Inquirer editorial insults teachers and oversimplifies education reform




Using clichés and sarcasm, the Inquirer endorses the district’s recycled ideas.      


by Christopher Paslay


“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that students struggling academically need more, not less, time in the classroom.”


This is a quote from a recent Inquirer editorial headlined, “A new deal for schools”.  It wasn’t the condescending tone of the article that caught my attention, but the fact that the phrase It doesn’t take a rocket scientist got past the newspaper’s copy editors and actually made it in print; the Inquirer’s cliché police must have been asleep at the wheel when this article crossed their desk. 


Anyway, in this rather generic editorial, the Inquirer sarcastically criticizes the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for wanting to fight for real education reform, and for wanting to be treated with a minimum level of respect.  In particular, they comment about the PFT’s opposition to extending the school day by 24 minutes.


“Do the math, Mr. Jordan,” the Inquirer writes. “Twenty-four minutes lost every day for 180 days? That’s 72 hours, or the equivalent of about 10 days’ worth of learning. Philly kids need those minutes in class.” 


Since when is the Inquirer concerned with instructional time?  For the past nine months, their editorial writers (headed by Harold Jackson) have churned-out numerous articles insisting that children be allowed to eat breakfast in the classroom during first period, despite the fact it would cut into instructional time and disrupt learning (and despite the fact that all Philadelphia children are already served breakfast free of charge in their school cafeterias 20 to 30 minutes before first period begins). 


Can you do the math on those precious minutes, Mr. Jackson? 


Increasing instructional time is not always the answer.  Especially when an overwhelming majority of students aren’t even taking advantage of the instruction already being offered by Philadelphia schools.


District data shows that 7,500 students cut school a day—they never make it to the front door.  More than 20 percent of students enrolled in Philadelphia schools were picked-up by truancy officers on the street during the 2007-08 school year—a total of 35,000 students.    


Lateness is an even bigger issue.  So is the fact that final report card grades are due into the district’s computer system two whole weeks before the last day of school; in district high schools this year, the grading system opened for non-seniors on June 5th, when the last day of school wasn’t until June 23rd.  As always, students were wise to this fact, and stopped coming to school after the first week of June.


The Inquirer, as well as Dr. Ackerman, have adopted the “more is better” approach.  But more isn’t always better.  As Jerry Jordan stated, “A longer day does not mean a better day.  What we would like to talk about is how to make the day a better day.”


So how could we make the day better, aside from cracking down on truants and fixing the report card system? 


We could start by finding ways to get parents more involved in their child’s schoolwork; we could acknowledge that Philadelphia children frequently change schools, disrupting their learning; we could admit that our city’s kids suffer from lack of health care; we could admit that they watch excessive television; we could admit that they grow less academically over the summer than their suburban counterparts; and we could admit that they are less likely to be read to as babies—all factors which have a bigger impact on student achievement than the length of the school day. 


We could address these problems and try to find legitimate ways to fix them, instead of falling back on the same tired solutions.                        


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, to borrow the Inquirer’s hackneyed phraseology, to figure out that parents and the community are a significant part of a child’s education.                   


But editorial writers are not educators, so they are quick to endorse stale, recycled ideas dressed-up as education reform.  They are also quick to treat educators less than professional, which might explain why they agree with stripping Philadelphia teachers of seniority in order to reassign them “to the schools where they’re needed most”. 


Well Mr. Jackson, why don’t we strip you of your seniority, and send you to a newspaper that could use some extra help?  Would you mind packing up your things and relocating to the Philadelphia Tribune?  How about the Northeast Times?  Or the Philadelphia Weekly?


Like most non-educators, the Inquirer’s editorial writers lack experience and expertise when it comes to public schools (by the way, the instructional year in Philadelphia is 181 days, not 180).  As the saying goes: It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. 


Here’s a nickel’s worth of free advice to Harold Jackson and his editorial staff: Do some research before your churn-out boilerplate articles on public schools.  Your lack of insight and originality is probably one of the reasons the Inky is going belly-up.


Private managers will get paid regardless of services provided


While principals and teachers get publicly reprimanded, the SRC continues to pay firms for failure.


by Christopher Paslay


How many education management organizations does it take to screw in a light bulb? 


