Public School Notebook Advocates Compromising Rights of Many for Rights of Few

by Christopher Paslay

The Notebook continues to lobby to keep violent and unruly students in classrooms, suggesting that America’s discipline policies are racist and culturally insensitive.  

Despite recent accolades from the New York Times and the Philadelphia City Paper for their investigative reporting, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook remains committed to its roots: lobbying for the disenfranchised on the fringes of the educational system.  As a result, they often compromise the rights of the many to stand up for the rights of the few.         

This was the case when the Notebook supported the conclusions drawn by Youth United for Change’s two controversial reports—“Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia” and “Pushed Out”—both of which rely heavily on the testimonies of disgruntled youth to paint dropouts and chronic rule breakers as victims of an intolerant and racist school system.  Both lobby for keeping incorrigible students in classrooms where they consistently rob other children of their right to learn; the Notebook’s Winter 2009 article “A growing expulsion pipeline” did much of the same.       

Most recently, in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, the Notebook ran the story “Expulsion epidemic draws national attention,” which also lobbies to keep problem students in schools, calling for alternative forms of remediation that are often unrealistic or achieve limited success.  The story, like the YUC reports, portrays students expelled from schools across the country as victims caught in an oppressive and racist system, despite the findings of reports such as the Inquirer’sAssault on Learning,” which reveals how disruptive student behavior in Philadelphia schools negatively impacts achievement and learning. 

To protect the rights of the hardworking 90 percent of America’s children struggling to learn in environments tainted by the violent and unruly, I wrote a comment on the Notebook’s website trying to shed some light on the issue:   

“Expulsions in America’s public schools do not happen willy-nilly.  Students are given due process and granted a hearing before they are removed from the system.  In addition, IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) protects students with anger management issues and the emotionally disturbed (many minorities are diagnosed as such) from being removed from a school, and the “Stay-Put Provision” law allows such students to remain in school even during the actual hearings.  In Philadelphia from 2002 – 2008, not a single student was expelled from the District.  Not that the District is free from violence, or those who perpetrate violence against other students; just read the Inquirer’s “Assault on Learning” series and look at the numbers.  It is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to expel a student from a district (in Philadelphia, even the “permanently expelled” can reapply for admission after their punishment is served), and this is in light of the fact that many serious discipline incidents go unreported.    

[Your article] bills expulsion as an unfair “epidemic” gaining “national attention,” but it ignores the everyday offenses of troubled youth and focuses on the outliers.  The real victims in this situation are the 85-90 percent of America’s public school children who are being held hostage by the violent and unruly few.  Yet somehow the Notebook consistently fails to address THIS issue.  They campaign against a discipline system that is already lacking real teeth, which is counterproductive to establishing a culture of learning in all schools.  If we want to save the education of the masses, we should advocate for better parenting, call for a return of traditional values in our schools and communities, and demand that ALL children respect each other, as well as their teachers, parents, and other authority figures. . . .”

Paul Socolar, the Notebook’s editor, responded to my post by writing the following:

“Some quick comments from the editor to explain the Notebook’s continued interest in this topic of high rates of expulsion as an issue of educational quality and equity.

Philadelphians ought to be considering what approaches to discipline and to curtailing school violence are effective. We know that what many schools are doing now is not effective. There is a growing body of evidence in support of less punitive approaches to school discipline such as restorative justice. We are open to other topics for our reporting. We haven’t seen a similar body of evidence that more systematic implementation of the traditional approach of suspensions and transfers to disciplinary schools advocated here by commenters is effective.

In a country with the highest incarceration rate in the world (that hasn’t alleviated high crime rates), the issue of whether harsh school disciplinary policies not only mirror our ineffective criminal justice policies but also create a school-to-prison pipeline is a real concern to many in Philadelphia.

Study after study provides evidence that harsh disciplinary actions are not meted out in a color-blind fashion. This article points to the finding from North Carolina that Black students were more than twice as likely to be suspended for a first-time cell phone offense compared to White students. . . .”

I followed-up Socolar’s comments with the following post on the Notebook (Socolar never did address the fact that the Notebook compromises the rights of the many for the rights of the few):

“. . . Schools must do what they can to address and remediate the behavioral and psychological problems of their students, but there will come a time when a line must be drawn.  There IS a protocol that public schools follow, and by law, a series of interventions in most cases DOES take place before an expulsion.  But when these interventions meet with limited success (including Positive Behavior Supports and Restorative Justice, both of which can only be done effectively in small, one-on-one situations), there will need to be a policy in place to keep the learning environment safe and organized, a policy that allows the majority of hard working students to get an education, and that policy is expulsion. 

