Teaching in Black and White: Thoughts on Race and Education Reform

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed and I go toe-to-toe on issues of race and education reform.  

Yesterday, public school teacher Samuel Reed (who wrote a very insightful review of my book The Village Proposal) published a blog post on the Notebook headlined, “Education reform sparring match with Christopher Paslay.”  Although the two of us have corresponded via email over the past several years, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Sam in person at a recent teacher leadership event; it was there that Sam pursued his idea of having an honest and friendly education reform “sparring match” between the two of us. 

Here is an excerpt of Sam’s post covering our discussion:  

I finally had a face-to-face chat with Christopher Paslay at an end-of-the-school-year celebration with the Teacher Leadership Professional Learning Community (PLC). We agreed to put some padded gloves on and have a sparring match on education reform.

Samuel Reed: Chris, in your response to my review of your book, The Village Proposal, you state, “To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.” Why should people care about education reform?

Christopher Paslay: Schools and education do not exist in a vacuum.

Everyone is part of schools and education — teachers, students, parents, administrators, community members, business leaders, clergy, lawmakers, etc. Yet somehow our society seems to think schools are cut off from all this, that they are some free-floating entity that operates independent of all these factors.

Politicians talk of “broken schools,” as if they aren’t the ones writing the policy.

Parents speak of “low achievement,” as if they have nothing to do to with helping their children complete assignments and practice new skills.

Community leaders speak out against “school violence,” as if the drugs and crime in their own neighborhoods do not carry over to their schools.

The fact is, everyone is part of schools and education, which is why everyone should care; schools stem from communities, not the other way around.

Reed: I received many comments offline responding to our discourse about social justice. Some folks are not buying that we should strive for a color-blind society. What’s wrong with confronting the impact race and class issues have on teaching and learning? . . .

Click here to read our discussion in its entirety.

Thanks for reading.

Christopher Paslay

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Public School Notebook Reviews ‘The Village Proposal’

by Christopher Paslay

Notebook blogger Samuel Reed III calls The Village Proposal “provocative” and “engaging,” although he points out some flaws regarding the idea of the universal “we” and the concept of social justice.         

Below are the opening lines of the Notebook’s review of my book The Village Proposal by Samuel Reed III (click here to read the full review):   

Christopher Paslay brings his expertise as a high school English teacher, contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chalk and Talk blogger to make The Village Proposal a timely and compelling read. The book examines the problems in education by juxtaposing Paslay’s personal memoir with solid documented research. . . .

Reed, a fellow Philadelphia educator, writer, consultant and educational researcher, has made some interesting observations and analyses of the book.  Before I respond to his review, here’s some quick background:              

In the spring of 2009 I decided to sit down and write a book on education reform.  I tried to do something unique and original—combine memoir from an everyday Philadelphia schoolteacher with researched-based commentary on how to remedy America’s ailing public schools. 

I spent nearly two years of my life on the project—collecting research, writing, rewriting, developing a proposal, shopping for an agent, finding a publisher, working with an editor, revising, checking facts, developing a title, collecting jacket cover endorsements, and going through all the painstaking work of marketing the book to the education community. 

In September of 2011 The Village Proposal was released by Rowman & Littlefield

To my chagrin, not a whole lot of people gave a crap.  Worse still, it seems the blend of memoir and commentary exists in a limbo that flies under the radar.      

But Reed’s review, which was published today on the Notebook’s website, seems to have captured much of what I was trying to achieve:         

You may not agree with some or all of the arguments, but that is exactly what makes Village Proposal a good read. Paslay argues using a narrative structure not found in many books about education reform. He doesn’t bore the reader with an overly complex or over-simplified problem-and-solution approach to education. He presents a nuanced view of shared responsibility. . . .

That was indeed part of the purpose of the book, to craft a narrative that succeeded in developing plot and character, while weaving-in commentary about the issues facing public education. 

