10 Questions for Camden’s Next Superintendent of Schools

by Christopher Paslay

“Poverty” has more to do with culture and values than it does money. 

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie says not taking over Camden public schools would be “immoral.”  Christie’s plan is to hire a new superintendent and do what he can to fill teacher vacancies.  According to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Once the takeover begins, the state “will ensure that every child has the books, instructional materials, and technology necessary for a high-quality education, many of which are currently not reaching the classroom,” according to a statement from the governor’s office.

Books, instructional materials, and technology.

And we can’t forget money.  School reform advocates will also insist poor urban districts across America need more funding.  Noted education scholar Diane Ravitch recently published the post “Do Americans Believe in Equality of Opportunity?” on her blog:

Governor Jerry Brown of California gave a brilliant state of the state speech in January, where he pledged to change funding of public schools so that more money went to children with the greatest needs. . . .

But a Los Angeles Times poll finds that only half of the public support the idea of spending more for those with the highest needs.

This raises the question: Do we really believe in equality of educational opportunity? Or do we feel that it is okay that schools for children from affluent families have more resources than those for children of the poor?

Interestingly, Camden public schools spend over $20,000 per student, yet have some of the lowest SAT scores in New Jersey and a graduation rate of only 49 percent.  According to an article in the Notebook:

Camden, the poorest city of its size in America and the most violent — with nearly 70 homicides last year in a population of less than 80,000 people — has a graduation rate below 50 percent. At the same time, due to landmark New Jersey court decisions on school funding, the city spends more than $20,000 per student, close to the amount spent in some of the area’s wealthy suburbs.

According to an article in the Delaware County Daily Times, per-pupil spending and achievement are not correlated:

If spending were an important factor in education we’d expect Lower Merion’s $26,000 per-student spending to rocket their academic performance far above neighboring Radnor’s at $19,000 per student. Yet Radnor is ranked No. 4 by the Business Journal and Lower Merion is ranked No. 7.

But for a stark comparison we should look to Central Bucks where they spend $13,000 per student — less than half of that spent by Lower Merion. And their ranking? Just behind Lower Merion at No. 8!

What folks like Ravitch rarely address, however, is that “equality of opportunity” has more to do with values and culture than it does with money.  What does “poor” mean, exactly?  My father grew up in a 900 square foot row-home in Southwest Philadelphia with nine siblings, and the only source of income was my grandfather’s salary as a Philadelphia firefighter.  Was my father poor?  Financially, maybe, but not in terms of his values and character.  He learned responsibility, respect, work ethic, honesty, integrity, and the importance of family nonetheless.  He went on to become a well-respected teacher and administrator, and eventually earned his Ed.D.

In a 2009 Educational Testing Service policy report titled Parsing the Achievement Gap II, national trends between students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds were tracked.  The report listed 16 factors that have been linked to student achievement.  Of the 16 factors, nine were directly related to a child’s home environment.

Camden is over 85 percent minority.  If its public schools are going to make any real progress, the next superintendent should have a plan in place to address the following 10 questions (these questions apply to any major urban school district in America):

1.  How are you going to get Camden parents involved with school?  According to ETS, Black students’ parents are less likely than White parents to attend a school event or to volunteer at school.  Children whose parents are involved in their schooling have higher levels of achievement.

2.  How are you going to get Camden men to father their children?  Minority students were less likely to live with two parents, and 77 percent of Black children in America are born out-of-wedlock.  Children who live with two married parents do better both behaviorally and academically.

3.  How are you going to keep Camden families from frequently moving and changing schools?  Minority students are more likely than White students to change schools frequently.  There is a high correlation between frequently changing schools and poor test scores.

4.  How are you going to increase the low birth weight of Camden newborns?  The percentage of Black infants born with low birth weight is higher than that for White and Hispanic infants.  Studies show children with low birth weight do worse in school.

5.  How are you going to keep Camden children from getting lead and mercury poisoning?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be exposed to environmental hazards, which harms brain development.