As for The Notebook’s obsession with race and their need to keep reminding everyone that expulsions “are not meted out in a color-blind fashion,” I’d like to ask what they are insinuating by this?  It seems clear that they are suggesting that teachers and administrators in public schools are either racist, or culturally ignorant or insensitive.  As an urban schoolteacher of 15 years, as a coach, as a mentor, and as a citizen of Philadelphia, I would have to beg to differ.  Although this may have been the case 30 years ago (or in very limited situations today), I think the disparity in disciplinary measures by race has more to do with environmental factors such as poverty, education and employment; it’s documented that a higher number of minorities are impoverished, have a higher incidence of out-of-wedlock births, have poor nutrition, etc.  These factors all impact a student’s behavior.  Likewise, these factors impact a student’s ATTITUDE when responding to authority, which may explain why a cooperative student, who surrenders his cellphone with little resistance, may not get suspended for the infraction, while another student, who has a difficult home life and has not learned to deal with authority in a positive manner, might get hit with a suspension for a simple cellphone violation. 

The hardworking motivated students should have a right to learn.  Generally speaking, expulsions are the only reasonable way to accomplish this, in light of the tragic condition of American families, poor parenting, society’s attitude of entitlement, and the overall decline in respect for authority.”

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

Readers respond to ‘School reform’s alphabet’

by Christopher Paslay

My most recent Philadelphia Inquirer commentary, “School reform’s alphabet,” has generated some interesting feedback from readers. 


The day after I published the article I received an email from a New York City public school teacher.  In it he wrote,


On a recent trip to Philadelphia, I was pleasantly surprised to read your article regarding “accommodations” in The Philadelphia Inquirer. This surprise comes from the fact that as a teacher in NYC, I have yet to read any editorials in the New York Times that are from a teacher’s perspective. Even more importantly, but less surprising, is that most editorials vilify teachers, holding them accountable for all society’s woes.
Having written numerous letters to the New York Times, I only wish we had a voice in our city press as you appear to have in yours—maybe I should move to Philly.
Keep up the good work.



I’d like to take this time to officially thank V. C. for writing.

The responses weren’t all positive, of course.  Kelly Darr of the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania and Len Rieser of the Education Law Center teamed up and wrote a letter to the Inquirer which came to the defense of English language learners and children with disabilities.  The two explained that such groups have a federal right to accommodations. 


The only problem is my article never said English language learners and the disabled shouldn’t receive extra help.  I simply pointed out public education’s double standard and suggested that accountability shouldn’t stop with school teachers.


I must have really ruffled Len Rieser’s feathers because he also used his column at The Philadelphia Public School Notebook to blog about my article.  His post, headlined “Why can’t they just teach their kids English” repeated the points he made in his letter to the Inquirer: that English language learners have a right to accommodations.  Again, although I insinuated that parents of immigrants should shoulder some of the language burden, nowhere in my commentary did I call for their services to be taken away.


Len also took issue with my comment about the Philadelphia School District spending large amounts of money on special teachers for children of immigrants.  I wrote,


If you just moved to this country and haven’t taught your son a word of English, there will be accommodations. The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for him.   


Obviously, when you read my statements in the context of the whole article, it’s clear I meant the district has allocated big bucks on ELL services as a whole.  Yet somehow Len got hung up on the word “him” and said:


On, then, to the assertion that “The Philadelphia School District will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on special English-as-a-second-language teachers for [your son].”  In fact, the District spends a total of $6,960.63 per year, per student (according to 2007-08 figures, the most recent available), for the entire instructional program – so if we assume a seven-period day, two periods of which are devoted to ESOL (which would be unusual), we’re looking at maybe $2,000. Moreover, since that ESOL class replaces “regular” English, there’s a partial wash in terms of cost.


At this rate, your son would have to spend fifty years in ESOL before he would have consumed even the first of the “hundreds of thousands of dollars” that he is accused of costing the system.     


This misinterpretation is the result of one of two things: One—Len must have been burning the midnight oil when he wrote his blog and as a result his thinking was a little bit fuzzy; or two—Len purposely twisted my words in the grand tradition of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook. 


Either way I’d like to say thanks—I’m flattered by the attention.  Oh, and on a side note: I checked the Philadelphia School District’s 2009-10 budget, and they actually spend $34,462,499 on English language learners.  That’s 34 MILLION, with an “M”.  I guess I underestimated.


God Bless.


Chalk and Talk celebrates 100th post




 by Christopher Paslay


 Today’s blog post is a special one—it’s the 100th on Chalk and Talk since this site was launched on September 28th, 2008.


In just under 11 months on the internet, this site has received 20,650 views.  The exposure and reach of this blog is steadily growing.  In June, Chalk and Talk generated 2,995 views—an average of 100 per day for the month.  July was almost as busy: 2,811 for the month, an average of 91 per day.


