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Globe Editorial

Lessons from Central Falls

May 20, 2010

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CENTRAL FALLS, R.I., may have something to teach the nation — about the need for dramatic reforms in troubled school districts, but also about the benefits of compromise. The decision in February to fire all of the teachers and staff at the city’s high school was reversed this week in favor of a more measured approach to school improvement.

It took months, but teachers in Central Falls finally recognized that the status quo wasn’t good enough for the city’s mostly low-income students. The district had tried unsuccessfully to convince the teachers union that the school day was too short and teacher training too perfunctory. But it took brinkmanship by the school board — the threat of mass firings — to convince teachers that change would come, with or without them. The Obama administration’s vocal support for the school board, not to mention the 700 applications that the district received from would-be replacements, only added to the pressure on the union.

It defied logic to think every high school teacher in Central Falls was subpar. But even the best couldn’t get the job done in a culture that put staffers’ convenience ahead of students’ needs. Schools need more than 5 or 6 hours daily to make a difference. The best charter schools are moving to an 8-hour school day. In Central Falls, the compromise extends the school day by only about 2 hours a week. But it also builds in additional time for weekly tutoring and more intensive teacher training, while eliminating an inflexible teacher seniority system.

Teachers unions and administrators in urban districts, including Boston, are struggling to find ways to expand the school day within the limits of city budgets. But no matter what, they can’t walk away from their commitment to reform. And the sooner that all sides recognize that, the better.

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