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Diane Ravitch Headshot

First, Let's Fire All the Teachers!

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Imagine that you are a teacher in a high school in a high-poverty district. Many of your students don't speak English. Some don't attend school regularly because they have to earn money or babysit with their siblings while their parents are looking for work. Some come to school unprepared because they didn't do their homework.

But you are idealistic and dedicated, you work with each of the students, you do your best to teach them reading, writing, science, math, history, whatever your subject. But despite your best efforts, many of your students can't read very well (they are struggling to learn English), and many of them don't graduate. If your school eliminated all its standards, you could easily push up the graduation rate.

About 45 minutes away is another high school in a much better neighborhood. Its statistics are far better than yours. The children are almost all born in the U.S., and their parents are almost all college graduates with good jobs. Their kids don't go to school hungry, they have their own room and their own computer, and they have stellar test scores to boot. Their graduation rate is very impressive, and most of their graduates go to college.

What is to be done about the first school? President George W. Bush signed a law called "No Child Left Behind," which required constant improvement. The Obama administration wants to rename the law but they too reject any excuses for low performance and low graduation rates.

Recently, the school committee of Central Falls, Rhode Island, voted to fire all 93 members of the staff in their low-performing high school. Central Falls is the smallest and poorest city in the state, and it has only one high school. Those fired included 74 classroom teachers, plus the school psychologist, guidance counselors, reading specialists, and administrators.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan thought this was wonderful; he said the members of the school committee were "showing courage and doing the right thing for kids." The kids apparently didn't agree because many of them came to the committee meeting to defend their teachers.

President Obama thought it was wonderful that every educator at Central Falls High School was fired. At an appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on March 1, the President applauded the idea of closing the school and getting rid of everyone in it. At the same meeting, President Obama acknowledged Margaret Spellings, who was President George W. Bush's Education Secretary, because she "helped to lead a lot of the improvement that's been taking place and we're building on."

Well, yes, the President is right; his own education reform plans are built right on top of the shaky foundation of President Bush's No Child Left Behind program. The fundamental principle of school reform, in the Age of Bush and Obama, is measure and punish. If students don't get high enough scores, then someone must be punished! If the graduation rate hovers around 50%, then someone must be punished. This is known as "accountability."

President Obama says that Central Falls must close because only 7% of the students are proficient in math, and the graduation rate is only 48%. Sounds bad, right?

But the President has saluted a high school in Providence, Rhode Island, called "The Met" whose scores are no different from the scores at Central Falls High School. At Central Falls, 55% of the kids are classified as "proficient readers," just like 55% at The Met. In math, only 7% of students at Central Falls are proficient in math, but at The Met--which the President lauds--only 4% are proficient in math. Ah, but The Met has one big advantage over Central Falls High Schools: Its graduation rate is 75.6%.

But figure this one out: How can a high school where only 4% of the students are proficient in math and only 55% are proficient readers produce a graduation rate of 75.6%? To this distant observer, it appears that the school with lower graduation standards rates higher in President Obama's eyes.

President Obama has said on several occasions that he wants to see 5,000 low-performing schools closed. So, yes, there will be plenty of teachers and principals looking for new jobs.

The question that neither President Obama nor Secretary Duncan has answered is this: Where will they find 5,000 expert principals to take over the schools that are closed? Where will they find hundreds of thousands of superb teachers to fill the newly vacant positions? Or will everyone play musical chairs to give the illusion of reform?

As it happens, Central Falls High School had seen consistent improvement over the past two years. Only last year, the State Commissioner sent in a team to look at the school and commended its improvements. It noted that the school had been burdened by frequently changing programs and leadership. With more support from the district and the state, this improvement might have continued. Instead, the school was given a death warrant.

Will it be replaced by a better school? Who knows? Will excellent teachers flock to Central Falls to replace their fired colleagues? Or will it be staffed by inexperienced young college graduates who commit to stay at the school for two years? Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?

It would be good if our nation's education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students' effort, the family's encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty. A blogger called "Mrs. Mimi" wrote the other day that we fire teachers because "we can't fire poverty." Since we can't fire poverty, we can't fire students, and we can't fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.

This strategy of closing schools and firing the teachers is mean and punitive. And it is ultimately pointless. It solves no problem. It opens up a host of new problems. It satisfies the urge to purge. But it does nothing at all for the students.

Diane Ravitch is the author of The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books).