Inquirer editorial disparages principals, twists facts about breakfast program





by Christopher Paslay


In their recent editorial, School Breakfast Program, the Inquirer uses clever wording to once again suggest that Philadelphia public schools are failing to serve students free breakfast. 


Philadelphia principals are left to develop feeding programs as they see fit,” the Inquirer writes.  “Many are unwilling to restructure the school day to serve breakfast.”


This statement is inaccurate and intentionally misleading.  Instead of saying, Many principals are unwilling to forfeit instructional time and serve breakfast in class, the Inquirer insinuates that principals are not serving breakfast at all, which clearly isn’t the case; the Philadelphia School District offers free breakfast to every single child in every single school. 


The typical school breakfast in Philadelphia is served in the cafeteria in the morning, about 20-30 minutes before the instructional day begins.  The breakfast is FREE, and ALL students are eligible.


Of course, not all students are taking advantage of this free breakfast.  One problem is that breakfast—and nutrition in general—is not a priority in too many homes in the city.  Parents skip breakfast and so do their children. 


In addition, many students come to school late and miss the free breakfast, opting instead to drink sodas and eat bags of potato chips as they mingle on the corner with friends.


But the Inquirer fails to acknowledge this.  In fact, they go on to use a survey conducted during PSSA testing to further mislead readers:


“A Public Citizens for Children and Youth survey of 35 Philadelphia elementary schools found that 63 percent [of principals] changed their policy to make sure kids ate breakfast during test week,” the Inquirer states.  “Besides measuring academic progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law, the test results are used to judge principals’ performance. So, during test week, some principals took extra steps to provide breakfast at their schools.”


The key phrase here is took extra steps to provide breakfast at their schools. 


This sentence clearly suggests that principals are negligent when it comes to providing free breakfast to students, and that during PSSA test week, they “changed their policy” and agreed to feed their hungry children. 


This of course is not true; again, the district serves free breakfast to every child in every school. 


A more accurate way to convey the information would have been, So, during test week, some principals took extra steps to provide breakfast in class instead of simply offering it free of charge before school.


Later in their editorial, in a lame attempt to fill in the facts, the Inquirer acknowledges that the district does indeed provide a free breakfast to every child, and that many students simply aren’t taking advantage of the program.


“Every city school serves breakfast, and all students are eligible for the meal, regardless of income,” the Inquirer admits.  “Yet, only about 51,000 of the 165,000 district students take advantage.”


And who does the Inquirer blame for this?  Irresponsible parents?  The students themselves?  Of course not.  That would go against the newspaper’s politics.  The Inquirer absolves mothers and fathers of all blame and allows them to plead ignorance: Parents don’t take advantage of the breakfast program because they don’t know it exists.


The Inquirer instead blames principals.  It’s not enough that school leaders offer a free breakfast to every single child in their school.  Principals must also COAX them into eating it as well.  In fact, the Inquirer even recommends that schools chief Arlene Ackerman give principals their “marching orders” and hold them accountable when meals go uneaten. 


The arrogance of this is maddening.  If the Inquirer is so keen on feeding hungry children, why don’t they donate free advertising space in their newspaper to announce the district’s breakfast program to all the city’s “uninformed” parents?    


Or better still, why not run a public service message about the importance of nutrition, and encourage parents to get their children out of bed early enough to eat the healthy breakfast waiting for them free of charge in the school cafeteria?    


Classrooms are for learning, not eating.  Instructional time is limited.  Students and their families must learn to follow the most basic of routines, and acquire the life skills and discipline necessary to function in our highly structured 21st century society.      


Shaking-up the SRC: What makes a good leader?



by Christopher Paslay


According to a story in today’s Inquirer, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission is “headed for a major shake-up”.  Sources state that Robert L. Archie Jr., a partner at the Duane Morris law firm, is set to replace current SRC Chairperson Sandra Dungee Glenn, and that there will be at least three new appointees to the commission.


This “shake-up” within the SRC leaves me wondering what kind of leaders will be running our district.  It brings to mind Verse 17 from the Tao Te Ching, a passage that ponders the qualities of a good leader:     


(as translated by American Stephen Mitchell)


When the Master governs, the people

are hardly aware that he exists.

