Monthly Archives: September 2008

Children of Illegals Should be Schooled in Their Own Homes

by Christopher Paslay

During the summer of 1998 I backpacked through seven different European countries: Ireland, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Denmark. One thing that stunned me was that everyone—no matter which town or region—seemed to speak fluent English. Whether I was struggling to order a meal or asking directions to the train, people would drop their first language to accommodate me in my own tongue.

The language situation is much different in the United States. Our mentality is the opposite of Europe’s, and can be summed up in the infamous sign at Geno’s Steaks in South Philadelphia: When ordering, please speak English.

Americans seem to have a genuine hostility toward those who come to this country and can’t speak English.

The Notebook, an independent newspaper covering Philadelphia public schools, dedicated their fall 2008 edition to the theme of immigration and English Language Learners. In their editorial, “An asset squandered,” The Notebook analyzes Philadelphia’s growing population of immigrants. The conclusion they draw is interesting: immigrants—specifically, English language learners—should be viewed as an asset rather than a liability.

The Notebook’s reasoning is that “today’s English language learners could be the next generation of bilingual teachers, doctors, law enforcement officers, and businesspeople essential to the increasingly global and multicultural economy.” They go on to argue that “this can only happen if they get a good education.”

As an English teacher in a Philadelphia public high school, I understand the importance of children having solid communication skills. Knowing how to read, write and speak proper English is essential to succeeding in school as well as in society. And with an influx of non-English speakers coming to America, our country is going to need well educated bilingual future leaders.

However, I do believe the conclusion drawn in The Notebook’s editorial is a tad idealistic. For starters, they fail to indicate whether the recent waves of immigrants to Philadelphia are legal or illegal. A 2006 survey by the US Census Bureau reports that 6.3% of Philadelphian’s are not U.S. Citizens. I realize that a child is a child, regardless of citizenship, and that all children deserve an education.

But our city’s resources are limited, especially those of the Philadelphia School District. In my opinion, illegals have no right to special language programs, period. In fact, I believe the government needs to do more to keep illegals out of the country all together. Just like I tell my students that there are rules in the classroom that need to be followed to keep order and balance, so are there rules in this country that must be obeyed and respected.

So who is responsible for teaching illegals the English language? The people who brought them here illegally, of course. Parents, grandmothers, aunts or uncles. They must take on the burden of their new venture into America.

The push for more resources for English language learners has a built-in shield for illegal immigrants. This is an issue that must be brought to light.

Of course, the question still remains: What about those children who are here legally? This is a tricky subject as well. In light of my travels outside the United States, I’m more open to accommodating English language learners. However, responsibility for teaching them English must be equally embraced by parents and the community; teachers and schools should not be made the scapegoat for their language deficiencies.

Education does not take place in a vacuum. Parents and the community should take equal responsibility for educating legal English language learners, while illegals should be taught the language in their own homes.

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Arlene Ackerman Responds to Inquirer Commentary

by Christopher Paslay

Arlene C. Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, responded to my commentary in Thursday’s Philadelphia Inquirer by writing a letter to the editor. The letter, headlined, “Taking Exception,” explained that the School Reform Commission is working hard to rectify the problems faced by the Philadelphia School District, and that there are “no easy answers”.

I appreciate Ackerman’s diligence and professionalism for responding to my questions. However, I’d like to further explore what she labels “four areas in need of discussion”.

First, Ackerman says, “We must work together to improve teacher quality and retention by raising base salary for teachers and offering differentiated pay for teachers in hard-to-fill positions and chronically underperforming schools.”

I agree with raising base salaries. This will help Philadelphia compete with the suburbs. However, I don’t know if differentiated pay will draw teachers to hard-to-fill positions. I think cutting class size in these schools might work better.

Second, she says, “We need to provide a safer learning environment by ensuring that our staff comes to school before students arrive and stay after students leave, unlike what is stipulated in the current contract.”

Let’s face it. This is just a nifty way for the SRC to justify lengthening the school day. In my opinion, the length of the school day isn’t the root problem of children failing academically.

Third, she says, “We need to ensure adequate notice of teachers’ plans to retire or resign well in advance of the new school year. It is current practice of staff to leave their classroom positions even after children arrive in September and throughout the year.”

Here’s the deal on this. Teachers retire in the middle of the year because they get hired in the middle of the year. It’s a pension thing. The only answer to this is to make sure that the SRC hires all of its teacher before September 1st.

Finally, she says, “We must review the practice of staff counting multiple consecutive days off as one absence. It deprives children of valuable instructional time.”

This is factually inaccurate. According to the current contract, multiple consecutive days off doesn’t count as one absence, it counts as one incident. Teachers receive 10 sick days and 3 personal days each year. Each time they are absent, they lose one of these days.

After three “incidents” teachers are given a disciplinary memo by their principal. In my opinion, this is nonsense. Why should teachers be penalized fore using contractual sick time?

Again, I appreciate the fact Dr. Ackerman took the time to respond to my commentary. If anything, it shows she truly cares. Hopefully, through this correspondence, the lines of communication will remain open between the PFT and the SRC, and a contract agreement (multiyear) will be reached soon.

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How About the Teachers?

by Christopher Paslay

Here is a reprint of a commentary I published in The Philadelphia Inquirer last Thursday, headlined, “How about the teachers?” To comment, please click on the link below.

***

After six months of failed negotiations with the School Reform Commission, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is still without a contract. The Sept. 1 deadline has come and gone, and both sides remain at an impasse.

But can you really blame SRC members for the stalled talks? It has been a long year for them.

In March, they voted to hire Arlene Ackerman as the district’s new CEO, and I can only imagine that this was an extremely exhausting process.

First they had to work out Ackerman’s base pay – which ended up being $325,000, the second-highest superintendent salary in the country.