Answer: Five


At least that’s how many private firms currently run schools in Philadelphia.  The troubling part is not that numerous studies have shown that these private firms fare no better than traditional public schools (of the 16 elementary and middle schools private managers operate, 10 performed worse than district-run schools).  But that after years of service, the SRC still doesn’t seem to know exactly what these firms do.


In the spring of 2007, the district’s Office of Accountability, Assessment and Intervention submitted an internal report to the SRC on the district’s contracts with the EMOs (there were six in 07). 


According to a May 2007 article published in the Notebook, the District report offered a list of recommendations to ensure a more thorough accounting of how the EMOs used their funds if any contracts were renewed. 


The Notebook article also said that the report found fault with the contract language, and noted that the EMO contracts lacked adequate terms and compliance mechanisms to ensure the delivery of mandated services to special education students and English language learners.       


Two years later it still doesn’t seem like the SRC knows what these private managers are doing.  Associate Superintendent Benjamin W. Rayer told the Inquirer that there was confusion with the current EMOs and that some services were being duplicated. 


“There was inconsistent direction for principals and teachers, and confusion over exactly what the providers were doing for their $500 per student,” the Inquirer reported


This confusion hasn’t kept the SRC from continuing to give EMOs large sums of money.  The district recently recommended spending $9 million to keep the private managers next year. 


But the role of the private firms will be changing: They will go from managers to “consultants” providing “supportive services”. 


What will these “supportive services” be?  No one knows.  The district wants to pay these providers the same amount of money as last year, regardless of services provided.    


If these services look anything like what ReslTech offered Communications Technology, Parkway Center City, and Philadelphia High School for Business in 2006, the SRC might want to reconsider.    


Hired by district officials to maximize effective teaching and learning, ReslTech was paid a large sum of money (the word on the street was $1 million).  But faculty and staff were less than thrilled with their performance.    


Principals felt short-changed, and teachers agreed that the consultants were inexperienced, and recycled old ideas. 


The risk with hiring consultants like ResulTech is that their services are often vague, and hard to measure. 


The district insists that this won’t be a problem with its current EMOs.  According to the Inquirer, the district will “sit down with all the providers and determine what exactly they will work on in each school.”


But there is still a giant kink in this plan.  If the fiscal year starts July 1st, this means the district will be paying for planning and meeting time with the private providers (which could take months).  If and when the plans are ever implemented—and the “supportive services” are ever agreed upon—a sizable portion of the school year will be over.


And more money will be wasted. 


And what about results?  Will these “consultants” in their new roles be held accountable, much the same way principals and teachers are?  Will the district impose specific goals and ways of measuring improvement?  Perhaps a 10 percent increase in PSSA scores?  A notable increase in attendance rates or a decrease in discipline referrals?  Or will performance goals be vague, like the “supportive services” themselves? 


At a time when the district is negotiating with both the principals’ and the teachers’ union (among others), they should be extra-cautious with their money. 


In short: The district should know what they’re getting before they pay for it.


Philadelphia School District graduation rate betters America’s college graduation rate

by Christopher Paslay


In a recent Inquirer article headlined “School proposal targets dropout problem,” writer Kristen A. Graham describes the Philadelphia School District’s graduation rate as “among the worst in the country—about 50 percent.” 


I find her choice of words quite interesting.  For starters, the district’s graduation rate isn’t among the worst in the country.  According to Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap, a report prepared for America’s Promise Alliance by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, Philadelphia’s graduation rate is well over half. 


Listed at 62 percent, it was tied for 12th out of America’s 50 largest urban districts in 2005.  Only six percentage points separated Philadelphia from #5 ranked Colorado Springs School District, which graduated 68 percent of their students within four years.


12th out of 50 is hardly “among the worst in the country.”


It doesn’t appear that the Inquirer gives much credence to the Cities in Crisis report, however.  The Inky seems to prefer statistics compiled in a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study which put the city’s graduation rate at 54 percent (according to Cities in Crisis, there were 26 schools under 54 percent, which would still put the district in the top half).


But even at 54 percent, the district still has a higher graduation rate than America’s colleges.  According to the American Enterprise Institute, only 53 percent of college students graduated in six years with a bachelor’s degree from schools they enrolled in as freshmen. 


