District officials must solve problems, not rename them

by Susan Cohen Smith


Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The School District of Philadelphia’s new Superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, has embraced the time-honored method of enacting wholesale institutional change within the Philadelphia school system: if something’s not working, change its name and call it something different.


Once upon a time, there were Department Heads in Philadelphia high schools. They were positions that required passing a test and paid a higher salary than that of a teacher. Department Heads were knowledgeable in their academic disciplines, most held doctoral degrees, and they gave valued assistance to both beginning teachers as well as seasoned veterans in a non-threatening, demonstrable way.


Although their teaching loads were reduced, Department Heads still taught a class or two, and were nearby to handle minor student discipline problems. A good Department Head was invaluable for maintaining academic integrity within their subject area, managing textbook and supply inventories, and mentoring teachers in their departments.


Some administrators became peeved because Department Heads were earning more money than principals.  Department Heads also taught less than a classroom teacher and, because of PFT contract regulations, they could not be forced to formally observe and rate other teachers.   


There may have been a few bad apples who took advantage of the relative autonomy of the Department Head position, but no more than other education professionals in other positions.


To some administrative higher-ups, Department Heads had it too good.  They represented nirvana because they had achieved the coveted status of getting out of the classroom, being paid a decent salary, and escaping the heinous task of dealing with unproductive staff. They had to go!


The School District’s solution? Blame Department Heads for the decline in student achievement at the high school level. Phase out the position of Department Head and eventually replace all but a handful of them with a new nomenclature: Small Learning Community Coordinators.


This accomplished many goals. Under the guise of creating smaller schools within a school, an SLCC is paid at a teacher’s salary, is selected by the principal and need not possess any particular expertise in an academic discipline. Best of all, there is no job description for this position in the teachers’ contract so they can be made to perform various and sundry duties at the whim of the principal.


Unlike Department Heads, they can also be returned to their classroom duties at the principal’s discretion; it is far easier to rename a Small Learning Community and select a new coordinator than to do away with, say, an English Department.


The public believes it is getting a leader to monitor students more intimately than before, and that enormous high schools are being pared down to manageable schools within schools. Problem solved! Think again.


The case of the Department Head is but a single example of the many instances that the SDP has rearranged the deck chairs on the Titanic. Remember Junior High Schools? They were hotbeds of teenaged angst and the bane of public education for many years. There is no more problem in this area because the name was changed to Middle Schools.


Then there was the practice of Mainstreaming.  This process allowed special education students to attend non-academic classes if it was determined they could handle the subject fairly well alongside regular education students.  This served to acclimate the special needs student to the general student population, and to reduce their isolation status.


Mainstreaming was then changed to Inclusion.  When this happened, the number of special education students attending regular classes grew astronomically. The teachers of these classes didn’t need special education training, nor did they have to be paid a salary differential on the elementary level. It provided tremendous relief and flexibility for rostering in secondary schools. Soon, there were instances whereby the special education students in a regular education class outnumbered the regular education students!


The list goes on and on.  Those of us cursed with institutional memory are usually shunned or at best, tolerated by the current crop of administrators.  We remind them of how they got into some of the dilemmas they face today.


For the want of expediency and cost cutting, education has suffered.  The original motives behind many of the changes were relatively unknown to all but a few—and remembered by fewer.  The causes of many of today’s ills are wrongfully attributed, and their solutions, such as the ones proposed by Dr. Ackerman, are wrong-headed.


Susan Cohen Smith is a retired Philadelphia public school teacher.  She taught Art and French for 36 years.  You can email her at retiredartteacher@gmail.com