Three reasons why Philadelphia public schools fail (and what can be done about it)

by Christopher Paslay

Acknowledging three key problems—and providing solutions—can save the Philadelphia School District.

Thursday the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) released a report detailing “key findings and recommendations” on how to improve the workings of the Philadelphia School District (PSD).  Titled “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” the BCG was paid $4.4 million from private donors to produce it. 

Here are three “commonsense” findings and recommendations not included in BCG’s multimillion dollar report:  


1.  The PSD remains unable to remove the violent and unruly 15 percent of students who cripple the entire school system and ruin the educations of the hardworking 85 percent. 

Despite “School Safety Advocates” and “zero tolerance policies,” the fact remains that Philadelphia public schools are rife with violence and inappropriate student behavior (see the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series Assault on Learning).  Unfortunately, in today’s politically correct environment where a suffocating brand of educational socialism is promoted, the rights of the incorrigible few supersede the rights of the admirable many.  In other words, it is near impossible to remove students from PSD schools (even “permanently expelled” students can file a right to return to their neighborhood schools after their “sentence” is served). 

One reason is that under PA’s Compulsory Education law, school districts are responsible for providing alternative placements to students they remove from schools, and this can be quite expensive; as a result, troublemakers are forced to coexist with their peers and negatively impact classroom learning environments.      

Another reason is that social justice lobby groups (such as the Education Law Center) and student activist groups (such as Youth United for Change, the Philadelphia Student Union, and the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools) play the race card and fight to keep violent students in schools instead of putting their resources behind the educations of the majority of their hardworking peers struggling to learn.  (This is why charter schools are able to thrive in poor urban districts: instead of removing the bad to save the good, charters simply remove the good from the bad).        

2.  Too many PSD parents are “passengers” and not “drivers,” and feed off of the school system instead of fueling it. 

In the PSD, 81 percent of families are economically disadvantaged.  But this isn’t simply a financial issue; it is a cultural one as well.  In the suburbs, parents and communities drive the school system—they are the core that makes the schools run.  They parent their children and teach them that education is a priority.  They understand that being a stakeholder in their school means making an investment (chaperoning trips, helping with homework, attending teacher conferences, instilling core values in their children, etc.). 

Tragically, too many families in the PSD want to be a stakeholder without making any real investment; they suffer from an entitlement mentality, and believe that the district owes them despite the fact that they have only taken from the system and never carried their own weight and produced their fair share. 

The cycle of poverty in the PSD is tragic, but undeniable: out-of-wedlock teenage births; domestic violence; crime, drug addictions; etc.  This kind of environment is a drain on the PSD, not a force that fuels and propels the system.        

3.  Too many Philadelphia residents do not pay their property taxes.   

Why is the PSD suffering from money problems?  A major reason is because Philadelphia residents owe over $500 million (a half a billion dollars!) in property taxes.  What has the City done to address this problem?  Increase the property taxes of those residents who already pay their fair share!    


1.  Expedite the removal of the PSD’s violent and unruly 15 percent by building alternative schools that specialize in remediation and alternative curriculum instead of expanding charters. 

In short, remove and remediate the maladjusted and don’t let civil rights or social justice groups bully policy makers into keeping troubled students in classrooms and continuing to rob our hardworking children of a quality education. Do this by building alternative schools instead of pumping more money into charters (or require charters to service the alternative population).      

2.  Run a grassroots campaign to strengthen the culture of PSD families and communities.

The PSD should fight to instill traditional values into its students and their families.  Community leaders should preach that citizens are the captains of their own ship rather than fostering the idea that they are victims of an unjust system.

In addition, the PSD should: rail against teen pregnancy; promote the importance of two-parent families and call for men to father their children; promote personal responsibility and individual achievement; speak out against misogyny, violence and materialism; encourage students to cooperate with police and law enforcement officials; bring back the abstinence only message in sex education; reinforce speaking Standard American English; launch a campaign to cut down on TV watching, internet surfing and video game playing; promote exercise, good diet and proper nutrition; and make Bill Cosby’s book Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors part of PSD required reading for 9th graders.    

3.  Collect the $500 million owed the PSD by seizing and auctioning-off the property of all Philadelphia residents who do not pay their property taxes.

Tax delinquents, whether rich or poor, should not be allowed to deprive the PSD of money and rob our city’s hardworking children of their educations.  If residents don’t pay their property tax, their homes or businesses should be confiscated by the city and sold at auction.   

Implementing these straightforward commonsense solutions will go a long way in reclaiming Philadelphia’s public schools.

