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

7 thoughts on “City schools need reform, not revolution

  1. Chris – great and thoughful commentary in today’s Inquirer. You are exactly right: one of the problems with the District has been the constant “reform” each new Superitendent/CEO brings in place of consistency. How about Paslay for Superitendent?

  2. As a retired high school teacher from the Philly School District, I completely agree with this assessment. There was another article in this past Sunday’s Inquirer in Kristen Graham’s column about a recent speech by education historian Diane Ravitch in which she also criticizes the District’s reorganization initiative. She (Ravitch) describes the reorganization as merely “shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.” As is pointed out in your article, we have seen these changes before, and no to avail.

    I would like to add a related issue: What then can be done to improve student achievement in Philadelphia, or any school district with a long history of extremely low achievement scores?

    I have always come up with the same answer: Never promote students not achieving on grade level.

    I mean, NEVER. How is it that such large numbers of 9th graders test on the 4th & 5th grade levels? Ninth graders! The only answer is that they had been continuously passed along from those lower grade levels. I believe we should stop doing it.

    I know — easier said then done: “Social promotion” perhaps, or, “Middle schools would become too crowed — it would cost too much to hold back so many students”, etc. We have heard them over and over again. But the truth is, it should not be done.

    Why not put most, if not all, of the additional resources going to the improvement of high schools into the improvement of middle schools? Rather than having one Bill Gates Technical High School, have several Bill Gates middle schools, some being devoted only to remediation of students falling behind grade level.

    I see it as attacking the problem at its two weakest points. 1. the pre-school years, and, 2. the middle school years. I remember an article in the Inquirer in the late 70’s about low achievement levels in the inner city schools. Back then, Philadelphia schools reflected achievement levels slightly above the nation level from 1st through 4th grades. (I do not believe this is the case today, and is why I see pre-schoolling as one of the two weakest points.) As was displayed with great clarity in a line graph in the article, a sudden drop occurred beginning at the 5th grade level. It continued dropping until about 8th & 9th grades. It then sort of leveled off. (The article went on to note that, at the time, between 5th and 8th grades almost 1/3 of the students in inner city schools actually regressed!)

    I believe at one time the District started what was referred to as ‘early intervention’ – which, I believe, was to provide remediation for 7th and 8th graders. I am not sure if it still exists, given the current budget cuts. But it seems to have been a step in the right direction. However, I believe much, much more is needed. We know how statistics have shown that students who enter high school achieving on grade level have a much higher probability of graduating on grade level – a fact with which all high school teachers can agree. But, will there ever be real reform in the Philadelphia?

    • Bob,

      You make good points. Urban education is a complex issue, and there are never quick fixes. A holistic approach is needed–reform of schools, community, culture, values, etc. It’s a tough battle, but you try to make an individual difference when you can, one student at a time. Thanks for your thoughtful post.

      Chris Paslay

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