Only about 70 percent of high school freshmen go on to graduate, the White House says.

Only about 70 percent of high school freshmen go on to graduate, the White House says.

The Obama administration is offering a $900 million carrot to the nation’s school systems to tackle what many view as an abysmal dropout rate that threatens America’s ability to compete in the new global economy. But it’s the “stick” portion of the administration’s plan that has rankled many educators.

Districts would get the money only if they agree to one of four plans to dramatically change or even shut down their worst performing schools. One of these plans involves firing the principal and at least half of the staff members at a struggling school—a turnaround plan that captured national attention when it was tried by the Central Falls, R.I., school system last week.

President Obama took aim at the nation’s school dropout epidemic in a March 1 speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the event—which was sponsored by the America’s Promise Alliance, a youth-oriented organization founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell and his wife, Alma—Obama noted the economic impact that dropouts have on America’s ability to compete.

The White House says 1.2 million students drop out of school each year, and only about 70 percent of entering high school freshmen go on to graduate. The problem affects blacks and Latinos at particularly high rates. About 2,000 high schools turn out half of all dropouts, and the administration says it will work with states to identify those schools with graduation rates below 60 percent.

Obama described the crisis as one that hurts individual kids and the nation as a whole, shattering dreams and undermining an already hurting economy.

“There’s got to be a sense of accountability,” Obama said in announcing his latest get-tough school proposal. The president’s plan would seek to help 5,000 of the nation’s lowest-performing schools over the next five years.

“In this kind of knowledge economy, giving up on your education and dropping out of school means not only giving up on your future, but it’s also giving up on your family’s future,” Obama said. “It’s giving up on your country.”

Obama has been pushing schools—using federal money as his leverage—to raise their standards and prod them to get more children ready for college or work. It is a task that former President George W. Bush and Congress, along with many leaders before them, have long taken on, but the challenge is steep.

Obama’s 2011 budget proposal includes $900 million for School Turnaround Grants. To get a share of the money, states and school districts must adopt one of four approaches to fix their lowest-performing schools:

• Turnaround Model: The school district must replace the principal and at least half of the school staff, adopt a new governance structure for the school, and implement a new or revised instructional program.

• Restart Model: The school district must close and reopen the school under the management of a charter school operator, a charter management organization or an educational management organization. A restarted school would be required to enroll, within the grades it serves, former students who wish to attend.

• School Closure: The school district must close the failing school and enroll the students in other, higher-achieving schools in the district.

• Transformational Model: The school must address four areas, including teacher effectiveness, instruction, learning and teacher planning time, and operational flexibility.

The administration also is putting $50 million into dropout prevention strategies, including personalized and individual instruction and support to keep students engaged in learning, and better use of data to identify students at risk of failure and to help them with the transition to high school and college.

But it’s the four models for turning around chronically underperforming schools that have garnered the most attention, especially after the Central Falls, R.I., school board voted to fire 88 teachers and other staff members at Central Falls High School at year’s end.

No more than half of those instructors would be hired back under the federal “turnaround” option—a plan that has enraged the state’s teachers union, earned criticism from students, and brought praise from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and some parents.

Central Falls High School has long been one of the worst performing schools in Rhode Island—and now it has become a high-profile test of the Obama administration’s restructuring model for failing schools. The mass firings follow Superintendent Frances Gallo’s recommendation in adopting the “turnaround model” espoused by Obama and Duncan.

Just 7 percent of the school’s 11th graders who were tested in the fall were proficient in math. Only 33 percent were proficient in writing, and just 55 percent were proficient in reading. In 2008, just 52 percent of students graduated within four years—and 30 percent dropped out.

The school district’s board of trustees approved the firings on Feb. 23 after talks failed between Gallo and the local teachers union over implementing changes, including offering more tutoring and a longer school day.

The teachers said they wanted more pay for the additional work.

The shake-up comes as Rhode Island’s new education commissioner, Deborah Gist, pushes the state to compete for millions of dollars in federal funding to reform the worst 5 percent of its schools, including in Central Falls. State law requires schools to warn teachers by March 1 if their jobs are in jeopardy for the following school year.

Duncan applauded the plan, saying students only have one chance for an education.

“When schools continue to struggle, we have a collective obligation to take action,” he said in a written statement.

The U.S. Department of Education does not play a role in deciding which improvement model school districts choose and did not know whether Central Falls was the first to opt to get rid of its teachers, said Sandra Abrevaya, a department spokeswoman.

The decision won praise from Republican Gov. Don Carcieri, a former math teacher who supports Gist.

“We can no longer stand by as our schools underperform,” Carcieri said in a written statement. “While we have some excellent individual teachers, our students continue to be held back by a lack of a quality education and by union leadership that puts their self-interests above the interests of the students.”

Leaders from the local teachers union did not respond to repeated requests for comment from the Associated Press. But in a news release issued earlier in the week, Jane Sessums, president of the Central Falls Teachers Union, said teachers had already agreed to several reforms, including teacher evaluations and schedule changes. She added that the administration was scapegoating teachers.

On Feb. 25, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said in a statement that improvements made in the last two years at Central Falls High School have been overlooked “in the rush to make judgments and cast blame.” Weingarten said reading scores, for example, have risen by 21 percent.

“We are disappointed that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan didn’t get all the facts or even speak with teachers before weighing in on the mass firing at Central Falls High School,” Weingarten added.

More children live in poverty in Central Falls, a city of just 1 square mile, than anywhere else in Rhode Island. Until recently, one of the city’s few growth industries was a quasi-public jail.

Shantel Joseph, 42, who lives just a block from the high school, was uncertain when asked whether her 16-year-old son would graduate.

“He might,” she said, noting that he earns mostly Cs and Ds on his report card and appears to be assigned little homework. Still, she opposed mass firings in a city where unemployment stands at 13.8 percent.

Student Christian Manco, 15, said there was a walkout of students in support of their teachers.

“Honestly, it’s not a good idea,” he said of the firings. “The school wants them to work more hours for no extra pay.”

As of press time, it was unclear whether a compromise might emerge. The union said it plans to file appeals over the dismissals.

Gist said she’s awaiting more detailed plans from the superintendent. She doubts that Gallo will consider another path and said Rhode Island cannot tolerate a school at which only half of students graduate on time.

“Those are just numbers that are not sustainable for a community,” Gist said. “In today’s economy, young people who are leaving high school without a diploma are going to struggle throughout their life.”

Links:

America’s Promise Alliance

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Central Falls School District

American Federation of Teachers