do it, so can the rest
of the world.

Not fun, but do-able.

The Perimeter Primate said...

Update from Mike Klonsky

The Perimeter Primate said...

More expected visits. I fantasize about being able to watch Diane Ravitch and Eli Broad publicly debate education issues.

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Cynthia Beattie Mcgill said...

Everything Obama learned about diplomacy he learned in kindergarten and it is us, the Americans who are paying for him not learing good lessons in the childhood. Hope his putting America on the path of "set a good example and others will follow" philosphy works!

The Perimeter Primate said...

An odd visit from the Broad Foundation today.

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The Perimeter Primate said...

Think the resource-starved local public schools are paying BurrellsLuce to do media monitoring so they can get news about their competitors?


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The Perimeter Primate said...

The New York Times
School’s Shake-Up Is Embraced by the President
Published: March 6, 2010


Teachers nationwide, including many who had once campaigned for Mr. Obama, said the events in Rhode Island had left a bitter taste.

Anthony J. Mullen, an instructor at the Arch School in Greenwich, Conn., who is the national teacher of the year, said he supported the notion of establishing more accountability in schools. “But what kind of accountability are we talking about?”

“This ‘off with their heads’ mentality,” he said, “it’s a bloodthirsty mentality.”

The Perimeter Primate said...

From Jim Horn at Schools Matter 3/9/2010:

"Hannah Bell's 4-part series at Democratic Underground on the Central Falls Massacre, particularly Pt. 3 on the old toad, Broad. Yes, both Rhode Island Commissioner, Deborah Gist, and Central Fall Supt. Gallo, are both alums of Broad's training school for public education bomb makers."

The Perimeter Primate said...

I just read this information on a listserv about the demographic makeup of Central Falls High School. It was posted without a verifying link.

96% of students are eligible or free or reduced lunch

65% of the student body is of Hispanic origin

13% White

14% African American

8% other

25% of students receive ESL services

21% receive SPED services

12% of parents have a post-secondary degree

The total per student school expenditure was $11,798 (State 9,371)

71.4% of students graduate