About this blog Subscribe to this blog

The World They Created at Central Falls

Central-falls-teachersjpg-c3c2b6342140ee35_large Last December I wondered how long it would take to change the culture at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island.  Under the best of circumstances, I thought, a turnaround would take at least three years, and that would require teachers and administrators working together to change expectations for kids.  But first teachers would have to get past the shock and resentment of being fired and then rehired.  Extra pay for an extended school day was not the magic balm to heal those wounds.  That would take real expertise on the part of the administration, I thought, if it could be accomplished at all.  I recalled what happens when teachers strike:  Some schools never really recover as long as the majority of the teachers who walked out are still on staff.

By May I noted that it appeared that things were worse than ever in Central Falls.  Faculty absenteeism had spiked and some teachers resigned.  Teachers reported unreasonable stress, which, of course, filtered down to the kids.

As the school limps to the end of the school year, it appears that all the strife has been for naught.  Almost 30 teachers have resigned.  Teachers point to a complete lack of trust in their administrators, and the state education commissioner concurs.  “If people aren’t working together, there’s no chance for [transformation] success,” says Deborah Gist.

In an interview a couple of days ago on NPR Gist says that Central Falls may eventually be shut down (which she said months ago) or turned into a charter school.  In the meantime Rhode Island state legislators are wondering what the district did with the $1,000,000 in federal funds it received for the school’s transformation.

I noted in an earlier blog Fordham reseacher David Stuit’s report, “Are Bad Schools Immortal?” Stuit tracked over 2000 low performing schools from 2003-4 to 2008-9.  What he found was that roughly 80% of those schools were still low performing five years later, leading researchers to posit that it might be better to just close those schools from the get go.  And if reform is attempted the way in was in Central Falls, he is right.

What lessons do we take from Central Falls?  Well, here’s one:  Politicians think that schools change by fiat.  They think that we can undo mistakes, initiate lasting change, and reform school cultures in no time flat.  They think that throwing money at a problem takes care of it.  They think that mandating change makes change happen.

They are, of course, wrong.  I don’t quibble with the need for reform; in fact, I agree with a lot of reformers’ ideas.  But let me say again:  Let’s take the time to do it right.  Let’s work together, teachers and administrators.  Let’s set realistic expectations for change.

What happened at Central Falls is a tragedy – or maybe a travesty.




The very heart of the problem is Debbie Gist herself, the epitome of yet another generation of tragically inexperienced, willfully self-blind American moral crusaders, straight out of the pages of David Halberstam's "The Best and the Brightest." No amount of information from the field from experienced, reliable sources is going to deter her from her fixed idea that answer is every and always increased zealotry to the cause, not rational adjustment to the reality on the ground. This appears to be the case nearly everywhere: The first thing you do in a "turnaround" situation is hire an administration of "Turnaround Specialists" and a raft of "Turnaround Consultants" with impressive but almost totally academic credentials from the "Urban Education" graduate degree mill. Gist herself has had very limited teaching experience and no experience at all as a principal or superintendent. She has spent most of her career in the rarified air of "Policy". Central Falls High School is nose-diving under her supervision exactly because the administrators on the spot haven't a clue how to run a building. It is a truism that if you can't move a body of students from one side of the parking lot to the other without losing a quarter of them, you are not going to scale the heights of Bloom's Taxonomy. Rather, what is needed in a turnaround situation is experience. You need experienced hands who are masters of the management of staff, students and the minutia of the bureaucratic system. You can't mint people like that. In World War Two, they called such instantly credentialed junior officers "Ninety Day Wonders," and woe to the infantrymen they commanded. But experience is scorned by contemporary School Reformers. Hence we have the Debbie Gists, the "Whiz Kids", the Robert McNamaras of their time while at the business end of their guns you have, in this instance, the poor kids of Central Falls whose village, the only refuge they have, is about to be destroyed in order to "save" them. Onward Post-Christian Soldiers!

I could not agree more with your comments about the need for experienced leadership, and your analogy is apt. There is no substitute for actually doing the job.

Post Comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In




Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.