The Obama administration has just shown how serious it is about reforming the nation's failing schools.

Last week, the entire 93-member staff of Rhode Island's Central Falls High School was fired. That's teachers, counselors, the principal. All gone.

The president of the state AFL-CIO called the action "immoral, illegal, unjust, irresponsible, disgraceful, and disrespectful."

The reaction from the Democratic administration was quite different.

"This is hard work, and these are tough decisions, but students only have one chance for an education," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Providence Journal. "And when schools continue to struggle, we have a collective obligation to take action."

President Obama supported the move Monday while speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability. And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th graders passed state math tests - 7 percent."

Duncan has been urging states to identify their lowest-performing schools and act in one of four ways: closure; takeover by a charter or school-management organization; transformation, with changes such as a longer day; or turnaround, where the staff is fired and no more than 50 percent rehired.

Providence Superintendent Frances Gallo had tried for transformation, with longer work days and after-school tutoring among the changes sought. But compensation was an issue - the unions wanted $90 an hour for the additional work vs. the $30 Gallo was offering. The district then opted for the "turnaround."

Did the crisis have to reach this point? Probably not, and both sides seem to realize it. There are signs that renewed talks could avoid the mass firings.

But underperforming schools are clearly on notice. And district leaders, such as Philadelphia's Arlene Ackerman, know that someone in Washington has their back as they proceed with the difficult job of reform and putting students first.

That goal was well-articulated by one of two trustees who voted against the firings but told the Central Falls staff: "I don't believe this is a workers' rights issue. I believe it's a children's rights issue."