Then they had the task of formulating Ackerman’s retention bonus, which is estimated to be $100,000.

Next the SRC had the matter of extending the contracts of the city’s education management organizations, the private consulting firms that charge the district millions of dollars to run some of the city’s public schools.

The decision to extend their contracts must have been daunting, given that studies show these private managers perform no better than Philadelphia’s traditional public-school officials.

Last year, Research for Action, a nonprofit organization working in educational research and reform, conducted a survey on the private managers.

The report stated: “We find little evidence in terms of academic outcomes that would support the additional resources for the private managers.”

In other words, education management organizations aren’t worth the money.

How did SRC members react to this? In June, they decided to extend the contracts of 32 of the 38 privately run schools.

And then there’s the issue of renewing the contracts of Philadelphia’s charter schools.

In April, the SRC approved a new five-year term of operation for 13 of Philadelphia’s 16 charter schools whose charters were due to expire at the end of the 2007-08 school year.

As with the private managers, statistics show charter-school managers perform no better than traditional school officials.

Research for Action also published a study evaluating the performance of Philadelphia’s charters.

The study concluded: “Students’ average gains when attending charter schools are statistically indistinguishable from the gains they experienced while at traditional public schools.”

And then there are the Philadelphia Academy and Northwood Academy charter schools, both now under federal criminal investigation for missing funds and illegal land deals.

How did SRC members respond to these findings? They had a meeting of the minds and decided to approve the opening of seven more charter schools by the fall of 2009.

The SRC has had quite a busy year. This probably explains why it hasn’t gotten around to ironing out that new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

I mean, why make time for the teachers? All we really do is educate the kids, right? Teach them how to read, write, communicate. Mold them into critical thinkers and productive members of society.

And where has Mayor Nutter been during contract talks? Did he take the PFT’s endorsement and run? What about “Putting Children First,” his plan for public education?

As a Philadelphia public school teacher, I remember his plan well. He was supposed to use his influence as mayor to reduce class sizes, improve safety inside schools, expand programs to retain quality teachers and principals, among other things.

Of course, when Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, put these very issues on the table during contract negotiations, the SRC balked.

Jordan wrote in a recent letter to union members that the SRC was “not willing to put into the contract any language that addresses these serious issues.”

In fact, the school district is moving in the opposite direction. According to Jordan’s letter, the SRC is now fighting for a one-year contract.

Failing charter schools and ineffective private managers get three- to five-year extensions, but the workhorse known as the Philadelphia public school teacher deserves only a one-year extension?

This is a slap in the face on so many levels.

The school district needs to get its priorities straight. It must show its teachers some respect and offer us a fair, multiyear contract.


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Objectivity in Journalism is a Fallacy

by Christopher Paslay

Sean Hannity recently stated on his radio program that “journalism is dead in America.” He made this comment in response to the attacks the media is waging against republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Although I agree with Hannity that Palin’s private life has been tastelessly scrutinized, I find it interesting that Hannity buys into the myth that there’s such a thing as a “fair and balanced” news media.

Total objectivity in journalism is a fallacy. Hunter S. Thompson knew this well, which is why he turned to gonzo journalism to get across the truths of the stories he was reporting. There isn’t a newspaper big enough, or a television broadcast long enough, to include every single point of view of every single story.

Based on the limits of time and space, editors must discriminate—decide what to include and what to ignore. Journalism textbooks suggest editors should make their choices based on the “elements of news,” things like prominence, proximity, timeliness and human interest. According to The Elements of Journalism, the award winning book by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, “journalism’s first obligation is to truth,” and “its first loyalty is to citizens.”

But truth and loyalty can be very subjective.

I’ve been teaching high school journalism for ten years. Over the past decade I’ve learned that achieving total objectivity in journalism is like traveling at the speed of light: it exists only in theory. Viewing society through the looking-glass of any single newspaper, television or radio station can be dangerous. It’s not that these news sources intentionally distort the facts—most preserve the five W’s and the H very accurately. It’s the way they cover and report their stories—the way their own perception of reality influences WHAT to report and HOW to report it—that results in a limited and sometimes unreliable portrayal of events.

However, poor perception is not the only cause of biased reporting. In my opinion, every news organization has its own unwritten (and sometimes unconscious) political agenda. Political neutrality—a news broadcast that is truly fair and balanced—doesn’t exist. For a news entity to survive, there has to be an edge, a shtick, a way to provoke conflict and spark interest. Otherwise, no one will care.

To create this conflict, news stations often use politics to force their audience to take a side, creating an “us against them” mentality. Once a person chooses a side and is properly indoctrinated, their mind tends to close to all outside points of view. Soon the person’s ready to attack anyone who disagrees with the values and ideas being purported by that particular news station. As a result, the station builds an audience.

In the 21st century, news is more about entertainment than it is about providing information. Many Americans simply watch the news to kill time before American Idol, or tune in to talk radio to make their drive to work more bearable. And what’s the biggest way to stimulate us listless Americans? By fanning the flames of our personal politics.

It’s time to end the charade of “objective journalism” in America. Every news station has a political bias. Turn on channel A and Barack Obama has the potential to become the greatest president since JFK. Turn on channel B and he doesn’t have the experience to lead the Cub Scouts. How is this possible? Our nation’s news organizations need to come out of the closet—admit the fact that the stories they report are more about agenda than they are about “truth”.

So how do we stay informed in the 21st century? How do we cut through all the political bias lurking within the American media? One way is to strive for a well-rounded diet of news. In other words, we need to balance our intake of CNN with a healthy helping of FOX. We must temper our portions of NPR with a nice dose of Glenn Beck.

As Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper’s Magazine, once said, “People may expect too much of journalism. Not only do they expect it to be entertaining, they expect it to be true.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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