Schools’ decline echoes values

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is planning to close 49 schools, and thousands are feeling the pain. Michael Wetzel, a veteran English teacher at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast High Schools in Drexel Hill, told The Inquirer that the news of their closing was “tantamount to a death.”

I sympathize with Wetzel. I graduated from Monsignor Bonner in 1990, and I understand his sense of loss. Students will be uprooted, and teachers will be out of jobs. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Schools’ decline echoes values.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

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For good schools, it takes a village

I recently attended a community screening of the education documentary American Teacherat School of the Future in West Philadelphia.

The film, narrated by Matt Damon, chronicles the stories of four teachers from rural and urban areas of the country, and examines how these dedicated educators, despite loving their students and jobs, were often forced to rethink their careers because of low pay. After the screening, a panel of local education leaders, including Philadelphia School District Superintendent Leroy Nunery and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, reflected on the film and the state of education in America. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “For good schools, it takes a village.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Experienced teachers are not the problem

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington public schools chief whose draconian management style got her forced out, recently paid a visit to Simon Gratz High School in Philadelphia. Her main order of business was to push her school reform agenda, including a direct assault on Pennsylvania’s “last in, first out,” or LIFO, rule for teacher layoffs. . . .

This is an excerpt from my commentary in yesterday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Experienced teachers are not the problem.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

The SRC: What went wrong?

“Earlier this month, around the time the Phillies fell into their offensive funk, another local team found itself in trouble. The School Reform Commission, put in place a decade ago to help revive the city’s struggling public schools, was beginning to implode.”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “The SRC: What went wrong?”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Audits Involving City Schools Make for Good Political Theater

by Christopher Paslay

How many audits does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?  Or in the case of the Philadelphia School District, the center of a political and financial train wreck?  It seems the number just keeps getting bigger. 

Conducting audits on school district officials, and those associated with the district, is quite the new fad for local politicians (I think it is actually trending on Twitter as I write this).  It’s not hard to understand the recent appeal of conducting an audit, especially when you say the word “audit” out loud:  Audit

You have to admit, it sounds so powerful.  So intimidating

The word “audit” can be used two ways, as a verb and as a noun.  Here’s a verb form: The climate was right for the state senator to score some political points with voters, so he decided to “audit” the school district.  Here’s a noun form:  The mayor owed a favor to the school district official, so he used his clout to call off the “audit”.    

Sometimes I wonder how Don Corleone in “The Godfather” would have used the word audit.  I picture him saying something like this: (talking to Sonny):  Never tell anybody outside the family what you’re thinking again.  Not unless you want to get audited.       

Here’s how I picture Don Corleone talking to Bonasera: Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.  I will ask you to make an audit disappear.                

This is how Johnny Depp’s character would use audit in the film “Donny Brasco”:  You think you’re gonna run an audit on me?  Forgetaboutit!   

Imagine if Samuel Taylor Coleridge rewrote his classic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” around our local politicians’ obsession with conducting audits that seem to go absolutely nowhere:  Audits, audits, everywhere, nor any drop to drink . . .

The recent audit mania that has befallen our city’s public schools is quite curious.  It’s not that the district doesn’t deserve to be investigated; it’s just that these recent audits and “investigations” have thus far amounted to nothing more than political theater.      

Take the much publicized IRS audit of the district’s finances last spring for example.  In May, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the IRS was investigating the district and had “28 specific areas of inquiry” and sought “information on reimbursements for travel and meals, the use of district automobiles and credit cards, and ‘checking account data for payments that are processed outside the district’s general fund.’” 

Four months later, what has the IRS audit has amounted to? 

Diddly squat.

In April, when conflict of interest allegations between School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. and State Rep. Dwight Evans grew too intense (when Archie had a closed-door meeting with Evans which resulted in Foundations Inc. being offered a contract to take over the failing MLK High School), Mayor Nutter ordered a probe into the situation.  He directed Joan Markman, the city’s chief integrity officer, to conduct an investigation to see if there was any hanky-panky going on.  What has this amounted to so far? 

