Why Lower the Drinking Age? To Avoid Responsibility

by Christopher Paslay


I’ll tell it to you straight: The Amethyst Initiative, the movement by college administrators to lower the drinking age to 18 in the United States, is a sham.  A fraud.  A farce in five acts.


Founded by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, and supported by presidents from over 100 of the nation’s top universities, the Amethyst Initiative argues that current drinking laws actually encourage binge drinking by college students on campus. 


“This is a law that is routinely evaded,” said John McCardell.  “It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.”


John McCardell and his colleagues have dressed up the Amethyst Initiative quite nicely.  At first glance, the organization’s aim to support “informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age” seems almost respectable.  So does its mission to “call upon elected officials to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use.”


But when you cut through all of Amethyst’s political rhetoric, the organization’s ulterior motive becomes clear: To free America’s colleges and universities from the responsibility of dealing with underage drinking. 


I am not the first person to suggest this.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving has spoken out against McCardell’s campaign to lower the drinking age as well.


The Amethyst Initiative’s reasoning is quite faulty when you examine it closely.  Their central tenet is that “Twenty-one is not working”.  On their website they liken the current drinking age to prohibition, and insist that “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”


In other words, just like with sex, the “abstinence-only” model isn’t working.  If we lowered the drinking age to 18, kids wouldn’t feel pressured to “binge” drink.  They’d be exposed to alcohol three years earlier, and as a result, they’d learn to drink responsibly. 


Please.  This is the familiar “the United States is too puritanical” argument, an attempt to compare the drinking habits of Americans to those of the Italians, Spanish and French.  The argument is that Europeans—liberal and unrestrained—grow up drinking wine with meals from a young age, so there is no need for rebellious, clandestine binge drinking. 


There is only one major flaw with this argument: America isn’t Europe.  And despite the election of Barack Obama, we will never be.  Unlike Europeans, Americans can’t quite grasp the concept of moderation.  Our culture clearly believes the motto that more is better.  This is true from fast food to SUVs, from a person’s annual income to a woman’s breast size.  More, more, more, more, more.     


The problem of college binge drinking is much more complex than age.  To combat alcohol abuse on American campuses we must first fight our culture’s need for instant gratification; in short, our society must start teaching its young people about dignity and restraint. 


Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a well known American Buddhist abbot, addressed the need for Americans to resist their self-destructive impulses in his essay entitled, “The Dignity of Restraint” (I highly recommend clicking on the link and reading the whole thing).  In it Bhikkhu states, “If we don’t have any restraint, we don’t have any control over where our lives are going. Anything that comes our way immediately pulls us into its wake, and we lose our sense of priorities, of what’s really worthwhile, of what’s not worthwhile, of the pleasures we’d gain by saying ‘No’ to other pleasures.


It’s important to realize the role that restraint can play in finding true well-being for ourselves. It helps us realize that we’re not giving up anything we really need. There’s a part of us that resists this truth, and our culture hasn’t been very helpful. The lessons our culture teaches us—to go out and buy, buy, buy, be greedy, give in—are all over the place. And what kind of dignity comes from following those messages? The dignity of a fish gobbling down bait.


I find Thanissaro’s phrase “give in” very telling; that’s exactly what the Amethyst Initiative is asking lawmakers to do: give in to underage drinkers to spare universities the inconvenience of a true crackdown. 


Will dropping the drinking age from 21 to 18 temper a young  person’s urge to consume alcohol?  Not on your life.    


The Amethyst Initiative is a bunch of smoke and mirrors.  College presidents must find solutions to campus alcoholism rather than trying to pass the buck by redefining the law.


Thanksgiving is a Time to Feel Grateful, Not Guilty

by Christopher Paslay


As my wife and I prepared for today’s Thanksgiving dinner earlier this morning (it’s at our house for the first time this year), all at once it hit me how lucky we are, how fortunate we are to have our health and a great house and a caring family to share the holidays with. 


Now I’m not a romantic (I’m more of a realist like Ben Franklin), and I’m sure as heck not a bleeding heart save-the-world type. 


