Long-time radio host Dom Giordano, an educator in a past life, returns with his fourteenth installment of his podcast centered on the ever-changing landscape of education. This week, Giordano is joined by Christopher Paslay, Philadelphia teacher and author of Exploring White Fragility: Debating the Effects of Whiteness Studies on America’s Schools. In Exploring White Fragility, Paslay takes an in-depth look into the concept of ‘white fragility’ and ‘white guilt’ as the two phrases have become regular topics in discussions of race. In the book, and on his new YouTube channel, Paslay examines the effects that whiteness studies have on America’s schools, and investigates how the antiracist movement to dismantle “white supremacy culture” is impacting student and teacher morale and expectations, school discipline, and overall academic achievement. For more from Paslay, check out his YouTube channel HERE.
by Christopher Paslay
If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity and inclusion with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons, and perhaps refocus their teaching on traditional academic skills.
Over the weekend Matthew Kay, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, had a conversation on Twitter about distance learning. Specifically, he wondered how parental oversight might impact his ability to teach equity and inclusion during the fall semester. Before I continue, I’d like to state that as a fellow Philadelphia public school English teacher and coach, I support Matthew and his passion for education, poetry, sports, and honest conversations about equity and inclusion; Matthew is also a published author and writer, and I applaud his achievements.
So this blog about his recent tweets (and my video analysis above) are not meant to disparage Matthew or add to any hostile blowback that has come from conservative media sources. I’d simply like to politely add to the discussion that Matthew started on Twitter on Saturday, August 8th, and join the conversation with additional perspectives and offer constructive criticisms that might help future distance learning this fall.
As is now public knowledge, Matthew Tweeted the following thread on Saturday:
So, this fall, virtual class discussions will have many potential spectators — parents, siblings, etc. — in the same room. We’ll never be quite sure who is overhearing the discourse. What does this do for our equity/inclusion work?
How much have students depended on the (somewhat) secure barriers of our physical classrooms to encourage vulnerability? How many of us have installed some version of “what happens here stays here” to help this?
While conversations about race are in my wheelhouse, and remain a concern in this no-walls environment — I am most intrigued by the damage that “helicopter/snowplow” parents can do in honest conversations about gender/sexuality …
And while “conservative” parents are my chief concern — I know that the damage can come from the left too. If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids racism or homophobia or transphobia — how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?
Several journalists and news organizations got wind of this thread (as did scores of twitter users who posted comments both supporting and criticizing Matthew), and several stories were written. The Daily Wire, a conservative news website founded by Ben Shapiro, wrote two critical stories about the tweets (see here and here), and a popular conservative blog titled American Thinker also wrote a scathing story about the tweets (see here). To be fair, these articles were overly hostile and although they raised legitimate concerns, were a bit sensational and skewed by politics.
Benjamin Boyce, a popular YouTube podcaster whose claim to fame was covering the Evergreen State College protests while attending the school, recently did a segment on Matthew’s tweets, which I feel is the most thorough, insightful, and balanced analysis (see Boyce’s podcast here).
There are two main questions at the heart of all of these articles and podcasts (including my own podcast above), and they are as follows. One — should teachers worry that parental oversight during virtual learning will harm efforts at teaching equity and inclusion? And two — should teachers place social justice and so-called equity issues above traditional academic skill building?
I agree the most with Benjamin Boyce’s take on the tweets. First, parents have every right to see what exactly it is that their children are learning in classrooms. In fact, we the teachers work for the parents, not the other way around. The notion of “what happens here stays here” is in my opinion misguided and inappropriate, with certain exceptions, of course; as a PA certified school counselor myself, I understand there is a very real difference between a therapist and teacher. Other than issues such as abuse and assault, which may be coming from inside the home, teachers should not be shielding their lessons, objectives, and activities from parents, and the inclination to do so is a cause for concern, as it does call into question the issues of transparency, trust, and the appropriateness of the lesson.