On a more critical note, Reed noted that I misinterpreted the concept of social justice:

The chapter “Multiculturalism and the Achievement Gap” has the greatest tension. “Social Justice” and Amiri Baraka are the competing foes in the climactic narrative about shared responsibilities. But contrary to Paslay’s perspective, social justice should not be viewed as a polarizing force, but as a means to conduct inquiry around equity, fairness, and what it means to live in a democratic society. . .

This indeed is a valid point.  However, the concept of social justice, as I mentioned many times in the book, is a matter of perspective.  I wouldn’t say that Amiri Baraka’s call for revolution was an inquiry into fairness.  Holding on to past injuries is not healing, nor is it proactive to stoke the flames of racial tension in students and young people.  Our ultimate goal as humans should be colorblindness.       

Reed also pointed out what he felt was a short-coming of the book: 

His style of combining his memoir and documented research fuels the narrative of shared responsibility. But Paslay falls short in crystallizing his first-person narrative to incorporate the universal “we”.

In the chapter “First Year,” there is a sense that Paslay’s background of attending Catholic schools and growing up in a “refined” suburban, two-parent household makes his edgier students the “other.”  

In the chapter “A Day in the Life,this “otherness” reappears when the idea of “What’s with these kids’ parents?” enters the narrative frame. Therein lies the rub with not only the title of the book, The Village Proposal, but also the whole village concept. For the “it takes a village” narrative to work, the “I” must be the universal “we” and “these kids” must be “our kids.” . . .

This is also valid observation by Reed.  However, in defense of the book, in later chapters the relationship between myself and my students does develop into a universal “we,” which is part of the arc of the book—that after my initial years in the classroom, I finally develop a true relationship and appreciation of my students that is free from separateness; this “otherness” indeed dissolves over time as I gain experience and bond with my students. 

Reed’s conclusion is very thoughtful and complimentary nonetheless:   

Overall, though, this book deserves accolades. The structure, narrative style, documented research, and provocative commentary make it a must-read for teacher educators, teachers, policy makers and anyone interested in understanding the landscape of education reform.

Paslay deserves a lot of credit for writing a timely portrait of his vision of what shared responsibility looks like and feels like. For writing The Village Proposal while working as a full-time classroom teacher, prolific blogger, frequent contributor to the Inquirer and sometime-critic of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Paslay has my utmost admiration.

Thank you Mr. Reed for your thoughtful and in depth review.  The feeling of admiration is, for the record, mutual.   

 

Administering Standardized Tests Are Standard for Everyone—Except Philly

by Christopher Paslay

Although dozens of school districts across the state are under investigation for cheating, it appears the Pennsylvania Department of Education has singled out the Philadelphia School District for special treatment.    

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook writes:

“In the wake of concerns about cheating on state exams, the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has prohibited Philadelphia teachers – but apparently not teachers in other districts across the state – from administering the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test to their own students.”

This stinks for three reasons:

  1. The Philadelphia School District is being singled out, despite the fact that numerous school districts across the state are under investigations for cheating.
  2. These special restrictions on Philadelphia schools violate the uniformity of the administration of the tests and therefore keep them from being genuinely standard.
  3. The fact that the state waited until two weeks before the tests to make this announcement is unacceptable.  The logistical planning and training for the administration of these tests has been going on for weeks.  Now, Philadelphia public schools will be forced to change plans and procedures, and this may very well result in unforeseen organizational issues that could compromise the efficiency of the testing environment.  Was the state not aware of these restrictions before now?

Philadelphia School District officials, and perhaps even Mayor Nutter, must bring these equity issues to the attention of the state as soon as possible.  The city must demand that its schools be treated fairly, and not allow the state to make-up rules as it goes along.

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

by Christopher Paslay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This comment was not rebutted by the editor.

