Bam and Arne Get It Wrong Again. . .

When Barack Obama was elected and subsequently named Arne Duncan the Secretary of Education, I had real hope that we’d see meaningful improvement in our schools and communities. 

Change we could believe in, right?

But aside from the occasional speech where Bam and Arne say interesting things about promoting innovation or ending testing, the past year has been nothing more than a long series of serious disappointments.  The most recent failure:  Bam’s comments defending the decision of a Rhode Island school board to fire every teacher in a high poverty high school. 

Speaking at an event where he promised to send more federal cabbage to districts that shake up their lowest achieving campuses, the wise one said:

"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability…And that’s what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent."

See, Bam, here’s the thing:  Is it really just the school that is failing students in high poverty communities year after year after year? 

Couldn’t “chronically troubled” be used to describe the neighborhoods of many poor students, too?  Aren’t you ignoring the truth when you place the burden for rescuing children living in poverty completely on the shoulders of classroom teachers?

Let me give you some examples from my own career.  Well over a decade ago, I had a child who was abused by her mother’s boyfriend.  When the social workers got involved, her mother refused to leave her boyfriend despite his complete confession and subsequent incarceration.  Instead, she blamed her daughter for breaking apart their family and turned her over to the state.

Needless to say, that girl failed her exams.  Was I really the one who failed her?

Around the same time, I had another student whose mom and dad sent him to live with a babysitter all week long because they were too busy to care for—or about—him.  They’d drop him off at the sitter on Monday and come back to get him on Friday night.  During the week, he had no contact with them at all.  He was so angry about being abandoned that he’d regularly flip desks and hurl curse words at teachers and other classmates.

He failed his exams too.  Was I really the one who failed him? 

I’ve taught more than one child during my career who has been homeless—living in shelters or out of the back of their cars.  I’ve taught more than one child during my career who was responsible for babysitting little brothers and sisters from the time that they got off of the bus to the time that their moms got home from second and/or third jobs.  I’ve taught more than one child during my career who had seen parents or close family members neck-deep in criminal activity during the course of their lives.

I’ve had students arrested for selling drugs.  I’ve had students who’ve died of overdoses.  I’ve had students hospitalized for alcohol poisoning after spending all night stealing booze from their father’s liquor cabinet and partying with friends. 

I’ve had students jumped into gangs.  I’ve had students convicted of crimes ranging from assault to homicide—the tragic consequence of living in violent neighborhoods where protecting yourself means hitting before you’re hit. 

Most of them failed their exams, too.  Am I really the one who failed them?

I won’t argue that someone needs to be held accountable when students are failing year after year after year.  Bam’s got that right.  But at least SOME of that accountability has to be placed on a society that has intentionally chosen to ignore the plight of the poor

Asking schools to treat the symptoms of poverty on their own—especially during a time where budgets are being slashed and where social services are becoming scant at best and nonexistent at worst—is just plain ignorant.

14 thoughts on “Bam and Arne Get It Wrong Again. . .


    I think we agree on the important part of the issue: schools are the scapegoat for a society that consistently fails those of lower socioeconomic classes. I was simply trying to temper the conversation by bringing another point of view. Seeing as my earning potential in North Carolina after graduation is all of $34.5K and the teachers being fired are making $70K+/year, I can’t say I feel all that sorry for them (there goes the jealousy talking).

  2. edlharris

    More on Central Falls:
    In 2005-2006 the 7th grade students who fed into the high school achieved the following results on their 7th grade NECAP test for reading:
    0% – Proficient with Distinction
    22% – Proficient
    36% – Partially Proficient
    42% – Substantially Below Proficient
    In 2009-2010 when many of those same 7th graders had moved to 11th grade, they achieved the following scores:
    8% – Proficient with Distinction
    47% – Proficient
    29% – Partially Proficient
    15% – Substantially Below Proficient
    So, proficient and proficient with distinction both went up substantially from 7th grade to 11th grade (same cohort of students, but certainly some moved in and out). Yet, somehow ALL the teachers are doing something wrong.