11 thoughts on “Three reasons why Philadelphia public schools fail (and what can be done about it)

  1. Chris, you hit the nail right square on the head. Number 4 would be to look into the nepotism and patronage that is rampant throughout the administrative ranks

    • I agree with your comments, but I’m a parent of three sons, my older children had a very successful time in the Philadelphia Public Schools, my oldest son is a college graduate, my other son has a career & will be going to college, and now I have a son that will be in the fourth grade in September, I’m a parent that helps with homework, projects, I chaperone on trips & go to meetings concerning problems at our schools, It’s also a lack of concern & care coming from some of the teachers & more assistants need to be hired and not fired, I work with my children’s teachers so that my children are successful in school, there are many parents like myself and some of our schools don’t want to work with us, I’ve learned from experience,I pray things will get better!!

  2. Hi Chris,

    Once again, I am with you on much of what you are saying. But a few things don’t ring true with me because of my experience as a community organizer.

    Fighting against injustice is not the same as fostering “an entitlement mentality”. America has a history of brave people overcoming racial inequality, gender inequality, and economic inequality. Does being in a union and fighting for equal pay, benefits, and a pension make me one of the “entitled”? Discrimination is not a figment of some people’s imagination. Most of the people scammed by the banks in the subprime mortgage mess were minorities.

    You have said that the school district is not the source of violence; violence is part of the community and comes into the schools. Absolutely correct. How, then, is the PSD responsible for changing what it is not responsible for? I don’t disagree that certain values can be modeled by adults in schools, but teaching all of the cultural values you list is not within the domain of the schools. Personal responsibility? Yes? But calling on men to be responsible for their children? That is a job for some other public entity.

    Teaching abstinence only? Not only is that controversial, but it has been shown to be ineffective. The schools’ job is to teach kids about their bodies and how they work, not how much sex they should be having. That is still up to the parents and the churches.

    You say that the parents in the city are not doing what suburban parents do. No offense, but, duh. Many of them have the time to be volunteers and chaperones. They are not working minimum-wage jobs with no sick or personal days. Does a dysfunctional society just decide one day to pick itself up, dust itself off and be functional?

    No question that personal responsible is essential. But so is ethical political leadership. Most of our kids know someone who has been shot, many in their own families. Is it their fault that politicians in neither party even have the guts to even talk about gun control? Many have lost their homes because they have lost their jobs. Did they cause the recession or was it the banks who own the politicians? The governor just cut off GA because “we can’t afford it”. So do the kids who now go into foster care have only themselves to blame?

    The culture of poverty cannot be stopped without the political will of the people. As long as we keep fighting among ourselves for the crumbs, it ain’t gonna happen.

    And as long as 10% of Americans have more combined wealth than the bottom 90%, we are looking at the end of democracy as we know it. Then how does anybody change anything?

    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks for considering my points and taking the time to comment. I’d like to answer some of the objections you raised and clarify some of the ideas I was trying to express.

      In my piece I never said that fighting against injustice was fostering an entitlement mentality. I’m not sure which part of my article led you to that conclusion. I did criticize the Education Law Center, YUC, PSU, and CNS (all more or less activist groups organizing around “social justice”), but I did so not because they fight for basic rights, but because I feel some of their goals and modes of operation are misguided and counterproductive. In particular, the fact that CNS held signs at a recent protest rally at 440 N. Broad that read “More Classmates, Less Inmates” is irresponsible and insulting. What are they insinuating? That SCHOOLS turn children into criminals? YUC produced a report last year titled, “Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pipeline to Prison” (with a picture of handcuffs on the cover).

      Amazingly, the report downplays all the violence and misbehavior in city schools (they call it “typical behavior” of children and youth), and fights not for the rights of the majority of kids struggling everyday to learn in chaotic conditions, but for the rights of the “disenfranchised” students who find themselves suspended or expelled from school because of so-called unfair or racist discipline policies. Yet there hasn’t been a single documented case of a Philadelphia public school teacher or administrator legitimately discriminating against a student based on race (can you name one? I can’t). The idea that there is this widespread racism against students by teachers IS a figment of YUC’s imagination. Statistics may show that minority students are expelled at higher rates than whites, but as I’ve written before, this has more to do with poverty and social factors than it does racism. Downplaying the violent and unruly behavior of students and lobbying to keep such students in classrooms where children are trying to learn is not fighting against injustice; it is blaming others and refusing to take responsibility for your actions.

      Next, you ask, “Does being in a union and fighting for equal pay, benefits, and a pension make me one of the “entitled”? I’m not sure how you’re drawing this connection between organized labor and entitlements. You know I actively support unions and the PFT and nowhere in my article did I equate unions and entitlement, so you’ll have to clarify this for me. To me, being “entitled” means believing you are owed something you have not rightfully earned (Philadelphia public school teachers, through all of our hard work and dedication, have earned our pay, benefits, and pension). However, there are many people who have NOT paid their dues and earned their keep. Example: students who take no responsibility for their school work and expect to receive a passing grade, or parents who take no responsibility for their child’s education and expect that the system will take care of everything. (By the way, did you know that President Obama recently gutted the welfare reform achieved under Clinton? The Department of Health and Human Services eliminated the federal work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and now welfare recipients no longer have to be actively looking for work to receive government money.)

