Lawrence Teacher Firings Ignite Debate

By Andrea Smardon

Apr. 6, 2011

LAWRENCE, Mass. — Lawrence teachers are responding to the news that one third of their corps will not be returning to their jobs in the fall, one year after the school was termed underperforming by the state.

Lawrence School Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron announced last month that teachers at Arlington Elementary and South Lawrence East Middle Schools would be required to reapply for their positions. Last week, 27 of those teachers learned they did not make the cut.

“The problems of poverty are not going to be resolved by moving a few teachers around."

-- Frank McLaughlin, President, Lawrence Teachers' Union

In an email, Bergeron said reforms — including teacher training and student tutoring — put in place since September had not been enough to achieve the turnaround necessary to avoid state takeover.

Union leaders say replacing teachers is unnecessary and premature, but state education leaders say the school, designated by the state as a “turnaround school,” should be showing signs of improvement by now.

But union president Frank McLaughlin says six months was not enough time to tell if the reforms were working.

“The teachers had just started their professional development training. We were going to implement the longer school day next year,” McLaughlin said. “The teachers were working and staying extra hours and doing tutoring… we had really only started the process.”

The John R. Rollins School in Lawrence. More than a third of the teachers at two schools in the district will not be returning to their jobs next year. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Lawrence schools are part of a list of 35 “turnaround schools” deemed to be underperforming by the state. The state made the list in March last year based on scores on MCAS standardized tests, attendance and other criteria.
McLaughlin says all these underperforming schools have one thing in common: Poverty.  He says the Arlington neighborhood in Lawrence is probably one of the poorest in the country.

“The problems of poverty are not going to be resolved by moving a few teachers around,” McLaughlin said. “It’s a very poor neighborhood. These were dedicated teachers. We understand these kids needs to be helped but demonizing their teachers is not helpful.” 

Lawrence is the latest school system to replace teachers at its troubled schools. About a third of the underperforming schools in the state have replaced or plan to replace more than half their teachers. Most of those teachers are reassigned to another school in their districts. 20 of the 27 teachers who lost their jobs at Lawrence schools are eligible to be reassigned elsewhere.
State Secretary of Education Paul Reville says a certain amount of turnover is necessary because not every teacher is ready for the work required to transform a school.  

"It is about enlisting a cadre of people who are highly energetic and ready to go well beyond the normal expectations of teachers."

—Paul Reville, State Secretary of Education

“It’s not about blaming teachers, it’s not about saying that where we know there is such a strong correlation with poverty that somehow it’s the teachers fault that we haven’t turned these around,” Reville said.

“But it is about enlisting a cadre of people who are highly energetic and ready to go well beyond the normal expectations of teachers to do the work in these schools,” Reville added.

Reville says there is little concrete evidence by which to gauge the progress of the turnaround schools until the results of the latest MCAS results are out – which won’t happened until this summer. Even then, Reville says he doesn’t expect dramatic change, but he said there should be some indication of improvement.

“I think you should begin to see movement in the right direction. Many of these schools have been sliding. These were low performing, non-improving schools. At a minimum in year one, we’d like to see some upward trajectory starting,” Reville said.

Turnaround schools that do not show significant improvement by Spring 2013 may face takeover by the state.

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