On a grand scale, these numbers are small potatoes, but on a local level they are significant.  The Philadelphia Pubic School Notebook, a publication that’s been covering education in Philadelphia for 15 years and was recently awarded a $200,000 grant by the Knight Foundation, launched a new website in February. 


According to the paper’s editor, Paul Socolar, the site gets about 400 visitors a day.  And that’s with a large staff of professionals generating material—photographers, editors, reporters and bloggers. 


Chalk and Talk’s staff is a bit smaller.  The entire operation is basically run by Yours Truly.


That’s not to say Chalk and Talk doesn’t generate dialogue and spark reaction, because it most certainly does.  On September 29th, 2008, I posted a commentary on this blog that I had originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer titled How about the teachers?  It suggested the Philadelphia School District was treating its educators less than professional, and called for a fair contract with them. 


Superintendent Arlene Ackerman responded in a letter to the Inquirer headlined Taking Exception, explaining that the School Reform Commission was working hard to rectify the problems facing the District, and that there were “no easy answers”.


Shortly thereafter, I received a personal letter from Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President, Jerry Jordan.  Mr. Jordan thanked me for my article, and for bringing to light the concerns of Philadelphia public school teachers, whose voices are often ignored or marginalized in the media as a whole (on a side note, the PFT has revamped its website, and now includes Jerry’s Blog.  Click here to visit).


Chalk and Talk has also gotten feedback from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook.  Those that follow my “Eye on the Notebook” series are familiar with the dialogue here (to read the exchange, click on Eye on The Notebook under “Categories” to the right).  Although some feathers were ultimately ruffled, I believe my month-long encounter with Paul was positive.  He taught me some things about journalism, and I enlightened him on the realities of teaching in a Philadelphia public school classroom, and made him more aware of the limited scope of his newspaper, and the fact that it isn’t always teacher friendly. 


I’ve received comments from the Philadelphia Student Union when I suggested that they needed to do more to hold their peers accountable for bad behavior; last fall I got a comment from Jonathan Stein, general counsel of Community Legal Services, when I challenged his notion that the Universal Feeding program should be application free.


There’s been feedback from other bloggers, such as Samuel Reed of the Notebook and Ken DeRosa of D-Ed Reckoning; from parents and community groups, most notably Moving Creations, a non-profit arts mentoring program working with area youth; and of course, there’s been hundreds of replies from Philadelphia public school teachers, the dedicated men and women who work miracles with our city’s children on a day-to-day basis (thank you Susan Cohen Smith for your witty commentaries). 


Some days I wonder if running this blog is worth the effort.  When it comes to the public’s perception of education in America, the glass is always half empty.  We are constantly being bombarded with words like broken and failing.  More than ever, teachers and schools are being made the scapegoat for just about everything, and the other significant pieces of the education equation—such as parents, educational policy writers, politicians, professors, and society as a whole—are consistently ignored.


There is a lot of negative energy wrapped up in the politics of education.  I make a conscious effort not to get pulled too far down into this muck, but some days, after I crank-off a 700 word article rebutting some point made by some know-it-all who’s never taught a day in a classroom, I find myself becoming cynical.  I apologize for this.  My intent is not to sling mud or call names. 


I write because I want to make things better, because I want the public to see a more accurate version of the objective truth, if there is such a thing. 


I hope the next 100 posts on this blog are just as meaningful and engaging.  I hope they continue to inform as well as entertain, and provide readers with new insights.    


Thanks to all of you who have contributed or commented.  Chalk and Talk is an open forum for all points of view on education.  Feel free to email the address above, or to post your thoughts on any of the articles directly on the comment board.


Eye on the Notebook: Will new bloggers bring balance to the Notebook?



by Christopher Paslay


It appears that Paul Socolar, editor of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, has indeed had a moment of clarity.  After nearly fifteen years of proclaiming to be “an independent voice for parents, educators, students, and friends of Philadelphia public schools,” the Notebook is finally giving our city’s school teachers some badly needed space in their paper.


On Monday, May 11th, the Notebook introduced on their website three of their newest bloggers—all current teachers working in Philadelphia public schools.    


But will these hand-picked teachers truly broaden the scope of the Notebook?  Will they look at the problems and challenges that face public education in Philadelphia through a holistic lens (will they strive to hold parents and the community equally accountable), or will their blogs circumvent tough questions, such as: Why are low-income and minority parents less likely to read to their children?  Or: Why do minority children grow less academically over the summer? 


Here is a breakdown of the Notebook’s three new bloggers:     


Anna Weiss, who is from the Chicago region, came into the Philadelphia school system via Teach for America.  She currently teaches at Mastery Charter, where she’s been for two years.  Her first Notebook blog entry opens with the African proverb Until the lion tells its tale, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.  Anna seems intent on championing the rights of the little guy, and to tell the stories of the disenfranchised, or “the hunted,” if you will.     


