City schools need reform, not revolution

Like Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, the Philadelphia School District is about to be blown up. The School Reform Commission announced plans last week to close 40 schools next year and two dozen more by 2017. It also plans to allow outside organizations to make proposals to run groups of schools.

The idea of breaking the district into smaller, more manageable chunks is not new. Former schools chief David Hornbeck broke the system into “clusters” in the 1990s. Unfortunately, that created all kinds of unintended bureaucracy, which is why the next schools CEO phased them out.

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “City schools need reform, not revolution.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  It serves as a brief counterpoint to School Reform Commission chairman Pedro A. Ramos’ commentary in yesterday’s Inquirer headlined “Phila. children deserve better.”  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Is the End of Public Education in Philadelphia Near?

by Lisa Haver

The five year plan proposed by School District officials may mark the end of democratically run neighborhood schools.     

The end of public education in Philadelphia seems to be upon us.  A five-year school reform plan proposed by Philadelphia School District officials calls for massive overhauls in virtually every aspect of the school system—from finances, to academics, to central management.  These drastic changes suggest to many that the District is intent on expediting the privatization of its schools, despite its promise to stay the traditional route and invest in neighborhoods and communities.

Here are some changes the District proposed at a news conference Tuesday:

  • The closing of 40 “low-performing” and underused schools next year, and six more each additional year until 2017.
  • The movement of thousands of students from traditional neighborhood schools to charters.  The district estimates that 40 percent of public school students will attend charters at the completion of the five-year plan.  This comes as a result of the School Reform Commission’s signing of the “Great Schools Compact” as outlined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • “Modernizing” custodial, transportation, and maintenance services by threatening district workers with layoffs if they don’t agree to accept LESS than what the outsourcers are asking.
  • District officials have also proposed a major transformation in the management of the school system.  The current structure would be completely scrapped and replaced by “achievement networks,” each overseeing groups of about 25 schools. These networks could be made up of school district personnel, a charter management organization, or an education management organization (such as Edison or Universal). A bidding process would determine who controls these networks. Most school services—presumably curricula, discipline, staffing and supplies—would be controlled by each network.  The District has not explained how this new system would save money.  This would spell a return to the patronage system which plagued Philadelphia schools just a few generations ago.

How, pray tell, have we arrived at a point where the public school system can be auctioned off to the highest bidder? 

Those who have followed the actions of the current SRC shouldn’t be surprised by the announcement of this draconian plan.  The SRC members, while billing themselves as more transparent and open to the public, have conducted business in a way that observers have come to realize is, on many occasions, just the opposite.

I was in attendance when the SRC voted on November 23, 2011—the day before Thanksgiving—to take part in the Great Schools Compact. I asked the Commissioners why they were voting on a matter that would have major implications for the future of the District without any opportunity for the public to adequately read, comprehend, and discuss the agreement.  I was assured that this was only a preliminary vote and that there would be many occasions for Philadelphians to have their say.

Since then the SRC, along with other city officials, have made clear their intentions to make any change necessary (in management, teacher evaluations, and in the number of additional charters), in order to comply with the Compact.  However, the issue has not been on the agenda of any of the five subsequent formal meetings.  There has been virtually no opportunity for parents, teachers, or anyone in the community to make any contribution on this issue, let alone hear the SRC discuss their reasons for signing on.  (One informal SRC meeting, which was billed as a forum to find out about the details of the Compact, was actually a discussion on the merits of charter schools).

The truth is, the District’s adoption of the Compact was a decision based on finances, not academics.  Bill and Melinda Gates do not bestow grants; they issue a contract.  If you don’t comply, you don’t get their money.

This SRC has also changed its schedule for formal meetings (those with an agenda which includes resolutions to be voted on) from once a week to once a month.  Those in attendance have seen meetings last until 11:30 p.m., with a speakers list exceeding 80 people.  At February’s meeting, I objected when the commissioners proceeded to vote on their list of resolutions after most people had left.  There was no way for those in attendance to know what was being voted on, since the five pages of resolutions had not previously been distributed or discussed.

