To Sir With Love

A Rhode Island teacher’s union criticized President Obama for supporting efforts by Central Falls School District superintendent Frances Gallo to fire the entire staff of a school whose results have scandalously dismal. The President said


“If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability. And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests — 7 percent.”

The union faulted the President for refusing to understanding the difficult circumstances under which they were working and said that however miserable the statistics, they represent an improvement on the previous year. The problem, as the Economist notes in its special report on school test scores, is that the stats themselves may be made up.

The Economist argues that mandated performances by “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) act have caused school teachers either to falsify school performance, in order to keep their jobs, or to artificially teach to the test to produce graduates who can pass the exam, but do little else.

in 2009 13 teachers in Georgia were punished for cheating, including the principal and assistant principal at one elementary school. They changed answers on completed tests for fear that otherwise their school would not make “adequate yearly progress”, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. A school that fails to do so for two years running must offer pupils the opportunity to transfer to better schools. Teachers and administrators can be fired, and the school can be taken over by the state.

And therein, say many education specialists, lies the problem: the immense weight that NCLB places on a single test. Teachers spend an increasing amount of time “teaching to the test”, because they know the results may determine their futures. A study of the Chicago school system conducted for Harvard’s Kennedy School found that the more weight given to tests, the more likely alteration becomes. Verdaillia Turner, who heads Georgia’s and Atlanta’s teachers’ unions, complains that the tests have turned teachers into “little robots. The best and brightest do not go into teaching any more.”


The Economist says that President Obama is going fix things. He and his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, are going to mandate higher standards that the schools must meet in order to get federal funds. “Money is a great motivator,” the Economist says. But a motivator to do what? Things may now have reached the point where the educational system is run for the benefit of the unionized teachers; not an education program but a jobs program. If so then raising the standards means the principals are just going to have find more creative ways to report progress. As for the Rhode Island teachers, superintendent Gallo has relented. She’s agreed to negotiate with the teachers.

In a written statement, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said the union was pleased that Gallo has agreed to go back to the table.

“The dedicated teachers and staff want nothing more than to continue and improve upon the progress they have made,” Weingarten said. “Real, sustainable change will only happen when all stakeholders work together.”

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