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Drastic School Reforms Spark Debate on Fixing Education

March 4, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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One Rhode Island school district took the drastic step of ousting teachers after they refused to implement mandated reforms to boost poor performance. Judy Woodruff takes a look at the reinvigorated clash between education reform plans and teachers unions.

JEFFREY BROWN: But first: taking dramatic steps to fix failing schools.

Judy Woodruff has our story.

TEACHER: And I have done nothing to deserve to be fired, absolutely nothing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kathy Luther is a teacher at Rhode Island’s Central Falls High School, near Providence. Until yesterday, she and 92 other teachers and staff were about to lose their jobs at the end of the school year.

Last week, the Central Falls School Board voted to axe the entire faculty at the school, where less than half the students graduate, after the teachers union wouldn’t agree to state-mandated reforms.

MAN: I’m heartbroken. I’m heartbroken.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, on Monday, that spat between a school board and a teachers union got a lot more public.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign 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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: During that speech, the president proposed $900 million new dollars for systems that take similarly drastic steps to save failing schools. Those steps include firing the principal and at least half the school’s staff, reopening the school as a charter, or closing the school and transferring students to better-performing ones.

The president’s remarks about the Rhode Island firings and his proposals drew criticism from the nation’s two largest teachers unions, which traditionally support Democrats.

In a statement, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said: “We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers. But it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed.”

Superintendents around the country are grappling with the issue of teacher and staff accountability. The NewsHour’s John Merrow has tracked how this has played out in several cities, including Washington, D.C., where chancellor Michelle Rhee has closed schools, replaced principals, and targeted teachers.

MICHELLE RHEE, chancellor, District of Columbia Public Schools: I think it’s important for us to identify teachers who are struggling, and, if they aren’t able to become successful through professional development, that we move them out of the system, so that they are no longer negatively impacting students.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in Rhode Island, tempers subsided this week. The teachers union there has now agreed to some of the state reforms. And the superintendent said she’s willing to reconsider the firings.

All this takes place while the Obama administration today announces finalists in the competition among states for federal money, in return for school reforms.

And, for more, we turn to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — you just heard her quote — and former Colorado Governor Roy Romer. He served as superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, and he now consults on education reform.

Thank you both for being here.

RANDI WEINGARTEN, president, American Federation of Teachers: Thanks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Randi Weingarten, we have just heard your view. Essentially, you were saying the president was wrong to say that, after a school has for several years not been able to get achievement of students up, it’s wrong to do something with those teachers.

Why do you believe that?

RANDI WEINGARTEN, president, American Federation of Teachers: I actually believe that the president, when he — imposing it is saying if this is really the last resort, of course, you have to close a school.

Where the president was wrong was that this is not the last resort. And, in fact, what we have seen in that school — and this is unfortunate about the way in which the facts have been shut out there — is that we have seen a real turn of the page starting last year.

Now, this is a school that’s the only high school in this small little very, very poor city of Central Falls, Rhode Island. And it’s a school where, in the last two years, we have started to see this increase in test scores significant in literacy and in writing, not in math, but yet the school that the president applauded had worse math test scores than this school.

So, the real issue becomes, how do we turn it around to really help the kids?

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying — you’re saying, for that school, it was wrong.

But, Roy Romer, is it ever right to take this kind of drastic step if a school is not showing improvement?

ROY ROMER, former Colorado governor: It is.

And I think the president was right in this one. He didn’t, possibly, know enough of the facts, but the facts he was presented with was a local school district, and the state had said, we have a school for many years that’s failed, and we have got to take this action.

He relied upon that. I think’s a difference of opinion as to whether that was the last action. But I think the president is dead right in saying we have got to act on this throughout America. We have hundreds of schools that are failing, and we just — we just have not been tough enough in making demands that there be change.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: So, the issue here is not whether schools need to be changed, but the issue is really how to do it.


RANDI WEINGARTEN: And the problem has been that we have actually seen this story before. We did these closing, fire everybody, redesign schools in San Francisco and Chicago in the ’90s. It didn’t work.

We did something different, actually, in New York City, where we actually did what the union proposed a couple of days ago, which is, these are the two or three good programs to put in. This is the extra time we need, and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the part of teachers.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: On the part of teachers.


RANDI WEINGARTEN: The issue was never in that school whether teachers were going to work longer. They had agreed to do that in January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what measurements are we talking — what should be the measurements here, Governor?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: The measurements of — I’m sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For whether a school is doing its job or not.

