A Letter to Brian Armstead of the Philadelphia Education Fund

Dear Mr. Brian Armstead,


Thank you for writing a letter in response to my recent Inquirer commentary headlined “False goals for city schools”.  It’s good to know there are citizens like yourself who are concerned about the education of our city’s children.  I very much admire the work you do for urban youth in Philadelphia. 


Your letter was indeed earnest and heartfelt.  However, I think you misinterpreted the premise of my article, so I’d like to clarify some of my points so you can better understand them. 


First, you very boldly assume that I have low expectations for my students.  Obviously you’re a social worker and not a school teacher, so you can’t possibly comprehend how insulting that assumption actually is (it’s okay, I forgive you).    


But it’s not your insult that bothers me.  It’s the fact that I made it a clear point in my commentary to stress the importance of HIGH EXPECTATIONS, and how no teacher can afford to ever give up on a child.  If you go back and reread the article you will see the following lines: “Of course, despite varying ability levels in both academics and athletics, neither coaches nor teachers should give up on groups of children.  Educators must continue to set high expectations and challenge all students.” 


Did you miss this or purposely ignore it?  (And for the record, last year I was Swenson High School’s sole 11th grade English teacher, and I personally had a big hand in raising our 11th grade PSSA reading scores 15 full points.  How many city students do YOU teach?  How many percentage points did you raise their scores?)


Second, you say that I “error” in assuming that state tests are meant to find the average.  I never said this.  I said “grade level” is an arbitrary term.  I wrote, “If you define grade level according to what a student of average academic ability should be able to learn by a given point in his or her schooling, you’re ensuring that about half of all students will not be at grade level.”


In large groups of children (Philadelphia has 167,000 students), this is a mathematical certainty.  It has absolutely NOTHING to do with expectations.  Imagine how nonsensical it would be for a real estate agent to insist that ALL the homes in a particular neighborhood be above the average home price.       


Third, you misunderstand what state tests such as the PSSA measure.  Obviously they establish a “baseline or a floor” as you say, but this “floor” is not as basic as you and the public make it out to be.  High stakes standardized tests go way beyond rudimentary reading and math skills.  We’re not talking about kids simply being able to read the newspaper and do basic arithmetic to figure out their change in the grocery store.  To be proficient and on grade level as an 11th grader in PA means doing advanced algebra and geometry in math, and analyzing complex pieces of literature in reading.  I also explained this in the article.


Next:  I don’t hold it against you when you say that my comments “may represent the single biggest factor in why so many of our schools fail to educate our children”.  Again, you’re not a school teacher (and you don’t know me personally) so you have no idea how grossly offensive that statement is.  But I don’t take it personal.  It’s okay.  You’re just trying to help. 


As a writer and teacher of writing I’d like to make one final comment, and it’s about the concluding lines of your letter: “The state simply sets the bar,” you write, “it is up to all of us to do what we can to help our children get over that bar. And they can do it. The single biggest factor in their not achieving is the false belief that they can’t.”


This closing has a good prose rhythm and succeeds in packing real inspirational gusto.  However, it’s a tad banal and sing-song, not to mention ludicrous.  Everyone CAN’T do what they put their mind to.  If they could, half my students would be professional athletes and have multimillion dollar recording contracts.


It’s the teacher’s job to set HIGH EXPECTATIONS (did you catch it this time), but also pursue attainable goals in a multitude of careers, not just those tied to advanced reading and math.  As director of civic engagement for the Philadelphia Education Fund, it might behoove you to focus more of your attention on the real and less on the romantic.




Christopher Paslay

English Teacher     


False goals for city schools

Although I agree that our public school system has plenty of room for improvement, it’s misleading to suggest that all students can one day perform “at grade level” in all subjects.

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “False goals for city schools”.  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