Next best is a leader who is loved.

Next, one who is feared.

The worst is one who is despised.


If you don’t trust the people,

you make them untrustworthy.


The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.

When his work is done,

the people say, “Amazing:

we did it, all by ourselves!”


What kind of leaders will be running the Philadelphia School District?  Will they be loved?  Feared?  Despised?  How do we feel about our leaders now? 


Do they provide us with encouragement and positive reinforcements, or do they consistently focus their attention on the negatives?    


Are we, the hard working staff of the Philadelphia School District, trusted?  Respected?  How often do our leaders acknowledge us and say thank you?   


Last month, I discussed this passage with each of my English classes.  We talked about what makes a good leader.  In the beginning, the majority of my students argued that the best leader is one who is feared.  They reasoned that an effective leader couldn’t be loved, because in their minds, this meant that the person must be a push-over. 


But after further examination, we as a class came to the conclusion that the best leader is indeed the one who is loved. 


“If you love the leader, you’ll respect him and want to please him,” one student said.  “You’ll act not out of fear, but because you want to do the right thing.” 


This was a very wise insight from a very intelligent teenager. 


So how will we view our new team of leaders?  How will they view us?


Will there be love?  Fear?  Anger?   


When our work is done, will we say, Amazing: We did it, all by ourselves!    


Only time will tell. 


New study finds charter school students may not be learning more

by Christopher Paslay


A new study released today by the RAND Corporation provides interesting information regarding charter schools.  According to a recent article published on Education Week’s website, “. . . researchers still found it difficult to determine whether charter school students on the whole were learning more, as measured by their test scores, than they would have in their regular public schools.”


The RAND study also found that charter schools are not more racially segregated than traditional neighborhood schools, and that it doesn’t appear that these schools are grabbing the best students from surrounding districts. 


The researchers also concluded that students who attend charters are more likely to attend and graduate college. 


Inquirer editorial bashes Philadelphia public school teachers




by Christopher Paslay


Leave it to newspapers and politicians to oversimplify the problem with public education in America.  The root causes of failing schools are much more complex than bad teachers and a lack of charters, as the Inquirer states in their recent editorial.   


For starters, cell phones are destroying attention spans and producing a generation of children addicted to electronic gadgets.  Even the most cutting edge lesson plans have trouble competing with the soft core pornography and computer generated images found in movies, videos games and on the internet. 


The divorce rate in America is also an issue.  Many single parents are too overwhelmed with their own social ills to teach their children how to communicate properly and solve problems nonviolently.  Respect for authority in many public schools is at an all time low.


In addition, many education policy makers, such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have no experience teaching.  Often their ideas and strategies are off-base and impractical, and do not translate well in the classroom. 


Public education is a direct reflection of American society.  Blaming low student achievement primarily on bad teachers is like attributing heart disease to failing doctors.      


Education will only improve in this country when responsibility is equally distributed between teachers, parents, and society at large.   


The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article




by Christopher Paslay


On March 3rd, I posted an article here on Chalk and Talk headlined Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?  In the article I criticized the Philadelphia Public School Notebook for running an objectionable editorial (Changing the odds) that suggested Philadelphia public school teachers were racist and afraid of the communities they serve.


Two days later I received an email from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook, requesting that we open a dialogue in order to address some of the issues I had with his newspaper.  Paul also asked me to reread my March 3rd article, and to pay careful attention to its tone, which Paul felt had degenerated into name calling; he took particular offense to the fact that I called the Notebook “irresponsible”. 


I reread the post, and although I didn’t feel I had called anyone names, I did agree that it had an edge to it.  I explained that this was a reaction to the accusations contained in the Notebook’s Winter 2008 edition, Focus on Changing the Odds, where the newspaper more than once alluded to the fact that teachers were racist. 


Paul admitted that I wasn’t the only teacher who felt this way.  However, he suggested that I focus on the actual points of disagreement, rather than throwing around so many labels.  In order for both of us to tone down our rhetoric, he wanted to know what other editions of the Notebook may have offended me. 