But I must say I was struck with a heightened feeling of happiness and contentment this morning.  These feelings in fact were so strong I was jarred out of my routine and forced to acknowledge them.  Right there in the kitchen, as I was putting the case of Red Stripe into the vegetable drawer, I thought to myself, Man, I am lucky.      


Almost immediately I thought of those who are not as lucky.  For a split second I felt a pang of guilt, felt a moment of embarrassment over all the whining I do on this blog, felt foolish over all the times I bellyache over educational policy.  It was then that I thought, I’m too hard on the “have-nots”.  I need more tolerance, more compassion. 


In particular, I thought about the blog I’d written regarding the Universal Feeding Program (If You Can’t Fill Out a Meal Form, You Don’t Deserve Free Eats), and how I agreed with the USDA’s stance on making poor families fill out applications to get free meals. 


My philosophy was simple:  Struggling families in Philadelphia need tough love.  We must help them grow stronger by holding them accountable for a minimum level of tasks.  If filling out a free meal form is just too daunting . . . we as teachers and community leaders must work closer with our struggling neighbors to teach them the basic life skills needed to survive.  The last thing we should do is reinforce their bad habits by refusing to hold them accountable for their self-destructive behavior.”


On this day of giving thanks, on this day of counting our blessings and acknowledging all of our good fortune, I felt a moment of embarrassment for writing these words.  Suddenly, the Philadelphia School District’s mantra of unconditional accommodation for our city’s have-nots seemed to make perfect sense.  Those who are strong and have their lives in order should give to those who do not.  We should not judge the less fortunate, we should just give. 


But then something occurred to me, even on this happy day.  We should do more than give—do more than simply accommodate—we should empower.   This is when I thought: Why unconditionally donate water when you can teach the needy how to build a well?  Why stop at giving corn when you can teach the less fortunate how to plant crops? 


I know what critics of this philosophy will say.  It’s too daunting.  The poor are overwhelmed.  They can’t do it.  People are starving, and this is no time to teach a lesson. 


But I don’t think this way; this is why my guilt ultimately subsided.    


Today is Thanksgiving, and I thank God and the universe for all He has given me.  The Red Stripe is in the fridge and I am ready to enjoy the beauty of the day.  I am happy.  I am grateful.  But I am not guilty.


I pray for the less fortunate and hope one day we can reach them.  My goal is to empower, not enable.    


There is a big difference.          


Happy Thanksgiving to Philadelphia and the rest of America.  Let’s eat and drink and cross our fingers that the Eagles don’t lay a giant turkey. 




District Must Declare War on Cell Phones

by Christopher Paslay


In an article last spring in the Philadelphia Inquirer, local radio talk show host Michael Smerconish proposed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should take the death penalty off the books because it is so rarely enforced. 


“. . . the death penalty in the commonwealth is a sham, a paper tiger, and a form of punishment that exists in name only.”  Smerconish wrote.  “Consider that there are currently 228 individuals on death row in Pennsylvania. Since capital punishment was reinstated in 1978, three people have been put to death (the last was Gary Heidnick nine years ago)—and only after each of the three gave up his appeal. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. The death penalty needs to be removed from the Pennsylvania sentencing options, at least until the appellate procedure is streamlined by a legislature willing to oversee judicial obfuscation.”    


I believe the same actions should be taken with the Philadelphia School District’s cell phone policy: It should be properly enforced or taken off the books. 


The District’s cell phone policy can be found in the Student Code of Conduct for the 2008-08 school year.  Article 6.5. (Retention of Beepers, Cell Phones and Telephonic Devices Policy) states:


 The School District prohibits the possession and use of telephonic paging devices, or pagers, on school grounds, at school sponsored activities and on buses or other vehicles provided by the School District.


In addition, the District prohibits students from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. The principal has the authority to address issues that are disruptive to the academic environment that may arise from the improper use of telecommunication devices. A copy of the complete policy can be found on http://www.phila.k12.pa.us.