What is the point of speaking on a resolution which has already been passed? I was assured by Chairman Pedro Ramos that the Commission would take steps to rectify the problem.  They have not.  The self-described transparency of this SRC is a sham.  It is an insult to all of the parents, teachers, students and members of the community who are involved in trying to make this school system better.

So what is the answer?

Organized opposition.

Last year, school district nurses organized themselves when threatened with layoffs.  They have held rallies every Wednesday (some in the rain and snow) on the steps of 440 since December in an effort to truly involve all of the people—parents, teachers, students, community members—in trying to save our schools.  I have been at most of these rallies.  I go because I know that the School District sees a group of educators and community members who will not give up.

This five-year plan, which could spell the demise of public education in this city, must be challenged by the people.  We must do everything we can to speak out against it.

Lisa Haver is an education activist and retired teacher.

The Hunger Games: Teaching Youth Addicted to Violence

by Christopher Paslay

While teachers should work to make lessons interesting, schools must hold fast to academic rigor and fight to undo the negative effects violence is having on learning.

The Hunger Games, a film set in a future where the government selects a boy and girl from each district to fight to the death on live television, has been the number one film in America for over a month.  The Motion Picture Association of America rates the film PG-13 “for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images—all involving teens.”    

Entertainment has come a long way over the past half-century.  In 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock’s film Psycho was released in theaters, America was a different place. One of the reasons Hitchcock decided to shoot Psycho in black-and-white was because he thought it would be too gory in color. Interestingly, the “goriest” part of the film was the famous shower scene, which involved no more than a man slashing through a shower curtain with a knife, a woman screaming and raising her hands to block the blows, and blood, which was actually Bosco’s chocolate syrup, gurgling down the drain. Nevertheless, the scene shocked and horrified millions of Americans, leaving some, such as my grandmother, outraged and speechless.

That was gore in 1960. Today gore is a bit different. Horror films in the 21st century are beyond graphic, prompting directors to employ special effects crews who can convincingly hack-off heads, explode torsos, drive power drills through chest cavities, and cut legs with chainsaws. In such cases, blood and guts are everywhere, orange-yellow leaking from oozing intestines and dark purple flowing from gushing arteries. If my grandmother were alive today, I wonder what she would think of all this? I wonder how she would react to seeing the movie Hostel, or any of the various Saw films?

Through television, film, Internet, video games, and music videos, students today have an ample opportunity to develop a high tolerance for violence, not just a tolerance for it, in fact, but a taste for it. It’s true. I hear my students talking about it all the time. Over the years, I’ve heard kids in my homeroom passionately discuss the scene in the film American History X where the skinhead makes the black guy bite down on the curb and then stomps on the back of his head, killing him (this, by the way, has become known in the urban lexicon as a curb stomp).

I’ve heard them brag about their prowess in the video game Grand Theft Auto, explaining how they pumped so many people full of holes with a semiautomatic weapon, leaving them to die in a puddle of blood. I’ve heard them proudly recite the lyrics to their favorite songs, either rap or metal or some hybrid of the two, songs with a message about shooting or killing someone or about back-slapping a bitch across the face because she didn’t act right. I’ve seen them huddle together in their desks and talk about the crazy Internet sites they visit, the ones that show actual footage of real war, real murder, real suicides.

In light of the violent culture of 21st-century America and young people’s fascination with it, how should educators proceed with education? How do teachers and schools compete with the adrenaline rush of blood and guts and death when it comes to classroom instruction? With so much distraction and desensitization, how do teachers get on a student’s radar?

Reading teachers have been fighting this battle for years. The further society pushes the envelope when it comes to violence, the more desensitized youth become. Lessons that were once spicy and provocative slowly become tame and fail to stimulate. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 film Romeo + Juliet is a perfect example. Ten years ago, my students sat captivated by the opening scene, which depicted a full-scale gun battle at a gas station between the Motagues and the Capulets. Today, when the film is shown to freshmen, too often they are less than enthused.