As I went through the Notebook’s archives, I realized that these articles were not so much offensive to teachers as they were unfriendly.  Here were the gripes I had:            


Lack of Parental Involvement:  The Notebook fails to scrutinize parents and explore all the ways mothers and fathers are failing their children.  They suggest parental involvement is low because schools aren’t “welcoming”; teachers are “intimidating”; announcements aren’t made early and often enough; literature isn’t translated into other languages; etc.     


The achievement gap: The Notebook fails to explore the societal root of the problem, and refuses to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills.  They place much of the blame on racist teachers.    


Safety issues:  The Notebook fails to admit Philadelphia neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and that violent crime exists.  They chastise teachers for not wanting to teach in the poorest schools because they harbor unfounded prejudices and are “afraid of the communities they serve”.  


Inappropriate student behavior: The Notebook fails to acknowledge the violent and unruly actions of too many children (many of them minorities).  They often explain these behaviors away and blame them on the teacher’s unconscious racial prejudice or the counselor’s wrongful diagnosis. 


English language learners:  The Notebook fails to recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden.  Instead, they call under-resourced and overwhelmed schools and teachers “unwelcoming” and demand better services.


The Voice of Teachers:  The Notebook rarely incorporates into their articles publications that represent the voice of classroom teachers.  Instead, they consistently quote studies and statistics from civil rights organizations that tend to paint schools and teachers in an unflattering light.    


Philadelphia Student Union: The Notebook fails to emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.  Instead, they consistently harp on the fact that parents and students “feel disrespected by teachers”.           


Writers and Bloggers:  The Notebook does not have a single writer or blogger that is a current Philadelphia public school teacher.


After reading my concerns, Paul admitted that teachers do need a stronger voice in his newspaper, and he insisted that he is working on this situation.  He also explained that the Notebook’s mission is to make schools better, and that their focus isn’t necessarily on the other parts of the education equation—parents, communities, or the students themselves; Paul did admit however that the problems schools face cannot be solved in isolation.


In addition, Paul stated that he wouldn’t mind having a public discussion on the Notebook’s blog about most of the issues I listed above.  I may take him up on this offer.  For now, I’m posting these concerns here on Chalk and Talk, and I’m asking people on all sides of the argument for constructive feedback. 


One final note: I’d like to thank Paul Socolar for engaging in our email dialogue, and for taking my concerns to heart.  And I’d also like to reiterate my pledge to watch the tone of my posts, as long as the Notebook strives to be more teacher-friendly.     


Bad evaluations don’t always equal bad teachers



by Susan Cohen Smith


Whenever President Obama opines, “Bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively,” I am troubled by the vagueness of his statement. Specifically, who should decide when a teacher is bad?  What standards are to be used in making that decision?  How is the “effective training” opportunity to be realized?


My initial foray into teaching was not altogether different from what may confront a new teacher today. It was characterized by uncertainty, trauma, and virtually nothing in the way of significant support. I was assigned to teach art in an inner-city junior high school on February 1, 1971.  I took over for a teacher, a former classmate of mine, who quit mid-year in utter despair.


I was thrown to the wolves quite literally on day one.  Each of the classes on my roster contained 33 or more pupils.  I was also given an advisory and lunchroom duty where, I remember vividly being pelted with peas.  


On February 2, 1971, an art teacher at another junior high school was fatally shot in the schoolyard by one of his students. Upon hearing the news, several of my students informed me that I would be next. Schools were closed on February 3, 1971, in observance of the man’s funeral. I was grateful for the day off.


The following day, my principal formally observed me. The students were not well behaved.  I had only met with them one time before, and was not able to establish any sort of management plan. But most were working, albeit not perfectly. The principal spotted an off-task student and with finger wagging, tore into me in front of the class about how I should better monitor my pupils. At my insistence, we adjourned to the hallway where he continued to shout at me. The children, who became silent at the onset of his tirade, went wild.


The principal never set foot in my classroom again.  He did, however, place a note in my mailbox and in my personnel file stating that if I didn’t improve, I would be subject to an unsatisfactory rating and to possible disciplinary measures. He suggested I seriously consider other occupations or avenues of employment.


