Calling the Teachers' Union's Bluff in Rhode Island

There was big news yesterday out of Rhode Island's Central Falls. In February, Superintendent Fran Gallo fired every teacher at Central Falls High School after they refused to get on board with her efforts to transform the poorly performing school--the teachers had previously embraced the transformation model, because it would protect their jobs, but then decided they didn't want any measures that would, you know, actually transform the school. But yesterday, the teachers' union acceded to Gallo's demands, and, in return, Gallo backed off on the mass firing (or, as she had called it, "turnaround").

Some observers might regard Gallo's move as a disappointing reversion to powder--puff school management, especially given her weak--kneed press release stuffed with assurances that all the union ever wanted was "what is best for our students." But such concerns are misplaced. Gallo's play shows how stiff--spined management is supposed to work--by forcing unions and other claimants to come to their senses.

As with Michelle Rhee's new contract in D.C. or Commissioner David Steiner's ability to win new language on teacher tenure in New York, this story shows how leaders with backbone can eventually force union leadership to accept a new reality.

Gallo had asked Central Falls High's teachers to agree to a series of school--improvement measures: you know, such nutso stuff as lengtheningthe school day, adding 90 minutes per week of common planning time, asking teachers to do a week of paid professional development at $30 per hour during the summer (the union wanted $90 per hour), and asking teachers to eat lunch with students once a week. The teachers rejected the proposals out of hand, triggering Gallo's escalation.

Gallo's move worked just like tough--minded management is supposed to, creating the conditions under which a sensible deal could be struck. And a sensible deal was reached, as we learned yesterday. The Central Falls Teachers' Union agreed to accept all of Gallo's initial requests, including two weeks (rather than one) of summerprofessional development at her preferred rate.

Crucially, the agreement also stipulates that Gallo and the school's new principal will have the authority to select an outside evaluator next fall. The evaluator will provide support and intervention where needed, and will identify teachers who need to be removed. Teachers will not be able to grieve the evaluation process, and fired teachers will have no bumping rights. In short, Gallo and the principal will have everything they need in order to identify weak teachers and get them out of the system. Some might fret that this is too slow a pace, but the important thing is that, with a new principal on tap for next fall, this agreement will offer the new school head a chance to determine who should stay and who should go, to start recruiting early, and to eyeball current staff in changed circumstances.

After all, it's not clear how many teachers should be fired at Central Falls High. The school is doing poorly overall, with a 48 percent graduation rate, but we don't know how much any given teacher is contributing to the school's poor performance. Therefore, smart management, rather than randomly cleaning house, should start by surveying the assets and talent in place and making sure they are being put to good use.

What brought about the union's change of heart? Well, for once, a union saw that management was serious. The teachers realized that no one was going to bail them out--not Gallo, not rock--ribbed Rhode Island superintendent Deborah Gist, and not U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who made public comments supportive of Gallo. More than 800 applications had already flooded in forthe school 's 93 teaching jobs, and the fired teachers saw that they were going to have stiff competition if they reapplied for their old jobs. Also, while no Central Falls High teacher dared to say publicly that eating lunch with the kids was a good idea, folks in Rhode Island report that many teachers privately murmured support for many of Gallo's proposals.

The Rhode Island story is a truly encouraging development. As with Michelle Rhee's new contract in D.C. or Commissioner David Steiner's ability to win new language on teacher tenure in New York, this story shows how leaders with backbone can eventually force union leadership to accept a new reality. Yes, Gallo walked back the bold action that won her many education reformers' approval, but good management is about discipline, not bloodlust. The point of school turnarounds is not to count scalps, but to win necessary changes, force out lousy teachers, and reset the board.

Frederick Hess is a Resident Scholar and the Director of Education Policy Studies at AEI.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Carolina K. Smith, M.D.

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