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Guest Commentary: Education Ideas We Should Steal — From Ourselves

For the School District of Philadelphia to improve, Superintendent Watlington need not look for new ideas. Our solutions are already here

Guest Commentary: Education Ideas We Should Steal — From Ourselves

For the School District of Philadelphia to improve, Superintendent Watlington need not look for new ideas. Our solutions are already here

As Philadelphia public school staff and students, parents and education advocates eagerly await Superintendent Watlington’s strategic plan, we are reconciled to the likelihood that, despite our fondest hopes, there will not be enough new money to make systemwide inroads in reducing class size and hiring urgently needed counselors, social workers and librarians.

But the School District’s $4.6 billion proposed operating budget does include enough funds to strengthen curriculum, instruction and professional development; streamline management and administrative systems; upgrade many facilities; reduce dropouts; expand extracurriculars; improve communication with families; and enhance career and college readiness system wide.

The challenge the Superintendent faces is how to use the available funds to maximize positive outcomes for students. And the answer to that challenge does not require looking for new ideas, or even looking outside the District. Many of the solutions to our problems already exist right here in the form of pilot projects which were funded and rigorously evaluated by the foundation community and even the District itself, but which have remained one-offs or been discontinued because the system has failed to replicate them.

We know what works and, chances are, it exists (or has existed) within the Philadelphia School District itself.

In each instance, the effective initiatives we replicate should either fill a gap in existing practices, replace less effective practices, or replace practices that have never been evaluated. Key to budget accountability is the need to invoke the perennial wisdom of college registrars: “Drop before you add.”

“Provincial” is a term often used to describe people or approaches that are unsophisticated or narrow-minded, hardly a positive description of how to improve a fundamentally dysfunctional system. But in the case of the School District, there are a host of successful programs developed here that should be restored and/or replicated systemwide.

Let’s focus on how some of our recent successes can be mainstreamed as replacements for business as usual by:

    1. Identifying sites and programs which have excelled in addressing the major challenges the Superintendent has identified
    2. Recognizing their leaders and staff both financially and rhetorically
    3. Enlisting them in helping their peers to replicate what has worked
    4. Assessing and documenting progress annually
    5. Modifying what we do as needed
    6. Creating celebratory events to recognize and refuel the change agents on both sides of the equation.

Here are a few recent examples of externally funded programs worth replicating:

1. Girls High addressed its several hundred empty seats by starting a summer transition program for 300 entering students with good grades, attendance and behavior but lower than required standardized test scores. The program strengthened students’ academic skills and their appreciation of the academic culture and traditions of their new school. Three years later, 81 percent of the first cohort, now juniors who would have been considered “high risk” academically when they applied, are now enrolled in Honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Had the District instituted this model for addressing the under-representation of low income, Black and Latino students in other selective schools whose student bodies are disproportionately White, Asian and middle class, it could have avoided racial conflict, students leaving the District, and vastly under enrolled incoming freshman classes at several of our other flagship schools.

2. Parkway Center City High School enrolls students who earn both a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree from nearby Community College of Philadelphia when they graduate. The program has not been — but could be — replicated in new partnerships between West Philadelphia High School and CCP’s West Philadelphia Regional Center and the nearby new CCP Technology Center, and between Northeast High School and CCP’s Northeast Regional Center. Such replication would be a dual success by attracting or retaining more academically talented students in the District and addressing CCP’s enrollment challenges.

3. Results were impressive from the Together is Better Program that paired general education teachers and teachers of English Language Learners in two schools to co-teach in classrooms that included English learners. But despite the program’s positive outcomes in language acquisition and overall school performance, the program was neither sustained nor expanded, replacing the less effective solo teaching model. So today, hundreds of English learners continue to struggle in neighborhood schools where recent immigrants have settled or where English is not spoken at home. And too many of those struggling students end up dropping out before graduation or unable to find decent jobs or post-secondary learning opportunities.

4. T3 Teach Plus trained experienced teachers to serve as Teacher Turnaround Teams in five schools to become teacher leaders, and coached principals and district leaders in shared leadership to sustain and replicate teacher leadership across schools and over time. Notwithstanding significant improvement in academic outcomes in the five struggling schools it served, the program was not replicated, so teachers in too many schools remain uninvolved in decisions which directly affect their success in the classroom. Significant, already available professional development time and funds can bring the T3 Teach Plus model to many more schools.

I doubt the Mayor, the Board of Education and the Superintendent have anything to lose by identifying our many homegrown winners and making them the touchstones for equitable school improvement rather than looking elsewhere for what to do. We know what works and, chances are, it exists (or has existed) within the Philadelphia School District itself.

In 1974, Dr. Bernard C. Watson, former director of planning in the School District, founding chairman of the Department of Urban Education at Temple University, and President and CEO of the William Penn Foundation, published a book titled In Spite of the System. Dr. Watson celebrated the scores of urban educators who overcame social impediments, transcended political obstacles, circumvented financial hardships, defied bureaucratic red tape, and ignored thoughtless administrative directives to make their parts of the system work for students. Fifty years later, educators who have designed, operated, supported and evaluated our more recent successes in spite of the system need that very system to acknowledge their successes by replicating them.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, a provincial approach to replication could be our surest route to progress — not in spite of, but because of, the system.

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Debra Weiner spent 45 years working in public education advocacy for high school reform, college prep, board accountability and early learning. The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory



Photo by Theresa Quagraine

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