Sign the petition for shared responsibility




From: A Broader, BOLDER Approach to Education:


“The Broader, Bolder Approach to Education is the product of deliberation by leaders with diverse religious and political affiliations, and experts in the fields of education, social welfare, health, housing, and civil rights. The statement examines areas that research shows must be addressed if we are to keep our promises to all of America’s children.


More than a half century of research has documented a powerful association between social and economic disadvantage and low student achievement. Weakening that association is the fundamental challenge facing America’s education policymakers.


 The nation’s education policy has typically been crafted around the expectation that schools alone can offset the full impact of low socioeconomic status on learning, a theory embodied in the No Child Left Behind law, which passed with bipartisan support in 2001 and is now up for reauthorization. Schools can ameliorate some of the impact of social and economic disadvantage on achievement. Improving our schools, therefore, continues to be a vitally important strategy for promoting upward mobility and for working toward equal opportunity and overall educational excellence.


Evidence demonstrates, however, that achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status are present before children even begin formal schooling. Despite impressive academic gains registered by some schools serving disadvantaged students, there is no evidence that school improvement strategies by themselves can substantially, consistently, and sustainably close these gaps.


Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that policies aimed directly at education-related social and economic disadvantages can improve school performance and student achievement. The persistent failure of policymakers to act on that evidence — in tandem with a schools-only approach — is a major reason why the association between disadvantage and low student achievement remains so strong.”




A broader approach to helping kids: A call for shared responsibility



by Christopher Paslay


The following is an excerpt from an article written by Jerry Jordan, President of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.  This article appeared in the May edition of the PFT Reporter.


A child came to class late one morning with a sad, almost weary look on his face, and carrying a small suitcase. When his teacher asked what was wrong, the boy replied: “I didn’t do what my Mommy told me to do this morning, and she got angry and packed my suitcase and yelled at me to get out, to go live with my Dad. She said she didn’t want me there any more.”


The child was six years old.


A PFT member teaching special education in a Philadelphia school shared this story with a PFT staff member a few years ago. The teacher worried aloud, “He was so sad, alone and felt so unloved, and I didn’t know how to help him, and I certainly didn’t know how I could keep him focused on schoolwork with so much turmoil in his life.”


Most PFT members who work with students can tell similar stories, because most of us have known students whose parents have lost their jobs, homes, freedom or lives. We know students who live in homeless shelters and children who move from one foster home to another. . . .


Yet, as teachers, we are held accountable for reaching and teaching all children, regardless of the myriad of factors that influence their academic success or failure. We, and no one else, are held accountable for raising test scores in classes whose sizes we can’t control, in schools that are falling apart, without enough books or computers and too often without the support of families.


Raise test scores, we are told, even with students who miss 20, 40 or 50 school days a year, who don’t have the eyeglasses they need to see and who haven’t a quiet place in which to do homework.


And we dare not talk about the hardships our students face, because then we are accused of making “excuses” for not raising test scores the way a factory might raise production of ball bearings.


Calling for teacher accountability is politically correct. “Excuses” are not. Neither is talking about the “big picture” of our students’ lives, about the undeniable link between student outcomes and the social and economic conditions in which children live.


In the same way that we’ve narrowed the curriculum to focus on preparing for “The Test,” we’ve narrowed the discussion about what kids need to a single place and person: the school and the teacher. . . .


This article by Jerry Jordan is powerful because it examines the concept of holistic education—the idea that it takes an entire village to teach a child.  As Jordan so clearly states, teachers need support from schools, parents and communities, and asking for these resources is by no means “making excuses”. 


The idea of holistic education is nothing new.  The Harlem Children’s Zone, founded by Geoffrey Canada, is based on shared responsibility and is gaining momentum in NYC. 


So is a movement called A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA).  As Jordan spoke about in the May edition of the PFT Reporter, the BBA is an impressive group of educators, legislators, Nobel laureates and foundations from across the country, who are embracing a Broader, Bolder Approach to Education that seeks to reduce the social and economic disadvantages that sabotages achievement.