Samuel Reed teaches 6th graders at Beeber Middle School in the Overbrook section of the city.  Reed has served in the Peace Corps, and has worked with both the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows and Teach for America.  He hopes to have his son Kagiso, a student at Mastery Charter School, guest blog with him.  Reed is interested in teaching social justice issues (although he promises not to use his blog for politics).  He is also concerned about educating young African American males, and using hip-hop to engage students. 


Molly Thacker, originally from St. Louis, MO, also came to Philadelphia through Teach for America.  Molly is in her fourth year of teaching in the city, although it was unclear from her blog which school she currently works in.  After reading the book Savage Inequalities by Jonathan Kozol as an 11th grader, she realized she wanted to dedicate her life to urban education.  Molly wants to use her blog to explore the idea of teacher sustenance. 


Although politically unbalanced (I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out that all three of these teachers are situated at the same end of the political spectrum), at least the Notebook is finally providing space for teachers. 


Hearing the voices of trained educators who work day-to-day in real classrooms and who experience the district’s problems firsthand will be a nice change of pace.  Credibility doesn’t stop with academia.  It counts in the real world, too.  Simply graduating from a Philadelphia public school (or visiting one on occasion) hardly makes one an expert on education, and those that lack credentials might want to think about who (and what) they criticize from the sidelines. 


Hopefully these new bloggers, being teachers themselves, will refrain from the tactics that have been employed by Notebook writers in the past.  Hopefully they will not suggest Philadelphia school teachers are afraid of the communities they serve, or insinuate that teachers view minority students as criminals; hopefully they will not belittle and humiliate these same teachers by suggesting that ALL of them (not just the failing ones, mind you) be overhauled by their principals and be made to reapply for their jobs; hopefully they will explore the societal root of the achievement gap, and begin to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills separate from teachers and schools.


While they’re at it, they could recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden; they could encourage parents to make education a priority in every home; and they could emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.


These are just some suggestions to truly keep the Notebook holistic and balanced


But it’s good to have genuine school teachers finally contributing.  I guess my Chalk and Talk blogs, along with my dozen or so correspondences with editor Paul Socolar (both on and off line) must have had an impact. 


Although Paul won’t comment on Chalk and Talk anymore (he says I don’t play fair), I know he’s reading this.  So I’d like to say two things to Paul:  One: Thank you. 


And two: I have my eye on the Notebook. 


Eye on the Notebook: Should failing schools overhaul their teachers?


 by Christopher Paslay


In his recent blog, Does reforming high schools require starting with a new staff?, Philadelphia Public School Notebook blogger Eric Braxton explores the idea of overhauling teachers in failing city schools by replacing them, or by making them reapply for their jobs in order to prove their commitment to education. 


As I have said in nearly all of my posts, Braxton writes, I am of the opinion that our neighborhood high schools need a major transformation, not just some small reforms.


The culture and climate in these schools is just not conducive to learning.  Many people argue that creating this new culture requires replacing either all or some of the teachers in the building with a fresh staff that is on board with the school’s mission.   


Braxton acknowledges that this idea is controversial and could be unsettling to teachers, but he admits that he is “not sure there is any other way”. 


To accomplish this sweeping overhaul, Braxton suggests that the district allow all city principals to hand-pick their own staff.  Currently in Philadelphia, “site-based selection” schools can interview and hire teachers as they see fit (there are 82 of them), while non site-based schools are staffed by teachers according to seniority. 


For most business owners (and school principals outside of Philadelphia) the idea of not being able to hire your own staff would be considered ridiculous, Braxton states, but this is Philadelphia.


Although teachers are only one of many factors contributing to a school’s climate and culture, there are situations where teachers are apathetic and burnt-out, and principals should not be held hostage by such staff members; neither should our city’s children, for that matter.


But a massive overhaul of all teachers in a failing school is too radical—not to mention belittling to the majority of educators who work extremely hard on a day-to-day basis, and are already on board with their school’s mission.


The ideas Braxton explores—doing away with seniority and making teachers reapply for their jobs—are not new.  Paul Vallas tried to axe teacher seniority during his tenure, only to see it backfire in his face.  Arlene Ackerman fought for a teacher reapplication requirement while superintendent in San Francisco.  As a result, she damaged relations between herself and the teachers’ union and school board, a conflict that fueled an animosity that eventually led to Ackerman’s early resignation as schools’ chief. 


