Threatened with Firing, Rhode Island Teachers Agree to Reformers List of Demands

Remember the uproar back in February when President Obama commended Rhode Island school leaders for threatening to fire the entire staff of Central Falls High School, the lowest-performing high school in the state, after negotiations over a transformation plan fell apart? The ensuing controversy—reformers lauding the state's aggressive action and teachers' unions decrying the move as union busting—eventually resulted in everyone coming back to the negotiating table.

And it's a good thing they did. Today, an agreement was reached and both sides are declaring victory. The teachers get to keep their jobs—by agreeing to every transformation reform proposal the local superintendent, Frances Gallo, had originally asked for back in February, including a longer school day, extra tutoring for struggling students and more professional development over the summer. The February negotiations fell apart when the union pushed for an additional $90 an hour for any extra work—much more than the $30 an hour Gallo was offering. Critics complained that those working at a school where half the students dropped out and proficiency in math (as measured by state exams) stood at a pitiful 7 percent among 11th graders, shouldn't be asking for a raise. With a state deadline looming, Gallo decided she had no choice but to withdraw the transformation plan and go with the only other overhaul option she was considering—the turnaround model, which required the high school to shut down, fire its current staff, and start over.

The Rhode Island state education commissioner, Deborah Gist, said Obama's support was ultimately very helpful in getting teachers to agree to the kinds of reforms the state wanted and the high school needed. "We appreciated his focus on accountability," she said. "This was never about thinking that firing teachers is a positive thing to do. That's wasn't the point. But he understood that we weren't going to compromise on what needed to be done to turn around a low-achieving school. If teacher are willing to be part of the reform effort, of course, we would welcome that."