This lack of enthusiasm carries over to the literature in many public school textbooks. There’s only so much a teacher can do to make Henry David Thoreau’s 1848 essay “Civil Disobedience,” which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s 11th-grade curriculum, fun and interesting. There’s only so much a teacher can do to spice-up Ralph Waldo Emerson’s tedious 1841 essay “Self-Reliance.” There’s only so much a teacher can do to get 16–year-old inner-city teenagers excited about The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, even when they focus on the bloody fist fight between Douglas and Mr. Covey, the slave master. Teachers might spice up the reading by facilitating discussions about racism, dignity, and self-respect, but ultimately, because teachers need to give their lessons rigor and work on language and critical-thinking skills, students must read the story and analyze it through real, structured writing. And this is where many kids begin to tune out.

Group work may help and so might a more hands-on, project-based lesson. These instructional strategies can only get a teacher so far when it comes to literacy, however. Young people must be taught to come out of their comfort zones and accept the fact that academics isn’t going to pack the same adrenaline rush as the film The Hunger Games; to combat this problem, many schools across the area are making the young adult novel The Hunger Games part of the curriculum.

Teachers are there to inform, not necessarily to entertain. While teachers should work to make lessons interesting, schools must hold fast to academic rigor and fight to undo the negative effects violence is having on learning.

Congratulations to the Inquirer for Winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service

by Christopher Paslay

The subject of violence in Philadelphia public schools is back in the national news, but this time in a good way.  Earlier today it was officially announced that the Philadelphia Inquirer won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its “Assault on Learning” series, which documented the underreported violence in the Philadelphia School District.  Congratulations to Inquirer reporters John Sullivan, Susan Snyder, Kristen A. Graham, Dylan Purcell, and Jeff Gammage who worked on the story, among other editors and photographers.    

Mike Armstrong covered the win in his story “Inquirer wins Pulitzer Prize for school violence series”:

The Inquirer’s investigation of the climate of pervasive violence in Philadelphia’s public schools Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for public service, the profession’s most prestigious honor.

The award is the 19th Pulitzer Prize for the 183-year-old newspaper and its first since 1997.

The seven-part series, “Assault on Learning,” revealed that violence in city schools was widespread and underreported, with 30,000 serious incidents over the last five school years. Those findings were later corroborated by a Philadelphia School District blue-ribbon panel on safety, spurred an overhaul of incident reporting in the district, and prompted the hiring of a state-funded safe-schools advocate.

Shortly after 3 p.m., journalists in the newsroom erupted into applause, hugs and whoops when the announcement came that The Inquirer had won.

In its announcement, the Pulitzer committee said the series used “powerful print narratives and videos to illuminate crimes committed by children against children and to stir reforms to improve safety for teachers and students.”

Read the full story by clicking here.

Again, congrats to the Inquirer and all those involved in winning this very prestigious award.

If Police and Firefighters were Treated Like Teachers

by Christopher Paslay  

While politicians view police and firefighters as heroes, they tend to see schoolteachers as Ichabod Crane.     

In 2002, when No Child Left Behind became law, George W. Bush boasted that it would transform education in America.  By 2014, he insisted, 100 percent of our nation’s children would score at least “proficient” on state exams in reading and math.  Despite learning disabilities, poverty, single parent families, an increase in autism, institutional racism, poor nutrition, the drug culture, and dozens of other biological, psychological and societal ills, every single kid in the U.S. would be able to read and perform math at the highest levels in history.  Those schools not achieving this lofty goal would be shut down or overhauled, and their teachers and principals fired or reassigned.   

From NCLB’s onset, real life teachers in the real life trenches of America’s public school classrooms knew the law was misguided, oversimplified, and pie-in-the-sky.  At its heart it was about control—a politician’s battle for the billions of dollars in raw materials that go along with the institution known as American Public Education. 

To highlight the absurdity of NCLB, imagine this law being applied to police and firefighters, both of which, like teachers, are public servants. 

Let’s start with police.  Imagine a law that required all crime in the United States to be abolished by a given year, say, 2018.  Murder, rape, burglary, assault, etc. would be measured in every precinct in every city in the United States, and the results would be assessed by race and socioeconomic status.  Any precinct not reducing crime levels across all predetermined racial and economic subgroups and meeting “adequate yearly progress” would be eligible to be reconstituted and overhauled.  Officers in neighborhoods with the highest crime would be fired, their captains replaced, and their resources and budgets cut.  Policies on policing would also be rewritten.  The replacements, as well as the new policies, would be filled and enacted by non-police officers with zero law enforcement experience. 