According to a 2005 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, Ackerman has consistently fought with board members Eric Mar, Sarah Lipson and Mark Sanchez . . . and has battled over a variety of issues, including Ackerman’s Dream Schools initiative, which aims to overhaul low-performing schools by giving them a more rigorous curriculum, longer hours and Saturday school, but also by requiring all teachers at the schools to reapply for their jobs to signal their commitment to the revamped program.


Lipson, Mar and Sanchez — along with leadership of the teachers’ union — have fought the reapplication requirement, saying it is a slap in the face to educators who have dedicated their careers to working in difficult schools.     


Requiring teachers to reapply for their jobs is indeed a slap in the face.  Braxton, in a sweeping generalization characteristic of most education advocates who have no experience teaching in a classroom, talks of schools needing a “fresh start” when it comes to their teaching staffs. 


In effect, he is suggesting that we throw away the baby with the bath water: Overhaul all teachers in struggling schools, or make them all reapply for their jobs. 


My question is, why all teachers?  Why are we being stereotyped and lumped together as one failing entity? 


I would like to know what Eric Braxton’s image of a Philadelphia public school teacher is, exactly.  From what he’s written in the past, it appears he believes that teachers are chronically late and consistently absent; that they don’t respect their students or give them an adequate voice; that they systematically ruin their students’ love of learning. 


I will acknowledge that on occasion, teachers overwhelmed by the challenges of a large under-resourced urban school system get tired and apathetic; they’re only human. 


But as a whole, the bulk of Philadelphia’s educators work hard and are making a difference given what they have in front of them.  Test scores are going up and progress is being made. 


So why must we wipe the slate clean?  Struggling schools don’t have a single worth while teacher?  Why must we all reapply for our jobs? 


This reasoning is not only insulting, but impractical. 


According to their 2008-09 Vacancy Listing, the Philadelphia School District is still short 185 permanent teachers.  If failing schools “wipe the slate clean,” where are these new and improved teachers going to come from?  If the principals of these failing schools could indeed select their own staff, where are they going to get their applicants?


The reality of the situation is that not many people want to teach in these failing schools to begin with.  Poverty, crime, and the lack of community and parental support cause many educators to look elsewhere; so do the behavior and attitudes of many of the students themselves. 


Teachers in these failing schools should be thanked for their dedication and perseverance, not stereotyped and disrespectfully made to reapply for their positions.  Besides humiliating educators, what would a reapplication requirement honestly accomplish?  If any of us were interested in leaving our school, we would have done it by now. 


Improving teacher quality must be done individually, on a teacher-by-teacher basis.  Sure, most business owners and principals outside of Philadelphia can hire their own staff, but most do it incrementally; it’s very rare that a leader goes in and blindly fires one-hundred percent of his personnel. 


If education reform advocates truly want more quality teachers in Philadelphia, they must stop stereotyping and demoralizing us.  Instead, they should respect teachers and work to win us more resources, which might attract better educators to the system and help replace those who are struggling to succeed. 


The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article




by Christopher Paslay


On March 3rd, I posted an article here on Chalk and Talk headlined Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?  In the article I criticized the Philadelphia Public School Notebook for running an objectionable editorial (Changing the odds) that suggested Philadelphia public school teachers were racist and afraid of the communities they serve.


Two days later I received an email from Paul Socolar, editor of the Notebook, requesting that we open a dialogue in order to address some of the issues I had with his newspaper.  Paul also asked me to reread my March 3rd article, and to pay careful attention to its tone, which Paul felt had degenerated into name calling; he took particular offense to the fact that I called the Notebook “irresponsible”. 


I reread the post, and although I didn’t feel I had called anyone names, I did agree that it had an edge to it.  I explained that this was a reaction to the accusations contained in the Notebook’s Winter 2008 edition, Focus on Changing the Odds, where the newspaper more than once alluded to the fact that teachers were racist. 


Paul admitted that I wasn’t the only teacher who felt this way.  However, he suggested that I focus on the actual points of disagreement, rather than throwing around so many labels.  In order for both of us to tone down our rhetoric, he wanted to know what other editions of the Notebook may have offended me. 


As I went through the Notebook’s archives, I realized that these articles were not so much offensive to teachers as they were unfriendly.  Here were the gripes I had:            


Lack of Parental Involvement:  The Notebook fails to scrutinize parents and explore all the ways mothers and fathers are failing their children.  They suggest parental involvement is low because schools aren’t “welcoming”; teachers are “intimidating”; announcements aren’t made early and often enough; literature isn’t translated into other languages; etc.     


The achievement gap: The Notebook fails to explore the societal root of the problem, and refuses to acknowledge that many black children are plagued by serious social ills.  They place much of the blame on racist teachers.    


