My Self-Absorbed, Cheesy Marathon Story


Christopher Paslay

*Warning: The marathon story I’m about to tell you is all true, every word of it.  But be forewarned: it’s very cheesy and incredibly self-absorbed, and has little to do with education and schools.  I apologize for this in advance.

My left knee was throbbing.  The pain started as a warm ache but slowly built into a hot friction burning my knee joint like an unoiled hinge.  It was hard to comprehend the reality of what was happening, that my left knee was seizing-up on me with 17 miles to go in the race.  I was running downhill on 34th Street by the Philadelphia Zoo, a section of the marathon that was supposed to be easy, a lead-up to the largest hills on the course which were approaching straight ahead.  Three weeks ago I’d put in a 21 mile run on the very section of the course I was running now, cruising the steep elevation up Lansdowne Drive into Fairmount Park, around Memorial Hall and the Japanese Teahouse, down across West Girard Avenue and back up 33rd Street to Reservoir Drive, around Edgley Drive and finally down Fountain Green to Kelly Drive.  I’d run these hills on three separate training runs.  I knew them.  I was conditioned.  I was ready.

I stomped my left foot on the street as I ran, hoping to shake out the pain.  I kicked my leg outward, trying to loosen the joint, but felt no relief.  The throbbing continued, and it started to sink in that there was a real problem here, a problem that could force me to . . . no, I wouldn’t think the unthinkable.  This wasn’t part of the plan, part of the training and preparation.  This wasn’t what I visualized at night in bed, or during my long drives home in my car at rush hour.

The throbbing increased and it occurred to me what it might be: iliotibial band syndrome, commonly known as ITBS or “runner’s knee.”  This is when the ligament extending from the pelvic bone to the shinbone becomes extremely tight and rubs against the thighbone.  It gets progressively more painful the longer you run.  Like a hinge with no grease, opening and closing, over and over and over again, the friction building like a hot iron.  I’d gotten ITBS only once before.  It came on suddenly at mile 19 of a practice marathon I was running on Kelly Drive in November of 2020 – a “virtual race” when the Covid-19 lockdown forced the cancellation of the 2020 Philadelphia Marathon.  The pain was so bad I was forced to stop running and powerwalk the remainder of the race, which resulted in an embarrassing (for me) time of 4:16:35, which came to 9:48/mile pace.

The pain was almost that bad now.  I dug in and ran up Lansdowne Drive, every stride seeming to jar the hotspot on my knee.  The hill went up 80 feet for a half-mile before it leveled off, a gradient of almost 10%.  I knew the elevation to the degree, as I’d obsessed over the route for weeks, studying the entire 2021 Philadelphia Marathon course on the internet via GPS.  But I did more than look at pictures; I ran every inch of the course multiple times, in segments of 21 miles, 12 miles, and 8 miles, up and down every hill and decent, pounding the city streets and asphalt roads through Fairmount Park, until I was confident I had command of the course.

I’d been training for this race, in fact, for several years.  In 2017 I’d run the Philadelphia Marathon, my very first marathon, and bonked.  To “bonk” means to run out of energy and gas so suddenly that you are rendered a puddle – a zigzagging mess staggering to the finish line.  When you bonk your whole race blows up right in your face, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  You go into damage control mode, realizing your wonderful time is slowly slipping away, like a train pulling out of the station without you.  In 2017 I was cocky and inexperienced – a virgin marathoner – and had gone out too fast.  My aggressive pace caught up with me at mile 17, when my legs turned into sandbags and I seemed to be running in place.  It was a completely overwhelming and crushing feeling.  To be at the end of your physical strength, and to need to keep running for 9 more miles, isn’t easy to deal with.  With no glycogen left in your muscles, it’s physically impossible to keep up any real pace.  To keep running at all, no matter how slowly, is as much of a psychological battle as it is a physical one.

After I bonked in 2017 (I ended up running a 3:56:44, which was 9:01/mile), I was on a mission to run the marathon again in 2018, but this time I was determined to hit my goal of breaking 3:50:00.  I buckled down that year and ran hard through the winter and into the spring, running a half-marathon in March in 1:45:15 (8:01/mile), a 10K in April in 46:20 (7:28/mile), and a 10-miler in May in 1:17:10 (7:43/mile).  I hit the weights in the summer, focusing on strengthening my core and lower back.  At the end of July I officially began my 18 week training for the 2018 Philadelphia Marathon, a program designed by running and coaching legend Hal Higdon which allows you to build your miles up to 40 per week at peak training, culminating in a 20 mile run three weeks before race day.  Running half-marathons and 10-milers, as I’d been doing since 2005, wasn’t the same as preparing for the Big One – the 26.2 mile race.  A full marathon is a whole different animal entirely.

My running was going great until I woke up one morning with a stabbing pain in my left knee.  It turned out to be bone marrow edema (BME), which is when fluid gathers deep inside your bone as the result of a stress fracture.  But I didn’t know I had a fracture in my knee, so I kept training.  It hurt like hell, but I wasn’t going to miss any workouts.  I took a bunch of prescription strength ibuprofen that my wife kept in the cabinet and tried to ignore the pain.  That Sunday, two days after I woke up with the knee ache, I was scheduled to run the Philadelphia Rock ‘N’ Roll Half Marathon as a “check in” race midway through the 18 week marathon training program.  The philosophy was to run the race at marathon pace, and to see how much you have left at the end.  But I ran the race like I did all half-marathons, full throttle.

My knee wasn’t perfect, but held up for most of the run.  Coming down a hill at mile 9, though, I landed on it at just the wrong angle and sparks of pain shot up my leg and through my back.  I didn’t stop running, of course.  I continued with a slight limp for the next mile, refusing to slow down, until the pain faded some.  I actually finished the race strong, running a 1:46:17 (8:07/mile).  The next morning I woke up and couldn’t put weight on my left leg.  When I stepped out of the shower, my knee buckled and I had to grab the towel rack to keep from falling.  So I limped around the house for the week, taking aspirin.  Amazingly, I somehow went for a 17 mile run the following Saturday.  When I got home, after I cooled down, I couldn’t walk on my left leg at all.  I was forced to see an orthopedic and after an x-ray and MRI, was told I had a stress fracture.  And that was it for my hopes of running the marathon in 2018 and getting redemption for bonking the previous year.

In January of 2019, just when my left knee was healing, my right knee flared up with tendonitis.  This was a direct result of my left knee injury, which threw my body out of balance and caused stress on my right side.  The spring of 2019 was a complete mess, with both knees acting up and not allowing me to do any real running.  It wasn’t until July that I was able to train regularly again, short, one-mile runs at first, slowly building to 5Ks by the end of the summer.  But I’d lost most of my base, and had little strength or endurance.  I wasn’t ready for the full marathon in 2019, but I did register for the Philadelphia Half-Marathon, which I ran in 1:49:06 (8:19/mile).

In March of 2020, just when I was getting back in decent shape and ready to run the Love Half Marathon, the race was cancelled because of the pandemic.  A month later, on April 25th, I got sick with Covid-19.  I caught it from my wife, Debra, who worked in a hospital where half the staff ended up Covid positive.  Deb got off easy, with a dry cough for about two days.  Me, on the other hand, I got knocked through a loop, with horrible fatigue and wicked body aches that lasted five days.  I had a really nasty cough, too.  I thought I was feeling better after a week, and went for a long walk through Manayunk, but when I got home, something didn’t feel right; I relapsed and was sick again for three days.  It took a good two weeks to feel totally normal again.  But when I went back to running, things were off.  By late June, my times were still consistently slower by 20 to 30 seconds per mile.  This kept up through the end of the summer and into the fall, and there were certain points where I could barely finish runs because of the heat – which never happened before.

I was convinced Covid screwed me up permanently, that my lungs were scarred or there was some slight, undetectable swelling in my heart that was slowing me down.  I was absolutely convinced I would never run the same again.  This was a depressing situation to say the least.  I defined myself, at least in part, by my running.  When I was running well I felt good, and when I was running like crap I could become moody and miserable.