Questions go beyond schools CEO

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

–Christopher Paslay

Why Renaming a ‘Dropout’ a ‘Pushout’ Will Save No One

by Christopher Paslay

Recently, there has been a grassroots movement by progressives in education to rename a school “dropout” a “pushout.”  Groups such as Youth United for Change, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and most recently the blog Voice of Philadelphia, have all been throwing around the term “pushout” with the clear purpose of hoping it will catch hold and grow roots in the world of education as well as the popular culture; tragically, it appears the term has started to take root, as is evidenced by its frequent mention in the media and on the internet (google the term “pushout” and you can see for yourself).

A closer look at the two terms reveals that although their denotation is the same—they both define children who leave school and fail to graduate—their connotations are quite different.  A dropout connotes an individual who knowingly quits school of his own freewill and accord.  A pushout, on the other hand, defines someone who is forced out of school by forces beyond their control.  More simply put, dropouts are drivers while pushouts are passengers; the latter is active, the former is passive.          

There are several reasons why progressives are fighting to rename a dropout a pushout.  The most obvious is to bring about school reform—to blame poor graduation rates on schools in an effort to improve them.  This indeed has merit.  In the 21st century, no student can afford to be left behind without a solid education. 

To quote Arthur Levine, former president of Teachers College at Columbia University, in his 2006 report, Educating School Teachers, “The fact that all students are expected to achieve these outcomes means that drop-outs, once viewed as the cost of doing business in schools, can no longer be tolerated. The low skilled jobs once available to them have moved abroad. So teachers must now be able to educate every child in the class to achieve the same learning outcomes at a time in which the student body has changed economically, racially, geographically, linguistically, and academically.”

In addition to reforming schools, however, progressives have other reasons for renaming dropouts pushouts.  At the heart of the movement is the notion of victimhood and the liberal left’s obsession with it.  Put another way, coining a dropout a pushout fits their classic mode of operandi: the existence of oppressors and oppressed.  It is within this structure that social responsibility can be promoted over personal responsibility, that children can be programmed to be lifelong passengers who are always acted upon rather than drivers who do the acting; this in turn translates to their reliance on social programs as opposed to private enterprise.

This is a great philosophy if you believe in socialism and government regulation over capitalism and competition.  The only problem is, of course, is that teaching children that they are victims is doing nothing to empower them to take control of their educations; the fact that a large graduation gap between urban and suburban students exists is proof that preaching victimhood is not the answer.

Instead of teaching students to blame their failures on the system, education advocates should be encouraging children to make intrinsic paradigm shifts that will help them live principle-centered lives that will keep them on the path to graduation; they must be taught change starts from within.

The lessons taught in Bill Cosby’s 2007 book, Come on People: On the Path from Victims to Victors would be a great place to start.  In it Cosby and his longtime friend Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint discuss ways families and children can turn around their lives and make the most of their educations. 

With subchapters named “Acknowledge the problem,” “Face the Facts,” “Tone Down the Culture,” “Give Fatherhood a Second Chance,” “Reject Victimhood,” “Replace Victimhood with Neighborhood,” “Talk to the Police,” “Turn Off the TV,” “Back Off the Rap,” “Respect Our Elders,” “Overcome the Past,” “Lose the Guns and the Rage,” “Get All the School You Can Get,” “Help the Poor Help Themselves,” “Take Care of Our Own,” and “Break the Chains,” among many others, the book replaces excuses with traditional values that urban youth can use to stay in school and remain on the path to achieving a better quality of life.        

Renaming a dropout a pushout will save no one.  In the end, the only viable way for a student to get an education is for him or her to actively pursue one.     

Readers respond to ‘School reform’s alphabet’

by Christopher Paslay

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

 

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

 

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

 

V.C.
 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

God Bless.

 

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

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

And two: I have my eye on the Notebook. 

 

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

 

 by Christopher Paslay

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This reasoning is not only insulting, but impractical. 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Notebook responds to Chalk and Talk article

 

 

 

by Christopher Paslay

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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