Second, academic skills should take precedent over any social justice initiatives. Academic teachers are not counselors or social workers, and lack the clinical experience and training necessary to delve into such therapy-oriented sessions as described by Matthew Kay in his book, Not Light But Fire. As Boyce states in his podcast, English classes should not turn into dramatic struggle sessions about equity issues, hence the learning community may devolve into the chaotic and quite divisive environment characterized by the Evergreen State College fiasco of 2017. And besides, academic classes should be preparing students with skills for college or the workplace, not indoctrinating them with highly charged identity politics (which some parents may or may not agree with).
Yet, curiously, according to the article in The Daily Wire by Matt Walsh headlined, “Teachers Openly Fret That Parents Might Hear Them Brainwashing Children, Call Parents ‘Dangerous’,” a number of teachers do feel parental oversight is a problem when it comes to virtual learning:
It’s important to note that while some teachers responded to Kay’s comments with the appropriate level of horror and disgust, many others chimed in to share their own strategies for brainwashing during a pandemic. One teacher said she’d also been “thinking about” the problem Kay described, and had decided that she’d ask students about their preferred pronouns via survey — though she still worries that “caregivers” might see it and learn something about their children that they weren’t supposed to know.
Another teacher said that students last semester would sometimes “type secrets into the chat” whenever the discussion turned to “anti-racism and gender inclusive content.” Another complained that a white parent — she made sure to specify “white” — in her district recorded a Zoom class and “filed a complaint against the teacher for an anti-racist read aloud (saying the teacher’s commentary was inappropriate and biased).” This, the teacher says, “is going to be an issue.”
A ninth grade teacher shared in the commiseration, saying that her class required students to “read and respond to a news article,” but that participation in this exercise is stunted now because “outsiders” are “listening.” The “outsiders,” to be clear, are the children’s parents. A teacher with pronouns listed in her Twitter handle said that she plans to use the chat function more than voice lectures because she wants children to share “information” with her in a “parentless way.” A science teacher agreed with all of the sentiments expressed here and summarized it bluntly: “Parents are dangerous.”
If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons. Further, academic teachers should prioritize teaching the appropriate skills in their content area, and with some exceptions, leave the “messiness” of delving into the vulnerability of things like gender and sexuality for trained counselors and social workers.
According to Robin DiAngelo, niceness is not anti-racism. Whites must be blunt and actively call out the oppressiveness of “whiteness” in order to stop systemic racism. To be “less white,” DiAngelo states, “is to be less oppressive racially. To be less arrogant. To be less certain. To be less defensive. To be less ignorant.” But is this zero-sum approach — disrupting and stereotyping one group in order to advance another — really the best way to go? Is an approach based on confrontation, provocation, and agitation the best way to bond with our students and colleagues? Is forgoing curtesy and “niceness” going to develop the kind of core principles and values our community needs to create an atmosphere of teamwork and synergy?
Here is my lengthy interview with Benjamin Boyce, where we discuss Robin DiAngelo, white fragility theory and white privilege, among other educational topics. Please watch, as this is a badly needed conversation (it is a true dialogue as opposed to an antiracist monologue).
White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo insists America’s white teachers are ‘racially illiterate.’ However, data from the NCES suggests otherwise. WATCH VIDEO ABOVE
by Christopher Paslay
“Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism.“
Dr. John H. McWhorter is an African American Professor of English at Columbia University, and a native of Philadelphia. A product of Friends Select School, his resume is quite impressive: he’s taught at Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and has written for numerous publications, including Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.
In 2018, during a lecture on racism, McWhorter highlighted the ways in which modern anti-racism is less like a productive approach to racial equality, and more like a religion.
“Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism,” McWhorter stated. “Today, it’s a religion, and I don’t mean that as a rhetorical faint. I mean that it actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith, in people many of whom don’t think of themselves as religious. But Galileo would recognize them quite easily. And so for example, the idea that the responsible white person is supposed to attest to their white privilege, and realize that it can never go away — and feel eternally guilty about it — that’s original sin right there.”
McWhorter’s take on anti-racism is a growing perspective. “We have a cult of social justice on the left,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine, “a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.” Michael Barone wrote about the cult-like behavior of millennials in his Washington Examiner piece, “The new religion of woke anti-racism.”