So times were a big deal to me.  Marathon runners are an interesting breed, as they not only come in many shapes and sizes, but many ability levels.  As the cliché goes, time is relative.  Breaking 4 hours in the 26.2 mile race is a damn fine accomplishment for many people, but for those interested in qualifying for Boston, breaking 3 hours is the goal.  For two-time Olympic gold medalist Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, going under two hours is the mission – which he did in 2019 in Vienna with a special pacing team supporting him, clocking an astonishing 1:59:40.  But it’s Kipchoge’s 2:01:39, which he ran to win the 2018 Berlin Marathon, that is the official marathon world record, as the Vienna race was not done under sanctioned race conditions.

So marathon times are relative.  For Al Roker, running the 2010 New York City Marathon in 7:09:44 was an accomplishment.  For Oprah Winfrey, her 4:29:20 in the 1994 Marine Core Marathon was a lifelong achievement.  The same goes for Kevin Hart’s 4:05:06, Alecia Keys’ 5:50:52, Pamela Anderson’s 5:41:03, and Will Ferrell’s 3:56:12.

Some runners don’t care about time, and run unencumbered by limits or expectations.  Not me.  I’m way too competitive for that.  Which is to say the times I run are judged most harshly by me, myself, and I.  I’m the one putting pressure on myself to perform and meet some preestablished goal.  I’m the one who defines himself by his performance, who experiences the euphoria of a stellar run or the deflating heartbreak of a horrible race or worse, a “bonk.”  Injuries are hard to take for anyone, but they are especially deflating and excruciating for me.  The same goes for race cancellations, which I fume and smolder about for weeks after they happen.

My obsession with the 2021 Philadelphia Marathon was a culmination of my competitive spirit and fixation on times, but also the build-up of so many setbacks: bonking in 2017, the double-knee injury in 2018-19, and of course, my bouts with Covid and the race cancellations in 2020.  I’d been focused since 2017 on finally running a marathon and making things right, and it seemed that 2021 was finally the year.

Then my knee started throbbing, right at mile 9 of the race.  A goddamn hinge with no grease.  Opening and closing, over and over and over again, friction, friction, friction.  And was it even ITBS?  Who knew.  It freaking hurt, that’s all I knew.  The pain and the reality that there were 17 more miles to run was all that filled my head.  Maybe I’d fractured my knee again, like in 2018?  If this were the case, it was all over.  Soon I’d no longer be able to support my weight, and my left leg would just give out.  Kaput.  I’d be out of commission for another 8 weeks, at least.  Time to go back to the orthopedic and get more x-rays and MRIs.  And what kind of damage was I actually doing to my knee continuing to run on it, anyway?  To pound the cement for another two-and-a-half hours?

I pushed through the pain and got to the top of Lansdowne Drive, trying not to think the unthinkable.  My knee didn’t really hurt that bad, did it?  Oh yes it did.  My mind was having difficulty processing the situation.  Throbbing pain in my left knee just didn’t compute.  Throbbing knee pain, huh?  This couldn’t be happening.  I’d trained too hard and prepared too long, obsessing over every detail, the weights, the stretching, the early morning long runs on the treadmill at 3:45 a.m. before work, the gel packs and water belts, the expensive running gear and new sneakers every 300 miles, and of course, the carb loading.  And the matter-of-fact proclamations made to family members and friends that I had this marathon all lined up and nearly in the bag.  I might not break 3:50:00, but I’d surely break 3:55:00, which would be a PR by a couple minutes and give me a sub-9:00/mile pace, which is what I longed for since 2017.  An 8:59/mile pace or better sounded so good.  It was right there for the taking, I just needed to run the race; I was so sure I’d complete the 26.2 miles I actually wore my 2021 Philadelphia Marathon “finisher” T-shirt on the Saturday before the race, setting the jinx in motion.

The course leveled off and flattened, but my knee didn’t feel any better.  I crossed the 10 mile mark at 87 minutes and some change, which meant I was running around 8:50/mile or so.  This was a good thing, as I was right on schedule with my race pace at this point on the course.  But I wasn’t happy at all.  In fact, I remember thinking it was all for naught, that the perfect execution of my race plan was worthless.  My left knee was on fire, and the pain was real and deep and not going anywhere.  Yet somehow, under the dejection, it still didn’t fully register.  There’s a throbbing pain in my knee?  Wait, what?  No, no, no, this isn’t right.  A pain like this – ITBS or a fracture? – this can’t be.  Not with 16 miles left to run.  I’ll never finish the race, not in a million years.

In a haze of denial, I continued past Memorial Hall and the Mann Music Center, remembering the two training runs I’d done here just weeks before, feeling a bittersweet combination of nostalgia and heartache.  That’s when reality hit home and I wanted to cry.  It was over, the race and everything that went into it was over.  My knee was busted and it was time to come to grips with it.  It was time to accept reality and dropout.  The thought that came next was How do I dropout?  When should I do it and where?  My mind couldn’t work through this information.  The race was winding past the Japanese Teahouse where my wife Debra and I got married in 2007.  It was really going to suck having to tell her the bad news, that I couldn’t even finish the race.  She’d be disappointed and feel really bad for me, no doubt.  She’d give me the requisite sympathy, the hugs and the I’m sorry, and that would be that.  She’d move on, but I certainly would not.  The Thanksgiving holiday coming up next Thursday would be miserable.  I’d be angry and depressed and extremely hard to be around.  I’d be moody and cynical and this would definitely take its toll on Deb and her mom.

My knee hurt so bad that I was no longer able to keep the same stride pattern.  My 8:50/mile cadence was pounding the same hotspot so I had no choice but to speed up, to open my stride and adjust the placement of my weight on my legs.  This dulled the pain slightly, but only slightly.  Pushing the pace increased my heartrate and released endorphins and kept me going.  I was probably going a bit too fast here, but what did it matter?  I wasn’t going to finish anyway, so why not put the gas down and just go for a bit?  So I went – back down Lansdowne Drive, my knee jarring excruciatingly all the way down the hill.  Up ahead, there was a trail of slower runners first making their way up the monster hill in the opposite direction, and I heard this husky black dude shout playfully, “What did I get myself into!”  He was sweaty and breathing heavy, but hanging in there nonetheless.  That’s when I thought to myself, At least your knee isn’t on fire.

I crossed West Girard Avenue, a stretch of the course I’d trained on twice in the past month, and the anger came back again. This was total bull crap.  How was it that I could cruise this stretch of road so easily in training, yet when it counted, my freaking knee would go bad?  Why couldn’t this just have gone the way it was supposed to go, the way I had planned it for so long?  I should be relaxing and enjoying this part of the course, holding back just a bit and conserving my energy for when it really counted – the last 6 miles of the race.  I should be smiling, taking in the cheering crowds waving signs, shouting you can do it! and you got this!  I should be loose and relaxed, breathing in the cool, 50 degree autumn air, feeling the rhythmic bounce of my stride as I cruised along and enjoyed the fruits of my long and exhausting training.

I was running with a very slight limp, and I realized I was favoring my left leg.  This was not good, and would surely wear down other muscles and body parts, like my left calf (which was taking the brunt of the limp), and my right quad.  I had already been experiencing some soreness in my calves and quads during the long training runs, and despite tapering my mileage before the marathon, I was not fully recovered.  Still, I pushed on.  I went by a few runners going up 33rdStreet, which was the last major hill in the race.  Through the pain fog of my knee I saw flashes of spectators clapping and giving high-fives, heard their cheers and spirited enthusiasm.  Picking up the pace only gave temporary relief, and the reality that I’d have to dropout – and the nagging question of how, when, and where – popped back into my head.

I started to formulate a rough plan: I’d dropout at the halfway point, right after I crossed the timing mat.  This way, I’d get an official half-marathon time, and it would help mitigate the humiliation and embarrassment because at least I could tell people I made it halfway through the race before my knee went.  It would completely suck and I’d be miserable for weeks, but it was something.  I took inventory of my knee again and realized it was no better.  The pain, on a scale of 1 – 10, was an 8 or 9.  I sensed that it was getting weaker and losing some stability, although I wasn’t sure because it hurt so bad and I was favoring it.  There was more than half the race to go – well over 13 miles.  Finishing was out of the question.  Just the thought of running through Reservoir Drive in Fairmount Park, all the way up Kelly Drive into Manayunk, and then all the way back to the Art Museum on a bum knee made me feel weak and dejected, and I couldn’t hold the thought for long.  It just wasn’t possible, even if my own life depended on it, or the lives of my brother’s kids.  Dear God, what would happen if the lives of Ali and Mack depended on me actually finishing the race – and by “finishing” I mean running all the way to the finish and breaking 4 hours?  What if that were the situation now, could I do it?  Could I save them, with my whole family depending on me?