Nada.   

The best is when school district officials conduct audits on themselves.  Last year, it was reported that the Philadelphia School District abruptly and without reason took a lucrative security contract away from Security and Data Technologies Inc., a Caucasian-owned firm, and gave it to IBS Communications, a minority-owned firm.  It was the second time the district improperly steered work to IBS.  The first time, it ended up paying 12 times the $1,000 estimate offered by a competing firm.  When Ackerman was accused by public officials of breaking the law over the security contracts, she spent over $173,000 of district money to conduct an “internal investigation.”  Guess what the conclusion was?

All clear in here.   

It would be nice if government leaders could finish one audit before starting another one.  Or before starting a dozen other ones.

Here are just a few of the more noteworthy audits/investigations local leaders have recently called for:

Pa. Auditor General Jack Wagner is currently investigating the identities of the anonymous donors who funneled $405,000 through the 501(c)3 charity Children First Fund to buy out Arlene Ackerman’s contract (a charity with an eight-member board that once included Ackerman, SRC Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr., and now-interim Superintendent Leroy Nunery II).           

City Councilman Bill Green has also requested that Jack Wagner investigate whether three members of Ackerman’s staff helped organize protest rallies in her favor while on the clock at work.

Then there’s the review being conducted by the Philadelphia School District’s legal office to see whether the critical comments Arlene Ackerman made about district officials violates her buy-out contract and will void her $905,000 severance package.   

Whether any of these audits/investigations amounts to anything remains to be seen. 

But one thing’s for certain: They sure do make for good political theater.

Questions go beyond schools CEO

“The Philadelphia School District is experiencing a leadership crisis. Amid all the controversy surrounding Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, however, it’s easy to forget to ask whether the School Reform Commission is serving the interests of the city’s public schools.

Some education advocates have wondered if it’s time to get rid of the SRC, the appointed body charged with overseeing the Philadelphia School District for the past decade. In a series of articles for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, the activist and retired Philadelphia schoolteacher Ron Whitehorne highlighted some of the major criticisms of the SRC, including that it provides no real oversight of the superintendent, simply rubber-stamping whatever comes across its desk. Whitehorne also noted that the SRC’s decisions are too often made behind closed doors, and that its meetings are not very accessible to parents and concerned citizens. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Questions go beyond schools CEO.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Annette John-Hall Would Make a Lousy Journalism Teacher

by Christopher Paslay

Inquirer columnist calls news editor who values excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”. 

On Sunday, Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall wrote an article about the principles of journalism headlined, “Alarming decline of diversity in newsrooms.”  She opened her piece by writing:

“A high-level editor once told me that of all the journalistic values he thought were critical to running a top-notch newsroom, racial diversity ranked, like, fifth on his list.

For him, the more traditional principles of ‘excellence,’ ‘truth,’ and ‘integrity’ took precedence.

Frankly, I was shocked – not because of his honesty, but because of his ignorance. There can be no excellence, truth, or integrity in covering the news without a diverse newsroom.”

As a veteran schoolteacher who’s taught journalism to a diverse group of Philadelphia teenagers for a number of years, after reading Ms. John-Hall’s piece in Sunday’s Inquirer, I was shocked by her alarming decline of good sense. 

Two things struck me as concerning after reading her piece:

1.  That Annette John-Hall would consider someone who valued excellence, truth, and integrity over skin color “ignorant”. 

2.  That excellence, truth, and integrity are not universalistic human qualities, rather, subjective notions based on race. 

Since Ms. John-Hall’s piece is, to be blunt, not only idealistic but dreadfully generic, I’d like to be trite myself and quote from one of the most overused but important speeches in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Dr. Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream:  

“. . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . .”

I wonder if Ms. John-Hall would consider MLK “ignorant”?

Tragically, the idea that all people, regardless of race, possess universalistic human qualities such as “excellence,” “truth,” and “integrity” is under attack by writers such as John-Hall.  She insists it’s the news media’s job to help people come together and understand each other in an increasingly polarized society, yet she herself perpetuates this polarization by her obsession with skin color and her penchant for observing everything in society through the prism of race.        