A Broader, Bolder Approach, or BBA, believes that schools alone cannot “close the entire gap between students from different backgrounds in a substantial, consistent and sustainable manner.”


Philadelphia’s struggling children need the help of everyone—teachers and schools, businesses and the community, parents and politicians.  It is exciting to see Jerry Jordan, as well as BBA’s other noteworthy leaders and legislators, getting on board with a movement that emphasizes teamwork in education.        


Holistic education is the future.  To support the BBA’s focus on synergy and community cooperation, please sign the petition for shared responsibility.      



When the community steals from its students



by Christopher Paslay


Over the past decade, education advocates and community groups have been focusing their attention on school equity—the idea that all students, regardless of race and socioeconomic status, should receive an equal education.


As a teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I agree wholeheartedly.  All children deserve a quality education.  The reality, of course, is that not all schools are equal, and often times the neediest children end up in schools that are struggling to achieve.


Many advocacy groups blame educational inequities on the quality of teachers.  Others suggest it’s about race—that the District needs more African Americans on staff to reach minority students in order to close the achievement gap. 


Still others talk about the absence of resources, and insist schools in impoverished neighborhoods lack books, computer equipment, and other supplies (members of the Philadelphia Student Union recently met with Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. to talk about the lack of resources at Overbrook High School).


The irony (or tragedy) is that when you take a closer look at schools like Overbrook, you’ll often find that these schools did have adequate resources and materials at one time, but they somehow disappeared from circulation.


Unlike the situation earlier this year with textbooks, it’s not the District or school administrators who are responsible—it’s the community.             


The very men and women who are supposed to be making a contribution to education in their neighborhoods are actually taking away from it—by stealing valuable educational equipment.    


According to a report by CBS 3, nearly $5 million in computer equipment has been stolen from the Philadelphia School District since 2005, most of which has been taken from impoverished neighborhood schools.        


In the 2008-09 school year,12 laptops were stolen from Overbrook High School, 33 from Strawberry Mansion, another 30 from Bok, and a total of 104 from Furness (after three robberies). 


How have community groups and education advocates reacted to the reprehensible behavior of their fellow citizens? 


Besides a short-lived plea by Philadelphia Police to return the stolen property, mum’s been the word.  Not much of a peep by anyone.  The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a self proclaimed champion of educational equity, hasn’t said much.  Neither have activists working under the Education First Compact or the Philadelphia Cross City Campaign for School Reform. 


Neither has the Philadelphia Student Union, for that matter. 


It speaks volumes that those who claim to care about public education in Philadelphia have failed to hold their own community responsible for stealing from our city’s children.  It’s also telling that not a single “education activist” has started a campaign to raise awareness about the crime being perpetrated against our students. 


It takes a village to teach a child.  If our own community is stealing resources from our children (and not being held accountable), what hope is there for pubic education?    


This is yet another example of how the educational system is the result of the community, not the other way around.


Philadelphia School District focuses on vocabulary to help improve student literacy


by Christopher Paslay


True or false: If a student is unfamiliar with only five percent of the words in a particular text, he will not be able to comprehend the overall meaning of the passage.


Answer: True.


Research on student literacy shows that a child can know 19 out of every 20 words on a reading assignment and still fail to grasp the overall meaning.  The unfamiliar words not only throw a monkey wrench into the student’s overall comprehension of the material, but can cause him or her to become frustrated and discouraged with reading altogether.


Of course, there are many students in Philadelphia who know far less than 19 out of every 20 words on school reading assignments.  This is why the District has recently invested in VoyagerU, a series of professional development programs for principals and teachers that focus on improving student literacy through vocabulary.    


As the teacher-liaison for my high school, I’ve attended the first two VoyagerU professional developments (the final two are 5/22 and 6/12).  Although the instruction at times was padded and long-winded, the presentations were a good reminder of the importance of vocabulary when it comes to reading comprehension. 