Back in those days, we didn’t quit or change jobs as readily as young people do today. To do so was tantamount to failure. To persist on the job wasn’t always the wisest choice, but quitting just wasn’t an option for most of us who had invested four or more years in post secondary studies.


After the inauspicious beginning of my teaching career, it took a great deal of fortitude and moxie for me to remain on the job. I credit my ability to endure that first half-year to a colleague, a diminutive woman with years of experience in the classroom, who serendipitously took me under her wing and effectively gave me what my college curriculum lacked. It wasn’t all smooth sailing during those 36 years that followed, but I humbly believe that I have made a small contribution in more than a few people’s lives. My collection of cherished memories and gratifying moments convince me that my years of teaching were, for the most part, well spent.


Many of my students went on to art colleges or to other post-secondary studies. They became teachers, lawyers, carpenters, engineers, nurses, plumbers, police officers, movie stars and parents. One is the CEO of an international non-profit health organization who authored a book and listed me first on her acknowledgement page. Many of them still see me, keep in touch with me and regard me highly.


I often think about the very different set of circumstances that may have occurred had I followed the advice of my first principal. His superiors must have realized that he was unfit to handle the rigors of a volatile urban junior high school and eventually he was “kicked upstairs” to a supervisory position. This practice of promoting incompetence on the administrative level, of course, persists today. Indeed, those furthest removed from the education process make up the majority of the decision makers; the latest trend focuses on the business community as education experts.


The President of the United States, in making those sweeping pronouncements about education, must recognize that those who judge teachers are sometimes unsuited to make such determinations based on their limited observations.  


I am reminded of the words of an administrator, mistress of the malaprop, who realized she had produced an unfounded negative assessment of me: “I must have misconscrewed what you said.”


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at


Computers distract from craft of writing


 Note: This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 8th, 2006.




by Christopher Paslay


Although technology has brought many advancements in education, computers are beginning to have a negative impact on students’ writing skills.


Years ago, before programs such as WordPerfect and Microsoft Office, teenagers actually needed a pen and paper to do a writing assignment. They also needed a dictionary, note cards, and a roll of quarters to photocopy any books, magazines or newspapers they planned to use as source material. Not in the 21st Century.


The traditional five-step writing process — prewriting, drafting, revising, editing and publishing — has slowly evolved into a system of shortcuts made possible by the Internet and state-of-the-art word processing programs.


Prewriting, the most fundamental step in writing a paper, has become the “Google Search.” Instead of using charts and diagrams to explore and develop ideas, teenagers can type their topic into an Internet search engine and press “enter.” In seconds, thousands of “hits” (links to Web pages) become available for students to use instead of articulating their own ideas.


Drafting and revising, steps two and three of the writing process, also have been compromised as a result of technology. Why would a teenager write out his entire paper on a piece of loose leaf when he can type it directly into the computer? Why would he go back and complete a second draft (which entails re-writing the entire paper) when he can cut and paste on a word processor?


Technology also has made editing, the line-by-line proofing of an essay, obsolete. Not many teenagers are going to use a dictionary and red pen to correct their spelling errors when running a “spell check” can do the same thing in a tenth of the time.


Which brings us to step five, publishing. Designing a paper’s cover page, especially in the primary grades, used to be half the fun. It involved colored pencils and construction paper and fostered a student’s creativity. Now, all a student needs to do to create a cover page is to download some clip-art, choose a fancy font and hit “print.”


Students today are a product of an instant gratification society. Writing a quality paper takes time, and most teenagers aren’t willing to make that sacrifice. Like steroids in major league baseball, technology has become a way for students to cheat — to bypass hard work and cut right to the end result.


School teachers should be aware of this and make a conscious effort to reinforce the traditional five-step writing process.


For starters, prewriting should begin with brainstorming. Forget the information on the World Wide Web, or what ideas can be borrowed from a search engine. Prewriting should be rooted in a student’s own experiences, so he can communicate a part of himself in his paper. Spending time on self-reflection and jotting down whatever comes to mind is a good way of doing this.