Unlike classic multiculturalism, where conversation and the exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, modern anti-racism is about indoctrination — its ideology is to be completely accepted, no questions or alternative viewpoints allowed. Anti-racism has a set doctrine that must be embraced, lest one risk being branded “racist” and chastised and/or silenced. As National Book Award winner Ibram X Kendi teaches in his book, How to Be An Antiracist (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum), “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle.” You either get active fighting racism as an anti-racist, or you remain passive and help perpetuate systemic racism.
Some common points within the anti-racist doctrine are:
- America is a systemically racist country, and all racial disparities are a result of this racism.
- Being ‘colorblind’ is racist, because it denies systemic injustice and is “problematic.”
- Color should not, however, be acknowledged when it comes to unflattering statistics like crime or school violence. Bringing up color here is considered “problematic” and is not allowed.
- All whites have a ‘privilege,’ and perpetuate systemic racism by default.
- All people of color are racially oppressed, and suffer from systemic racism by default.
- Whites have zero authority on racial matters, while people of color have total authority.
- Whites have zero understanding of the experiences of people of color in America.
Whites who fail to accept anti-racist doctrine — or challenge, question, or offer any alternative viewpoint— suffer from “white fragility,” a “problematic” condition where whites supposedly become extremely fragile when they are faced with talking about race. According to Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, whites consider a challenge to their worldviews on race a challenge to their worth as a person. As she explains in her book, White Fragility (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum):
The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defense responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdraw from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.
So if you’re white, and you are learning about anti-racism, you have one option: shake your head and say yes. Unlike classic multiculturalism, which celebrates diversity and core values that unite the races, anti-racism goes on the offensive, provoking people by race, labeling and stereotyping them, forcing them to adopt the ideology or face backlash. While multiculturalism is interpersonal, and offers practical solutions like inclusivity and tolerance for diversity on an individual or classroom level, anti-racism is mostly sociopolitical, and targets “systems” by disrupting or dismantling certain groups in order to end “injustice” and spread anti-racist doctrine. Remember: white silence is violence.
During a 2018 lecture on racism (see video above), Professor McWhorter explains how modern anti-racism — a far cry from classic multiculturalism and the positivity of traditional civil rights activism — has become a religion all its own:
The idea that, there is going to be a day, when America comes to terms with race, or that there could be. What does that even mean? What is the meaning of the ‘coming to terms?’ What would that consist of? Who would come to them? What would the terms be? At what date would this be? The only reason that anybody says that is because it corresponds to our conception of Judgment Day, and it’s equally abstract.
When we use the word “problematic,” especially since about 2008 or 2009, what we’re really saying is “blasphemous.” It’s really the exact same term. Or, the suspension of disbelief. That is a characteristic of religious faith. There’s an extent to which logic no longer applies. That’s how we talk about racism. So suppose someone asked, ‘Why are we to focus on the occasional rogue cop who kills a black man, when nine times out of ten that black man is in much more danger of being killed by another black man in his neighborhood?’
Gosh, that’s not pretty, but like many things that aren’t pretty, it’s also true. If you ask about it — though you know you’re not supposed to — eyes roll, and you’re given an answer that doesn’t really completely make sense. And there’s an etiquette that you’re supposed to stop there. It’s rather like certain questions that you ask a priest, very gently, but you know that if you don’t get a real answer, then you’re just supposed to move on. . . .
But there are problems with [anti-racism], there are severe problems with it. It does some good things — it gets some good people elected. But there’s some bad things. So for example, if you’re a good anti-racist, then you’re thinking about the cops that kill black men . . . but you’re not supposed to think about the fact that so much more murder happens to men like that in their own neighborhoods. You’re supposed to think of that as maybe connected to racism in some abstract way, but you’re not supposed to think about it. You’re not supposed to think about all of those homicides every summer in big cities across America. Teenage black boys are killing one another in the hundreds over frankly nothing. That’s somehow less important than what the occasional RoboCop does. That’s modern anti-racism for you. That’s backwards.
And when we think about anti-racism . . . that whites need to undergo some sort of massive psychological revolution before we can have any kind of black success, beyond what we have already, why is somebody talking about their white privilege important, when we’re talking about making black schools better? . . .