The District’s cell phone policy in the Student Code of Conduct described above is interesting when you look at it closely.  Students are prohibited from possessing pagers, but not cell phones.  Students are simply prohibited from using personal cell phones on school grounds during school hours. 


And even if students were flat out prohibited from bringing cell phones to school (this used to be the case a while back), there is a gigantic loophole built into the system: Principals have the right to grant students permission to carry a cell phone under special circumstances.  Special circumstances usually involve safety issues—such as a long commute to and from school—but in many cases, a “special circumstance” is nothing more than a way for a school to absolve itself from trying to enforce an unenforceable rule.


Ten years ago, before cell phones, there were no “special circumstances”.  Family emergencies were handled by school counselors, and important phone calls were made in the main office.  Today, cell phone companies, along with a generation of teenagers addicted to electronic gadgets, have convinced us that “special circumstances” are legitimate.  


I have very good classroom management.  The high school where I teach made AYP two out of the last three years, and the scores on my students’ benchmark tests are 10% higher than the District average.     


But with that said, I am fighting what I call the “cell phone epidemic” on a daily basis.  Every time these multi-billion dollar cell phone companies come out with a new form of technological crack, my students get more and more hooked.  It is pathetic.  Some of my student’s cell phones are their entire existence.  They are addicted in every sense of the word: Psychologically, emotionally, and even physiologically.  Studies have proven this is possible.  Just as pornography is chemically addictive (because of the release of chemicals in the pleasure centers of the brain), so are cell phones.


I watch students struggle with their addictions every day.  Some literally can’t put their phone away for a full class period.  They just CANNOT do it.  They try, but they go back to their iPhone or BlackBerry the way an overeater goes back to a bag of potato chips.  They text message on the sly, quietly hiding their phone under their desk or in their pocket.  And they check their phones all the time.  Five, ten, fifteen times a period. 


I’ve battled my students for years over their cell phones.  Made rules, called parents, wrote detentions, used all types of positive reinforcements.  And do you know what?  I’m losing the battle.  Why?  Because I’m swimming up stream against the current.  I’m battling society and the greedy, socially irresponsible cell phone industry.  I’m battling the kids.  I’m battling the parents.  Just last week a student got a call from her mother on her cell phone in the middle of class (I checked the ID and it was her mother).  The student answered and started talking right in the middle of my lesson.  I immediately took the student out in the hall to talk to her, but it was of no consequence; the student was empowered by her own mother, and insisted it was an emergency.


If parents aren’t following the rules, how can we expect the kids to?  Worse still, how can we enforce the cell phone policy when there is no adequate repercussion for abusing the rules?  Have you ever tried taking a phone away from a child?  It’s an incredible ordeal.  Some students simply WILL NOT relinquish their phone.  Period.  They are as adamant about their phones as NRA members are about their beloved guns: You’ll take away my phone when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.


Cell phones are a city-wide problem.  In my opinion, there is only one way to stop this epidemic: total abstinence.  Just like with problem drinkers in AA, students should not be permitted to have a phone in school.  End of discussion.    


So the District must do one of two things: Ban ALL cell phones in ALL schools at ALL times (they must be confiscated by school security when used or found on a student’s person).  Or the District must give up its cell phone charade altogether: Just take the policy off the books and be done with it.


The former would be my choice.  If we’re going to have a cell phone policy, let’s put some teeth into it.  We must declare war on all electronic devices and stem this epidemic while there’s still time.     


Bring Tracking Back to Classes

by Christopher Paslay


Ask any professor of education about differentiated instruction and they’ll tell you it’s the hottest thing since Joe the Plumber.  For those not up to date with current education jargon, allow me to give a textbook definition of differentiated instruction:


“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.”

          Tracey Hall, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, NCAC


In other words, differentiated instruction is the idealistic belief that a teacher can be all things to all students at all times.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that appeal to multiple intelligences: verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; kinesthetic; spatial; musical; and naturalist.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that accommodate every student’s learning style, whether visual, auditory or haptic.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons appropriate to students on multiple reading levels—anywhere from grade 3 to grade 11 in my case—and find ways to reach English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities who have IEPs.