Several local colleges and universities graduated even less.  Widener University graduated 52 percent; Delaware Valley College and Philadelphia University graduated 50 percent; Lincoln University graduated 38 percent; and Cheyney University graduated only 29 percent.         


Education officials offered reasons for the low numbers.  Among them were the fact that some schools enroll first-generation Americans and low-income students who are in need of extra support. 


Cheyney spokeswoman Antoinette Colon also gave reasons for the low graduation rates.  “We traditionally take students who come from underestablished educational systems in Philadelphia and the Chester area,” she said.


Very interesting.  College graduation rates are low because of first-generation Americans (English language learners) and because they take kids from poor neighborhoods. 


Sounds a lot like the Philadelphia School District.


Of course, there are some major differences between America’s colleges and our city’s public school system.  For starters, colleges and universities get to pick-and-choose their clientele—they can weed-out and reject students because of low academic performance or behavioral problems or any other reason they so choose. 


Because of Pennsylvania’s Compulsory Education law, the Philadelphia School District must accept all children—even those who don’t want to be in school, those who are violent, emotionally disturbed, or here in this country illegally. 


Other differences between America’s colleges and our city’s school system: colleges have abundant supplies and resources; Philly schools don’t; colleges can throw failing and unruly students out to preserve order and control; Philly school can’t; colleges are headed by prestigious “high quality” educators with doctoral degrees, Philly schools, to quote the Inquirer, “are straddled with bad teachers” and are run by Teach for America transplants.    


All in all, I think the district is doing a bang-up job for keeping pace with America’s colleges and universities. 


After all, they could be worse.  They could be Lincoln or Cheyney University, whose graduation rates are 38 and 29 percent, respectively.


Financial guru Suze Orman joins teacher-bashing bandwagon

by Christopher Paslay


Insulting teachers is no way to empower them.  Educators need support and resources to succeed.    


Have you trashed a school teacher today?  Go ahead, you can admit it.  It’s one-hundred percent politically correct and always in fashion.  I’d hold my tongue when it comes to discussing race, gender and sexual preference (I’d even watch my step around folks with disabilities), but when teachers are the topic of conversation, feel free to point fingers and call for their heads on the chopping block.


The Philadelphia Inquirer pulls no punches: “Too many schools are straddled with bad teachers . . .” (Editorial: Obama’s Plan, 3/13/09).


Neither do writers for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission. . . .” (Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff, 3/30/09)


Or the LA Times:  “What can be done about bad teachers? . . . a bad teacher either continues to influence the lives of hundreds of students or draws a salary for manning a desk.”  (Getting rid of bad teachers, 5/5/09).


The latest person to drink the anti-teacher Kool-Aid is Suze Orman, a best-selling author and financial guru who was named by Time Magazine as one of the World’s Most Influential People.  Last month in a New York Times Magazine profile article, Orman ripped America’s school teachers a new one.


“When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful?” she said.  “It’s not something in a book—it ain’t going to happen that way.”     


The NY Times Magazine article went on to explain that Orman “has been reluctant to work on school curricula on personal finance, because she says students can’t learn empowerment from people who aren’t empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth.”


Last week Anthony Cody, a writer for Teacher Magazine, published an article headlined, “Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?”  In it he calmly dissected Orman’s obnoxious statement. 


He wrote, “When I first read this I got ticked off. Orman has equated empowerment with personal wealth—perhaps not surprising, since she earns $80,000 every time she speaks publicly on that very subject. But then I started thinking a bit more about her proposition. Part of it makes sense. We can only teach what we actually embody.”


Cody went on to argue that teaching is really about setting an example in the classroom—that students learn more from the teacher’s presence, tone, attitude, etc., than they do from the lesson itself. 


I’ve always argued that education is first and foremost about teaching values.  In this respect I agree with Cody: Teachers are modeling respect, patience, confidence, and citizenship as they stand in front of the classroom.  There is a subtle transference of energy that happens when an educator effectively connects with his or her students.  


So in a way, Orman (who was accused by Forbes Magazine in 1998 of misrepresenting her Wall Street credentials, by the way), has a point: Teachers must feel empowered in order to empower their students.


The irony is that stereotyping and belittling America’s educators isn’t going to empower them.  Nor is making them the scapegoat for all of the problems of public education.