“And while the media have a responsibility to cover the news with excellence, accuracy, and integrity,” John-Hall writes, “they also have an obligation to report with cultural authority if they want to stay relevant to the communities they cover—and to themselves.”

In other words, black reporters should cover black neighborhoods, white reporters should cover white neighborhoods, Jews must cover Jewish communities, and gays should write about the Gayberhood. 

As a journalism teacher, I find two problems with this line of reasoning.  First, reporting with “cultural authority” inhibits a journalist’s ability to be a neutral observer.  When it comes to objective hard-news stories, the journalist is primarily concerned with the 5 “W’s” and the “H”.  In other words, the journalist is concerned about the facts.  And true facts will remain facts regardless of who reports them. 

That is, of course, unless a reporter wants to inject his or her own “cultural authority” into a story.  For example, how objectively is a homosexual reporter who’s been subjected to assaults because of his sexuality going to report a story on the beating of a gay student on a university campus?  How will this reporter’s personal baggage impact the retelling of events?  Traditionally, an editor might pull such a person off of a story like this because they are too close to it.  Better to have a random, disconnected reporter cover the events.

The second problem I have with John-Hall’s “diversity” argument is that it suggests that at our core, human beings are fundamentally different.  I’m not talking about cultural or physical differences, I’m talking about differences when it comes to universal ideals such as “integrity” and “excellence”. 

If you will, Ms. John-Hall, can you explain to me the difference between white “integrity” and black “integrity”?  Can you explain the difference between Russian “excellence” and African American “excellence”?  The difference between gay and straight “accuracy”?    

News organization in America must be careful not to discriminate because of race.  When a journalist has mastered his or her craft, he or she should be given the opportunity to work for a news organization, regardless of his or her skin color.  In other words, the principles of “excellence,” “truth” and “integrity” are not subject to cultural interpretation, and this fundamental ideal is the first thing I teach my journalism students.

Core principles do exist that connect all people as human beings, despite John-Hall’s insistence otherwise.  With that said, it’s a good thing Ms. John-Hall is not teaching about these principles in a classroom environment. 

No offense, Ms. John-Hall, but you’d make a lousy journalism teacher.

Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating

“‘I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam,’ Woody Allen once said. ‘I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.’

Cheating isn’t usually a laughing matter, though, as the Philadelphia School District is learning. A recently revealed 2009 report by the state Department of Education flagged 22 district-run schools and seven charters for suspicious results on standardized tests. Several city teachers have also reported breaches in test security at their schools, although an internal investigation by the Philadelphia School District concluded that claims of cheating were unfounded. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “Impossible standards fuel spread of cheating.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

District spent its way into massive shortfall

“The French novelist Honoré de Balzac once wrote: “Finance, like time, devours its own children.” The Philadelphia School District‘s administrators should take a moment to ponder that. Their financial ineptitude and gross mismanagement of public money has put the children of Philadelphia in an unfortunate position.

The district’s budget deficit for the 2011-12 school year, which stands at $629 million, has prompted talk of doing away with full-day kindergarten; cutting athletic, art, and music programs; and laying off thousands of employees, many of them teachers. . . .”

This is an excerpt from my commentary in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer, “District spent its way into massive shortfall.”  Please click here to read the entire article.  You can respond or provide feedback by clicking on the comment button below.

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Inquirer Writer Kristen Graham Blogs About My Glenn Beck Experience

“Christopher Paslay, a teacher at Swenson Arts and Technology High in Northeast Philadelphia, recently appeared on a Glenn Beck show about “teachers who love their jobs but are frustrated with the education system.”  (In my experience, that describes a good percentage of all teachers, no?)

Paslay describes himself as someone who agrees with much of what Beck believes, though he diverges from Beck on some educational issues.  (“Glenn, like most journalists and talking-heads, has a more superficial understanding of public schools…”, Paslay wrote.) Hmmm…”

To read Kristen’s entire blog post, please click here

Thank you for reading.

Christopher Paslay