Readers respond to ‘School reform’s alphabet’

by Christopher Paslay

My most recent Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “School reform’s alphabet,” has generated some interesting feedback from readers. 


The day after I published the article I received an email from a New York City public school teacher.  In it he wrote,


On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to read your article regarding “accommodations” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This surprise comes from the fact that as a teacher in NYC, I have yet to read any editorials in the New York Times that are from a teacher’s perspective. Even more importantly, but less surprising, is that most editorials vilify teachers, holding them accountable for all society’s woes.
Having written numerous letters to the New York Times, I only wish we had a voice in our city press as you appear to have in yours—maybe I should move to Philly.
Keep up the good work.



I’d like to take this time to officially thank V. C. for writing.

The responses weren’t all positive, of course.  Kelly Darr of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Len Rieser of the Education Law Center teamed up and wrote a letter to the Inquirer which came to the defense of English language learners and children with disabilities.  The two explained that such groups have a federal right to accommodations. 


The only problem is my article never said English language learners and the disabled shouldn’t receive extra help.  I simply pointed out public education’s double standard and suggested that accountability shouldn’t stop with school teachers.


I must have really ruffled Len Rieser’s feathers because he also used his column at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook to blog about my article.  His post, headlined “Why can’t they just teach their kids English” repeated the points he made in his letter to the Inquirer: that English language learners have a right to accommodations.  Again, although I insinuated that parents of immigrants should shoulder some of the language burden, nowhere in my commentary did I call for their services to be taken away.


Len also took issue with my comment about the Philadelphia School District spending large amounts of money on special teachers for children of immigrants.  I wrote,


If you just moved to this country and haven’t taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him.   


Obviously, when you read my statements in the context of the whole article, it’s clear I meant the district has allocated big bucks on ELL services as a whole.  Yet somehow Len got hung up on the word “him” and said:


On, then, to the assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for [your son].”  In fact, the District spends a total of $6,960.63 per year, per student (according to 2007-08 figures, the most recent available), for the entire instructional program – so if we assume a seven-period day, two periods of which are devoted to ESOL (which would be unusual), we’re looking at maybe $2,000. Moreover, since that ESOL class replaces “regular” English, there’s a partial wash in terms of cost.


At this rate, your son would have to spend fifty years in ESOL before he would have consumed even the first of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that he is accused of costing the system.     


This misinterpretation is the result of one of two things: One—Len must have been burning the midnight oil when he wrote his blog and as a result his thinking was a little bit fuzzy; or two—Len purposely twisted my words in the grand tradition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 


Either way I’d like to say thanks—I’m flattered by the attention.  Oh, and on a side note: I checked the Philadelphia School District’s 2009-10 budget, and they actually spend $34,462,499 on English language learners.  That’s 34 MILLION, with an “M”.  I guess I underestimated.


God Bless.


School reform’s alphabet

“Two words, both 14 letters long and beginning with the letter A, have become quite trendy in the world of public education. The first is accountability, and the second is accommodations.”


This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “School reform’s alphabet”.  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


A letter to PA State Senator Jeffrey E. Piccola

Dear Jeffrey E. Piccola,


Greetings Mr. State Senator.  I am writing this letter in response to the legislation you introduced last month in Harrisburg known as the Education Empowerment Act.  I’d like to thank you for making an effort to improve Pennsylvania’s struggling public schools.


If I understand correctly, your empowerment act will give local PA school boards the power to overhaul struggling schools by turning them into charters or schools run by education management organizations. 


I read in the Inquirer that you based your proposal on the recent academic gains made by the Philadelphia School District, which you attributed to charters and private managers. 


No, I’m not offended that you refused to give credit for this improvement to Philadelphia school teachers like myself who work hard every day educating children in traditional public schools.  I know you’re very busy in Harrisburg, so you probably didn’t read the report prepared by the Accountability Review Council for the School Reform Commission in February of 2007.


The report showed that from 2002 to 2006, PSSA scores went up 23 percent in math and 14.5 percent in reading in district-managed schools, while EMO-managed schools only had gains of 19.6 in math and 11.9 in reading.  In other words, traditional public schools out-performed private managers across the board. 


Working in Harrisburg can be quite time consuming, so it is perfectly acceptable that you failed to read the study conducted by RAND/ Research for Action which concluded, “Schools managed by private providers, with additional resources provided for that management, gained at a similar rate as schools in the rest of the District that did not receive additional resources.”  Loose translation: EMOs did no better even with extra money.


As chairman of the State Education Committee you’re undoubtedly bogged down with loads of data.  This probably explains why you also missed the story in the Washington Post dated June 29th, 2008, headlined, “Setback for Philadelphia Schools Plan”.  The article detailed how the experiment with private managers was basically a flop.


“This month, the experiment suffered a severe setback,” the article reported, “as the state commission overseeing Philadelphia‘s schools voted to take back control of six of the privatized schools, while warning 20 others that they had a year to show progress or they, too, would revert to district control.” 


In 2009, after it was shown that 10 of the 16 elementary schools run by private firms did worse than district-run schools, the district demoted the firms from the status of “manager” to the status of “consultant”.     


Charter schools have a whole boat-load of issues that I won’t bother getting into.  But education management organizations?  Their poor track record speaks for itself. 


So why, Mr. Piccola, is your Education Empowerment Act so set on recycled reforms that don’t work?  Is it politics?  Or is it simply less time consuming to blindly drink the EMO Kool-Aid?    


I thank you for your dedication to education, but you might want to actually research your ideas before you jump on the reform badwagon.         


Yours Truly,


Christopher Paslay

School Teacher