No, I couldn’t.  I’d fail them and myself.  It was too much distance to cover and my knee hurt too bad.  But none of this mattered, because it was just some bull crap scenario in my head.  I was going to dropout at the halfway point anyway.  I prayed to God for help but my supplication made me feel weak and desperate.  God only helped those who helped themselves.  The timing mat for the halfway point came up and I ran across it.  I checked my watch and realized I’d run a 1:53:55.  Wow, that was faster than I thought.  I was slightly ahead of my goal time, which was 1:55:00.  This would have worried me, because my plan was not to go out too fast for the first half so I could save myself for the last, most brutal part of the marathon – the last 6 miles.  But what did it matter now?

I passed more runners, angry that the very part of the park I was running in now I’d just run two weeks ago, pain free.  Did I over-train?  Maybe.  I’d obviously done something to agitate my knee.  The pain was becoming overwhelming, and I knew I was nearing the end of my ability to cope.  I looked around the park – the baseball fields and soccer goals – and all at once realized that once I quit, that once I dropped out, I’d be miles away from the finish line area where my wife was supposed to pick me up.  She’d pull over in her car and wait for me, as she always did during these races, but I wouldn’t be there.  She’d surely begin to worry, because after an hour when I still didn’t show, her mind would turn to awful outcomes like a stroke or a heart attack or some other kind of horrible tragedy – like you hear happen to guys my age every so often in big city distance runs.  And I didn’t have my cell phone to call her, either.  So what would I do?  By the time I got there she’d be gone, checking hospitals.  Did you bring in any dead marathon runners this morning?  Yes, my husband is missing.  His name is Chris Paslay, he’s 49 years old, five-ten, 170 pounds.  Blond hair that’s now mostly gray, goatee, blue eyes and –

I would have to dropout at a water station, and get help from the people working there.  When was the next water station coming up?  I didn’t know.  But that’s what I’d do: borrow someone’s cell phone and call Deb and tell her I f’d everything up, that I wasn’t going to be meeting her at 20th and Spring Garden at 11:30 because I’d dropped out of the f’ing race.  Suddenly, my whole entire outlook on the marathon seemed presumptuous.  I had assumed I’d run a certain time and achieve a certain result, when such things weren’t written in stone.  When I dropped out, I’d have to hobble to an aid station, tail between my legs, and ask for a phone so I could call my wife and tell her my time was DNF – did not finish.  Then they’d have to call the meat wagon to come and pick my sorry ass up and cart me to the finish area to meet my wife.  What an incredible Thanksgiving we were going to have this year.

I tried to remember her cell phone number, not even realizing it was printed on the bottom of my bib number under the emergency contacts.  I was coming to a water station now, a bunch of school students from various running clubs holding out cups of water and Gatorade.  I decided to eat a gel pack instead of stopping, taking a drink from my own water bottle on my hip.  I realized that dropping out was too much of a headache for me to deal with at the moment, that it was more appealing to simply keep running then give into that impending darkness.  My knee was throbbing, but oh well.  Let it throb.  I was disgusted by the whole thing, and angry.  Better to run on my knee until my leg broke in half than to deal with the depressing alternatives.

I pushed on, realizing the pain was coming in waves, that it would come and go.  Yes, if I could bite the bullet and grind out the pain for a bit, it would fade some.  Although I was in a pain haze I was still aware of my surroundings, unlike when I bonked in 2017 and everything – everything – was a blur.  I could see a green ballfield to my left, and woods to my right.  I saw, with some curiosity, a tall, lean man in his middle 50s limping on the side of the road, a runner who’d dropped out with some kind of leg injury.  I took only minor comfort in it.  I wasn’t stopping, not here, not yet.  I’d at least make it down Fountain Green and onto Kelly Drive, a psychological landmark that I intended on reaching.  I meditated on the road in front of me, put one foot in front of the other, not thinking about anything.  Ten minutes later, I was heading down Fountain Green, taking short steps, limping slightly.

It was a small victory, making it to mile 16.  My original race plan took special note of mile 16, because it was at this point that things could start to get uncomfortable.  Nothing major, like in the last 5 or 6 miles of the race, but it was around here that you began to feel the wear and tear of pounding the pavement for two-and-a-half-hours, and of climbing hills for the past 45 minutes.  And it was here that I’d planned to change mental gears and get tough.  But instead of slipping into race mode, I was hanging on by a thread.  My goal now was to make it to the 30K timing mat, which was in about 2.5 miles.  Yes, that was doable.  I’d cross the 30K, get a decent time, and then quit.  This way, I’d have an official 30K time to show the guys at work and then they’d know I wasn’t a total wussy.

For the first time the pain in my knee wasn’t the only obstacle I was facing. Now I was dealing with the regular fatigue that comes with running a marathon, with the standard aches and pains of sore, tired muscles and achy joints.  My left calf – which was the MVP of the race so far – was working overtime and burning like crazy.  My right shoulder and bicep were tight and sore, and my hips were getting tight.  Kelly Drive was two lanes, and the elite runners on the left side were now returning back from Manayunk, striding down the home-stretch to the Art Museum, their model bodies striding along at amazing clips.  I was running on the double yellow line, and had to make sure my tired body didn’t swerve into them as they passed me.

The 30K had to be coming soon.  I pushed on, putting one foot in front of the other.  I didn’t care about my pace, I just kept moving forward.  Mile 18 came and went.  The course bent to the right and went down an off-ramp, and that’s when I saw the 30K mat and crossed it.  Well now.  I’m at 30K.  Why not just do an even 20?  I’m so close to Manayunk, and I’ve run this route so many times before, I could do it in my sleep.  Hell yeah, I’m doing it.

I leaned forward and pumped my arms, put one leg in front of the other.  I stared at the ground, mediating on the road.  I turned onto Ridge Avenue and could see the craziness of Main Street Manayunk just up ahead.  Incredibly, I felt a kind of second wind coming, a small reserve of energy.  My thoughts turned to simply getting to the 20 mile turnaround point.  Yes, I could do that, absolutely.  Things might not be a total disaster after all.

It was then, incredibly, that my knee pain faded.  This was probably due to the all-round fatigue of my entire body, and the generalized pain of my joints and muscles from head to toe.  I took an inventory of my left knee and yes, the pain was still there, but if I was careful, I could let it sit quietly in the background, almost unnoticed.

Up ahead, I saw a spectator – a big black guy who was having the time of his life –  holding a big cardboard sign with a red bullseye that said tap here for power.  I went up to the sign and slapped the center, hard.

“Yeah brother!” he shouted.  “You got this!”  I felt a charge run through my body, and I knew for the first time in a long time that I was going to finish the race.  I motored up Main Street, right through the swarming crowds of cheering people.  It was awesome, seeing so many people at the race supporting you, handing out food, tissues, water and shots of beer, partying hard.  I reached the 20 mile mark and turned around.

“You’re on your way home now,” a man was telling us, and it was true – we were coming home.  The psychological impact of this was a huge lift, now that it was finally crunch time, the last 6 miles of the marathon.  I’d been mentally preparing for this moment for months, for years.  I wasn’t going to bonk this time, no way.  I refused to think about the long road ahead, or of trying to run back to the Art Museum.  It was baby steps, from one landmark to the next, one mile at a time.  I knew I could get to mile 21, as I’d gone that far three weeks ago in a training run.  The landmark was the CVS, the one down the block from the Main Street Regal UA Movie Theater, which I soon reached and grinded past.  Mile 22 was Falls Bridge, which stood at the top of a slight incline on Kelly Drive.  I didn’t look at the hill, or the crowds which were literally pouring into the streets.  I put my head down and pushed, one foot in front of the other, and soon I was past mile 22 and gazing ahead to the next landmark, the Strawberry Mansion Bridge.  I could see it through the haze but I didn’t look at it for very long, as it seemed impossible to reach.  I breathed deep, and meditated on the road under my feet, putting one foot in front of the other.  I passed a water station and saw dozens of crushed paper cups littering the street.