Teachers who use differentiated instruction do all of these things for dozens of students at the same time, every period, every class, everyday. 


Sound wonderful?  Good. 


But before we start given each other high-fives, there are a few things to consider about differentiated instruction.


The first is the matter of standardized achievement tests.  Those who grade the PSSAs don’t differentiate their scores by ability level.  Below Basic is Below Basic; the state doesn’t care if the student is white or black, fat or skinny, a visual learner or a haptic learner (haptic is a cool word, isn’t it?).  If students don’t score Proficient or above, the school won’t make AYP.              


The second thing to consider is that the real world doesn’t stop to differentiate.  In other words, employers don’t hire differentiated workers.  Colleges don’t accept differentiated transcripts.  Engineers don’t build bridges according to differentiated blueprints.  No matter how hip or liberal the construction company, 1 + 1 will always be 2.    


Maybe this is why Americans are so far behind the rest of the world in science and math: Because you can’t B.S. your way around cold hard numbers. 


As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of this new learning fad.  In my opinion, differentiated instruction is educational socialism.  It’s teaching students via the path of least resistance, giving them endless choices so they don’t have to come out of their comfort zone. 


I am a dedicated educator so I do my best to reach all of the students in all of my classes.  I also work extremely hard to accommodate multiple learning styles in my classroom.  But teaching a room full of students with varied ability levels is an extremely difficult task. 


The way to effectively give a child a solid fundamental education is not through differentiated instruction.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: Schools must go back to academic tracking. 


The following is an article I published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 30, 2005.  It is titled “Bring Tracking Back to Classes,” and it is as relevant today as it was almost three years ago.


For more than two decades, writers of educational policy have been fighting to abolish academic tracking.  Grouping students by ability level, they argue, promotes race and class segregation, harms self-esteem and keeps students locked-in at lower tracks because of a limited access to information.


Although national studies have supported these claims, as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, I believe academic tracking should be brought back into public schools—in the suburbs as well as the city.  Grouping students by ability level can strengthen a learning environment and make classrooms more efficient.


Arguments against academic tracking have lost their validity, in my opinion. Multiculturalism and promotion of diversity ensures that students will not be segregated by race or social class, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents children from becoming socially stigmatized. As for students getting “locked in” at a lower track, standardized curriculum guarantees that all students have equal access to knowledge and information.


Poor scores on standardized tests are proof that heterogeneously grouped classes—those not tracked by ability level—are failing to meet the needs of our children. In short, the “one-size-fits-all” model of education initiated in the 1980s is unrealistic.


The level of expertise needed to teach a class of 33 heterogeneously grouped students is beyond the reach of many educators. For starters, teaching a heterogeneously grouped class involves identifying each student’s aptitude level. A teacher might use the previous year’s scores from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) to do so.


Aptitude levels as identified by the PSSA are, advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. If there are students in the class at all four levels (and most non-tracked classes have all four levels of students) this would mean that the teacher would have to write four different variations of his or her daily lesson plan to meet the needs of all students.


Once ability levels are identified and materials are prepared, the teacher begins teaching the lesson. Not just once, but up to four times, modeling the activities for each unique group of learners. For example, if a 10th grade English class were composing a Shakespearean Sonnet, students at the various ability levels would have to be instructed and assessed separately. Advanced learners would be required to write the most complex form of the sonnet, following the correct rhyme scheme and syllable count, which is iambic-pentameter. Advanced students would also have to develop the poem’s theme.


Because writing a Shakespearean Sonnet is rather challenging, students at the proficient level would most likely be excused from writing in iambic-pentameter. They would develop the theme and write in a set rhyme structure, but be allowed to deviate from the cumbersome syllable count. Of course, these individualized instructions would still have to be modeled and explained to the appropriate students.


Students at the basic and below basic levels likely would be excused from fully developing the poem’s theme. In addition, they might be excused from writing in the traditional rhyme structure. Again, examples of these variations would need to be modeled and explained.