How about firefighters?  Imagine a law that required every building and home in the United States to be up to fire code by 2018.  Any ladder company that didn’t wipe out death by fire and smoke inhalation in their neighborhoods would be up for overhaul.  Money and resources would be cut, their personnel fired and reassigned.  New expert “firefighters,” who were career politicians with no fire-rescue experience, would now run the show. 

People like New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, of course, say you can’t compare teachers with police and firefighters.  Bloomberg has said, according to a story in Capital New York, that police and firefighters are interchangeable widgets, and that teachers aren’t.  Which is why teachers can be evaluated and publically scrutinized, and police and firefighters can’t:

This is not like police and fire.  You think about it. Police and fire, we assign a cop or a firefighter to a station, to a post, to a firehouse, to a piece of equipment. And all of the firefighters and all of the cops are changed. Not only are they interchangeable, we deliberately move them around, because that helps their careers and they learn more things and they’re better able to perform their jobs. . . .

Bloomberg went on to say that education was different.

But is it really?  Under No Child Left Behind, the very reform that was enacted to increase teacher effectiveness, teachers are treated like widgets, too.  “Failing” teachers at “failing” schools are recycled and re-circulated, much like the changing of police and firefighters. 

Recently in Detroit public schools, pink slips were sent to over 4,000 teachers.  The teachers who want their jobs back must reapply for their position.  If they aren’t hired back at their current school, they will be eligible to apply to teach in another school in the district; a similar mass layoff took place in Detroit last year.   

Still, politicians will never hold teachers in the same regard as police and firefighters.  Police and firefighters—especially firefighters—are viewed as heroes.  Schoolteachers, on the other hand, are commonly seen as Ichabod Crane: gangly and self-serving.

Until true educational experts are at the helm of school reform, public schools and their teachers will continue to be at the bottom of the political pecking order.

Public School Notebook Reviews ‘The Village Proposal’

by Christopher Paslay

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed III calls The Village Proposal “provocative” and “engaging,” although he points out some flaws regarding the idea of the universal “we” and the concept of social justice.         

Below are the opening lines of the Notebook’s review of my book The Village Proposal by Samuel Reed III (click here to read the full review):   

Christopher Paslay brings his expertise as a high school English teacher, contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chalk and Talk blogger to make The Village Proposal a timely and compelling read. The book examines the problems in education by juxtaposing Paslay’s personal memoir with solid documented research. . . .

Reed, a fellow Philadelphia educator, writer, consultant and educational researcher, has made some interesting observations and analyses of the book.  Before I respond to his review, here’s some quick background:              

In the spring of 2009 I decided to sit down and write a book on education reform.  I tried to do something unique and original—combine memoir from an everyday Philadelphia schoolteacher with researched-based commentary on how to remedy America’s ailing public schools. 

I spent nearly two years of my life on the project—collecting research, writing, rewriting, developing a proposal, shopping for an agent, finding a publisher, working with an editor, revising, checking facts, developing a title, collecting jacket cover endorsements, and going through all the painstaking work of marketing the book to the education community. 

In September of 2011 The Village Proposal was released by Rowman & Littlefield

To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.  Worse still, it seems the blend of memoir and commentary exists in a limbo that flies under the radar.      

But Reed’s review, which was published today on the Notebook’s website, seems to have captured much of what I was trying to achieve:         

You may not agree with some or all of the arguments, but that is exactly what makes Village Proposal a good read. Paslay argues using a narrative structure not found in many books about education reform. He doesn’t bore the reader with an overly complex or over-simplified problem-and-solution approach to education. He presents a nuanced view of shared responsibility. . . .

That was indeed part of the purpose of the book, to craft a narrative that succeeded in developing plot and character, while weaving-in commentary about the issues facing public education. 