Mile 23 came and went like magic, and so did mile 24.

Incredibly, I hadn’t stopped running yet.  By now it was clear that there would be no walking during this race, not today.  I grinded out mile 25 and up the hill to the Art Museum to mile 26, hardly able to comprehend what I was doing.  The last .2 miles – 352 yards, were dreamlike.  My head was up now, and I was taking it all in: the cheering crowds on both sides, held back by steel gates; the announcer on the loud speaker, calling out random names of finishers; and the big digital race clock at the finish line.

I went into my kick, the final sprint at the end of the race.  My legs were destroyed and my shoulders were aching, but I pushed forward through the finish line and across the timing mat.

And then it was over, the race and all the glorious suffering.  I checked my watch: 3:54:41.  Holy crap, how did I do that?  I looked again, to make sure it was correct, and it was: 3:54:41.  A race volunteer put a finisher medal around my neck – a miniature Liberty Bell – and handed me a tinfoil heat-sheet to wrap around my body to keep me warm.

“Thanks,” I said, my voice dry and hoarse.  I walked through the finish area into the white tents and was handed a bottle of water, a banana and granola bar.  I was still processing what had happened, how I’d run a 8:57/mile pace and racked up a personal best by 2 minutes and 3 seconds.  I staggered through a crowd of people, knowing that if I sat down I might not be able to get back up.  I used my last bit of energy to exit the race area, going through the gate onto Spring Garden Street.  I limped the four blocks to the corner of 20th Street, and sat on the steps of a Baptist church, waiting for my wife Debra to pick me up.

Like clockwork she appeared in her blue Mini Cooper, honking and smiling.

“How’d you do?” she asked, handing me a towel.

I smiled and collapsed into the passenger seat, still trying to process what had just happened.

And I’m still processing it now.

I’m writing this on Wednesday, three days after the race.  My body is already starting to get back to normal, with the soreness and aches in my calves and quads fading by the hour.  My left knee isn’t broken after all, and it looks as though I didn’t do any real damage (it wasn’t a fracture, but most likely a bad case of “runner’s knee”).  I’ll need to rest it for at least a few more days, or as long as it takes for the irritation in the tendon to die down.  Both the race and my time have finally sunk in, and yet I still can’t believe I ran the marathon all the way through, without stopping or dropping out.  And while I have nothing to complain about in terms of the final outcome, there’s still a part of me that wonders what I would have run with a good knee, one that didn’t throb and scream at me for hours.

Maybe 3:49:00, perhaps?


I’ll find out next year, when I lay it all on the line in Philadelphia in 2022.

Why the Term ‘Implicit Bias’ Has to Go


by Christopher Paslay

It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems.

Earlier this week, Texas high school English teacher Melissa Garcia wrote an article for Education Week headlined, “Why Teachers Must Fight Their Own Implicit Biases.” In it she cautions teachers not to judge a book by its cover when dealing with new pupils, which is good advice; as educators, we should be proactive instead of reactive, and remain fully present with our students by staying in the moment without labeling or judging them.

Only Garcia doesn’t use the words don’t judge a book by its cover, or be proactive rather than reactive, or be fully present without labeling or judging. She chooses the phrase implicit bias, which not only carries a negative connotation (I don’t know a single person who is proud of having a so-called “implicit bias”), but is also inherently political and dualistic, and in my experience tends to make teachers defensive, causing them to close their minds rather than open them.

Still, Garcia seems genuinely interested in helping improve education, and goes on to write about the importance of first impressions at the beginning of a new school year. She states:

In these moments, as students mingle and shyly interact with one another, we the teachers begin to make the very crucial observations that will affect our perceptions, and thus inform our expectations, of each student that school year.

Research has shown that before teachers even have a conversation with a student, they have already formulated a number of opinions based on that student’s race, appearance, and other factors—and begun to form a certain set of expectations. . . .

Regardless of how much we may like to think of ourselves as progressive educators, the reality is that our subconscious is at work. . . . These subconscious thoughts and feelings are known as implicit biases. Whether our perceptions are positive or negative, they have an impact; they determine expectations, and these expectations dictate how we teach. Studies show that teacher expectations are closely linked to student achievement and success.

In a nutshell, Garcia isn’t saying anything we haven’t known for decades: teachers make observations about their new students, which lead to expectations that have an impact on student achievement.

What is relatively new, however, is the term “implicit bias,” and the idea that an educator can filter out these so-called negative subconscious prejudices by learning to be more aware of them. Also new are the implicit bias training sessions that are popping up everywhere—from Starbucks to the Philadelphia School District—which are being run by lawyers, CEO’s, and activists with little to no training in clinical counseling or psychology; amazingly, input on the Starbucks training came solely from lawyers, CEO’s, and activists, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

From a clinical standpoint, the new phenomenon known as “implicit bias” is junk science. Especially the notion that the extraordinarily popular Implicit Association Test (IAT) can measure either real bias or predict human behavior with any accuracy.

Last year, New York magazine published a lengthy article debunking the IAT, stating:

A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such.

The notion of “implicit bias” is clearly more about politics than it is about counseling. Ask any psychiatrist if you can suddenly become aware of the complex language of your subconscious simply by deciding to notice your “implicit biases” and they will laugh you out of the building; traditionally, analyzing the subconscious is done through psychotherapy, hypnosis, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), among other approaches.

From a clinical standpoint, an educator’s tendency to make a snap judgement of a student is much more related to that teacher’s conditioning, not the complexities of his or her subconscious. The root of conditioning is something called learning. According to B.F. Skinner, Learning is an adaptive function by which our nervous system changes in relation to stimuli in the environment, thus changing our behavioral responses and permitting us to function in our environment. And those of us who have any clinical training (I’m a certified secondary school counselor in PA and my wife is a licensed clinical social worker in three states) know that there are three main types of learning: classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning.

So it’s conditioning that causes an educator to make a rash judgement of a new student, not technically “subconscious thoughts and feelings,” but I digress.

The point is this: the whole “implicit bias” theory is oversimplified gobbledygook, and although some educators have adopted it with good intentions, the fact remains it’s inherently political. Specifically, it can be used to set policy and control the narrative on race, among other things.

Take the 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that showed Black students were more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled. Why was this the case? Because America’s teachers, which were 84 percent White, were racist. Were there any documented cases of discrimination in the classroom? No, but the teachers were institutionally racist. Or, according to today’s buzz phrase, they had an “implicit bias”; the fact that Black students were three times as poor as their White peers didn’t seem to factor into the equation.

So President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan chastised American teachers for being racist and implemented a bunch of strangling regulations that made it harder to suspend students of certain races (robbing many children of their right to an education in the process), and guess what happened? Nothing; in 2018, Black students are still more than three times as likely as their White peers to be suspended or expelled.

But at least politically, you can absolve certain races of responsibility and blame others.

Which is why the notion of “implicit bias” has to go. It’s negative, hypocritical, and does nothing to open minds and solve problems. If we as teachers want to remain fully present with our students and stay free of judgements, why don’t we keep things simple and say instead: Be proactive, not reactive. And never judge a book by its cover.

Why Teachers’ Unions Are Losing Membership (And Dues)

Teachers Unions

by Christopher Paslay

Surveys show that many teachers see their unions as too leftist.

America needs organized labor, especially when it comes to our country’s educators. For decades, teachers (most of whom were women with no political rights) were offered low pay and had no control over their working conditions or the direction of their profession.

In 1857, forty-three educators came together in Philadelphia to change all of that. Forming what would become the National Education Association (NEA), the new union focused on raising teacher salaries, reforming child labor laws, and educating emancipated slaves.

A half-century later, a sixth-grade schoolteacher from Chicago named Margaret Haley came along. Frustrated by her low wage and the treatment she was receiving from her principal, Haley joined a group of elementary schoolteachers from Chicago in 1916 and went on to form the American Federation of Teachers, whose goal was to unify educators across the country.

