Rhode Island · School Talk

NEA’s Bob Walsh: Blocking, Begging, and Belittling

Bob Walsh, Executive Director of the NEA in Rhode Island, is a smart guy. Unlike some others in his organization, he makes his case respectfully and the scope of his technical knowledge is infinite. But last week he left me truly stumped (and a bit appalled) after an appearance on A Lively Experiment on our local PBS station.

The topic at hand was the proposed expansion of Achievement First and he was there to make the case that the expansion should not happen. He spoke with fondness for certain charters but expressed total disapproval of the mayoral academies; it’s important to note that the mayoral academies are currently the highest performing charter schools in the state for low income children of color.

Toward the end of the television segment, Walsh said the following about Achievement First: (to watch, fast forward to 9:20 on the video)

If they’re achieving better, then you have to ask why.  And if they’re achieving better because they’re doing all the things we’ve been begging for for years… More teachers. Lower class size. Parents being involved.

Curious statement to be sure. Seems to me that Walsh fights mightily against most of what Achievement First has that is different from the schools in which his members work. It got me thinking that if Walsh ” has been begging” for what they have, he should work to make that happen.

Perhaps the ugliest part of his statement is his implication that parents are to blame for schools not achieving at the same levels as AF. Former North Carolina Teacher of the Year, James Ford, also has a problem with this all too common tendency to pivot to parents when looking for excuses.

I bristle at the notion of parental responsibility as the be-all, end-all explanation because it doesn’t lead to a solution. It shifts the conversation from how the schools should respond to the needs of students and instead centers the conversation on the household. It makes no mention of the responsibility of the educational system.

Perhaps the kind of engagement currently being pushed by the schools isn’t the kind the parents need or want. Maybe communication between teacher and parent needs to be made easier. Maybe the parents don’t feel motivated because the school culture doesn’t exude anything motivating. Many parents want to help their children but don’t know how. Or maybe they do know how but can’t because a lost hour on school work is a lost hour of wages.

Has Walsh asked any of these “uninvolved parents” what would make it easier for them to become better partners in their child’s education and how he can help with that?

There are district schools in Providence and elsewhere working tirelessly to get parents more engaged.

Walsh should find out what other schools are doing and work to replicate it instead of making sweeping accusations about parents not being involved. The parent blame game is not only insulting, it passes the buck and doing that that never leads anywhere good.

It’s also worthy of note that 19 percent of Providence students do not attend their district schools but Walsh and others’ ire is limited to one subset of charter school: the Mayoral Academies. Interestingly, these schools are also the only ones who, by law, do not have to be part of the pension system and instead can offer a 401K to their teachers. Perhaps that is why they are so reviled despite their unprecedented outcomes for kids.

What else could he be begging for?

Any school that has autonomy and flexibility around staffing can implement a co-teaching model. So again, if Walsh wants to put two teachers in RI’s elementary classrooms, he should help figure out how to do it.

His claim that class sizes are smaller is totally erroneous. The average class size at Achievement First is 30 students. 

Other differences?

A longer school day. A longer school year. At-will contracts. A 401K. Is Mr. Walsh begging for these things?


I wish I could embed his response here but since our very brief exchange, he has blocked me (again) on Twitter so a picture will have to suffice.


The irony in his response is that he said during the show, and reiterated adamantly, that Achievement First is only doing well because they “cherry pick.” So if anyone is peddling in fake news, it appears to be him. I dare him to stand up in front of all the school’s parents and make that claim, that their children were cherry picked. It is false. He knows it. And the parents certainly know it. And it’s high time we have these debates with the real stakeholders so that people like Walsh can hear the authentic voices of the families who have opted out of the traditional school system.

One thing is clear. Elected officials and education leaders blocking those who question them on Twitter is a trend in Rhode Island and it certainly doesn’t inspire confidence in them as leaders willing to have the tough conversations – publicly – to make the state a better place for children.

But since Mr. Walsh doesn’t want to debate on Twitter, I think a room full of parents with children currently attending Achievement First or on the wait-list would be the perfect place for a meeting. And after that, we can head straight over to the district school of his choice so he can ask parents directly why they are aren’t involved enough in their children’s education.

I’m happy to set it all up.





What do you think?

One thought on “NEA’s Bob Walsh: Blocking, Begging, and Belittling

  1. You might like West Broadway Middle School’s parent outreach — because you happen to know about it — but their test scores are terrible. You can’t paint Providence schools as a whole as a failure because of test scores, and then turn around and selectively praise them based on programs you happen to know about that sound good but aren’t raising test scores.

    The whole reason that people who know the system well generally don’t trust judgement by test scores is that they see good things like West Broadway’s parent outreach happening all the time, all over the district, but the test scores don’t move, or move quickly enough, so the data says it is a failure, something else must be tried, people fired and shamed, etc.

    You are correct though that this is really all about pensions. Not only do all workers deserve a pension, all current students in the PPSD deserve to look forward to having a pension someday.

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