- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2010

President Obama’s approval of the recent firing of teachers at a Rhode Island high school has spurred a debate among education specialists about whether staff turnover will help underperforming schools.

Some experts agree that it is appropriate for underperforming schools to start over with a new staff, an element of Mr. Obama’s initiative to overhaul lowest-performing public schools. Others say such drastic turnover will only hurt student performance.

Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers union, said the lack of consistency with mass staff turnover will not benefit student’s learning or improve performance.

“There is no plan at all, all it does is change the teachers,” she said. “There are so many reasons why student achievement is what it is.”

But M. Rene Islas, who is senior vice president at the national advisory and advocacy firm B&D Consulting and leads the firm’s elementary and secondary education team, said teaching is one of the main reasons students perform poorly.

“I think there are a lot of cases in which it is appropriate to start over,” he said, adding that Mr. Obama’s “Race to the Top” competition — which will reward states that have adopted and will continue implementing innovative reforms to improve student performance — only recommends the drastic overturn of teachers for the schools who have been failing to serve students for the past 15 years. About 2,000 schools fall into this category, Mr. Islas said.

Ms. Bass said the students at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island have already been disadvantaged by high turnover. The school has had five principles in six years and the educators of Central Falls say teachers can’t be the only ones blamed for the problems at the school, which has a less than 50 percent graduation rate.

“… The dropout rate is measured inappropriately. If a student moves out of the district … that student is counted as a dropout, even if he or she graduates from another school. If a student stays back and takes five years to graduate, that student is counted as a dropout. … People move to [Central Falls] because of the inexpensive housing. They move out because of job loss or other reasons …,” a Central Falls teacher told Jennifer Zaldana of PSLweb.org and a 2003 graduate of Central Falls.

Ms. Zaldana cited the low-income community and a percentage of students who do not speak English as a first language as issues concerning Central Falls’ performance.

Organizations such as Big Picture Learning, a national nonprofit alternative school education group, with demographically poor students, have found great success in personalized curriculum. With more than 60 schools operating in 2008 and 66 percent of students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, the schools have a 92 percent graduation rate.

“Our schools address what we like to call ‘the whole child,’” said Briana Masterson, Big Picture’s national manager of communications and school support. “All of our kids have an individual learning design.”

Ms. Masterson said Big Picture’s teaching plan provides students with an internship, during which they work two days a week and focus on career interest curriculum in the classroom three days a week. The relevant and personalized curriculum, and eight to one student to teacher ratio, show students reasons to succeed. NInety-five percent of Big Picture graduates are accepted into college, she said.

Big Picture Learning’s schools receive district funding and pass high-stakes testing.

Mr. Islas said poor communities cannot be blamed for underperforming schools. There are many examples of disadvantaged communities with exceptional student performance, he said. “It’s meeting the kids where they are and having them reach their full potential,” he said.

Jessica Johnson, chief program officer at Learning Point Associates, a nonprofit education research and consulting group that works with educators to improve schools, said elements such as teacher collaboration and resources, effective leadership and community and parental involvement are important in improving a school.

• Casey Curlin can be reached at ccurlin@washingtontimes.com.

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