  3. edlharris

    Some stats on Central Falls HS:
    When Superintendent Gallo points to standardized test scores that supposedly show Central Falls failing she doesn’t point out, on the 2009 NECAP reading scores (teaching year), Central Falls is right in the middle of the state’s large urban high schools. At 56% proficiency they are behind the lower-poverty ones (Tolman, 64%; Shea, 62%; Woonsocket, 60%), tied with The MET and Providence Academy for International Studies, and ahead of Central (51%), Hope Leadership (49%), Hope IT (47%), and Alvarez (44%) in Providence.
    The Hope schools are of particular note since they went through a “fire the teachers” restructuring process a few years ago. There is no particular reason to expect the results of Central Falls restructuring to be any different. Now, I don’t believe that standardized tests show you much outside of household income, but Central Falls ranking among similar schools is never mentioned nor is the fact that these same students at Central Falls only had 22% proficiency on the 7th grade tests, 5 years earlier.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Jason wrote:
    The demands agreed upon were simple: an hour/week per student spent in tutoring (I’m assuming a group setting here). Where they differed was in compensation: the district was willing to offer $30/hour for tutoring, but the union wanted $90. Call me idealistic, that’s fine (in fact, I’ll take it as a compliment), but if I worked at a school were the achievement was so low, I would be highly motivated want to improve that. The extra $30/hour, or whatever it ended up being, would just be icing on the proverbial cake
    You know, Jason, I agree that offering teachers $30/hr for extra tutoring sessions seems like a pretty generous offer—and that the union’s $90 dollar demands were extreme—but I’ve also come to the point where simply requiring teachers to work extra hours doesn’t sit right with me, no matter what kind of school you’re working in.
    Now, I might be biased because I once worked in a school where teachers were required to stay an hour a week after school to mentor high needs students without any pay, but the way that I see it, I want to spend my time away from work with my own child!
    There were a ton of teachers at my old school who had to hire babysitters and tutors to watch their own children because they were required to be at work with other people’s kids.
    Altruistically, I get it. Teachers are giving people who care—-and to think that we wouldn’t “go the extra mile” under any circumstance can be shocking.
    But if we keep giving and giving without taking a stand and saying that relying on altruism to solve the huge challenges that kids in poverty face is failed policy, are real changes ever going to be embraced?


    I won’t pretend to know all the context of this story, and other similarly discouraging stories, but I agree with you whole-heartedly Bill, in that schools and teachers should not be expected to be held accountable for the fact that students are “troubled” outside of school. Maybe I took something different out of what I was reading about this story, but as much as this may be viewed as a failure of Obama’s new policy of, as you put it, “shaking things up,” it is more a failure of the teaching union. Don’t get me wrong, I think unions have their place and are a necessity, but have failed in this particular case. While I can’t say I think firing all the teachers, then re-hiring up to half of them is the greatest strategy, it was the superintendent’s last resort (or that’s how CNN painted it any way). There was a dispute between the teachers’ union and the superintendent as to the compensation for the extra time that teachers would be spending with students outside of the norm. The demands agreed upon were simple: an hour/week per student spent in tutoring (I’m assuming a group setting here). Where they differed was in compensation: the district was willing to offer $30/hour for tutoring, but the union wanted $90. Call me idealistic, that’s fine (in fact, I’ll take it as a compliment), but if I worked at a school were the achievement was so low, I would be highly motivated want to improve that. The extra $30/hour, or whatever it ended up being, would just be icing on the proverbial cake. In summary, I totally agree that what has happened in Rhode Island is a sad example of schools being the scapegoat for impoverished areas, but at the same time, let us not overlook that the union is (at least) partly to blame for the teachers being fired. But, what do I know, I’m just a naive 20-year old pre-service teacher down here in North Cackalacky. If anyone is interested, the link for the CNN story I was looking at is as follows:

  6. teaching taylor

    I really do like Obama and I think he’s has good sense for many of the ills of today, but I feel he’s just been given the same repeated answers to school -and has taken them without question. I myself have worked in the most impoverished and the wealthiest areas, and the kids in the wealthier areas, in most cases, can zero in on what I’m teaching and move so much faster than ones in the more economically stressed areas. (Obviously, there are stressed kids in the wealthy areas and disadvantaged kids who do rise above it all. But still.) I am the same teacher, and I work just as hard at both schools, but those in the upper income schools just do better, much better, on the whole. As for local control, that doesn’t always work as an earlier writer seemed to think — the town right next to me had the most expensive program going on in the country (to aide with integration) and the constant in-fighting jammed up the schools something fierce. But it’s time the politicians say what they need to say – something HIGHLY unpolitical, that parents and neighborhoods need to help, or few schools will be able to rise above their problems.

  7. Zinnia

    More and more has been asked of schools over the past two decades. It’s no longer just a place to educate the young–now we provide meals to the hungry, counsel the mentally disturbed, provide job training, social skills and health care to preK to 12 and sometimes to the adults in their families. Meanwhile our buildings are falling apart, teachers are told they are “failing” and taxpayers feel they are getting a bad deal. Especially since there has been long-term economic stagnation for all but the wealthy. Schools are simply a microcosm of society; it’s much easier to scapegoat teachers than to look at real problems.