As a result of the VoyagerU training, our school has decided to generate multi-tiered vocabulary lists across our school’s curriculum.  The lists have been divided into three categories: literacy words (basic reading comprehension words encountered in grades 9-12); content words (subject specific words in math, science, social studies, etc.); and career technology words (words related to our CTE courses, such as automotive, digital media arts, culinary arts, electrical, plumbing, etc.). 


The goal of the lists is to provide a broad, interdisciplinary base of vocabulary at all grade levels for all students.  These words can be reinforced in many different classes over many months.  This will help students comprehend their very technical career-technology texts (many of which are written on a college level), and hopefully increase their overall reading ability.  By the time students graduate, they should be reading on or close to grade level.    


Research indicates that in order for a student to learn and retain a new word, he or she must be exposed to it in a variety of ways; students must read the new word in the context of a meaningful reading passage, they must incorporate it in their writing, and they must be encouraged to use it during conversation.   


The strategies for teaching these vocabulary words will differ from subject to subject.  An English teacher may use semantic mapping or the Frayer Model to introduce a new word, while career-technology teachers might use root-word association to broaden vocabulary.


In addition to VoyagerU, there is an interesting middle-school vocabulary building program being piloted by the Strategic Education Research Partnership called Word Generation.  This program came about when SERP met with Boston secondary school teachers several years ago, and the teachers told them kids were having trouble comprehending their textbooks because they were stumbling over academic words.


Developed under the direction of Harvard University Professor Catherine Snow, Word Generation has four core program components:


• Focus on the Academic Word List – a set of word families that appear frequently in academic texts across disciplines


• Word study curriculum materials, including high-interest paragraphs and associated activities, designed for flexible use by middle school teachers across the curriculum


• Expectation that schools will dedicate at least 15 instructional minutes a day to school-wide (or grade-wide) study of weekly words


Opportunity for each school team to design a practical implementation plan that suits its own particular school context


Broadening vocabulary is a key factor when it comes to increasing the literacy of Philadelphia public school students, and the District should keep focused on teaching students new words.  Programs like VoyagerU and Word Generation are a good first step in achieving that goal. 


Eye on the Notebook: Will new bloggers bring balance to the Notebook?



by Christopher Paslay


It appears that Paul Socolar, editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, has indeed had a moment of clarity.  After nearly fifteen years of proclaiming to be “an independent voice for parents, educators, students, and friends of Philadelphia public schools,” the Notebook is finally giving our city’s school teachers some badly needed space in their paper.


On Monday, May 11th, the Notebook introduced on their website three of their newest bloggers—all current teachers working in Philadelphia public schools.    


But will these hand-picked teachers truly broaden the scope of the Notebook?  Will they look at the problems and challenges that face public education in Philadelphia through a holistic lens (will they strive to hold parents and the community equally accountable), or will their blogs circumvent tough questions, such as: Why are low-income and minority parents less likely to read to their children?  Or: Why do minority children grow less academically over the summer? 


Here is a breakdown of the Notebook’s three new bloggers:     


Anna Weiss, who is from the Chicago region, came into the Philadelphia school system via Teach for America.  She currently teaches at Mastery Charter, where she’s been for two years.  Her first Notebook blog entry opens with the African proverb Until the lion tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.  Anna seems intent on championing the rights of the little guy, and to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, or “the hunted,” if you will.     


Samuel Reed teaches 6th graders at Beeber Middle School in the Overbrook section of the city.  Reed has served in the Peace Corps, and has worked with both the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows and Teach for America.  He hopes to have his son Kagiso, a student at Mastery Charter School, guest blog with him.  Reed is interested in teaching social justice issues (although he promises not to use his blog for politics).  He is also concerned about educating young African American males, and using hip-hop to engage students. 


Molly Thacker, originally from St. Louis, MO, also came to Philadelphia through Teach for America.  Molly is in her fourth year of teaching in the city, although it was unclear from her blog which school she currently works in.  After reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol as an 11th grader, she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to urban education.  Molly wants to use her blog to explore the idea of teacher sustenance. 