Modern anti-racism turns a blind eye to most black homicide. Anti-racism as currently configured, turns a blind eye to black young people’s upward mobility. It turns a blind eye to doing the kinds of things that civil rights leaders of fifty years ago considered ordinary in favor of what is ultimately and inwardly a focused quest for moral absolution that has at best a diagonal relationship to helping people who’ve been left behind. The issue here, I must repeat, is not whether or not racism exists; we know it does. . . . I had some racism of my own two weeks ago. That’s not the issue. The issue is whether modern anti-racism is the best way of combating the effects of that racism. And it’s not.
by Christopher Paslay
Philadelphia educational leaders have yet to adequately condemn the widespread violence destroying Philadelphia. Instead, they have insulted hardworking white teachers with outlandish racial demagoguery.
For the past five days, violence and rioting have gripped the city of Philadelphia. Late Saturday night, a Philadelphia police officer was hit by a car in Center City, while 12 other officers suffered injuries “while attempting to control crowds, make arrests, prevent property breaches, and other acts of vandalism,” according to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw.
Police cars have been smashed and set on fire, and scores of businesses and stores have been looted and vandalized. Several black-owned businesses have been destroyed, like Elliott Broaster’s Smoke N Things shop on Cecil B Moore. Broaster, a Temple grad, watched what took years to build get destroyed in a matter of minutes. “When I got home alone I shed a few tears,” Broaster said. “I saw my business down and it hurt me a lot and especially for my own community to do it to my business, that’s what really (hurt).”
The new anarchist phrase “people over property” is what his fellow community members might say if asked why they destroyed his life’s work, a mantra that has given rioters a license to wreck people’s lives and property — all in the name of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a reckless and negligent white cop for trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill.
After the National Guard was deployed and a curfew issued, Philadelphia’s educational leaders decided it was time to weigh in on the situation. Over the past several days, Philadelphia School District officials have sent multiple emails to teachers and staff condemning the death of Floyd and America’s white racist society, but no call for calm or to end the pointless looting and violence. Resources were given to teachers to start conversations about anti-racism (an educational framework that teaches ALL whites have a privilege and are complicit in systemic racism), but no material to spark a dialogue about why violence is wrong, or why looting and rioting are not only disrespecting the memory of George Floyd, but also go against the teaching of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers soon followed suit with several memos to its membership, commenting on the “criminalization of blackness” by white society, and of the supposed unwarranted tear-gassing of protesters. No mention of the cop cars being smashed and burned, or of the police being assaulted with bricks and bottles, or of stores — some of which were owned and operated by African Americans — being looted and vandalized. This violence somehow didn’t exist, and if it did, it was written off as a “protest,” or perhaps legitimized by the mantra “people over property.”
According to Philadelphia’s educational leaders, there is only one lesson to be learned from the chaos descending on Philadelphia over the past five days: America is a racist society, where privileged whites oppress disadvantaged people of color. According to the PFT’s Racial Justice Petition, racism “permeates every facet of our society,” and “the criminalization of blackness is an ever-present scourge on our nation.” Likewise, the “school-to-prison pipeline is real and it threatens the futures and the lives of black and brown children every single day.” In other words, whites are oppressing and criminalizing people of color around every corner and at every turn, especially white teachers and administrators of schools, who, despite dedicating their entire lives to mentoring and educating their students of color, are in actuality setting them up for a life of crime and incarceration.
These are the things the PFT is telling its dues-paying members. That we must take actionable steps “to dismantle a violent system of white supremacy that has jeopardized the very humanity of the students in our classrooms, their families, and our communities.” And how do we end this system? Through anti-racism, as both Philadelphia School District officials and union leaders have stated.
Addressing racism as a system of unequal power between whites and people of color, anti-racism emerged as dissatisfaction grew with multicultural education, which only superficially dealt with the issue of systemic racism. As University of South Dakota sociologist Jack Niemonen wrote in his paper after doing an exhaustive analysis of 160 peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject:
Generally, anti-racist education is understood as a set of pedagogical, curricular, and organizational strategies that hope to promote racial equality by identifying, then eliminating, white privilege. . . . One of its strengths, it is claimed, is the ability to move beyond prejudice and discrimination as a problem to be corrected in individuals in order to examine critically how institutional structures support racist practices economically, politically, and culturally.