Drafting and revising should be done the old fashioned way, with a pen and paper. Hand writing a first draft enables students to get their thoughts and ideas down on paper in chunks, without the temptation to edit along the way. Doing so preserves a student’s voice, allows them to put their work down for a day or two and then go back to it with a fresh perspective.


Of course, when students edit as they go along (like so many do when writing on a computer), they often feel a piece of writing is finished after the first draft, and forgo making any corrections. This is why the editing phase should also be done by hand. Forcing students to edit by hand helps them gain a command of the English language. It also reinforces grammar, spelling and sentence structure, and helps strengthen their writing style.


Computers and the Internet are not a replacement for hard work; they’re just supplements. We as teachers must go back to the basics, and ensure that all students have a proper command of the written word.


Eye on The Notebook: Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?




by Christopher Paslay              


In their recent editorial, “Changing the odds,” the Notebook discusses ways the Philadelphia School District can close the achievement gap between white and minority students.  In addition to having engaging teaching staffs and building strong bonds between schools and surrounding communities, the Notebook talks about overcoming racism.


Perhaps the hardest barriers to overcome are the fears and prejudices that run through our racially divided society, the Notebook writes. Black and Latino children – boys in particular – are so often viewed as dangerous or even criminal. Schools cannot uphold high expectations and successfully serve communities of color when the school staff is afraid of the communities they serve.


The curious part of this editorial is that while the Notebook warns against the dangers of stereotyping, they are in effect stereotyping themselves.  The majority of Philadelphia public school teachers do not view Black and Latino boys as dangerous and criminal (I don’t know of a single teacher that does), nor are they afraid of the communities they serve. 


To make such a sweeping generalization is both hypocritical and irresponsible.   


I’m not the only teacher who was put-off by the editorial.  A woman named Jamie Roberts recently commented on the newspaper’s website about the offensive nature of this article. 


She wrote, As a Philadelphia teacher working on her second Master’s degree, I’ve always considered my reading comprehension pretty high, but I found myself re-reading your editorial repeatedly, convinced I had to be misinterpreting it.


Are you actually suggesting the struggles of Latino and African-American boys in our schools are because of white racist teachers? And if so, are you serious?


I have spent most of my teaching career in predominantly African-American and Latino schools and in every case, the staff – which is always multicultural – has tried to create an aura of respect and safety within the school building. Never have I heard a colleague express fear of any student – although often we express concern on behalf of students, who step out of the schoolyard every afternoon and into an environment that is often quite dangerous. It is that environment that creates the circumstances that cause boys to struggle . . .


Notebook Editor Paul Socolar rebutted this comment by stating Roberts “missed the point”.  Socolar went on to say, Somehow, once the phenomenon of racism is named, we notice that something short-circuits, everything else we said is forgotten, and some readers respond that the Notebook thinks the whole problem is white racist teachers . . . 


In effect, the Notebook neither apologized for misrepresenting teachers nor did they admit to oversimplifying the problem.  They held to their position by stating that racism against minority students undoubtedly exists, and that “to acknowledge its existence is not a condemnation of all teachers.”


It’s not surprising that the Notebook is unable (or unwilling) to recognize the stereotypical nature of their editorial.  The writers and staff of this publication are too wrapped-up in the politics of race to see the forest through the trees.  They state that they regularly talk to Philadelphia parents and students about racism (and in effect get one side of the story), but this hardly qualifies them as an authority on the day-to-day challenges facing teachers inside overcrowded, and often times under-resourced, classrooms.


A second look at Editor Paul Socolar’s rebuttal to Philadelphia school teacher Jamie Roberts’ comments furthers this point. 


There is a vast amount of literature from all different political perspectives about how many urban students (not just in Philly) experience a lack of respect and low expectations from many of their teachers, Socolar wrote.  Even George W. Bush spoke about this problem.   


Although reading books on urban education might provide some background understanding of the issue, it’s not the same as standing in front of 33 urban teenagers and teaching them on a daily basis.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe that many minority students experience a lack of respect and high expectations from “many” of their teachers.  Do Black and Latino children ever feel disrespected?  Certainly.  But not on the scale the Notebook and other political publications would lead us to believe; it might be wise for the Notebook to stop using “political” perspectives to draw their conclusions. 


