Philadelphia’s School Crisis: A City On The Brink

Unless we fix the schools, Philly is doomed. But what can be done when the city’s leadership class lacks the will to face the problem head-on? Here are eight changes we need to demand right now—before it’s too late.

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

My family and I moved out of Philadelphia last year. We did so reluctantly, and with a crippling heaping of guilt.

It wasn’t the crime, or the taxes, or the grit. No, we left for the same reason that untold thousands have decamped for the suburbs before us: the crummy state of the city’s public schools, a chronic and seemingly immutable fact of life in Philadelphia.

The failings go way beyond the typical struggles of a big urban district. In December, the latest national assessment found that just 14 percent of Philadelphia fourth-graders were proficient or better at reading, compared to 26 percent in other big cities and 34 percent nationally. Of the 25 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia ranks 22nd in college degree attainment. Graduates of the School District of Philadelphia are particularly bad off; only about 10 percent of district alums go on to get degrees.

Still, it wasn’t the statistics that drove us away. It was the deflating sense that there was no clear and affordable path for our two young kids to get the education they need—particularly our son, who has some special needs. Despite our love for the city, our belief that Philadelphia is genuinely on the rise, and endless conversations in which we tried to rationalize staying, my wife and I decided we had to leave. The day the moving van arrived, I didn’t feel angry so much as I felt ashamed. That embarrassment is, I think, not entirely uncommon. And it’s a sign that the failings of the city’s schools are damaging Philadelphia even more than in the past.

The stakes are higher now for two reasons.

Education remains the single best lever the city has to break the back of generational poverty, just as it has always been. But the consequences of substandard educations for low-income students are growing ever more grave in an economy where factory jobs and decent pay for unskilled work are all but extinct.

And there is now another group of Philadelphians being ill-served by city schools: the educated 20- and 30-somethings who’ve flocked to the city and done so much to energize it. Unlike other generations, many of these parents very much want to raise their children here. And while the most committed are organizing and fund-raising to improve conditions in lower-performing schools, others consider the sacrifice too great. Many still leave, loading into their moving vans large chunks of Philadelphia’s already meager tax base—and much hope for the city’s future.

When the whole of Philadelphia was in decline, low-quality schools were part of a bleak panorama of urban misery, just one more failed institution in a patchwork of violence and blight and poverty. But now—with the city growing, with the murder rate plummeting, with eds and meds booming—the schools stand out as probably the single biggest obstacle to further redevelopment and recovery. At best, underperforming schools will sabotage and slow Philadelphia’s tenuous resurgence. At worst, the school system could stop Philadelphia’s revival in its tracks, or even hurl the city back toward the abyss.

So what are our leaders doing about it? Not nearly enough. In fact, in the past two years, a problem that festered for decades has been allowed to devolve into a full-fledged crisis, with hundreds of millions of dollars stripped from the district’s budget, a revolving door of chairmen at the School Reform Commission, and a test-score cheating scandal thats ensnared a staggering 138 educators. Mayor Nutter and City Council dither over differences in how best to send the district some spare change. The Corbett administration’s education agenda is MIA, and Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation is riven by political rivalries and rendered impotent and irrelevant by ideological inflexibility and a lack of political heavy hitters. Meanwhile, the public debate—between reformers, activists, parents and teachers—has grown increasingly toxic and intransigent.

All this, while the district burns.

What’s needed is action—bold steps rooted not in ideology, but in the reality of what’s broken and what might fix it.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent numerous hours talking to people deeply involved in Philadelphia’s schools—administrators, reformers, principals, teachers, politicians—asking them what needs to happen to turn the schools in the right direction, and what concrete steps we can take right now to move past the current stalemate.

I learned two things. First, there is no miracle cure for urban education. There is no savior superintendent out there with all the answers and a genie bottle, no evidence that showering the schools with money yields amazing returns, no proof that charters are a panacea for a district like Philadelphia’s. This will take time. It will require persistence, investment and—unavoidably—real sacrifice.

But I also learned that city schools are indisputably capable not just of improvement, but of excellence. The proof is all around us. Even in these difficult times, there are schools that are defying their demographic destinies and preparing low-income kids for college; schools that are building meaningful connections with the parents and communities they serve; schools that are reinventing how school works altogether.

We need an approach that creates the freedom and opportunity for more schools to thrive, regardless of whether they’re charter or district-run. That requires massive change: cultural, contractual, financial and more. And it requires action. Here are the steps we, as the public, should demand to see, and the people who need to make that change happen.

Step 1

Superintendent Hite should set city schools free.

For decades, Philadelphia’s school district has been a top-down organization, with the district’s central office dictating or monitoring everything from the curriculum taught in most classrooms to the length of the school day. The results of that approach couldn’t be clearer: Not only is student performance abysmal, but district headquarters is the type of bureaucracy that makes you want to pull your hair out, at once inefficient (the district is in the digital dark ages, forcing principals and other officials to squander precious hours on paperwork) and overreaching (in 2012, district HQ dismantled a parent-created reading nook in a third-grade classroom at a West Philly school, deeming it “clutter.”)