On a more critical note, Reed noted that I misinterpreted the concept of social justice:

The chapter “Multiculturalism and the Achievement Gap” has the greatest tension. “Social Justice” and Amiri Baraka are the competing foes in the climactic narrative about shared responsibilities. But contrary to Paslay’s perspective, social justice should not be viewed as a polarizing force, but as a means to conduct inquiry around equity, fairness, and what it means to live in a democratic society. . .

This indeed is a valid point.  However, the concept of social justice, as I mentioned many times in the book, is a matter of perspective.  I wouldn’t say that Amiri Baraka’s call for revolution was an inquiry into fairness.  Holding on to past injuries is not healing, nor is it proactive to stoke the flames of racial tension in students and young people.  Our ultimate goal as humans should be colorblindness.       

Reed also pointed out what he felt was a short-coming of the book: 

His style of combining his memoir and documented research fuels the narrative of shared responsibility. But Paslay falls short in crystallizing his first-person narrative to incorporate the universal “we”.

In the chapter “First Year,” there is a sense that Paslay’s background of attending Catholic schools and growing up in a “refined” suburban, two-parent household makes his edgier students the “other.”  

In the chapter “A Day in the Life,this “otherness” reappears when the idea of “What’s with these kids’ parents?” enters the narrative frame. Therein lies the rub with not only the title of the book, The Village Proposal, but also the whole village concept. For the “it takes a village” narrative to work, the “I” must be the universal “we” and “these kids” must be “our kids.” . . .

This is also valid observation by Reed.  However, in defense of the book, in later chapters the relationship between myself and my students does develop into a universal “we,” which is part of the arc of the book—that after my initial years in the classroom, I finally develop a true relationship and appreciation of my students that is free from separateness; this “otherness” indeed dissolves over time as I gain experience and bond with my students. 

Reed’s conclusion is very thoughtful and complimentary nonetheless:   

Overall, though, this book deserves accolades. The structure, narrative style, documented research, and provocative commentary make it a must-read for teacher educators, teachers, policy makers and anyone interested in understanding the landscape of education reform.

Paslay deserves a lot of credit for writing a timely portrait of his vision of what shared responsibility looks like and feels like. For writing The Village Proposal while working as a full-time classroom teacher, prolific blogger, frequent contributor to the Inquirer and sometime-critic of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Paslay has my utmost admiration.

Thank you Mr. Reed for your thoughtful and in depth review.  The feeling of admiration is, for the record, mutual.   


Despite ‘Putting Students First,’ Michelle Rhee Has Some Very Adult Agendas

by Christopher Paslay

The former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools launches statewide political lobby group in New York.     

Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools who was forced to resign because of her draconian style of management, is back and ready to settle old scores.  Last year she launched, a so-called “movement to transform public education.” 

According to its neatly packaged website, its goal is to cut through politics and adult agendas in order to give America’s children a first-rate education.  Ironically, its policies are driven by politics (privatizing public education to put public tax dollars in the pockets of charter operators), adult agendas (union busting to get back at those who had Rhee fired in D.C.), and Rhee’s own misguided and elitist reform ideas (discounting teaching experience in favor of keeping on novice teachers, which Rhee claims are the nation’s “best”).

But now it appears as if Rhee is no longer trying to hide behind the “interest of students”.  She’s just recently launched a statewide political group in New York called StudentsFirstNY.  Anna M. Phillips wrote about the group in a recent New York Times article

. . . On the board are some of the most well-known and polarizing figures in public education, including Ms. Rhee; [Joel] Klein, now a News Corporation executive; and Eva S. Moskowitz, the former councilwoman who now runs a chain of charter schools. Also on the board are former Mayor Edward I. Koch; Geoffrey Canada, the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone organization, a network of charter schools; and a number of venture capitalists and hedge fund managers, who have served as the movement’s financial backers.

Aside from promoting changes throughout the state, members of the group hope to neutralize the might of the teachers’ unions, whose money, endorsements and get-out-the-vote efforts have swung many close elections. . . .

