Wednesday, September 30, 2015

RI: This Is Why Tenure Is Necessary, Part 32,871,299

William Ashton is in trouble again.

Ashton is an English teacher in Rhode Island. If you remember his name, it's because last spring, the Jacqueline Walsh School for the Performing Arts suspended him for allegedly badmouthing the PARCC. The "badmouthing" was the process of correcting student misconceptions about how an under-95% testing rate would affect the school; to put it another way, he contradicted the standard state-generated propaganda about why students "must" take the Big Standardized Test.

The suspension spurred student protests, including old-school (picketing) and new-school (facebook page). And ultimately, Ashton was back in his classroom. That was last March.

Now, Ashton is in trouble again.

This time, he appears to have answered a question about birth control in the time of the Pilgrims. And now the student is back out on the sidewalk, picketing and protesting that her teacher is in trouble for answering her question.

Pawtucket Superintendent Patti DiCenso has seized this teachable moment by dragging the students out of class to scold them, informing them that "they were being inappropriate and shouldn't be protesting." DiCenso, in what I can only assume is a bid to model how grown-up professionals deal with disagreement, has blocked one of the students from the superintendent's twitter page (@PawtuckSup, just in case you want to say hi).

DiCenso told Norton and Roberts that they were being bullies because they were demanding the return of their teacher and threatening to peacefully protest if he wasn’t reinstated, they said.

Now, we are only getting the students' version of this meeting, so I'm going to hope that this is a big of hyperbole on their part and not their superintendent of schools saying foolish, foolish things. DiCenso's office will not confirm the identity of the suspended teacher nor discuss the situation, which is an appropriate response at this point.

Is Ashton on the chopping block again because his bosses are still steamed about last spring? Is this a district prone to over-reaction? I don't know.

What I do know is that this is just one more example of why tenure is a good idea. Remember-- Ashton's current problems are because he answered a student's question.

DiCenso told the students that Ashton had “strayed from the curriculum” but Long [a student] asked, “Does the curriculum say what questions we are allowed to ask?”

Because that is kind of the point. A teacher can't control what questions a student might ask, but a teacher can certainly create a classroom atmosphere in which students understand that questions-- particularly questions of a remotely controversial nature-- are not welcome. Nothing like a simple, "I won't answer that question because it could cost me my job, and please, students, never ask a question like that ever again or else I will send you to the office to make sure it's clear that I in now way condone that kind of job-threatening talk in my classroom" to really kick off some valuable classroom discussion that opens the doors of learning.

In an atmosphere like this, a teacher has to view each student as a ticking time bomb, ready to go off with some question at any moment. That's no way to run a school.


  1. Tsk, tsk. We certainly don't want informed students who demonstrate intellectual curiosity or critical thinking. No, no.

  2. That's right - when I want critical thinking out of you, I'll tell you what to say.

    1. Dienne, it's a good thing I wasn't drinking anything when I read your comment!

  3. They strayed from close reading of the text,