Throughout the 20thCentury, the NEA and AFT would go on to fight for the rights of teachers, women, and minorities—not only revolutionizing the education profession by securing fair wages and safe working conditions—but also helping to bring equality to America’s marginalized groups along the way.

But in 2018, America’s two biggest teachers’ unions find themselves in a challenging situation. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization, teachers’ unions may be losing power. She writes:

Make no bones about it. Teachers unions are reeling from a game-changing decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. . . . The public may not have much noticed, but unions feel they are standing at a precipice, not at all certain they can maintain the power they’re long accustomed to wielding.

After the high court sided with Janus in Janus vs. AFSCME, public-sector workers will no longer be required to contribute to their unions, something nearly half of all states — including Minnesota — require regardless of whether teachers choose to belong to the union. The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), having just held its annual convention in Minneapolis, expects to be hard hit. It’s anyone’s best guess how many of the 78,000 active teachers who currently contribute to the Education Minnesota union will opt out in the years ahead, but the initial hit will almost certainly include some 7,000 teachers who have already registered their discontent over having been forced to contribute.

Internal documents from the NEA predict the union could lose up to 300,000 members nationwide. The AFT, which has 15 of its 22 largest state affiliates in former agency-fee states, will be affected even more by Janus.

So why are teachers’ unions having such an issue with dues and membership? Union officials will undoubtedly point the finger at the Janus ruling, but this is by no means an adequate answer. The recent Supreme Court decision doesn’t bar educators from joining unions or paying dues, it simply gives them a choice. The real question that must be addressed is this: Why, if given the choice of joining a union and paying dues, are so many teachers opting out?

One major reason, other than simple finances, is that teachers’ unions have become far too political as of late. More specifically, they’ve veered too far left. According to Walsh, independent surveys consistently report that only half of all teachers see their union as “essential” and that many see “political activity as too leftist.”

Incredibly, only half of all teachers voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is quite concerning, given the fact that the NEA and AFT combined to donate $33 million to political campaigns in 2016—over 93 percent to Democrats. But the fact that the Democrats lost the Presidency in 2016 (and over 1,000 total seats, including the House and the Senate, during the Obama years), doesn’t seem to register with union officials. Instead of taking stock of the diverse political affiliations and interests of their members, the NEA and AFT have done the complete opposite: they’ve doubled-down on their polarizing agendas, becoming even more political and even more leftist than ever before.

At the NEA’s annual convention in Minneapolis early this month, the union presented former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick with their highest honor—the NEA’s President’s Award. Perhaps awarding Kaepernick, a man whom many see as disrespectful to law enforcement and the military, wasn’t the best choice when trying to increase union membership? That wasn’t the only thing that could be seen as polarizing by new teachers trying to decide if they want to become NEA members. According to the National Review:

The NEA adopted 122 total New Business Items, including commitments to promote the Black Lives Matter Week of Action (including supporting BLM’s demand that “ethnic studies be taught in pre-K-12 schools”), to support “a strategy postponing confirmation of a Supreme Court justice until after the mid-term election,” and to encourage teachers to assign readings that “describe and deconstruct the systemic proliferation of a White supremacy culture and its constituent elements of White privilege and institutional racism.” The NEA also promised to respond “in support of and in solidarity with immigrant families who are separated, incarcerated, or refused their legal right to request asylum due to the heartless, racist, and discriminatory zero-tolerance policies of the Trump administration.”

Basically, the NEA is saying screw you to any current or future member who supports the President, which is quite mind-boggling, being that nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016—over 105,000 of them from Philadelphia alone.

The AFT went hard left as well. They unanimously endorsed a “public investment strategy for health care and education infrastructure,” which includes free tuition at all public colleges and universities, and “taxation of the rich to fully fund” a raft of education programs.

Again, doubling-down on a socialist agenda might not be the best approach when trying to court future dues-paying union members, especially if the AFT is interested in any political diversity whatsoever (which clearly they’re not).

Remember: The Janus decision merely provides America’s teachers with a choice: To join/pay dues, or not to join/pay dues. The fact that more and more teachers are opting for the latter might be a wakeup call to union officials to become a little more politically diverse, or at least soften some of their left-leaning political agendas.

Starbucks and the Hogwash Known as Implicit Bias


by Christopher Paslay

The supposed implicit bias seen at a Philadelphia Starbucks is similar to the ‘spectral evidence’ seen during the Salem Witch Trials.

By now we know the story.  Two black men went into a Philadelphia coffee shop last Thursday in Rittenhouse Square, planning to meet-up with a friend.  One or both of the men asked to use the bathroom (amazingly, the story still lacks key details at this point), and were told by a Starbucks manager that the restrooms were for paying customers only, and were asked to leave.

The two men didn’t leave.  Or buy anything.  They sat down at a table, ignoring the manager.  The manager, a white female, called the police.  “Hi, I have two gentlemen in my café that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” the manager said, according the the 911 call. “I’m at the Starbucks at 18th and Spruce.”

The 911 dispatcher responded: “Alright, police will be out as soon as possible.”

The police came and respectfully tried to explain to the men, for nearly 15 minutes, that they needed to leave or be charged with trespassing.  According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, the police gave the men three chances to leave, but they didn’t move.  Finally, the two men were escorted out in handcuffs.


Not because the two men ignored the store policy and the authority of the manager (they could have simply purchased a cookie for a few dollars), and not because they ignored the polite requests by police to exit the store.  No; the two men were arrested because the police officers (one of whom is black) are racist.

Because the Starbucks manager is racist.

Not consciously racist, mind you, but unconsciously.  That’s the kicker.  The conscious intent of the store manager and police doesn’t matter here, even if they didn’t mean any harm.  Even if the manager was simply following store policy (the facilities are for paying customers only) and the police were simply following the law (it’s trespassing when you refuse to leave private property).

The verdict being rendered by social justice warriors across America is that the police and the Starbucks manager have an implicit bias.  How do we know?  Because people like Melissa DePino, an upper-middle-class white woman who does marketing for nonprofits, say so.  She took the video of the two men getting arrested.  In an article published on, she stated:

. . . none of this attention I’m getting for tweeting the video that showed the horrific treatment of two young black men in Philadelphia just doing what we all do at Starbucks—sitting and talking quietly—should be about me or any other person who does not experience these kinds of indignities, threats of violence and discrimination every day. . . . How did these two men feel as they were arrested? Why did this incident happen? What can we do to make sure that incidents like these—and worse—stop happening?

Well, one way to stop this from happening is to respect store policy.  When a manager explains that you must make a purchase in order to remain in the store, you make a purchase or leave; this is guaranteed to keep the peace in any coffee shop in America.  As for the matter of getting handcuffed by police?  Perhaps you might want to respect their authority as well, and not completely ignore them when they tell you to exit the building.

But according to people like DePino, the two black men experienced “horrific treatment” not because of their refusal to comply with a very reasonable store policy, but because of the implicit bias of the store manager and the police (one of whom was black).  That’s their verdict—implicit racial bias.  Case closed.  The proof?  Because people like DePino say so.  Are the people who cry implicit racial bias experts in psychology, psychiatry, or applied behavioral science?  No.  Do they have any clinical training whatsoever?  Not at all.

Were the arresting officers and the Starbucks manager psychoanalyzed by a professional, or put under hypnosis?  Were anecdotal records kept of their interactions with other customers in and around the store?  Do we have any documented evidence that the Starbuck’s manger treated these two black men any differently than any other people?  (When I say evidence, I mean real, empirical data showing that the behavior of the police and store manager was biased, not speculation from latte-drinking folks like DePino, who possibly suffer from white-guilt and project their own unresolved prejudices on the world around them.)

Do we have anything like this?

Of course not.

But this doesn’t stop DePino and the social justice folk from calling the Starbucks manager and members of the Philadelphia Police Department racists, and completely destroying their reputations (and in the case of the Starbucks manager, her career).  This doesn’t stop them from claiming they have, get this—an unconscious bias—not one that the manager or police can see, but only they can see.

How do you know the Starbucks manager has an implicit bias, Ms. DePino?  How are you able to get inside her unconscious and know her racial prejudices?  Seriously?  How do you do it?  If the manager were to say she called the police because she was simply following store policy, and insisted it had nothing to do with skin color, how could you prove otherwise?  How do you know, really know, this isn’t true?  The police have already stated that they didn’t act on skin color, so are you calling them liars?  Are you a mind reader, is that it?  You know their intentions better than they do themselves?