Although politically unbalanced (I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that all three of these teachers are situated at the same end of the political spectrum), at least the Notebook is finally providing space for teachers. 


Hearing the voices of trained educators who work day-to-day in real classrooms and who experience the district’s problems firsthand will be a nice change of pace.  Credibility doesn’t stop with academia.  It counts in the real world, too.  Simply graduating from a Philadelphia public school (or visiting one on occasion) hardly makes one an expert on education, and those that lack credentials might want to think about who (and what) they criticize from the sidelines. 


Hopefully these new bloggers, being teachers themselves, will refrain from the tactics that have been employed by Notebook writers in the past.  Hopefully they will not suggest Philadelphia school teachers are afraid of the communities they serve, or insinuate that teachers view minority students as criminals; hopefully they will not belittle and humiliate these same teachers by suggesting that ALL of them (not just the failing ones, mind you) be overhauled by their principals and be made to reapply for their jobs; hopefully they will explore the societal root of the achievement gap, and begin to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills separate from teachers and schools.


While they’re at it, they could recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden; they could encourage parents to make education a priority in every home; and they could emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.


These are just some suggestions to truly keep the Notebook holistic and balanced


But it’s good to have genuine school teachers finally contributing.  I guess my Chalk and Talk blogs, along with my dozen or so correspondences with editor Paul Socolar (both on and off line) must have had an impact. 


Although Paul won’t comment on Chalk and Talk anymore (he says I don’t play fair), I know he’s reading this.  So I’d like to say two things to Paul:  One: Thank you. 


And two: I have my eye on the Notebook. 


Readers cynical about forcing seniors to apply to college

by Christopher Paslay


Yesterday, I published a commentary in the Inquirer headlined Seniors need a backup.  The article had two main points: that graduating seniors should have a contingency plan in place in case things don’t work out as anticipated after high school; and that schools should do more to help students take advantage of the government’s $100 billion in federal aid for higher education.


To help achieve these goals, I suggested adding an extra requirement to the senior project.  “Every single graduating senior must successfully apply to a community or four-year college, or to a trade or technical academy,” I wrote.  “In addition, each senior must complete an application for government financial aid or a scholarship of his or her choice.”


Basically, I was trying to give graduating seniors more options.  If after high school they went straight to work, great.  If they got together with their buddies and backpacked through Europe, or took over their uncle’s store, or went into the military, even better. 


But if months passed and they were stuck with no prospects, by applying to a college or trade school as part of their senior project, they just might have that extra option waiting for them to use as they pleased; and they would get practice filling out applications and meeting deadlines in the process, real world skills that everyone can use.


How were the ideas put forth in my commentary received by readers?  Not so well, I’m afraid.


On the Inquirer’s comment board, I was called an “idiot,” and my article was labeled “a moronic piece of PC fluff”.  I was stunned at how many people completely missed the point, people who either failed to read—or comprehend—the article, and reacted solely to the subheading.


A commenter named “Dutchman” wrote, . . . This has been written by someone who has had little contact with anyone outside of the ivory tower. The ugly truth, plain and very simple, is only 23% of high school graduates earn a four year degree. . . Now kids who will never go to college are forced to spend large amounts of money to attend post high school trade schools instead of starting a career . . .   


Ivory tower?  I guess Dutchman didn’t notice the article was written by a high school teacher (who, by the way, teaches IN A TRADE SCHOOL).  I guess he also missed the part that said attending a college or trade school was merely a BACKUP PLAN.


A commenter named “TwoEvils” said, Not everyone has the intelligence and/or skills to make it through college. . . .  What’s wrong with guiding high schoolers with aptitude and desire to technical skills schools for studies like automotive and construction (carpentry, masonry, electrician, plumbing, etc.). That anyone in this day and age considers such jobs lower class is ridiculous when you take into account the knowledge, including math and reading, required to do it right. . . .


I guess when I wrote, “Every single graduating senior must successfully apply to a community or four-year college, or to a trade or technical academy, he must have thought the phrase or to a trade or technical academy really meant people who work technical jobs are uneducated pieces of garbage and should be slapped in the face with a leather glove.     