Is requiring an educator to simultaneously teach four different variations of a lesson to four different groups of students realistic? In my opinion it’s not. But, theoretically, this is the procedure a teacher instructing a class of non-tracked students is expected to follow. The alternative, of course, is academic tracking.


Academic tracking permits an educator to teach students who all are at one ability level. It allows for proper pacing, ensuring that slower students aren’t left behind and that advanced students don’t go unchallenged.


Despite current trends in education, acknowledging a child’s academic weakness is not something to be frowned upon. Neither is putting him in a specialized classroom where he can learn basic skills without the distraction of alternative activities going on around him.


In light of poor performances on standardized tests and the limited resources of many educators, academic tracking should be reintroduced into our public school system.

Where Are All the District’s Textbooks?

by Christopher Paslay


At a recent School Reform Commission meeting, a freshman at Sayre High School complained to District officials about her school’s lack of textbooks (Shortage of books plagues some city schools, Inquirer, 11/20/08).  She explained that each of her classes had only one set of books, and that she wasn’t issued an extra copy to take home.  As a result, it was difficult for her to complete projects and homework assignments.


Dr. Ackerman, the District’s superintendent, was extremely frustrated by the news.


“Every year, this is a big issue,” Ackerman said. “We spend millions of dollars, and where are the textbooks?”


Ackerman insisted she would immediately address the situation, and planned to ask schools how they’ve been spending their money set aside for textbooks.


If my experience at Swenson Arts and Technology is similar to other schools across the city, Dr. Ackerman need not waste her time asking principals about textbook money.  Funds are properly being spent on books; during the 2005-06 school year, after Paul Vallas spent millions making sure every classroom had more than an ample amount of instructional materials, textbooks arrived at city schools by the truckload. 


No, the problem isn’t money.  It’s what the students do with the books once they are issued to them.


So where are all the District’s textbooks?  They are everywhere, to answer Dr. Ackerman’s question bluntly.  They are under student’s beds and in the backs of their closets.  They are stranded at their mother’s house in Fishtown, or are sitting in the basement of  their father’s place in West Oak Lane.  Some are at the apartment of a one-time boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other; some are riding merrily on the back of the Market-Frankford El.      


I kid you not.  I’ve had all manner of relatives return lost books to me at school: grandmothers, aunts, uncles, stepfathers.  It’s amazing how a child can make his or her textbook magically disappear, vanish into thin air like an illusion by Criss Angel. 


Where are all the textbooks?  Right where the students leave them.  They go into an academic hibernation of sort, not to return until June when teachers start demanding them back.  Of course, not all textbooks come out of hibernation.  A good portion of them disappear for good.  Gone.  Poof.  Outta here.  Down the rabbit hole and into the Bermuda Triangle. 


Getting textbooks back from students is an extremely trying endeavor.  Too many Philadelphia teenagers are woefully irresponsible.  Why?  Because they are conditioned to eternal accommodations, used to being given second and third and fourth chances.  So the first time you say, Please return your textbook by Friday, you only get about 20% cooperation.  Kids know that they’ll get a second and third opportunity (it’s the Philadelphia School District way), so they blow-off the first request to return school property.


Committed teachers like myself don’t allow these roadblocks to stand in our way.  We keep after our students like madmen (or madwomen): Please return your textbook, please return your textbook, please return your textbook . . . until we make that coveted breakthrough; at this point we get about two-thirds of the books back.       


By now the year is almost over; at this point we must start calling parents.  Calling and pleading with mom and dad to have their son or daughter return their $75 American Literature Text ASAP: Johnny MUST return the book or there will be a hold put on his records.   


And still we don’t get them all back; in the poorer schools, where a large number of students transfer or metaphorically drop off the face of the planet, teachers can’t even get half of them back.      


So textbooks die and go to textbook heaven.  When you figure that there are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia School District (and that each text is worth close to $70), it’s no surprise that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of textbooks are lost every year in the city.