Those paying close attention to Rhee’s agenda, however, understand that her lobbying is nothing new.  Last November, in a Huffington Post article, Joy Resmovits wrote about another politically motivated arm of Rhee’s StudentsFirst organization:

. . . In New Jersey, StudentsFirst, a new reform group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, spent $400,000 on two successful Democratic legislature candidates through its local arm Better Education 4 Kids New Jersey, a group recently founded by hedge fund managers that backs Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s education agenda. . . .

According to the policy agenda on Rhee’s StudentsFirst website, “In too many American schools, current laws, policies, and practices put adult interests ahead of students.”

It appears Rhee and her group’s political backers clearly have a few “adult interests” of their own.

Test your knowledge of America’s public school teachers!

1.  What percentage of public school teachers are white?

A)  50%

B)  84%

C)  72%


2.  What percentage of public school teachers are women?

A)  55%

B)  84%

C)  62%


3.  What percentage are 29 years old or younger?

A)  18%

B)  21%

C)  52%


4)  What percentage has five years teaching experience or less?

A) 19%

B)  26%

C)  42%


5.  What percentage has earned a master’s degree? 

A)  28%

B)  43%

C)  32%


6.  What percentage teach in the city?

A)  49%

B)  31%

C)  22%


7.  What percentage teach in the suburbs?

A)  51%

B)  26%

C)  12%


8.  What percentage teach general elementary?

A)  35%

B)  48%

C)  2%


9.  What percentage entered the classroom from an alternative teacher preparation program?

A)  33%

B)  16%

C)  92%


10.  What percentage are “very or somewhat satisfied” with their overall job as a teacher?

A)  10%

B)  89%

C)  51%



1.  The answer is B.  84% of teachers are white.

2.  The answer is B.  84% of teachers are women.

3.  The answer is B.  21% are 29 years old or younger.

4.  The answer is B.  26% have five years experience or less.

5.  The answer is B.  43% have master’s degrees.

6.  The answer is B.  31% teach in the city.

7.  The answer is B.  26% teach in the suburbs.

8.  The answer is B.  48% teach general elementary.

9.  The answer is B.  16% entered the classroom via an alternative route.

10.  The answer is B.  89% are satisfied with their overall job as a teacher.

(Data from “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”)

Milton Street Named Superintendent of Philadelphia Schools

City of Brotherly Love officials shock the education community and announce Milton Street as Philadelphia’s new chief of schools.     

by Bartleby Baumgartner

PHILADELPHIA, PA  In a shocking early morning decision from their headquarters beneath Billy Penn, City of Brotherly Love officials announced that former state legislator and federal prisoner Milton Street will be the new chief of public schools.

“His prison record really shouldn’t be an issue here,” a City of Brotherly Love spokesperson said.  “I don’t see why people always focus on the negatives.”  The City insisted he was only in jail for a few misdemeanor counts of tax evasion, and that that shouldn’t keep him from serving as superintendent.

“Who pays their taxes anymore, anyway?” a City spokesperson said.  “Queen Arlene never paid her taxes.  Didn’t she owe backed taxes in like three states?”

Several parents on hand for the announcement questioned the City’s decision, citing Milton Street’s age—he is now 72 years old—as a factor.

“This guy is pretty old,” Beatrice Bixby, mother of a Philadelphia middle-schooler, said.  “Ain’t he like seventy-something now?  I don’t know if I want some old guy running our schools.  Old people forget stuff, and they have trouble seeing things.  Like when they back their car up out of their garage.  You ever see an old person do that?  Just throw their car in reverse and start backing up, not caring who is behind them?  Man, that is no joke.”

The City stood behind its decision to bring Milton on.  They said he has the passion, the experience, and the nifty black wool hat to lead Philadelphia’s school children into the 21st century.

“Sure he was in prison, but have you seen his wool hat?” a City official said.  “You got a guy like that wearing a hat like that, who knows?  The sky’s the limit.  Great things are possible.”

“He looks like an elf!” said Brandi Brown, a sixth grader from the Far Northeast.

The tide may indeed be turning for Philadelphia’s public schools.  Of course, only time will tell if the City’s April 1st decision to hire Milton Street will reap the kind of benefits the education community has long been hoping for.