Anti-racism’s mission to eliminate white privilege is notable, in that it operates from a zero-sum mentality, and associates Whiteness with oppression and structural racism. By redefining “racism” to mean inherent white privilege and oppression, all whites become guilty by default, even those whites who are caring people free from discrimination. However, addressing systemic injustice starts with personal accountability and action, as anti-racists call on American educators to self-reflect and personally adopt anti-racist ideologies in their lives and classrooms. Therefore, “Whiteness” solely as a systemic, non-individual entity with its own existence is a logical fallacy (see here), and when anti-racists speak of Whiteness, they can only be referring to the cultures, behaviors, and attitudes of those who identify as “white.”
The PFT has acknowledged they are committed to ongoing professional development on anti-racist practices, as has the Philadelphia School District. Loose translation: they are stereotyping all whites as racists, and are claiming their cultures, behaviors, and attitudes are the reason why people of color suffer. In reality, anti-racism is anti-white.
The advancement of one group should not depend on the disruption, de-centering, or dismantling of another, either individually, culturally, or systemically. Bringing positive change is a two-way street between whites and people of color, and involves cooperation and synergy; approaches which divide learning communities into political identity groups, and separate teachers and students into “oppressors” and “oppressed,” are misguided and counterproductive. As educators, we should focus on unity over division, and refrain from stereotyping entire groups of people.
by Christopher Paslay
School funding greatly depends on money from the state, and the state greatly depends on a functioning economy.
Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania State Senate passed a bill that overrode Governor Wolf’s lockdown order, which if signed, would allow all businesses to reopen within federal safety parameters.
According to The Hill, Senate Bill 613 “would require the governor’s office to align with federal guidelines in determining which businesses will be allowed to reopen during the pandemic, allowing all those that can safely operate with mitigation strategies under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency guidelines.”
As Jan Murphy reported on Penn Live:
Republican senators who supported the bill argued it would provide transparency and clarity in determining which businesses can be open and require them to operate in a safe manner. They said Wolf’s list of life-sustaining businesses and accompanying waiver process was confusing, chaotic and showed favoritism.
Senate Bill 613, coupled with Senate Bill 327, would give county officials the power to decide when businesses in their county would reopen. A look at coronavirus cases in Pennsylvania shows that the outbreak in the state resembles the outbreak in the nation, and that the “coasts”— Pittsburgh on the west and Philadelphia on the east—are serving to handcuff the entire state, much the same way New York and Washington are handcuffing the entire country.
In fact, the entire middle region of Pennsylvania has been minimally affect by COVID-19, yet the businesses in these 50 counties are being suffocated because of the outbreaks in a handful of “coastal” counties. Obviously, life is precious and even a single death is one too many, and any reopening of a business should be done safely and with caution. (With that said, there’s no direct evidence that lockdowns are definitively working, and government lab tests show that coronavirus is destroyed by sunlight and high humidity, which could make the virus a thing of the past very soon.)
Still, Governor Wolf plans to veto Senate Bill 613, holding firm to his lockdown order. State Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine wrote in a letter, “While the governor and I are as eager as anyone to begin getting people back to work, doing so prematurely will only increase the spread of the virus, further lengthening associated economic challenges, while also placing more lives at risk.”
But the businesses in the 50 counties between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are not at risk, as the data shows. COVID-19 cases are minimal here, and deaths are almost nonexistent. What is on the rise, however, are depression, suicide, opioid abuse, and the life crushing realities of losing everything through the closing of businesses (there have been 1.2 million unemployment claims in PA since March 14), and loss of all income. People are losing their livelihoods, and can no longer feed their families.
Unfortunately, the issue of reopening the economy has broken along political lines, with free-market conservatives calling for a safe yet expedited lifting of the lockdown, and more socialist-minded liberals advocating a prolonged closure, insisting that, as one Facebook meme read, If you prioritize the economy over saving people’s lives, then you never get to call yourself ‘pro-life’ ever again.