So what do schools do?  They do what Sayre High School is doing: They conserve by keeping one full class set of texts in the classroom and not allowing students to take them home.  This way, none get lost or damaged.  Homework assignments and projects are given through supplemental materials or photocopies.  And if a student absolutely needs to take a book home, he or she can sign out a copy and promise to return it after a period of time.   


Where do all the textbooks go?  Ask the thousands of Philadelphia teenagers who fail to return them.  As the saying goes: If you don’t use it, you lose it. 


Tragically, this seems to be the case in too many Philadelphia public schools.

Can Performance Pay for Teachers Work in Philadelphia?

by Christopher Paslay


It’s no secret that Philadelphia School District officials are looking to implement performance-based teacher pay in an effort to increase student achievement.  Although statistics show that performance pay is used in 10 percent of America’s school districts and affects up to 20 percent of K-12 teachers and students, awarding pay bonuses to teachers is a complex issue and its results are varied and inconclusive. 


However, there are several things we do know about performance pay.  According to an article in Education Week written by professors James W. Guthrie and Matthew G. Springer (The Question of Performance Pay, 10/29/08), in order for performance pay to be effective, it must follow several guidelines:


          1.  Performance pay must be based on what teachers can reasonably accomplish, and student performance targets must be announced in advance.


          2.  Pay calculation procedures must be transparent, and the bonuses must be perceived by teachers to be financially significant.


          3.  Performance pay should not discourage teamwork among teachers, but must discourage free-riding.


Research shows a quality teacher can substantially impact student achievement regardless of a student’s IQ, neighborhood and socioeconomic level.  Studies also suggest pay bonuses do have an impact on a teacher’s overall effort in the classroom. 


However, the question still remains: Can performance pay work in Philadelphia?  Or more importantly, Can performance pay improve the academic achievement of our city’s children?


Although I applaud the District’s effort to raise the academic bar for our students, my 12 years of teaching experience tells me that performance pay, as a whole, is not a workable option in Philadelphia.  Here’s why.


The biggest pitfall is cash.  If there’s one thing experts have learned about performance-based pay in the last two decades, it’s that the bonus must be financially significant.  In other words, if the reward is too small, there is no incentive for teachers to intensify effort.  If past bonuses are any indication of what performance pay will look like in Philadelphia, teachers in the District could expect pay increases anywhere from three to five percent.  Translated into dollar values, that would be about $1,200-$3,500 a year, depending on your salary.


Now let’s be honest.  This kind of money is no realistic motivator.  If the teacher isn’t fired-up to teach already, tossing her two or three thousand dollars more a year (less after taxes), isn’t going to make her change her established routines. 


How much money would it take to ramp-up the effort of the non-motivated, complacent educator?  At the minimum, $5,000 to $7,500.  This would be a salary increase of 10 to 15 percent.  Does the District have that kind of money lying around?  Not on your life.  So monetarily speaking, performance pay in Philadelphia wouldn’t work.


A second problem of performance pay is setting student performance targets.  Many of the District’s failing schools are not only plagued by discipline problems and high teacher turn-over, but by organizational problems as well.  It’s a case of Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs: Some schools have their hands full with simple safety issues, so where are they going to find the time to set-up and reliably assess student performance targets.  Note the word RELIABLY.


Third you have the issue of personality.  Loose translation: There is the possibility of a bias by the principal or regional superintendent based on the teacher’s relationship with administration.  I like you so you get evaluated this way, and I don’t like you so you get evaluated that way.  Interpretation of student performance targets can be very subjective.  And for this reason, performance pay can very quickly become political.


Although performance-based pay has improved the academic achievement in some school districts across the nation, the Philadelphia School District is too big (and cash-strapped), to effectively implement such a strategy.  A good alternative would be to raise the base salaries of all teachers, which might very well attract and retain the kind of quality educators the District is looking for.

