At this time of year, many of us take stock. We ask ourselves: Do we deserve the grace that our family, friends, and community have shown us as we stumble along “doing our best.”
What happens, though, if you realize “your best” just hasn’t been good enough? That’s what happened to the two of us recently.
In our careers as youth advocates, it used to feel like we were working pretty darn hard to make the right things happen for kids. But then, last fall, as we tried to pull together an event ambitiously titled The Big Thing: A Summit to Change Young Lives, we held focus groups with young people from around the Philadelphia region.
And we learned that, from where they sit, whatever it is we think we’re accomplishing is mostly invisible.
These students do not feel served. They do not feel heard. They do not feel seen or cared for by the adults who run the big world that churns outside the walls of their school. The students told us things like:
“We talk about cops killing African American students … but teachers figuratively kill Black students, too. They kill their dreams by asking them: Why do you want to pursue that? Why don’t you try something more your speed?”
“No one that teaches me looks like me.”
“My friends and I feel like we’re missing a foundation within the community of our school. It doesn’t feel like it’s whole; we’re very separated.”
It was a gut punch.
But it also drove us to gather 300 of our colleagues from across the region to unify behind a reform agenda that dares to dream, while staying rooted in the evidence of what really works. These candid and insightful students begged us to disrupt the outdated approaches to schooling that:
- Warehouse them in schools disconnected from the economy and the real world of work.
- Pack them into classrooms laden with institutionalized racism, with faculty who often don’t look like them and don’t understand the situations they leave to come to school each day.
- Tolerate a void of vital mental wellness supports.
So, we asked students, parents, researchers, philanthropists, and youth-serving leaders to propose solutions at once bold and doable at a historic Summit held last fall.
Beyond the raw numbers of teachers, it’s just as important to increase the percentage of them who look like the students they teach and who understand their life experiences. Having a teacher that looks like you gives you hope, one student told us.
Unlike many similar Philadelphia-area conversations, we did not settle for simply blaming the people closest at hand, the people who run and work for their local school systems. Instead, we also looked west toward Harrisburg, the state Capitol. Why? Because our state constitution places the central responsibility for ensuring that the Commonwealth’s children get a fair and effective education.
We agreed that the state must immediately move forward with six essential reforms:
1. Open true school-to-workplace pipelines
The phrase “school to prison pipeline” is by now a cliche. That, sadly, is because it holds so much truth.
But where is Pennsylvania’s effective counter to the cliche: a vibrant system for inspiring students to enter a school-to-career pipeline? It’s a huge fail, around Philadelphia and across the Commonwealth.
By contrast, Delaware and Texas now effectively expose students as early as middle school to the solid career paths actually possible in their given communities. Delaware fosters career building so well that most of its students graduate with a workplace credential or a pertinent college credit or both. Colorado and New York are placing students in apprenticeships that guarantee a job.
To do this, a school system and its staff must grasp the variety of interesting, family-supporting jobs flourishing in its community — plus the hard and soft skills needed to excel in those jobs. Then the district must revise curriculum and teaching methods so that classrooms can instill those skills. Schools must foster partnerships with community colleges, four-year-colleges, and employers to offer students the kind of workplace experiences and college credits they’ll need to stay on the path.
Pennsylvania and Philadelphia lag sadly behind other states in making such strides. Reframed thinking, intense focus and significant resources must be devoted to helping them catch up.
2. Expand the teaching corps
The pandemic, and the strains it put on public-school teachers, only reinforced trends that were clear before Covid. The hard work of teaching is less appreciated by the public than ever before. Yet teacher salaries in many parts of Pennsylvania are no higher than what an Amazon warehouse worker or a Geico salesperson makes.
It’s no wonder the state is certifying about a third as many new teachers per year as it was a decade ago. So, districts scramble well into the school year to fill openings; class sizes grow — and so does burnout, leading to more turnover. The indispensable step in addressing this growing shortage is for the state to provide the money to raise salaries across the board.
3. Diversify the teaching corps
Beyond the raw numbers of teachers, it’s just as important to increase the percentage of them who look like the students they teach and who understand their life experiences. Having a teacher that looks like you gives you hope, one student told us. The Center for Black Male Educator Development in Philadelphia has developed strategies that work to attract more young people of color to teach. The state should adopt these strategies, which include recruiting and training talented youth serving staffers at campus, after-school programs, and social services.
4. Better prepare and support the teaching corps
It doesn’t do much good to recruit young teachers if they soon quit out of frustration and despair. (Abbott Elementary is a comedy, but sometimes it feels to us like journalism.)
Teachers who leave the field often tell researchers they felt woefully unprepared for the challenges of running a classroom. The state should invest in a one-year teacher residency program. New York just put $30 million on the table to set up a teacher prep program. Pennsylvania should follow suit.
5. Evaluate schools holistically, not just statistically
Pennsylvania must go beyond measuring school quality merely by academic test scores. It can become the first state to gauge school progress by tracking bright-line measures of equity such as the share of students of color taking Advanced Placement courses or the number involved in core student live activities such as plays and clubs (not just sports). It’s also important to begin disaggregating the data on school suspensions and expulsions to detect and address systemic biases against students of color.
6. Support students’ mental health
The states of Washington and Missouri embed a continuum of mental health services inside schools to help children learn. Pennsylvania should emulate them, as the Upper Darby school system near Philly already is doing.
Teachers deserve training in state-of-the-art research on brain development, bolstering their ability to assess what their students need. The role of clubs and youth programs in promoting a sense of belonging and wellness need to be better appreciated. And state-imposed barriers on the ability of trained mental health professionals to provide therapy in schools must be eliminated. So should regulations that enable private health insurers to duck out of covering needed behavioral health services for kids.
Please join us as we respond to the powerful wisdom of our students and launch a statewide crusade to transform our schools into places that inspire every child to be all they can be.
Until the items on this reform agenda are moving forward, none of us can pretend we’ve “done our best.”
The Citizen welcomes guest commentary from community members who stipulate to the best of their ability that it is fact-based and non-defamatory.
RELATED STORIES ON EDUCATION IN PHILLYPhoto by Elissa Garcia on Unsplash