Safety issues:  The Notebook fails to admit Philadelphia neighborhoods are sometimes dangerous and that violent crime exists.  They chastise teachers for not wanting to teach in the poorest schools because they harbor unfounded prejudices and are “afraid of the communities they serve”.  


Inappropriate student behavior: The Notebook fails to acknowledge the violent and unruly actions of too many children (many of them minorities).  They often explain these behaviors away and blame them on the teacher’s unconscious racial prejudice or the counselor’s wrongful diagnosis. 


English language learners:  The Notebook fails to recommend ways immigrant families can shoulder some of the language burden.  Instead, they call under-resourced and overwhelmed schools and teachers “unwelcoming” and demand better services.


The Voice of Teachers:  The Notebook rarely incorporates into their articles publications that represent the voice of classroom teachers.  Instead, they consistently quote studies and statistics from civil rights organizations that tend to paint schools and teachers in an unflattering light.    


Philadelphia Student Union: The Notebook fails to emphasize the fact that the Philadelphia Student Union must strive to hold its peers accountable for contributing to the chaotic nature of schools.  Instead, they consistently harp on the fact that parents and students “feel disrespected by teachers”.           


Writers and Bloggers:  The Notebook does not have a single writer or blogger that is a current Philadelphia public school teacher.


After reading my concerns, Paul admitted that teachers do need a stronger voice in his newspaper, and he insisted that he is working on this situation.  He also explained that the Notebook’s mission is to make schools better, and that their focus isn’t necessarily on the other parts of the education equation—parents, communities, or the students themselves; Paul did admit however that the problems schools face cannot be solved in isolation.


In addition, Paul stated that he wouldn’t mind having a public discussion on the Notebook’s blog about most of the issues I listed above.  I may take him up on this offer.  For now, I’m posting these concerns here on Chalk and Talk, and I’m asking people on all sides of the argument for constructive feedback. 


One final note: I’d like to thank Paul Socolar for engaging in our email dialogue, and for taking my concerns to heart.  And I’d also like to reiterate my pledge to watch the tone of my posts, as long as the Notebook strives to be more teacher-friendly.     


Eye on The Notebook: Do Phila. teachers really view minority children as criminals?




by Christopher Paslay              


In their recent editorial, “Changing the odds,” the Notebook discusses ways the Philadelphia School District can close the achievement gap between white and minority students.  In addition to having engaging teaching staffs and building strong bonds between schools and surrounding communities, the Notebook talks about overcoming racism.


Perhaps the hardest barriers to overcome are the fears and prejudices that run through our racially divided society, the Notebook writes. Black and Latino children – boys in particular – are so often viewed as dangerous or even criminal. Schools cannot uphold high expectations and successfully serve communities of color when the school staff is afraid of the communities they serve.


The curious part of this editorial is that while the Notebook warns against the dangers of stereotyping, they are in effect stereotyping themselves.  The majority of Philadelphia public school teachers do not view Black and Latino boys as dangerous and criminal (I don’t know of a single teacher that does), nor are they afraid of the communities they serve. 


To make such a sweeping generalization is both hypocritical and irresponsible.   


I’m not the only teacher who was put-off by the editorial.  A woman named Jamie Roberts recently commented on the newspaper’s website about the offensive nature of this article. 


She wrote, As a Philadelphia teacher working on her second Master’s degree, I’ve always considered my reading comprehension pretty high, but I found myself re-reading your editorial repeatedly, convinced I had to be misinterpreting it.


Are you actually suggesting the struggles of Latino and African-American boys in our schools are because of white racist teachers? And if so, are you serious?


I have spent most of my teaching career in predominantly African-American and Latino schools and in every case, the staff – which is always multicultural – has tried to create an aura of respect and safety within the school building. Never have I heard a colleague express fear of any student – although often we express concern on behalf of students, who step out of the schoolyard every afternoon and into an environment that is often quite dangerous. It is that environment that creates the circumstances that cause boys to struggle . . .


Notebook Editor Paul Socolar rebutted this comment by stating Roberts “missed the point”.  Socolar went on to say, Somehow, once the phenomenon of racism is named, we notice that something short-circuits, everything else we said is forgotten, and some readers respond that the Notebook thinks the whole problem is white racist teachers . . . 


In effect, the Notebook neither apologized for misrepresenting teachers nor did they admit to oversimplifying the problem.  They held to their position by stating that racism against minority students undoubtedly exists, and that “to acknowledge its existence is not a condemnation of all teachers.”


It’s not surprising that the Notebook is unable (or unwilling) to recognize the stereotypical nature of their editorial.  The writers and staff of this publication are too wrapped-up in the politics of race to see the forest through the trees.  They state that they regularly talk to Philadelphia parents and students about racism (and in effect get one side of the story), but this hardly qualifies them as an authority on the day-to-day challenges facing teachers inside overcrowded, and often times under-resourced, classrooms.