District’s Strategic Plan Must Reflect Its Core Beliefs

by Christopher Paslay


Currently, the Philadelphia School District has five Core Beliefs:


          1.  Children come first.


          2.  Parents are our partners.


          3.  Victory is in the classroom and facilitated by a strong instructional leader.


          4.  Leadership and accountability are the keys to success.


          5.  It takes the engagement of the entire community to ensure the success of its public schools.


To make these beliefs a reality, the District has initiated a strategic plan called Excellence, Equity & Accountability 2014.  The purpose of this plan is to achieve the following three goals: 


          1.  Educational excellence for every child and eliminating differences in achievement between students based on race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, area of residence, home language, or program placement.


          2.  An equitable allocation of resources based on the needs of individual schools and students.


          3.  Accountability for all adults within the District.


These three goals are both admirable and ambitious.  All children deserve a quality education, and there should be equitable resources allocated to schools and students based on individual needs. 


However, there is one issue that needs to be addressed: Goal #3 (Accountability for all adults within the District) is not consistent with two of the District’s Core Beliefs.  In other words, the third goal does not make “parents our partners” (Core Belief #2) nor does it require “the engagement of the entire community” (Core Belief #5).


To keep goal #3 consistent with the District’s Core Beliefs, it should read, Accountability for all adults within the District and the community.  This way, the District won’t limit its focus on only one part of a very complex education equation, and it can both encourage and develop the resources of parents and community leaders.               


Although the District has done an excellent job initiating conversation with parents and the community through roundtables, the District must take that final step and hold them accountable for stepping-up and genuinely becoming our partners.     


I know the District’s Core Belief’s are more than just spoken words (I know I take them to heart every single day in the classroom), and I have faith that eventually, when the community is formally made a part of the District’s strategic plan, the Core Beliefs of our school system will truly become a reality.          

10 Reasons Why Philadelphia Parents Don’t Attend Teacher Conferences

by Christopher Paslay


Parental involvement in Philadelphia public schools is notoriously low.  Over the past decade, less than 10% of my students’ mothers and fathers have shown up for school functions such as Back to School Night and Report Card Night. 


Colleagues of mine from other parts of the city report the same problem: The majority of mothers and fathers do not show up for school functions. 


According to information published in the Winter 2006-07 edition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook: Focus on Parent Involvement, here are 10 reasons why parents of Philadelphia public school children don’t attend teacher conference:          


10.  Some parents can’t read letters sent by schools inviting them to attend conferences.


9.  Parents do not receive information far enough in advance to adjust their schedules.


8.  Parents do not have the time because they have multiple outside responsibilities.


7.  Cultural barriers make it difficult for some parents to be involved.     


6.  Schools are not clear in terms of how much and in what ways they want parents involved.


5.  Some parents are not involved at school but are involved through informal conversations or discussions in the home. 


4.  Schools are not “welcoming” enough to parents; parents feel uncomfortable or intimidated approaching the teacher.


3.  Some parents don’t understand English. 


2.  Principals do not set the right “tone” for parents to get involved in school.         


1.  Some parents do not know where their child’s school is located.   


Excuses or legitimate issues?  Maybe it’s a little bit of both.  Either way, the district and moms and dads must find some common ground so teachers can truly make parents their partners.

Parents of Immigrant Children Must Help Shoulder Language Burden

by Christopher Paslay


Last Sunday, 200 parents of non-English speaking families gathered in a South Philadelphia church to complain to district officials that they wanted more bilingual accommodations in schools. 


Although I’m a committed educator, I admit I feel a pang of anger when I hear parents of immigrant children complaining about the lack of language services.  It’s not that I don’t want foreign born children to get a quality education, it’s just that their parent’s attitude of entitlement is a bit frustrating.


It’s almost as if their status as immigrants gives them a free pass: They’re held accountable to a different standard because the school district is mandated by law to accommodate a foreign born student’s every linguistic whim. 


The tragic part is, the Philadelphia School District’s promise to provide bilingual services to all immigrant families is completely unrealistic.  According to research complied by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, there are currently over 12,000 foreign born students in city schools who speak over 50 languages. 


Further data shows that only 11 percent of these children will ever reach the level of proficiency in English and successfully exit district ESOL programs.