Those commenting on this blog were just as negative and cynical.  A guy named Jim, who wrote that he works for one of Pennsylvania’s public universities, said he would like to see more lower-income students take advantage of government aid, but he was less enthused about “filling schools with students whose only reason for attending college is that their other plans fell through”. 


Studies have demonstrated one of the key factors in student success is having clear academic and career goals, Jim said.  Folks in student affairs know that students without goals are the ones that are most often in trouble (lots of partying, little studying). If these students don’t succeed, they’ve gained little beyond debt that they will struggle to repay.


Well, if folks in student affairs say these kinds of kids are poor candidates for higher education (and studies prove it), then why waste our time trying to get them to fill out college applications at all?  In fact, why not replace all the college applications at their schools with McDonald’s applications?


A guy named Sam was the most off the mark (and angry).  He wrote:  This sounds like a wonderful idea. Wonderful, that is, until you consider the consequences.


Want to take over your father’s business straight out of high school without wasting $50 per college application? Tough luck, we’re going to force you to waste your time and money on something that will not benefit you.


Applied to a dozen colleges, and didn’t get into a single one? Well, since you didn’t “successfully apply to a community or four-year college, or to a trade or technical academy,” I guess you can’t get your high school diploma.


Your proposition would create far more problems than it would solve. Thankfully, the people we’ve elected to office think about the actual consequences of nifty new mandatory government programs rather than just considering the upside, taking advice only from their yes-men. . . .


Sam got his facts wrong in three places:  One: if a student had the option of taking over his father’s business straight out of high school, he could certainly do so.  I said a college or trade school was a BACKUP PLAN if other options didn’t materialize, not a mandatory requirement.


Two: I never said that a kid couldn’t graduate if he didn’t fill out an application for higher education. I said he would not be eligible to participate in commencement ceremonies. There is a big difference.


Three:  “Successfully applying to a college or trade school” doesn’t mean getting accepted. It simply means successfully filling out the paperwork on the application and submitting it before the deadline.


It’s amazing how cynical adults are when it comes to trying to send students to college.  It’s even more amazing how these same adults can’t even comprehend what they read in the newspaper.

Seniors need a backup



“For years, I’ve argued that high school seniors – especially in Philadelphia – should be required to pursue higher-education options. Doing so could be a component of senior projects that are already required.


The new requirement would be simple: Every single graduating senior must successfully apply to a community or four-year college, or to a trade or technical academy. In addition, each senior must complete an application for government financial aid or a scholarship of his or her choice.”


This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Seniors need a backup”.  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.


 Thanks for reading.


 –Christopher Paslay


New report links nine parental factors to achievement gap



by Christopher Paslay


In a newly released report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, the Educational Testing Service tracked national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement. 


Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s parents and home environment.  They were as follows:   


Parent participation: White students’ parents are more likely to attend a school event or to volunteer at school.


Frequent changing of schools: Minority students are more likely to change schools frequently.


Low birth weight: The percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight is higher than that for White and Hispanic infants.


Environmental damage: Minority and low-income children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, such as lead and mercury.


Hunger and nutrition: Minority and low-income children were more likely to be food insecure.


Talking and reading to babies and young children: Minority and low-income children were less likely to be read to daily.


Excessive television watching: Minority and lower-SES children watch more television.


Parent-pupil ratio: Minority students were less likely to live with two parents.


Summer achievement gain/loss: Minority and low-SES students grow less academically over the summer.


Although the report also attributed the achievement gap to school equity issues, such as class size, the availability of technology and teacher experience, ETS did recommend placing an emphasis on improving the involvement of parents and the community.    


“Families . . . have a large responsibility to regulate use of the TV set, read to young children, see that they get to school, and support efforts to foster discipline and order in the schools,” ETS concluded in their report.  “Ignoring the impact of a student’s home circumstances will do nothing to help teachers and schools narrow achievement gaps.”