This crisis doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all, and you needn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, to use a cliché. Opening the economy is also saving lives, as noted above, yet to do so recklessly doesn’t help anyone. Going back to business as usual overnight isn’t advisable, but neither is cancelling all festivals and large events for the remainder of 2020, as New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell recommends.
Which is why Philadelphia schoolteachers should support reopening Pennsylvania safely yet expeditiously, and why they should call for Governor Wolf to sign Senate Bill 613. This isn’t putting profit over people’s lives, but striking a balance between a suffocating total state lockdown and a willy-nilly return to business as usual. The Philadelphia School District will undoubtedly be hurt financially by the crumbling economy, and as Dr. Hite has acknowledged in his April 13th “Message from the Superintendent,” there is the potential to lose significant funding in the coming school year, which is why he’s already put a hiring freeze on central office positions.
The contract between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the Philadelphia School District is up on August 31, 2020, and the longer Pennsylvania remains locked down, the tighter finances will be four months from now. This doesn’t only affect things like teacher salary and benefits—which will undoubtedly be impacted by the prolonged shutdown—but will also affect our education community for the coming school year, and the availability of funds for things like lower class sizes, books and technology, building renovations, and other important resources.
Philadelphia School District funding greatly depends on money from the state, and the state greatly depends on a functioning economy. When the economy tanks, we all tank, which is why the squabbling between political parties must end, and a common goal of safely opening Pennsylvania must become the priority—and it must happen sooner rather than later.
by Christopher Paslay
Brace yourself. Report card mayhem is coming to a school near you.
Recently it was announced that the Philadelphia School District’s new online grade book program, designed by a Minnesota software company called Infinite Campus, will not allow teachers to override final grades when the system opens this week.
According to a memo from District officials:
Teachers will NOT be able to put in overrides for final averages and should keep this in mind when posting. They can see how the Term 4 Posted Grade will affect the final average by changing the Grading Task drop down from “Term Grade” to “Final Grade.” Every class should have a posted percent that matches the score. (This includes P/F courses). Make sure teachers hit POST and then SAVE on every section!! For a refresher, they can watch the Posting Grades video.
You better believe it.
Whether this information was made known in September is unclear, but the fact remains that stripping teachers of the ability to tweak and adjust final grades is mind numbing (if this is indeed the case). For those unaware of the situation, here is a summary of how finals grades will be calculated by the District’s grade book, at least as it appears now from the information available.
First, the difference between a “composite percent” and a “composite grade” must be made clear. A “composite present” is the actual grade the student earned (the mathematical calculation of the quarter grade based on the assignments in the teacher’s grade book). The “composite grade” is the grade that showed up on the students report card for the quarter (which includes grades that were rounded-up or overridden by a teacher). For example, a student’s first quarter “composite percent” might have been a 77, but the teacher may have rounded it up and given an 80 via an “override,” and this 80 would be the student’s “composite grade,” and appear on the report card.
The way it appears the District’s grade book will calculate a student’s final grade this year will be by averaging the composite percent—NOT composite grade—on each of the four quarters. Which means the override grade will not be factored into the final average, only the original base number. So that 80 that the student received on the report card will really go into the system as a 77 and affect the overall final grade by making it lower than anticipated (at least this is how the system is currently computing the grades, according to what is currently on Infinite Campus). Oh, and the teacher can’t override it, which is the real kicker.
As you can imagine, this is going to cause some major headaches for teachers, not to mention students and their parents (and of course principals, who will have to deal with the irate students and parents). The magnitude of the blowback will be both small and large, depending on the situation and how badly the student was misled about his or her grade.
For example, a student may lose little to no points and be none the wiser. If a student’s teacher didn’t round his or her grade up more than a point or two during the first three quarters, the difference will be negligible, and no harm will be done. However, the more points a teacher gave a student via the “override” feature during the first three quarters, the more there will be a disparity between the grades on the first three report cards and the student’s final grade.