6.  How are you going to get Camden children to eat healthy?  Minority and low-income children were more likely to be food insecure, which can lead to concentration problems and issues with development.

7.  How are you going to encourage Camden parents to get their children to school?  Black and Hispanic students have the highest rates of absenteeism.  There is a high correlation between truancy and low academic achievement.

8.  How are you going to get Camden parents to read to their children?  Minority and low-income children were less likely to be read to daily as infants, which studies show impacts a child’s vocabulary development and intelligence.

9.  How are you going to get Camden parents to turn off the television? Minority and lower-SES children watch more television.  Excessive television watching is associated with low academic achievement.

10.  How are you going to keep Camden children from regressing academically over the summer?  Minority and low-SES students grow less academically over the summer, and in many cases, lose knowledge.

Until these awkward but important issues are adequately addressed, Christie’s takeover of Camden public schools—along with a new superintendent—isn’t going to make a significant amount of difference.

Things My Students Say


by Christopher Paslay

Below are 10 winners that have come out of the mouths of my babes (when I say “babes” I mean my wonderful 10th grade students):

1.  “This is two pages.  I thought you said we were reading a short story?” 

Please forgive me.  I forgot that your generation grew up on emails, which, you know, were way too long and so were replaced by Instant Messages, which were also too long and replaced by text messages, which, like, are still acceptable but not as cool as “Tweets,” which take five seconds to read and require zero knowledge of grammar or Standard American English.  So allow me to rephrase the assignment: We are going to read a really, really long two-page short story.

2.  “I need all my make-up work. Now.”

Gotcha.  You want the “make-up work” that will allow you to get credit for 10 hours of class time—lectures, discussions, readings, journals, etc. in 10 minutes?  Right, that “make-up work.” I’m in the middle of teaching class right now, by the way, but don’t let my lesson on the themes in “Othello” impose on your dire need to “make-up” the last week-and-a-half of your education (which you missed because you were at The Gallery).  How about if I let you sign out a copy of “Othello” and run around and get all the assignments for you after class, so tonight, after you dump “Othello” in your locker, you can go to your friend’s house and copy/scribble everything from her?  Sound good?

3.  “What page are we on?”

I’m going to let you in on a little secret:  There’s this thing in the front of your book, it’s called a table of contents.  Yeah, that’s it.  Do you see those page numbers there, and the titles next to them?  Well, if you match the title of what we’re reading with that little number there . . . I knew you could do it!

4.  “We have a test today?”

No, I just wrote Reminder: Test this Thursday on the board all week because I like decorating my classroom with meaningless, hypothetical information.  When I said at the end of class everyday this week, “Remember, we have a test this Thursday” what I really meant was “Don’t study for the test because on Thursday, all we’re going to do in class is sit in our desks and watch YouTube videos on our iPhones.”

5.  “This class is easy.”

Of course it’s easy—when you don’t do anything.  I can’t imagine keeping-up your 50% average in here is that difficult.

6.  “I never got that.” 

You never got a copy of the assignment?  Really?  And you’re just telling me now, the day it’s due?  That’s funny, because I distinctly remember you sitting right there in your desk when I handed it out.  Now, maybe I was hallucinating that day, or maybe when I handed you the homework assignment I was really giving it to your twin brother who just returned from the French Foreign Legion, but I doubt it.  Why don’t you check in your bag and see if you have it?  There it is!  What do you know about that!

7.  “Can’t we watch a good movie?” 

Sure, we could watch what you call a “good” movie, but if we did so I’d have to throw my lesson plans into the garbage along with all the instructional objectives listed in the Common Core Standards.  Yes, “Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter” does have Abe Lincoln in it, but this doesn’t quite meet the district’s educational requirements for history or literature.  The same goes for “Piranha 3DD” (that’s DD as in brazier size), and “Zombie Dawn.”

8.  “You ain’t my dad.”