Witch TrialsThis so-called “implicit bias” is very similar to the “spectral evidence” that was used to
convict people of being witches during the Salem Witch Trials in the 17th century.  Townspeople who had a gripe with a neighbor could claim that they were attacked by the neighbor’s spirit, and the only proof was the testimony of the victim.  Many, many people were killed until folks started to realize the absurdity of the situation—the fact that there was absolutely no conclusive way to prove such crimes.

Interestingly, there’s no conclusive way to prove implicit bias.  Project Implicit, which was founded by Harvard professors and describes itself as “a non-profit organization and international collaboration between researchers who are interested in implicit social cognition—thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control,” is a recognized expert on the subject.  You can even go on their website and take a test to see if you have an implicit racial bias.  However, the organization has posted a disclaimer.  It states, “these Universities, as well as the individual researchers who have contributed to this site, make no claim for the validity of these suggested interpretations.”

Incredibly, even the experts on implicit bias admit there is no validity for the results of their tests.  Loose translation: implicit bias is hogwash.

Granted, people are subject to conditioning and often use life experiences to make important decisions.  In addition, the way we interpret the world is based on physiological, psychological, and sociological factors.  But no one has the right to tell another person what they were thinking at the time they made a choice, nor do they have the right to claim to know a person’s intent better than that person themselves, whether conscious or unconscious.

Any attempts to do so is outrageous, and dangerously close to 17th century Salem.

Planned Student Walkout Against Guns is Honorable, Though Misguided


Although fighting for school safety is honorable, Philadelphia school students should be in class during the instructional day, not engaging in walkouts organized by adults with underlying political agendas.  

by Christopher Paslay

Outraged by the recent shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, students at Philadelphia area schools have decided to take a stand—or at least they’ve been encouraged by adult activists to do so.  At exactly 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14th, they plan on walking out of class for 17 minutes in an effort to change current gun laws.  The walkout is being organized by the Women’s March Network, the same activist group behind the Women’s March that protested President Trump’s inauguration.

The group states on its website that its aim is “to protest Congress’ inaction to do more than tweet thoughts and prayers in response to the gun violence plaguing our schools and neighborhoods.  We need action.”

By “action” the group means baiting teenagers to ditch instruction.

How does William Hite, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, feel about the walkout during school hours?

“I’ll probably participate,” he said, explaining that students who decide to get up and leave class in the middle of the lesson will not be penalized.

With all due respect to Dr. Hite, his unofficial endorsement of the walkout, although well-intentioned, is misguided.

School safety is a priority, and a holistic plan to protect our students and communities—one that involves social, psychological, and mental health components—is needed.  Improved gun laws may be part of this equation, too; we need to better enforce the laws that already exist, for starters.

But the school day is no time for a protest, especially one being organized by adults—not students.  I’ve been teaching in Philadelphia for over 20 years, and during that time, there have been dozens of protests.  A massive movement opposing the takeover of the School District by the for-profit Edison Schools, in conjunction with Mayor Street, comes to mind.  But even at its most contentious, students were not permitted to walk out of the building during school hours; the protests were officially held after the school day was over.

In fact, the School District’s policy has been to strictly forbid walkouts during instructional hours.  In 2011, Hope Moffett, a schoolteacher at Audenried High School, was suspended by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for supposedly organizing a protest during school hours.  Although Moffett was later cleared, the School District argued such protests were a danger to student safety, and put an undue burden on police to keep order on city streets.

Even when 10-year-old Faheem Thomas-Childs was gunned down outside Peirce Elementary School in North Philadelphia in 2004 by a drug dealer’s bullet, students did not walk out of class; a march was organized, but not involving teenagers during instructional time.

The protest planned for March 14 is not without safety concerns.  Keeping track of students once they exit the building is going to be difficult, as is enforcing the 17 minute time limit.  No doubt truancy rates will rise during this time, opening up the possibility of mischief and further rule breaking.

Academics will also suffer.  Lessons will be interrupted, and the learning environment before and after the walkout will be compromised.

This doesn’t even begin to address the political side of the protest, and the fact that it’s clearly indoctrinating students to one-side of the gun control debate.  Is it really the School District’s place to take a side on an issue as sensitive as gun control?  What will parents of students who are gun-supporters think when they learn their child’s education has been interrupted for a gun control protest?

Sure, the walkout’s not being directly labeled as such, but the gun reform narrative is clear enough.  Which begs the question: why now?  Where’s the outrage been for all the gun homicides in our own neighborhoods for the past 10 years?  For the hundreds of Philadelphians murdered each year, not by a lawfully purchased assault rifle, but by an urban felon’s weapon of choice—an illegal handgun?

And why a walkout?  Perhaps a more respectful way to make a statement and remember victims of the Florida school shooting would be to have a vigil, not a protest.  Why not have students and staff come in 17 minutes early before the school day starts, and light candles or read poems?  Have an informational picket to make the community aware of concerns?

Interestingly, the students I’ve spoken with don’t even know why they’re walking out.  Some have told me it’s to protest Trump.  Others have said it’s to stand in solidarity with Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida.  My response to this is, To stand in solidarity to what end?  The answer to this question is obvious: To stand in solidarity for gun reform.  Words like “solidarity” and “walkout” have clear political connotations, which reveal the true underlying agenda of the supposed altruistic event—to politic for gun control.

Those schools who genuinely want to show support for the victims of the Florida school shooting may want to drop the politically charged “walkout” for “solidarity,” and have a memorial or extended moment of silence.  This could be done during an advisory period or special assembly schedule, one that includes all students, not just those who stand on the liberal side of the gun reform debate.

Interestingly, many students don’t have an opinion on the matter either way.  All they know is that they get to walk out of class, and the chaotic nature of the protest is troubling, especially since it’s being directed from the Women’s March Network from afar.

Philadelphia school students should be in class during the instructional day, not engaging in walkouts organized by adults with underlying political agendas.

White Flight Makes ‘In the Margins’ 2018 Top 10 Award List

White Flight.JPGBoy

From the School Library Journal:

Now in its sixth year, the In the Margins Book Awards has revealed the top picks in the Fiction, Nonfiction, and Social Justice/Advocacy Award categories, from books published in 2016 and 2017 that appeal to the reading needs and wants of marginalized young adults.

The committee is comprised of librarians who currently work or have recently worked with youth in these challenging circumstances. Not only do we read and discuss the multitude of books that we consider, but have the unique experience of having young adults assisting us in selecting the books by reading and sharing their opinions with us. With all of the enthusiasm that these young people make, we have created a reading list that is unlike many others.

The fall of 2016 and 2017 brought an abundance of quality books appealing to the reading needs and wants of marginalized young adults along with books addressing the myriad of social issues faced by these youth.  While this complicated our task of selecting the best books to recommend, it did lead to many passionate discussions, and all of us were thrilled by the number of meaningful books that filled our reading boxes.

We used our mission statement as our guide when deciding which books we would honor as our Top Ten.  Mission Statement: To seek out and highlight fiction and nonfiction titles (Pre-K through adult) of high-interest appeal to youth, ages 9–21, that reflect marginalized and/or street culture with a preference for marginalized books (books that are self-published or from small independent publishers).

Our Top Ten List recognizes books that appeal to and reflect the marginalized youths’ daily lives and many are either self-published or small press books often overlooked by book awards.  Our list of fifty-two additional books contains books with the same focus, but also includes titles from major publishers.

Click here to review In the Margins 2018 Top 10 Titles.

In the Margins

White Flight: Preview Free Ebook on Amazon

White Flight.JPGBoy

Amazon is offering White Flight for free today.  Any teacher interested in previewing the high interest novel for reluctant readers can download the ebook free of charge on Amazon (today only). 

When 16-year-old Daryl Kerns (black) witnesses a shooting on the basketball courts one summer evening in Philadelphia, he vows to keep silent. It isn’t until Daryl’s best friend Alex Murphy (white) persuades him to cooperate with authorities does Daryl come forward and agree to testify. But when Daryl is killed in front of Alex several weeks later in retaliation for talking to police, the tables quickly turn: Now Alex must decide if he will be strong enough to take his own advice and speak to detectives about Daryl’s murder.