Which is why this year, superintendent Bill Hite should announce that he is redefining and reining in the mission of district headquarters, and empowering individual schools to manage their own affairs.

Philadelphia’s epic experiment in charter schools—among the biggest in the nation—has yielded mixed results. But there is at least one crucial lesson to draw from the charter experience: Good principals and teachers can work wonders when given genuine autonomy and reasonable resources, even in low-income neighborhoods.

The Mastery-run Shoemaker charter school, a high school in the heart of West Philadelphia, is a compelling example. Ninety-nine percent of the student body is minority, 82 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost federal lunch programs, and most of the enrolled students come from neighborhood public elementary schools. Before the Mastery takeover in 2006, Shoemaker kids were scoring 30 percent proficient in math and 43 percent in reading. After six years of Mastery management, Shoemaker students were at 83 percent proficient in math and 68 percent in reading. Put another way, Shoemaker kids are nearly as proficient at math as those at Central Bucks West.

It’s tempting to conclude—and some do—that the solution is to hand Mastery or a comparably accomplished operator the keys to the district. But that would be impractical in the extreme, and an epic mistake.

Centrally managed takeovers of large numbers of schools don’t work in this town. Exhibit A: Last decade’s utter failure of privately owned Edison Schools, which took over 20 district schools in 2002 and parted ways with all of them before 2012. Exhibit B: Former superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s
Promise Academy model, which sank additional resources into low-performing district schools but handcuffed teachers and principals with rigid rules and curricula.

What does work are individual schools—or small networks of schools, like Mastery’s—with distinctive cultures and approaches of their own.

You can see the early returns of this strategy at a place like the district Workshop School in West Philadelphia, which opened last year. Students here—drawn mostly from the working-class neighborhood that surrounds the school—aren’t just drilling for tests. They’re spending their days figuring out how to solve huge problems, like building an energy-efficient car or fixing the financial-aid morass. Most traditional public schools don’t have anything like that kind of freedom. They have operated instead under pervasive, punitive and, in some cases, comically stupid district controls. Hite must change all that.

Appropriately, Hite is concerned about developing high standards and creating systems to hold schools responsible. That’s essential. “That doesn’t mean,” Hite says, “that we dictate to them how that happens.” He’s looking for school leaders capable of making decisions and deciding independently what methods and approaches best serve their students. “Because guess what? We’re holding them accountable for getting there or not.”

In theory, anyway. The truth is, the district has a very long way to go. Even in its budget-desiccated form, the schools bureaucracy is slow to adapt, and for decades, the culture has been defined by compliance:
with the teachers contract, with federal and state regulations and testing regimes, with tradition. Hite’s challenge is to change that culture and remake the district into an organization that frees schools instead of restricting them, an entity that enforces not rules, but standards.

The potential returns of this approach would, admittedly, vary considerably by school, which raises legitimate questions about equity. But the answer to those worries can’t be a continuation of failed district policy, and the upside of dozens of improving and innovating district schools is too huge to ignore. Indeed, smart teachers and principals predict that if the district sets its educators free, it will discover reserves of commitment and creativity in its workforce that too often go untapped. “A lot of district teachers are hoping and looking for alternative ways to do this work,” says Simon Hauger, a founder and principal of the Workshop School. “We have a pile of résumés from people who want to work here.”

Step 2

The School Reform Commission should immediately impose a new teacher contract.

Ever since it was formed during the state takeover of the schools in 2002, the SRC—the governing body that controls the district—has had the legislative authority to rewrite the teachers contract largely as it sees fit. The authorizing law, known as Act 46, prohibits city teachers from striking, and those who violate the law can lose their teaching credentials.

Still, the SRC—and the political actors who appoint its members—have been reluctant to impose a new contract, correctly seeing such a step as a nuclear option in this union-friendly state. (The union would surely sue if terms were imposed.) Yet the contractual changes the district needs are so sweeping, and the financial constraints so extreme, that teachers would never willingly accept the contract that’s required.

Imposing terms isn’t fair. Teachers aren’t the party most responsible for the district’s distress. But epic change is necessary, and the current contract is an obstacle that must be cleared.

What should the new contract look like? Shorter, simpler and far more flexible. Instead of a 200-page work-rule-laden tome that reads like something produced by the Pentagon—the existing contract defines the workday down to the minute (seven hours and four minutes, including lunch and prep time) and takes 40 sections and subsections to describe the grievance p­rocess—the contract must be lean and malleable enough to allow true autonomy for individual schools.

The role of seniority—in determining pay, job placement, layoff order and so on—must be weakened, if not discarded entirely. New standards should be adopted for determining which teachers deserve promotions. Principals should have the discretion not just to assemble their teacher corps, but also to pare them down as they see fit when budget cuts are enacted. Principals should also have broader authority to decide when the day starts and ends, and to determine how teachers spend their work hours outside the classroom.

