In his book The Urban School System of the Future, Andy Smarick, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said, “The traditional urban public school system is broken, and it cannot be fixed.”
I don’t believe this. But I do believe that outside reformers of the kind we see in our state and national capitols don’t have the necessary knowledge or tools to fix what many consider our broken system. That can happen only from those of us on the ground. And it isn’t an easy road.
This is a scary time in public education; educators are experiencing anxiety over political proposals, legislations, decisions, and ideas that can reset the educational progress, focusing in particular on urban education. We’ve seen No Child Left Behind shift to 2015’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which reduced the role of the federal government in education, to President Donald Trump suggesting the possibility of eliminating the entire Department of Education all together. With these varying philosophies in public education, it’s no wonder that educators are nervous about the future of our schools.
Meanwhile, politicians and outside reformers have argued for mayoral control, state takeovers, school choice, vouchers, and performance accountability systems that support the best schools and close the worst. In Pennsylvania since 2001, the state has either taken over several school districts or made them eligible for state control. Their main contention is that efforts to make urban education successful and work for every child have been marked by consistent failure. But they have not shown that their ideas will create consistent success. Will we be trading one problem for another?
The Pew Charitable Trusts commissioned an analysis recently that compared the key elements of the Philadelphia’s school governance system with those of 15 other major urban school districts similar to Philadelphia. They found that, “There is no consensus among researchers about whether any particular form of school governance, including state take over, mayoral control, or elected school boards, leads to either better student performance or fiscal management.”
The Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which gathers input from teachers, students, parents and other professionals to gauge teacher quality, curriculum, physical space, culture, family/school relationships, citizenship—and academics. What results is a fairer and more complete assessment of a school.
Politicians and reformers’ main focus seems to be to find new ways to govern and deliver urban education through legislative, political, and economic outcomes. But they are weak on instructional substance—the thing they claim to care about most. For example, how will their ideas improve early literacy instruction that will increase the percentage of students reading on-target by 3rd grade? How will their ideas improve responses to instruction and intervention that will decrease the number of requests for permission to evaluate for special education? How will their ideas increase the percentage of K-2 students attending school 95 percent of instructional days? How will their ideas help support students in low performing schools who also get behavioral health services in those schools?
We don’t know. What we do know is that the rhetoric of failure isn’t getting us anywhere—except to more rhetoric. An article in The Atlantic magazine recently pointed to the gap between metrics recorded in No Child Left Behind—particularly standardized test scores—and the reality of school achievement. The story points to research that has shown that variances in test scores are less about what happens in school, and more about external factors, like family and neighborhood. “Consequently, when those external to a school community turn to test scores for information, they are likely to end up with a picture that is both incomplete and inaccurate,” writes Jack Schneider, assistant professor of education at the College of the Holy Cross, and author of the forthcoming Beyond Test Scores: A Better Way to Measure School Quality.
Schneider goes on to explain why this matters:
“In 2002, the year NCLB was signed into law, 60 percent of respondents [to a Kappan poll] gave the nation’s public schools a C or a D grade. Thirteen years later, that figure was up to 69 percent. Yet school performance did not change markedly during that time. In fact, scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress—a nationally representative assessment of student learning—generally held constant or rose slightly during that period.”
And yet, with every new school reform idea, urban schools are forced to continuously shift towards a different set of measurements, regardless of whether those measurements make sense in a particular environment. The result is low performing schools focusing less on qualitative outcomes for each student (or a deeper understanding that can inform practice and solutions to challenges) than on applying metrics that compare schools against each other even if they have different types of challenges. Using the same measurement to gauge a school like Meredith Elementary—in upper middle class Queen Village—as my school, Carnell Elementary, in the middle of a struggling neighborhood, makes about as much sense as comparing a poverty-stricken school to one on the Main Line.
In Philadelphia, Great Philly Schools (GPS), a rating preview of schools in Philadelphia, has become the arbiter of what works and what doesn’t. The GPS rating system, created through the collaboration of several nonprofit partners, led by the Philadelphia School Partnership, is designed for families to research and compare schools across sectors on both academic and non-academic scales. And, indeed, it offers an opportunity for principals like myself to boast about progress in our schools, talk of our mission, and of our climate. But the predominant statistic on the page for each school is a single number—a rating that relies too heavily on a single measure: Percentage of students passing one state test.