  8. Sam

    Hi Bill,
    Long time since I commented. The money is actually in the School Improvement Fund, which is a discretionary grant program within Title I. The fund has grown from 500 million three years ago to 3.5 billion now, and 3 billion of that is devoted to schools that pursue the four transformation models laid out by the administration.
    It’s odd to me that Central Falls is getting so much attention. This is something that has happened across the country for several years. Also, in many cases many of the fired teachers get hired back.
    I’m mixed on this. Did you read the story on Locke High in The New Yorker awhile back? Some schools really do need to be shaken up, but I think the rhetoric of “shutting down” and firing all teachers is both dishonest and damaging.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    I’m with you, John—I think Obama will listen, and he certainly has better people around him than Mr. Bush ever did!
    But the “let’s fire teachers” approach is embedded in the new administration. In fact, Race to the Top grants that include some kind of plan to “shake up” low performing schools are given extra bonus points.
    How does that make sense?
    I think I’m concerned because even though education is left to states by the Constitution, the federal government has undue influence in times of tight budgets. EVERYONE wants the cash that Bam is throwing around, so they’re willing to change their policies and programs just to get it.
    That goes for everything from Race to the Top grants to Title 1 dollars.
    And so even though the federal contribution to education is small, the dollars are so important that the impact of the federal government’s wishes is great.
    Any of this make sense?

  10. John Downs

    I mostly agree Bill, but after reading this article: (which I think you tweeted yesterday) , it does make me think there was some kind of “bad karma or culture” at that school, and something major needed to be changed. I think how the teachers handled the negativity must have been at play. Moving would probably have been better than firing everyone.
    In Obama’s defense, he has been accused of handling too much in his first year, and the economy had to be the number one focus, and healthcare too (since it is a huge portion of our economy)
    He will listen, unlike our last president, and hopefully come around to a concensus and a better focus.

  11. Bam Bam Bigelow

    I love your comments, Marsha—and your example. The boy that you speak of is better off because he had the chance to be in your class. You’ve laid the groundwork for him to have the chance to be successful somewhere during the course of his school career.
    You’ve added value.
    Yet none of those contributions will be recognized or valued, will they? In the end, if he fails his exams one too many times, Bam and Arne would have you fired.
    No wonder there aren’t many teachers who want to work in high needs schools. When the kinds of meaningful contributions that teachers working in communities of poverty make every single day are meaningless to the President and his Secretary of Education, there really is no point in even trying, is there.

  12. Joel Zehring

    I absolutely agree that “Bam” and Arne have lost the plot, but blaming poverty for chronic low achievement feels like a bit of a red herring. It’s possible for a school to overcome socio-economic obstacles and realize high achievement for its students. It’s just really difficult and very specialized by neighborhood.
    My complaint with Obama and Duncan is this: Our officials seem to demonstrate utter contempt for local control of schools.
    Are a bunch of suits in DC or state capitals really the people best qualified to prescribe solutions for struggling districts and schools?
    Clearly, the answer is no, at least so far. And yet, districts and states continue down this icy, deadly luge of top-down decision-making and community demolition. I wonder what the moment of release will look like, when the speed becomes too great, and the sled leaves the track. I wonder about the student and educator casualties.
    Is there some kind of “Plan B” in place when these “accountability measures” fail? Can we switch to that plan now, before it’s too late?

  13. mratzel

    Dear Bill,
    I think you’re exactly right with this idea that our schools cannot solve all the problems. It is a simplistic expectation and one that is made so someone else can be responsible.
    I don’t know what I think about the RI school….I know I don’t know enough about the specifics of the situation. No one wants a perpetually failing school to continue failing. I mostly can’t believe that anyone thinks that you can fix the socioeconomic problems of a neighborhood through the efforts of a single school. That’s seems like someone is looking for a scapegoat. But I do think there has to be accountability…what is a reasonable level of improvement that could be achieved for that school? what other measures would be better utilized vs scores on standardized tests?
    I tie this back to one of my students. In August I received a little boy who wanted to kill himself, was angry at the world, hated school and was labeled violent. I know he’s smart and, contrary to his demeanor, he aborbs lots of learning. Now in March, I have a little boy who has a place at school, who smiles and laughs and who doesn’t want to kill himself or others. I don’t think that will show on his math state assessment. I’ll bet his progress won’t be very dramatic.
    If I had a classroom full of this kind of students, maybe I’d be measuring the wrong thing if I just looked at the test scores. Maybe I need to be smarter and look at other things.
    I don’t think schools can fix a family’s problems or a community’s problems completely. We can be an oasis but not the remedy. Until policymakers figure this out we are doomed to be judged harshly.

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