White Flight is young adult novel in verse. Through 82 interconnected open form poems, Alex tells the story of his slowly deteriorating neighborhood, and of his struggle with his crushing secret: the brutal shooting death of his best friend, Daryl. Alex also reflects on the issues of white flight, urban police, sexual harassment, and the no-snitch culture.

Purchase the ebook free of charge on Amazon below:

Applauding the Philadelphia School District’s Gutsy Leadership

by Jeff Rosenberg

The School District’s recent attempt to void the teachers’ contract has brought out the best in our leaders.

Earlier this month the Philadelphia Daily News reported, “The education advocacy group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools has taken legal steps to challenge the School Reform Commission’s decision last month to cancel the teacher contract.” Local rabble-rousers need to take a step back and a deep breath. This is my 38th year teaching for the School District of Philadelphia. My colleagues are teachers. Some of my closest friends are teachers. I married a teacher. I am now risking becoming a pariah, but after reflecting, let’s give our leadership their due. (I was able to do this by attempting to stand in the shoes of Philadelphia School District spokesman Fernando Gallard and anticipating how he likely would have responded.)

The leadership was gutsy and cunning and showed ingenuity by conducting the meeting to void the contract in a manner that was antithetical to our democratic principles and practices, and then exerted superhero willpower by turning a deaf ear to the public criticism and reaffirming their dogma right or wrong.

SRC Chairman Bill Green exhibited innovative leadership when he initially responded to the public outcry of the stealthily arranged meeting as happenstance, “We were planning to have the meeting next Thursday, and it just didn’t work out for us. And so Monday was not a targeted date. It was simply the date that we could get it done.” Later he referred to it as a “legal matter.”

Mayor Nutter attempted to calm the furor by dismissively saying, “I don’t know if any of the folks who are upset about this would be happy if the meeting was conducted in the middle of Broad Street at noon.” (When city council scrapped his proposal to sell PGW without a public hearing, he disappointedly said, “It is the opposite of transparency,” and referred to it as the “biggest copout.” This revealed the Mayor’s uncanny discretion on when to apply “transparency” and identify and quantify a “copout.”)

Chairman Green, Superintendent Hite, Mayor Nutter, and Governor Corbett, demonstrated their solidarity and compulsion for fairness when they fearlessly stood up to the teachers, and in virtual unison professed to anyone who was breathing that everyone else but the teachers has “stepped up” with concessions for the children, including the district blue collar workers and principals. Straight-shooter SRC Commissioner Sylvia Simms got to the crux, “We need to stop playing games on the backs of our children.” (She maintained her tell-it-like-it-is authority when she berated protesting children that they were “probably in failing schools.”) Mayor Nutter referred to it as a “sharing environment.”

They deserve the credit for bringing about that altruistic environment when the other unions were first “stepped on” before they “stepped up.” The “concessions” were more like strong-arm tactics of coercion, as the other unions were threatened with inventive and resourceful alternatives, including layoffs, private-contractors, and the unilateral imposition of work rules with even more severe cutbacks. Faced with fear and mounting pressure, they acquiesced. When things get tough, the tough get going. It required strong, unyielding, and adroit leadership.

So how does this creative out-of-the-pocket and daring shakedown shakeout? It will cost beginning teachers opting for family coverage with a surcharge and “Buy Up” $7,537, 17.39 percent of their lavish $43,358 salary; it will cost teachers with six years of experience and a required bachelor’s or equivalent $8139, 14.40 percent of their affluent $56,531 salary; and it will be 11.31 percent of the purported $72,000 average teacher salary. (Their unlimited personal expense accounts for classroom spending will go untouched.)

These unprecedented and burdensome cost initiatives imposed by the leadership are the equivalent of pay-cuts that will bring millions for the children. When teachers get raises, they generally do not exceed 2 to 4 percent cost of living rates. The higher end percentages of the health care contributions easily exceed the salary raises for an entire 3 to 4-year contract.

This should allow the district to maintain and even increase the already colossal teacher turnover, keeping those aggravating, tertiary labor costs down. The PFT reports that 60 percent of teachers have five years or less tenure. Our leadership is on top of this national cutting-edge trend to create a transient, unstable teacher corps by taking away any incentive to stay, along with any school-based security and stability.

When Superintendent Hite was asked about his own cabinet making comparable health care contributions, he politely responded after you, giving teachers an opportunity to lead.

At the same time, our leadership has expressed compassion for the teachers’ plight and acknowledged how tirelessly they worked with their students. A tolerant Superintendent Hite has even invited them back to the bargaining table, full well knowing that they might lack the trust required in good faith negotiations because of the ongoing violations by the district and SRC. It takes incredible chutzpa for that kind of consideration and perseverance.

Amazingly, there is still enough of that self-assurance leftover, along with the foresight and resolve, to begin spending 14 million dollars they do not yet possess. Directing his principals to confer with their teachers on how to spend their own money, shows his unshaken belief in cooperation and shared decision-making.

Best of all, by their actions and unwavering example, the charismatic SRC, district, and government leadership earned our gratitude for inspiring and motivating the Philadelphia community in general and the rank and file in particular to come together and take a stand (albeit contrary to their own) in a show of solidarity the city hasn’t seen in years. The familiar chants of “Shame on you” were especially passionate and tight. (And to Mayor Nutter, I think the attendees were generally satisfied with this meeting on Broad Street in broad daylight.)

This past episode to void the contract and its aftermath has brought out the best of our leaders. Sadly, our leaders are not getting the credit they think they deserve, which is something every teacher can relate to.

In the meantime, after expressing my unstinting admiration for our SDP leadership, I’m hoping that I might be able to at least get back into the good graces of my dog with a belly rub or two, as I will certainly be sharing his house.

Jeff Rosenberg is an education writer and longtime Philadelphia public schoolteacher.

Philly Schools Brought Financial Crisis on Themselves

by Christopher Paslay

State auditors have been warning the Philadelphia School District of accounting problems for decades. 

There was a very interesting and informative article published in today’s Inquirer by Eric Boehm of the Pennsylvania Independent:

State auditors warned of financial accountability problems at the Philadelphia School District in periodic audits since at least 1987, foreshadowing some of the issues that underpin the crisis in the district as it opens its doors to students Monday.

The district is running a $300 million deficit this year and was only able to ensure it would open its doors on time thanks to an emergency loan secured by the city of Philadelphia in August. The district is receiving more than $1.3 billion in state and federal aid this year.

But the district has had problems tracking students, accounting for state dollars and keeping accurate finances for much of the past two decades, according to audits conducted by the state auditor general’s office. The auditor general is required to audit all 500 school districts in Pennsylvania at least once every four years.

“The district was unable to provide us with the documentation necessary to verify that it correctly reported its membership and attendance data to the Department of Education,” wrote auditors in the most recent review of the Philadelphia School District, which took place in 2011. “A district’s failure to accurately maintain and report this data calls into question the legitimacy and appropriateness of the bulk of its state taxpayer funding.”

The auditors said they reported similar problems in each of the five previous audits of the Philadelphia School District. It was impossible to determine if the district received appropriate state subsidies for more than decade, they wrote. “These findings are particularly disturbing because in those ten years the district has received approximately $9.1 billion of state of state dollars,” they wrote.

Interestingly, these facts have been ignored by most of the Philadelphia education establishment.  Advocates continue to rally for more money from the state, but this only addresses the short-term symptoms and not the long-term problem.

Boehm’s article continues:

Repeated phone calls and emails to the school district and the state-run School Reform Commission, which was created to address some of the problems in the district, went unreturned over the past week.

But in 2011, in an official response to the state audit, district officials wrote that the district would pursue steps to address the problems identified in the report.

The district said it had new procedures in place to better track student attendance and state spending, beginning in the 2010-11 school year. Officials also tried to downplay the effect of student enrollment on state subsidies, claiming the inaccurate counts affected only 3 percent of state spending in the district.

In a second response, the auditors expressed skepticism that the district would get its fiscal house in order.