A second look at Editor Paul Socolar’s rebuttal to Philadelphia school teacher Jamie Roberts’ comments furthers this point. 


There is a vast amount of literature from all different political perspectives about how many urban students (not just in Philly) experience a lack of respect and low expectations from many of their teachers, Socolar wrote.  Even George W. Bush spoke about this problem.   


Although reading books on urban education might provide some background understanding of the issue, it’s not the same as standing in front of 33 urban teenagers and teaching them on a daily basis.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe that many minority students experience a lack of respect and high expectations from “many” of their teachers.  Do Black and Latino children ever feel disrespected?  Certainly.  But not on the scale the Notebook and other political publications would lead us to believe; it might be wise for the Notebook to stop using “political” perspectives to draw their conclusions. 


And since when is George W. an expert on teaching in the inner-city?


While we’re focused on stereotypes, let’s examine the issue of safety in Philadelphia.  Is it wrong for teachers to be concerned about their well-being in high crime neighborhoods?  Are the 350 annual homicides committed in the city simply fantasies conjured in the imaginations of bigoted educators?  Most certainly not.  Just ask the mother of Faheem Thomas-Childs, the 10-year-old third grader who was killed by a drug-dealer’s bullet outside Peirce Elementary in February of 2004.


How ironic is it that a publication that bills itself as “an independent voice for parents, educators, students, and friends of Philadelphia public schools” doesn’t even have a single Philadelphia public school teacher contributing to the newspaper?  Sure, the Notebook’s writers and bloggers include an education lawyer, a doctoral student, an educational policy maker, a principal, a member of a parent group, and an education beat-reporter, but no teacher.  Imagine that.


If the Notebook truly wants to comprehend and solve the District’s problems, they must bring a more balanced approach to their paper.  They must also stop insulting educators with their biting innuendo, and treat Philadelphia public school teachers with more professionalism and respect.


Eye on the Notebook: Parental involvement must start in the home



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent editorial, “Building parent power,” the Notebook calls for parent leaders across the city “to come together and lay the foundation for a stronger network of organizations giving voice to their concerns.”


The Notebook praises organizations like ACORN and Eastern Pennsylvania Organizing Project for their advocacy work in education, and for “developing new leaders and activists, helping parents deepen their understanding of issues, and challenging District leaders to make improvements.”


In my experience as an educator, there are two kinds of parental involvement: personal and political.


Personal involvement is where parents become actively engaged in being good parents: teaching their children how to communicate and solve problems nonviolently; focusing on nutrition and setting a reasonable curfew; instilling in their sons and daughters work ethic and an appreciation for the value of education, etc.


Political involvement is where parents become activists and organize for political reform: they challenge district leaders to change policies, and network to make their voices and concerns heard.


The Notebook’s editorial “Building parent power” places its focus on the latter and ignores the former (as they do so often). They call for parents to become politically active in the Philadelphia school system, but fail to demand that moms and dads get personally involved in the educations of their sons and daughters at a home level.        


As the saying goes, It takes a village to raise a child.  Parents are an integral part of the District, not simply because we can use their power to protest for educational reform, but so we can use their influence with their own children to make our city’s youth better students and citizens.         


There are approximately 167,000 students in Philadelphia public schools.  If we multiply this number by two (one mother and one father), than there are about 334,000 parents in the city.  Unfortunately, with the exception of the 200 or so parents who regularly show up at 440 North Broad shaking their fists at SRC meetings, or those motivated few who attend school functions and are members of home and school associations, too many moms and dads in the city are nonexistent when it comes to their child’s schooling.


If we truly want to build “parent power,” must start by doing so in the home.  Every one of us must crawl before we can walk.  According to Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we must satisfy physiological and safety needs—as well as the need for love and belonging—before we can satisfy the need for esteem.  In other words, moms and dads must parent first—then they can get up on their political soapbox and advocate for reform.


Philadelphia’s recent Parent Leadership Academy is a case in point.  A pilot effort by the Philadelphia School District and the William Penn Foundation, PLA was formed to empower parents and promote them as leaders in their children’s education and schools. 


Although PLA made some progress and was a valuable learning experience, in the end, the program was dropped because it didn’t develop according to expectations. 


In a recent report published by Research For Action entitled “Parent Leadership Academy: A Parent-Led, District-Hosted Partnership for Parent Engagement,” researchers concluded that ultimately PLA “was not a sufficient lever for changing the District’s relationship with parents.”   


One reason PLA failed was because parents couldn’t move beyond the historic distrust of district officials, and continued to complain that the climate was not “parent friendly”.  There was also tension between PLA board members and those involved in the Philadelphia Home and School Council.