It does not reflect the full scope of a school—the consistent vision and leadership, cohesive school teams, strong student growth, robust instructional strategies, supportive partnerships, active parent engagement or diverse student body. My school, Carnell, scores a 3 on GPS. That number doesn’t capture our progress, or that we’re part of the District’s School Redesign Initiative, or the whole picture of what families might consider a “great” school for their children.
This is a scary time in public education; educators are experiencing anxiety over political proposals, legislations, decisions, and ideas that can reset the educational progress, focusing in particular on urban education.
Through my interest in educational politics, I make a concerted effort to keep my school community ahead of educational tsunamis and informed of federal, state, and school district-level decisions that could impact Carnell. We have advanced comprehensive school improvement and innovation based on research and leadership practices to improve student outcomes. We are intentional about data-use and fine-tuning our system of measurable performance expectations and results.
We still have goals that must be accomplished before we can proudly say, “We are a high performing school,” such as the need for an influx of fresh teaching ideas and a full investment in our students’ energy and interests. However, our progress to date is exciting, hopeful, and moving toward a better future for our students.
What we are proving is that there is no silver bullet fired from on high that can solve every educational problem in an urban school district. Instead, it takes a localized—sometimes down to the school level—approach to reforming schools.
I am optimistic that that may happen. Unlike other leaders I’ve seen in my 22 years in Philadelphia public education, we now have a mayor who seems to actively support public education and is willing to work with teachers and principals to improve conditions and fight for more resources. He tapped a Philadelphia principal, Otis Hackney, to serve as his Chief Education Officer. Hackney has walked in the shoes of teachers and principals. Having served as a principal of a large, neighborhood high school, South Philly High, Hackney understands school issues on the ground and can help inform Mayor Kenny’s initiatives and public policies that will serve as solutions to challenges and support schools and their community.
Mayor Kenney regularly meets with teachers and principals directly to listen to their key concerns, and is leading efforts to fully-fund quality pre-K education in Philadelphia and create community schools to address the challenges that keep our students from learning. I had the opportunity to attend one of Mayor Kenny’s meetings with a group of principals, during which we engaged with him in discussions about school issues, such as immigrant affairs, facilities, partnerships, and instructional resources. He demonstrated to me that he genuinely cares for public schools, and I am hopeful that will translate to positive change.
There’s no getting away from the fact that this is the reform era of metrics and results-based accountability. Educators must pay attention to it and incorporate these approaches into the structure of their schools. But we need systems that look at whole schools, not just a narrow sliver of them.
This is hard work, pulling a district up, one school at a time, which is how it has to happen in many cases. Which is not to say we shouldn’t be measuring schools, and holding them accountable. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is the reform era of metrics and results-based accountability. Educators must pay attention to it and incorporate these approaches into the structure of their schools. They need to build a data-driven culture that utilizes metrics to understand student needs and that track progress; they need to know whether and how students are succeeding, and how to translate that to all students. They—as well as parents and the District—need to know if student performance is improving or declining. But we need systems that look at whole schools, not just a narrow sliver of them.
There are some tools that do that. The California Office for Reforming Education, for example, compiles data on schools serving 1.7 million students to compare academics, social-emotional learning and culture. And Schneider has developed a similar tool for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment, which gathers input from teachers, students, parents and other professionals to gauge teacher quality, curriculum, physical space, culture, family/school relationships, citizenship—and academics. What results is a fairer and more complete assessment of a school.
Adopting a measurement tool like that in Philadelphia would push teachers and principals to creatively reform their own schools, making the sorts of minute and comprehensive changes that lead to better academic outcomes as well. Once each schools has done that, the outside meddlers can stop meddling.
Hilderbrand Pelzer III is the principal of Laura H. Carnell School in Oxford Circle. He won the 2014 Lindback Award for Distinguished Principal Leadership, and is the author of Unlocking Potential: Organizing a School Inside a Prison. Pelzer contributed regular columns from the school front lines during the school year.Header Photo: Emma Lee