The Philadelphia School District’s resources are just too limited to accommodate every immigrant with a language deficiency.  The burden of teaching English to foreign born children must not rest solely with city schools—it must be shared by everyone in the community—social service agencies, churches, and by the parents of the children themselves. 


For non-English speaking families to stand idly by and wait for public schools to kowtow to their every need is foolish and irresponsible.  Parents of foreign born children must help shoulder the burden and not only learn English themselves, but pass the language on to their children at an early age.

Parent Roundtables are a Step in the Right Direction

by Christopher Paslay


I must give the Philadelphia School District credit: They have publicly acknowledged that parental and community involvement is an important part of improving education in the city of Philadelphia.  Last Thursday night (11/6), Dr. Arlene Ackerman hosted the first in a series of monthly parent roundtables at district headquarters at 440 North Broad Street.  The roundtables are a forum for parents to share ideas with Dr. Ackerman and to ask questions about the district and its inner workings. 


“One of the things we have to do is to help you know what questions to ask,” Dr. Ackerman told the 200 parents who attended the meeting.  “There should be no surprises.”


Although there are over 167,000 students in the Philadelphia school District, 200 parents getting actively involved in the schooling of their children is a good start. 


The parent roundtables are part of Dr. Ackerman’s strategic plan to achieve excellence in the Philadelphia School District.  Dr. Ackerman detailed this plan in a message she posted on the district website entitled Excellence, Equity and Accountability 2014: A Strategic Plan for the School District of Philadelphia.  In this message Dr. Ackerman hopes “to achieve excellence, equity and accountability for everyone within the District with the ultimate goal of providing every District student with a high-quality, 21st century-ready, education.”


To her credit, Dr. Ackerman also acknowledges that “this effort of creating an agenda for excellence, equity, and accountability by 2014 cannot be done without the support of the entire District as well as the Philadelphia community.”


Dr. Ackerman’s plan has three stages.


“The first stage of this endeavor will be a series of community meetings conducted in multiple languages throughout Philadelphia. The goal of these community meetings is to not only to share what the District has learned from its previous work but also to gather the experiences and recommendations from parents, students, and community leaders concerned about the future of our students.


The second stage of creating this plan will be to host a series of working groups with specific focus areas. These working groups will be charged with the task of determining a set of strategies and priorities to support the District in achieving its goals of excellence, equity, and accountability. Each of these working groups will include District leaders at all levels (central office, regional offices, principals, teachers, and support staff), parents, students, and community partners. As a District, we serve a diverse student population; it is equally critical that our working groups represent this diversity.


The third stage of creating this plan will be to return the suggested strategies to the community to ensure that we have created an agenda to achieve excellence, equity, and accountability that will ensure that every student receives a high-quality, 21st century-ready, education.”


I’d personally like to get involved with the working groups at stage two.  I have a strategy I’d like to discuss with district leaders that involves improving the district from the inside-out, or in other words, that starts with the community and neighborhoods and works its way up to the schools.  My idea is very similar to what Geoffrey Canada is doing with his Harlem Children’s Zone.  And because Barack Obama is the president elect, NOW is the time to take that model and expand it to Philadelphia; Obama has already stated that he’d like to turn HCZ into a national model, and Philadelphia should lobby to be first on the list for funding.  Maybe this could be the job of  Lori Shorr and Sharen Tucker, Mayor Nutter’s “dynamic duo” of education.   


And I’m sure Dr. Ackerman is plenty familiar with HCZ.  She taught at Columbia University before coming to Philadelphia, and I’d have to believe she studied its success first hand. 


But I’ll blog about the reasons why Shorr and Tucker (and the SRC and Mayor Nutter and Ed Rendell and Dr. Ackerman) should start lobbying to get federal funding to bring the HCZ model to Philadelphia at a later date. 


For now, kudos to Dr. Ackerman and the SRC for getting parents more involved in their children’s educations.  If we can rally the neighborhoods of Philadelphia to support the district and its teachers, I’m sure we can bring excellence and equity to all public schools.