And since when is George W. an expert on teaching in the inner-city?


While we’re focused on stereotypes, let’s examine the issue of safety in Philadelphia.  Is it wrong for teachers to be concerned about their well-being in high crime neighborhoods?  Are the 350 annual homicides committed in the city simply fantasies conjured in the imaginations of bigoted educators?  Most certainly not.  Just ask the mother of Faheem Thomas-Childs, the 10-year-old third grader who was killed by a drug-dealer’s bullet outside Peirce Elementary in February of 2004.


How ironic is it that a publication that bills itself as “an independent voice for parents, educators, students, and friends of Philadelphia public schools” doesn’t even have a single Philadelphia public school teacher contributing to the newspaper?  Sure, the Notebook’s writers and bloggers include an education lawyer, a doctoral student, an educational policy maker, a principal, a member of a parent group, and an education beat-reporter, but no teacher.  Imagine that.


If the Notebook truly wants to comprehend and solve the District’s problems, they must bring a more balanced approach to their paper.  They must also stop insulting educators with their biting innuendo, and treat Philadelphia public school teachers with more professionalism and respect.


Paul Vallas reincarnated?



by Susan Cohen Smith


On a sweltering September day in 2002, mad dogs and school teachers sat out in the midday sun, awaiting the arrival of Starship Vallas to descend on our wretched souls and breathe new life into the beleaguered Philadelphia public school system.


Paul Vallas sailed into the School District of Philadelphia promising sweeping reforms and a new day in public education. I clearly recall that even I, a seasoned, but somewhat cynical teacher, was so energized and hopeful by the dynamism of our new leader that I dropped everything I should have been doing to prepare for the new school year and spent precious time attending to his first directive.


I was asked to compile a detailed inventory of my classroom furniture: every desk, chair, cabinet, pencil sharpener, etc. and its age, condition and functionality. The incentive for the swift completion of this task was the promise of new equipment and furnishings because “Mr. Vallas is committed to world class arts programs in the high schools.”


I dutifully documented each student desk, teacher desk, shelf, bulletin board, sink, storage cabinet, etc. whose precise age I knew for certain because they were the exact same fixtures that existed in my classroom when I was a student at that school in the sixties!


When Paul Vallas left the system in 2006, those very same desks and furnishings were still in that classroom, the promise of their replacement left unfulfilled by the “surprise” multi-million dollar budget deficit that emerged toward the end of Mr. Vallas’ tenure as CEO.


Experienced Philadelphia teachers are understandably weary of the hoopla and lofty imaginings of the district’s current Superintendent. They have heard it all before—only to have it forgotten when funds do not materialize, or when the crisis du jour takes precedence over the implementation of new initiatives, or when the five years of the Superintendent’s contract are up, which ever comes first.


Our detractors will accuse us of institutionalized pessimism and failure to put the students first. It will take a lot more than a 34 page draft of recycled ideas to fire up the hearts and minds of those in the trenches in Philly schools.


What I would have liked to see in Imagine 2014:


Who exactly is going to evaluate teachers’ performance and effectiveness? Will they be the administrators who have achieved their goal of fleeing the classroom?


A rethinking of the absurd “Easy Pass” grading system of no grade under 50.


An exploration of the possibility of requiring administrative personnel to teach on a regular basis to give them first-hand understanding of how these initiatives should be implemented.


A new requirement of all Charter Schools to accept, educate and retain all students who choose to attend their schools, even those students who do not conform to their standards of behavior, attendance and academic success.


So much of Ackerman’s plan depends on the recruitment and retention of new and presumably better teachers. Veteran teachers wonder how she plans to stem the flow of enthusiastic, motivated, knowledgeable new teachers walking out the door after receiving their floating rosters or when the supports they’ve been promised fail to materialize.


One thing is certain. In 2014, there will be a new strategic plan with a new set of goals accompanied by a new lexicon of terms in the School District of Philadelphia.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at