I should hope not.  If I were your dad I’d have to confront your mom and demand a paternity test ASAP, because I’ve never seen your mother before in my life (not even at parent-teacher conferences).  No, me talking to you in an authoritative voice and demanding you exhibit some semblance of character and/or core values doesn’t make me your da-da, although I’d like to have a word with your da-da, because obviously, he is either 1—asleep at the parenting switch; or 2—not in the picture at all.

9.  “It’s hot in here.” 

Being that you have on a red hoodie, a blue hoodie, and a big old puffy winter coat, I would image it is.  Maybe you might consider losing the big puffy winter coat?  Just a suggestion.

10.  “Do you miss our class?” 

(To those students who were lovable hemorrhoids, but hemorrhoids nonetheless): Yes, I miss you guys.  I cry every night.  (To those students I truly miss): Yes, absolutely, you guys are the reason I became a teacher.

Advice to Future Teachers: Stay Away from Philly

by Christopher Paslay

The Philadelphia School District’s recent contract proposal offers a dismal future for new teachers. 

In light of the recent contract proposal the Philadelphia School District made to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I have some advice for college graduates considering teaching in the city next fall: don’t bother.

Documents recently circulated by the PFT about the proposal paint a dismal picture for future Philadelphia teachers.

First, pay.  Under the current contract, first year teachers make $45,360.  Under the proposed new rules, however, first year teachers will be required to take a 10 percent cut in pay, and contribute 10 percent to their health benefits, bringing their salary down to about $39,000.  Because there is a pay freeze in place under the new contract, this will be their salary for the next four years until 2017.

“Benefits” under the new proposal, for the record, no longer include dental, eye, or prescription, as the PFT’s Health & Welfare Fund would be eliminated.

After 2017, teachers will be eligible for a raise based on a performance evaluation from their principal.  But because of the budget, they’ll most likely be responsible for buying things like paper, paying for their own copies, and using outdated textbooks and technology.

They’ll also be responsible for safety, as school security has been cut.  According to the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series “Assault on Learning,” from 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

The ways in which this could impact a teacher’s performance evaluation are many.

Statistics show over half the teachers who start in 2013 won’t even be in Philadelphia by 2017.  But those skilled and strong enough to remain in service, the new contract will ensure that they will have no protection to keep the programs they’ve worked years to build in place at their schools; the elimination of seniority will leave them vulnerable to be separated from their students and transferred anywhere in the entire city.

Conversely, those teachers struggling at a particular school and who are not a good fit with their students will be stuck there; the new contract no longer allows teachers to voluntarily put in for a transfer.

The proposal lifts the limit on the number of classes taught outside a teacher’s area of certification and on the number of subjects taught.  In other words, an English teacher could be required to prepare and teach algebra, social science, Spanish, chemistry, and British literature, all in the same day.

The new proposal lifts class size limits and opens the door to mass lectures, like in college. Imagine 50 plus teenagers in one big room listening to a teacher lecture about the Pythagorean Theorem, or the periodic table of elements, or iambic pentameter in a Shakespearean sonnet.  A winning formula for sure.

Teachers, under the new proposal, will work unlimited evening meetings without pay, and cannot leave the building without principal approval.

Because the district wants flexibility, the new proposal includes no specific grantees for teachers’ lounges, water fountains, parking lots, accommodation rooms for disruptive students, clothing lockers, or desks, among other things. Just because these things aren’t specifically mentioned in the contract, as Superintendent Hite recently noted, doesn’t mean the School District won’t provide them.

Of course, there’s no guarantee the School District will provide them, either.  That’s the catch.  When an organization is strapped for cash, like the School District currently is, there’s no telling what they’ll do.

“We believe teachers are professionals, just like architects, lawyers, doctors,” Superintendent Hite said. “We want a contract that reflects that.”

The only problem is, architects, lawyers, and doctors don’t make $39,000 a year with no chance for a raise until 2017, and aren’t subject to assaults, sub-par working conditions, and outdated materials and technology.

Hence my advice to future teachers: stay away from Philadelphia and seek a district that respects its educators.