Teachers must be accorded a minimum level of professionalism and respect.  We must also be given the proper resources in order to succeed.  We can not do the job alone, contrary to public opinion.  Anyone who’s spent a significant amount of time teaching in a classroom (especially one in an urban setting) understands that it takes a network of parental, political, economic, and community supports to make education work.


First we need the basics: Help from mom and dad; a new community attitude that values education; smaller class sizes; more practical educational policy; better teacher preparation at the university level; and a society that goes back to embracing traditional values.


Teachers are a very big part of their students’ lives.  We do have the power to empower, but insulting and belittling us is not going to help us achieve this goal. 


Witch-hunt mentality is hurting morale of principals and teachers



by Christopher Paslay


In a recent Inquirer article, Dr. Ackerman spoke about a wounded spirit in the city, a sadness that she described as “ever-present”.  


Although she was referring to the community’s frustration over its troubled public school system, her words could have just as easily applied to the district’s principals and teachers. 


While attending several city-wide professional developments this school year, I’ve come in contact with dozens of principals and teachers from all over the district, and there seems to be a common feeling among many of them: They feel tired, beat-up, and unappreciated. 


A frequent complaint is that they are overwhelmed.  In particular, principals and teachers are buckling under the new administration’s constant threats, the increased paperwork and bureaucracy, and the negative atmosphere in general.


And it appears that the district’s policy of negative reinforcement is only getting worse.    


Like a state trooper trying to meet a quota for speeding tickets, Dr. Ackerman has recently vowed to make sure more teachers receive an unsatisfactory on their performance rating this year, and that more principals are disciplined for failing to meet academic standards (this will undoubtedly attract more talented young people to the district).         


“We can’t have this kind of performance,” Dr. Ackerman told the Inquirer.  “There will be changes in the principal staff, and there will be many more teachers rated unsatisfactory this year.” 


Ackerman said that regional superintendents have been given instructions and training to toughen their standards for observations.


Apparently, by giving more teachers and principals an unsatisfactory rating, the district will raise the educational “bar”.


“. . . we’re setting a standard and a bar that’s much higher than it’s ever been,” Ackerman said.  “Once you set that standard, then people know they can’t produce below it, because there’s a consequence.”


A consequence for teachers and principals, sure (and I’ll be the first to admit there is room for teachers and principals to improve, given the proper supports).  But what about the consequences for the district’s other “stakeholders,” such as parents? 


Incredibly enough, the district doesn’t even require parents to perform the most basic of tasks, such as filling out an application for free school breakfasts.


District officials, as well as state politicians and advocates of the Universal Feeding Program (a plan that requires no application for free meals), have already publicly declared that filling out meal applications is too “daunting” a task for our city’s mothers and fathers, and that we should refrain from using such forms because urban families tend to “reject” paperwork.


Wayne Grasela, the district’s senior vice president for food services, said that the task of getting families to start filling out meal applications would be “monumental”. 


If getting parents to fill out meal applications is “monumental,” how do you think our city’s families handle homework?  Report cards?  Summer reading?  Registration deadlines?  


Of course, this didn’t stop Dr. Ackerman from inviting parents to walk into their child’s classroom—unannounced, mind you—to check things out. 


“The district has no policy that says parents need to make an appointment,” Dr. Ackerman said, explaining that schools “belong to the parents.”


I found this particular comment quite interesting.  If our public schools “belong to the parents,” why then are they not held accountable for these schools, the same way the teachers and principals are?  Why don’t they face consequences for being chronically absent from parent-teacher conferences, for failing to show-up for IEP and CSAP meetings, for failing to sign and return progress reports, absence notes, and insurance forms? 


And when is the district going to step up to the plate and hold the community accountable?  When are they going to start a campaign to recover the almost $5 million in computer equipment that’s been stolen from city schools since 2005, most of which has been taken from impoverished neighborhoods that “lack” resources?


And what about addressing the unruly behavior of the students themselves?  What about the 15,000 criminal incidents reported last school year?  The 1,728 students who assaulted teachers?  The 479 weapons discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms?  The 357 weapons that were found in high schools? 


Besides a lot of “zero-tolerance for violence” rhetoric from district officials, not much has been done. 


But who’s solely to blame for our troubled school system?  The teachers and principals. 



Now we know why there is a wounded spirit in this city.