Take this situation: a student with an IEP or a 504 plan is putting in an honest effort but still struggling nonetheless. His percentage grade is only a 50 for the first three quarters, but he is making progress, so the teacher gives him a 60—the minimum passing grade—for the first three quarters out of good faith. The student’s final grade will be based on the three 50’s, not the three 60’s. Which means that in order for the student to pass for the year, the teacher will need to give this student a 90 for the fourth quarter to make the percentage come to an average of a 60, which is passing.
Should the student receive a 90 if they are nowhere near that level of achievement? Normally, a teacher in this situation would give the grade the student deserved for the fourth quarter, and tweak the final average according to the individual situation of the student. But since the District’s new grading system doesn’t allow a teacher to override the final average, what is the alternative? Fail the child?
Basically, every single teacher in the Philadelphia School District who was liberal with giving students extra points via the “override” feature during the first three quarters (and all of us has at least one or two students like this, and for very good reasons), is going to be put to the squeeze. Should I let the child fail, or give him or her an outrageously high fourth quarter grade?
And what about the fact that the child was misled the whole year about his or her actual grades? If the “composite percent” was the only true grade that counted toward the final average, what was the purpose of the override feature for the first three quarters? And what if the points added via the override weren’t simply given for free? What if students earned them? For the past 20 years, I’ve added my students’ participation grade—points they earned through engaging in the lessons—directly to the report card at the end of each quarter; many times my best students’ quarter averages go from 88’s to 92’s because of participation. This would mean they’d be robbed of up to 12 points they’ve earned over three quarters because of this new screwy system.
Finally, there’s the case of this working in reverse. What about a student who games the system by getting a 70 percent on the first and second quarter, and then becomes chronically absent for the next five months, not completing a single assignment. As it stands now, because the system doesn’t allow a teacher to give below a 50, and because there’s no override feature for the final grade, this student will pass the course with a 60, and not have learned much in the process.
Why in the world the District would allow students and teachers to be misled for nine months about their grades is beyond comprehension. If the override feature is not available for the final grade—and the grades posted via the override function for the first three quarters don’t count toward the final average—why was the override feature available at all? Seriously? What in God’s name was the point? To mislead and confuse?
Even now I’m hoping the information I’ve received about the District’s fourth quarter grade book is somehow inaccurate, and that the flaws and mind-boggling inconsistencies I’ve mentioned above are the result of some kind of miscommunication, either on my part or the part of the District.
If, however, what I’ve been told is true, brace yourself for some serious fallout from parents and students, especially from the special education department (and their lawyers). This year’s fourth quarter grading will be historic. Get ready for report card mayhem!
by Christopher Paslay
District officials are using “equity” as an excuse to fill seats and maximize space.
The Philadelphia School District’s recent decision to cut admission standards at its four career technology education (CTE) schools has sparked debate. The question of “equity versus excellence” has been brought up in the media, and folks on both sides of the issue have voiced their concerns.
The only problem with this debate, though, is that it’s not about equity versus excellence at all; it’s about enrollment versus excellence. There are indeed enrollment issues with the city’s four trade schools. But equity issues? Not at all.
Let’s first look at enrollment. According to data on the Philadelphia School District’s website, Murrell Dobbins had an enrollment last year of 606 students, yet has a building capacity of 900; Jules E. Mastbaum had an enrollment of 754, with a building capacity of 1313; A. Philip Randolph had an enrollment of 518, with a building capacity of 569; and Swenson Arts and Technology had an enrollment of 668, with a building capacity of 875.
Granted, the building capacity numbers may not be totally accurate, as in Swenson’s case; as a teacher at Swenson I know our building can only safely accommodate at most 700 students.
Still, open seats and space are an issue. If you do the math, there are hundreds of open seats in Philadelphia’s trade schools. And from a budgetary standpoint, filling these seats makes sense financially. And how do you fill the seats? One way is through promotion and recruitment—increase interest in CTE programs citywide while keeping in place a minimum level of student accountability and excellence. Another way is to simply ditch the admission standards and pack in anybody and everybody.