ROY ROMER: Well, there are four things that are really critical, I believe, one, reaching the right standards, secondly, having curriculum and learning experiences that can get you there. Teaching is the most important ingredient of all, and then assessments.

Now, the president and Arne Duncan are working on this package with all the governors and the state school chiefs. I think we’re making progress. But I think Randi brings something to the table that’s critical, and that’s the evaluation issue. We don’t do a good job of evaluating teachers or principals. And we need to improve that process dramatically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the one — so the one issue…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just ask, how does one decide, then? If you are the — if you’re a school superintendent…


JUDY WOODRUFF: … and a school like this school, whether the exact facts were correct or not, but say there is a school district that year after year has a less than 50 percent graduation rate. What should be done?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Well, whether they’re — if there’s a school that has — you know, if we are not succeeding with all kids, we have to do that work regardless.

But, for low-performing schools, what we need to do is some of what Roy just said, plus the labor-management relationships are key. So, ultimately, Judy, it is about real good instructional programs. We’re not — we’re not saying that you never close a school. What we’re saying is, we do something that works for the kids and helps the teachers help the kids. So…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it ever right to fire teachers en masse, if something like this has happened?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Look, we — in this situation, what we saw was that the last commissioner of education last April did a report that lauded the school, that said they were turning the corner.

The problem is, when you have in a high school kids who have — where — that we have not helped, we have to make sure that the teachers are trained enough and that the kids get the extra support they need. But the key that I wanted to say to Roy is that that link, that collaboration, that working together is the linchpin to make this all work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and how do you see this, based on your own experience in Los Angeles?

ROY ROMER: Well, in my own experience, there are some schools that, frankly, need to be closed and restarted. They just need a new lease on life.

In L.A., I had 750,000 students, and there were some schools that we simply had to start over on. But that’s the last resort. You don’t want to get there. What you need to do is to engage teachers into a package where you can give them the tools to do their job, give them the training, but you also need to put the right kind of expectations on both teachers, students, and the system.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: Exactly right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does that mean that the Obama administration generally is on the right track, or — or what?

ROY ROMER: I think they’re dead right on the right track. And it’s very critical in the weeks and months ahead that we keep this bipartisan. Let’s not let this polarize, like we have on health care.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And how do you see the administration policy?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: We need to give teachers the tools and the conditions they need to do their jobs. That’s what they want.

What we must do, though, is make sure that everybody’s in this game. The moment that all the responsibility shifts to the shoulders of teachers, they know they can’t do it alone. And so the…

ROY ROMER: I agree.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: … real issue becomes, how do we all take more collective responsibility? That’s what Roy was talking about when he talked about the speech I gave a couple of weeks ago about evaluation.

But that means it’s both the money that the administration came up with last year. We need more of that. We need another stimulus plan or investment act. And we need accountability systemwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, to bring it back to this school, at what point are teachers properly held accountable for what’s going on in that school system?

ROY ROMER: Well, teachers have to be held accountable, ultimately, for the learning of students. But they need to be given the tools. They need to be given the proper kind of evaluation. They need the right kind of support to do their job.

But we need a wakeup call in America. And, unfortunately, this was a rough one. But I just think Obama and others are right to say we have got to get after this, and we have got to get after it hard.

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I think you had — because, in this school, given that there were five principals in the last six years, and given that there’s been this reform turn, with so many programs going in and out, this one is a bad example.

The issue is, how do we, within — when we see a school that’s chronically underperforming, how do we create a laser-like focus on instruction, give teachers what they need to do their jobs, and hold everybody accountable?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Have you let the White House know directly how you feel about what the president…


JUDY WOODRUFF: And what — what was the response?

RANDI WEINGARTEN: I think the — I have made it clear that I thought the remarks were unfortunate. And I think what’s happening since that point is that all of us are looking to see how we can resolve the situation for kids, because, ultimately, at the end of the day, we need a cadre of teachers in this country that feel deeply respected by the other adults in the country for doing the amazing job they want to do for kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m sure everybody can agree with that.

Randi Weingarten…

ROY ROMER: Many unions in the country need the kind of leadership she provides.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Randi Weingarten, we thank you.

ROY ROMER: It’s not there always. It’s not there always.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Governor Roy Romer.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you both.

ROY ROMER: All right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.