There have been questions raised as to why a similar program in Kentucky—called the Center for Parental Leadership (one of the programs on which PLA was based)—remains a reigning success, and why PLA ultimately ended in failure.  The answer rests with Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: Parents in KY, unlike many in Philadelphia, have established workable relationships at a base level—with their own families and communities—and thus possess the tools and credibility necessary to take that next step toward educational activism.


So what are the solutions?  How do we get parents of Philadelphia public school children involved at the home level so they can ultimately achieve that next step and get active in the district?                


According to the findings by Research For Action, providing educational programs for parents can help them get more involved with their child’s schooling.  “Increases in educational attainment for younger and less educated mothers are related to gains in children’s achievement, particularly reading skills,” the report explained.  It also found that the more educated parents are, the more they are able to provide help with homework, and become academic role models for their children. 


In addition, neighborhood school-based sites are more effective in drawing parents than nonneighborhood school-based sites. Basically, participation by parents is highest at a site with a strong connection to the surrounding community.


Finally, moving beyond school walls is a promising strategy for reaching parents. Instead of schools inviting parents to come to them, there should be a more community-based focus, and the District should “reach parents where they are.’” 


Parental involvement is a two-tier process.  Parents must get involved at the home level in order to build the skills necessary to get active in the district.  To quote Barack Obama in the final presidential debate at Hofstra University, “Parents are going to have to show more responsibility. They’ve got to turn off the TV set, put away the video games, and, finally, start instilling that thirst for knowledge that our students need.” 


Eye on The Notebook: Are Philadelphia School Teachers Really Bigots?



by Christopher Paslay


To help The Philadelphia Public School Notebook bring quality and equality to all public schools, I am posting a regular forum here on Chalk and Talk called Eye on The Notebook.  Its purpose is to provide The Notebook and its readers with constructive feedback from teachers who work day-to-day in real classrooms and experience the district’s problems firsthand.  Although The Notebook analyzes a wide variety of educational issues, too often their conclusions are limited in scope and perspective. 


Eye on The Notebook will attempt to bring a more grounded analysis of issues that face our city’s public schools.  I will dissect selected Notebook articles and add depth to their findings.  In tandem with The Notebook, this blog hopes to uncover the true root causes of problems concerning the Philadelphia School District and offer practical, realistic solutions.




In their recent article, “A national trend: Black and Latino boys predominate in emotional support classes,” the Notebook explains that a disproportionate number of black and Latino boys are placed in special education.  Although they effectively shine a light on this issue, they oversimplify the problem by blaming it primarily on racism. 


“Many say racial biases among those who refer and evaluate students for special education are a factor,” the Notebook writes.  They also suggest there is an “unconscious racial discrimination by school authorities.”


As an experienced, hard-working teacher in the Philadelphia School District, I find this reasoning off-base and offensive.  There may exist a cultural gap between students and teachers, but to insinuate that minority students predominate in emotional support classes because they are being discriminated against by racially prejudiced teachers and counselors, most of whom are white, is insulting and intentionally misleading.     


The Notebook is too far removed from the day-to-day reality of urban classrooms to accurately diagnose problems, and as a result, they offer generic solutions. 


There are two layers to the problem of minorities and special education.  First is the fact that black and Latino males are “acting out” too often in school.  Second is that teachers are sometimes misinterpreting this behavior.  The Notebook does a marvelous job of overlooking the former and highlighting the latter.  Even if we succeed in reducing the number of black and Latino boys in emotional support classes, their unruly behavior will still remain.  And where will we be then?   


In the end, the student’s behavior is everything.  No employer is going to put up with a young man who continues to act out.        


So how do we change a student’s behavior? 


One solution is providing students with Positive Behavior Supports.  According to a plan designed by the Institute for Human Development at Northern Arizona University, “Positive Behavior Support (PBS) is an approach to helping people improve their difficult behavior that is based on four things:


1.  An Understanding that people (even caregivers) do not control others, but seek to support others in their own behavior change process;


2.  A Belief that there is a reason behind most difficult behavior, that people with difficult behavior should be treated with compassion and respect, and that they are entitled to lives of quality as well as effective services;


3.  The Application of a large and growing body of knowledge about how to better understand people and make humane changes in their lives that can reduce the occurrence of difficult behavior; and


4.  A Conviction to continually move away from coercion – the use of unpleasant events to manage behavior.     


PBS is effective because it treats the problems (poor communication and anger management skills)—not the symptoms (a false label).  If used correctly, it can literally change a student’s entire life. 


Instead of making sweeping generalizations and pulling the race card, The Notebook should focus its attention on a process that can rectify misbehaviors and give students back control of their educations.  Doing so might be more beneficial for students, and less offensive and insulting to teachers.