“It is imperative for us to emphasize that we have been citing the district since 1987 for inaccurate collection and reporting of child accounting data,” the auditors wrote. “The commonwealth’s taxpayers deserve to know that every dollar is accurately accounted for, and, to that end, no error rate is acceptable.”

Federal auditors encountered some of the same problems.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General recommended that the Philadelphia School District be labeled a “high risk grantee” after a federal audit found the district did not maintain documentation for training and professional development expenditures.

State auditors said that finding highlighted the “pervasiveness of the district’s recordkeeping issues.”

But the district has continued to get more state funding, even while the financial situation at the district has spiraled downward in recent years.

The accountability problems at the school district were compounded by the state’s decision to cut education funding in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 state budgets, using federal stimulus funds to fill the gap. When the stimulus dollars expired in 2011, the state did not increasing funding to make up the difference.

In trying to deal with the funding mess, the school district laid off about 3,800 employees during the summer and closed 24 school buildings at the recommendation of the School Reform Commission, which cited the district’s declining student enrollment for the decision.

“By not taking action now, we would continue the deterioration of our public schools to the point where they become obsolete to the children that we have sworn to serve,” said Pedro Ramos, chairman of the School Reform Commission, in statement at the time.

Enrollment in the district totals about 190,000 this year, but overall enrollment is down 11 percent since 2008 and 29 percent since 2001.

This year, Philadelphia is slated to receive nearly $984 million in basic education subsidies.

That’s a significant increase in only the past few years. As recently as the 2008-09 budget year, the district received $932 million.

The district is counting on the $50 million loan from the city and another $45 million grant from the state to allow it to continue operating through the end of the year.

But the $50 million loan is tied up in a political struggle between the mayor and the city council, while the $45 million state grant also is on hold for now.

Negotiations, meanwhile, continue between the district and its main teachers union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. State officials have said they will not provide additional financial assistance to the school district unless the teachers’ union agrees to about $133 million in concessions.

But things will only get worse, according to two reports that eye the future of the district.

A district report from August 2012 projects a cumulative deficit of $1.1 billion through 2017, and a study of the district’s pension obligations indicates the total cost of retiree payments will climb from $73 million this year to $349 million by 2020.

Tragically, these financial issues go well beyond something as simple as a “fair funding formula.”

On Corbett Bashing and the Common Core

by Christopher Paslay

Common Core texts indoctrinate young children and teach them to manipulate facts for social advocacy.  Sound familiar, Philadelphia? 

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

This is the philosophy I use when I teach students in my high school English classes how to write.  There is no substitute for the right word—no true synonym—and until a writer figures this out, he won’t be able to fully articulate his thoughts.  This is the case whether you are writing a narrative, informational, or persuasive essay (the Common Core’s preferred term for “persuasive” is now “argumentative”).

Good writing, especially in today’s culture of limited attention spans, is focused, clear, and accurate.  Good writers can say more in less space—and they can back their writing with examples, details, and evidence.

This philosophy has worked well with my own students at Swenson Arts and Technology High School.  On the 2012 PSSA Writing Test, 74% of my 11th graders scored proficient or advanced—a whopping 28.1% percent higher than the Philadelphia School District average, which was only 45.9%.

Unfortunately, some English Language Arts texts being promoted by the Common Core are no longer focused on teaching students succinct, accurate writing that avoids the use of flimsy persuasive techniques (such as red herrings, overgeneralizing, circular arguments, name calling, etc.), but on writing that actually encourages the use of emotionally charged propaganda for social advocacy.  In short, some ELA texts supported by the Common Core are not making young children free thinkers, but politically indoctrinating them (type the phrase “Common Core indoctrination” on YouTube and see the results).

One interesting case of indoctrinating students and promoting the use of propagandistic writing for social advocacy is the state of Utah’s first grade ELA primer Voices: Writing and Literature, recommended by, and aligned with, the Common Core.  On the surface it appears the text is about literature and writing, but a closer look reveals a major theme is social justice and social advocacy.  This, amazingly, is being introduced not to college undergraduates in Community Organizing 101, but to first graders!

One section in Voices: Writing and Literature teaches young children how to play fast and loose with facts by using emotionally charged propagandistic words to elicit emotions and bring about liberal social change.  It doesn’t teach children to use the right word, as Twain would have advocated (as well as any respectable writing teacher), but to use a word that will get folks stirred-up for social justice, whether or not that word is true, evidence-based, or accurate.

Click on the below YouTube video to see for yourself:

Because the Philadelphia School District is flat broke and has no money to invest in a new set of textbooks, such a primer may not be made available to our city’s school children.  However, the political indoctrination of School District students—and the teaching of how to play fast and loose with facts—is well underway.  Groups like Youth United for Change and the Philadelphia Student Union, who often partner with politically motivated adult organization such as the Education Law Center, are well schooled on the use of propaganda in writing.

All three of these groups frequently use “correlation to prove causation”—a logical fallacy and standard propaganda technique—to imply that Philadelphia public schoolteachers are discriminating against minority students because black students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white peers (and these groups continue to claim this despite the fact that no documented cases of racial discrimination by a Philadelphia teacher against a students exists . . . except, of course, the discrimination against Sam Pawlucy by a black geometry teacher for wearing a Romney T-shirt in class).

The newly founded “Fund Philly Schools Now” does much of the same in terms of their blatant use of propaganda.  Launched to help raise money for struggling city schools, an admirable goal, their website states:

Since Gov. Corbett took office, it has become clear that when he must make the choice between tax breaks for corporations and much-needed investments in our children, he chooses corporations and wealthy donors every time. The crisis in Philadelphia public schools has been manufactured by Gov. Corbett. He is starving the city of resources and then using teachers as scapegoats and Philadelphia families as pawns.

Propagandistic?  No question.  With Federal stimulus money gone, Governor Corbett has been forced to make due with less, and this has no doubt adversely impacted Philadelphia public schools (as well as most public schools in PA).  But the crisis in city schools was not “manufactured by Gov. Corbett.”

During the Ackerman years, from July of 2008 to July of 2011, the School District blew through nearly $10 billion, spending so reckless it prompted the IRS to open a detailed audit of their financial practices.  The rapid expansion of charter schools—nearly 100 of them in 10 years—also greatly contributed to the School District’s financial crisis.  There is also the matter of Philadelphia residents owing over $500 million in delinquent property taxes.  And the fact that the School District loses millions of dollars in unreturned textbooks and stolen computer equipment each year.  And the reality that recently retired baby-boomers are overwhelming the pension system.  And all the cronyism/nepotism over the past five years from the usual suspects . . . Ackerman, Archie, Evans, Gamble, Fattah Jr., etc.

All Corbett?  Please.

Does the School District badly need money?  Absolutely.  Do I want to see our city’s children get the resources they need?  Most definitely.  But the theatrics and use of propaganda to get money is getting old.  People are growing tired of it.  Attacking public officials is becoming counterproductive (just ask Mayor Nutter).  Why does the rest of the state hate Philadelphia, think we are a cesspool?  Perhaps they are tired of Victimology 101.  It’s like with affirmative action: If groups in need simply took responsibility for their problems and said, I’m having some trouble keeping up, can you please lend a hand?, people would bend over backwards to help out.  But it doesn’t work like that.  Affirmative action in 21st century America goes more like this:  It’s YOUR fault I have problems, so give me what you owe me, now!

Not the best way to get the help you need, or to get at the true root of problems.

Neither is using propaganda to bring about reform (or to teach our students English Language Arts).

According to the mission statement of the Common Core:

The Common Core State Standards provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers.

Dr. Carole Hornsby Haynes, a noted curriculum specialist and former public school teacher, disagrees with the Common Core’s mission statement and feels they have an ulterior agenda.  She writes in a recent article:

Common Core is not about “core knowledge” but rather is the foundation for left-wing student indoctrination to create activists for the social justice agenda. Education is being nationalized, just like our healthcare, to eliminate local control over education, imposing a one-size-fits-all, top-down curriculum that will also affect private schools and homeschoolers.

I don’t know if Dr. Hornsby Haynes is totally correct about the Common Core, but I know this: ELA teachers should teach students how to make strong, factual arguments, not how to play loose with the facts to support their own political agendas.