      You state, “Most of the people scammed by the banks in the subprime mortgage mess were minorities.” This is where our perspectives differ. You see these people as victims, I do not. No mortgage lender or real estate agent forced anybody to buy anything, and the word “scammed,” in my opinion, doesn’t apply. Anybody engaging in a purchase as monumental as buying a house better have all their ducks in order. Likewise, anybody who doesn’t understand the terms of a mortgage agreement better ask questions before signing their name to it, plain and simple. However, the mortgage meltdown as I see it wasn’t so much about people “getting scammed” as it was about people not having anything to lose. That was the issue. People with little or no credit who had no right getting a loan got one anyway, and what did they care? If they couldn’t pay and defaulted on the mortgage, they would lose nothing because they had no credit to begin with. So why not get that really big house you couldn’t afford and live in it for a year or two before giving back to the bank?

      As for teaching values and trying to change a culture that exists outside of school: yes, we CAN change the culture outside of school. Absolutely. We could lobby for men (boys) to father their children just as we have been lobbying to change our students attitudes toward gays and the whole LGTB community (I have noticed a HUGE difference in my students’ attitudes in the last 10 years). Our words and messages have an impact. As for abstinence only: even though studies show this isn’t achievable, at least it sets the bar high and is a goal for kids to strive for; just having the policy will have a subtle impact (and I disagree—I think public schools SHOULD teach that sex is sacred and should be highly respected).

      To wrap-up: banks should not be bailed out; they should be allowed to fail. This will keep things more honest (a free market can’t work if there is no risk). Likewise, there needs to be more reform enacted to reel in speculation: banks and financial managers should have to put up a portion of their own capital or even personal savings to keep things in control (not just other people’s money). Yes, the wealth gap is a problem, but the answer in my opinion is not class warfare and railing against corporations and the wealthy (the top 10 percent pay 70 percent of income tax and the bottom 49 percent pay none). I believe in capitalism and a free market, we just have to find a way to stop crony capitalism and the abuse of the system, which both parties are guilty of.


  3. First, it is more then 15%–more like 25%. Secondly, Schools like Boone have been around for 60 years. The ABLE Academies were closed after 5 years because politicians didn’t like them. Hornbeck told me that himself. Thirdly, almost all of the property tax money is owed by very rich, slumlord type people not the poor in Phila. It is VERY likely that memebrs of City Council and the SRC own properties that owe money.

  4. Chris,

    You cover so many topics in your last few posts I could not possibly address all of them without writing for days. I will only address one and that is what you said see in your high school- hooligans, bullies and thugs disrupting and spoiling the classroom for the students who want to learn.

    I can tell you from my experience as a reading teacher and classroom teacher in PSD that most if not all 5 year olds who enter our schools are happy, excited children anxious to learn. I have seen them. Then almost on the first day of kindergarten we ask them to read books using flawed reading instruction known as balanced literacy. Almost on day one the confusion and frustration begins for many of our students.. They do not figure out the alphabetic code and therefore do not become good readers. This begins a slow downward spiral for them until you meet these students in high school. They are the students who cannot spell and who cannot read the books you are asking them to read.

    If we could fix this one problem- teach all kids to read- and that is possible but not with the current reading instruction used in PSD, then we would take one huge step forward in decreasing all the issues you name that are frustrating you. Students who can read can do the work the teachers ask them to do. They can do the homework. They can take tests and pass them. Their parents are happy because their kids are going to school and they are learning. That is what they have paid for with their tax dollars. That is why they are paying your salary. They want their kids to succeed. They want them to learn. They want us to do our jobs and teach them to read.

    So the frustrations you feel with all the things you see as spoiling the schools are the same frustrations I feel when I watch happy little 5 year old children turn into unhappy, disruptive 2nd graders because they cannot read well enough to keep up with their classmates. If they don’t learn to read by 2nd grade it is almost too late to fix the problem. I am frustrated because all of this does not need to happen. We can stop it.

    Imagine that you are in class and the instructor is asking you to do something you cannot do, say for example play a song on the piano. You have been shown what to do but for whatever reasons the instruction used did not teach you. However the instructor is telling you if you try harder, pay attention, do the homework etc etc etc you should be able to do it. You do all those things but still you cannot get your fingers to play the notes correctly. This goes on for a year. By the end of the year you might just be a little bit frustrated. You might even become disruptive.

    So please remember, when you meet up with the 5 years olds I saw in my school who are disruptive 15 and 16 years olds in your school they at one time were happy, excited children who wanted to be the best they could be. However we did not provide the instruction they needed to learn to read and we failed them. It is our job to teach the children to read. Parents can help and can be supportive but the proper instruction really does not need them. It can happen at school between 9:00am and 3:00pm. I have seen it.


    • Kathy,

      You are right–kids come into school in the very beginning so excited and happy and frustration gets the best of them sometimes. We really do need to focus on lieracy more in Philadelphia as well as the rest of the country.

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