The school district chose to do the latter. Why? Because it’s quick and easy. Load-up the schools with any student who wants to apply, regardless of whether or not that student is a good fit for a trade program. And if this hurts the tradition or culture of the school—or sacrifices excellence—so be it.
Of course, the school district can’t sell it to the public like this, so they are hiding behind the idea of “equity”. This is a great strategy. Set it up so it looks like you’re fighting for social justice, and no one can say anything to you. When you’re fighting for social justice, you can do lots of unfair things to lots of people, but it’s okay, because you’re leveling the playing field.
The only problem with this approach is that there are no equity issues when it comes to Philadelphia’s CTE programs. For the record, Dobbins is 89% black, 8% Latino, and 3% other; Mastbaum is 48% black, 44% Latino, 5% white, and 3% other; Swenson is 30% black, 26% Latino, 37% white, and 7% other; and Randolph is 91% black, 7% Latino, and 2% other. These schools also serve high numbers of special education students and economically disadvantaged children in poor neighborhoods; nearly 25% of Swenson students are special education. And of course, these schools serve girls as well as boys—girls and boys who travel from all parts of the city to attend these programs.
The media, as well as school district officials, would have you believe otherwise. The school district is currently citing Pew Charitable Trusts’ recent report as a way to suggest CTE schools are not equitable. Pew states that CTE schools’ admission processes are “complicated” and that they “systematically disadvantage” Latino students, particularly boys. How? Because Latino boys whose credentials qualify them for top schools don’t apply enough to make their numbers proportionate to Philadelphia’s population at large.
Yet Mastbaum and Swenson are 44% and 26% Latino (which are located in neighborhoods with a notable Latino population), and Dobbins and Randolph are 89% and 91% black (in neighborhoods that are predominantly African American). This sure seems equitable to me; interestingly, Pew doesn’t make a fuss about the fact that white girls are not nearly represented enough in any of these CTE schools.
But that’s how the game of “equity” is played—manipulate statistics and throw around phrases like “systematically disadvantaged”. Take WHYY’s article “New lottery system for Philly trade school admissions stokes debate” for example. This article, although it tries to remain objective, is misleading.
An early paragraph in the article states, “By shedding admissions criteria, officials say, these schools can serve all interested students, rather than casting aside those who may have tripped up in seventh or eighth grade.”
Tripped up? See, that’s what the school district wants the public to believe: that middle school kids who get rejected from CTE schools have simply “tripped up” in seventh or eighth grade. But that’s not the reality of the situation. Generally speaking, CTE schools have very reasonable admission standards: students who apply must have at least a “C” average academically, no “unsatisfactory” grades in behavior, and no more than 10 unexcused absences.
In other words, students who get rejected from a CTE school have D’s and F’s, unruly and disruptive behavior, and are chronically truant. This is a far cry from an “oops” or a “trip-up” in middle school.
The article goes on:
“This is all about creating access for children and making sure that regardless of where children live they have access to some of our more successful programs,” said superintendent William Hite. “There’s a lot of interest in CTE. We have children on a wait list, we have CTE programs that are not filled.”
Again, this is nonsense: Philadelphia CTE schools accept children from every neighborhood in the city.
The article continues:
District officials want to open the doors wider, by both adding seats at CTE schools and shedding the admissions criteria that, they believe, bar too many motivated students from entry.
“Interest is the criteria,” said Hite. “If children are interested in pursuing cosmetology or building trades or culinary arts…I want the children in those programs.”
He said that he concluded that schools were imposing “barriers to entry” for admission to programs that could actually change students’ attitudes about school.
Bar too many motivated students from entering? Seriously? Does a child with D’s and F’s, who has unruly behavior and is absent dozens of times sound motivated to learn a trade? Would a student like this be willing to get up early and take several buses across the city to go to a special CTE school every day? Should a student like this handle a circular saw in carpentry and a butcher knife in culinary?
Make no mistake: dropping the admission standards of Philadelphia’s trade schools is not about equity, but about enrollment. Instead of filling seats through promotion and recruitment, which would allow CTE schools to keep a minimum standard for admission, the district is taking the easy way out.
We can only hope this new approach won’t sink what’s left of a once-great trade school tradition in Philadelphia.