Under the terms of this new SRC-imposed contract, all teachers would begin a comprehensive five-year, school-led assessment period—one where test scores play a role but are hardly paramount. The goal would be to identify and reward outstanding teachers, and to get weak teachers meaningful help and training—fast. Those who aren’t making the cut after five years will, at the discretion of individual schools, be asked to leave. (Most of this, though not all, would seem permissible under Act 46. I wager if the district went for broke and attempted to impose all these terms, the Republican-dominated state legislature would quickly draft whatever laws were needed to ensure that they cleared.)

The financial reality being what it is, teachers will also have to make reasonable concessions on health-care benefits, which remain a gold-plated perk that’s simply not sustainable. Beyond that, though, the SRC shouldn’t force further financial concessions on teachers, who are already undercompensated with respect to salary compared to their suburban counterparts.

An utterly new contract is necessary, but that alone isn’t sufficient. From there, it would be up to Hite and his lieutenants to actually accomplish something with the latitude a new contract would give them. “The be-all and end-all is what leadership actually does with the contract it gets,” says Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and one of the best thinkers about city schools. “The district has enormous leeway in its principals union contract already, and they’re not using it.”

Step 3

The state legislature must rewrite the charter law and recognize that charters aren’t the sole salvation of urban education.

Lawmakers in Harrisburg must scrap or rewrite a controversial new charter bill that would rob school districts of their ability to directly regulate charter schools. Charters need more district oversight (just think of the scandalous charter headlines that pop up so regularly), not less. And it would help if the district were granted new authority to close low-performing charters more quickly, just as it can district-run schools.

Don’t misunderstand. Charter schools are here to stay, and that’s largely a good thing. There are 61,000 kids enrolled in Philadelphia charters—a staggering figure that approaches the total charter enrollment of New York City, whose school system is more than five times as large. Many of our city’s 86 charter schools are clear improvements over average district schools, and some are genuinely amazing.

But the notion that charters are a cure-all is simply wrong. There aren’t enough quality charter operators to successfully convert all or even most of the district to charter schools. And for every amazing charter in Philadelphia, there are plenty of others that are mediocre test-prep factories, devoid of genuine experimentation, and some that are clearly inferior to typical district schools. With some exceptions, charter schools also tend not to enroll large numbers of children with significant learning disabilities or behavioral problems. These kids need quality educations as well.

What is needed is a fresh approach to charters that gives district schools a fighting chance to compete while simultaneously enabling the charter movement to replenish its creative ranks and rediscover its original purpose: experimentation and innovation. How to do this?

To begin with, the district needs to restrain charter growth, at least for now. Every time a student leaves a district school for a charter, the district budget shrinks by about $8,100. That would be fine if the district could shed costs as quickly as it’s losing income to charter schools. But think about what shedding costs quickly requires: closing schools, laying off teachers, consolidating classrooms. All of this is enormously disruptive, and all of it fuels the exodus out of district schools and into charters. It’s a vicious cycle that can’t be sustained. “We are starving public schools into dysfunction to the point where many parents feel like charters are their only option,” says schools activist Helen Gym, co-founder of Parents United for Public Education.

That’s not just a trumped-up threat hyped by parent activists. Last month, Moody’s warned it would further reduce the district’s credit rating—it was already whacked to “non-investment” grade in July—if program cuts continued to drive students out of the district and into charters.

At the same time, the educational promise of the best charter schools is too precious to suppress. Here are three steps the district and state should take to improve the charter sector without destroying traditional public schools in the process:

  • Replace low-performing charters with new operators. “We ought to be closing five to eight a year,” says Philadelphia School Partnership executive director Mark Gleason, who is seen as a charter advocate. Twenty-one charter schools last year had lower state school-­per­formance scores than the district average. Fire those weak operators and bring in new ones to turn the school around, or start from scratch with a new charter altogether.
  • All but eliminate cyber charters. These online schools are a stain on the state’s educational landscape, costing taxpayers $366 million last year and producing some of the worst outcomes in the Commonwealth. The charter movement should disown them.
  • Invest in meaningful oversight of city charters. There are only six district employees managing charter school renewals in Philadelphia—a preposterously low number.

Step 4

The district should make talent recruitment and de­velopment its top ed­ucational focus.

There may not be a magic potion for urban education, but in those classrooms where they can be found, masterful teachers come pretty close. The research on this is well established; studies out of Harvard, Rand and dozens of other institutions consistently find that the best teachers make big impacts on even the most disadvantaged students.

Naturally gifted teachers, though, are few and far between. And Philadelphia—like lots of other school districts—does a poor job of both recruiting great talent and retaining the strong teachers already working in city classrooms. The same holds true for principals, who are every bit as important as teachers in our model of autonomous district schools.

Philadelphia schools operate at a competitive disadvantage to suburban districts that offer better salaries, less challenging students and more job security. To overcome this, the district must identify its best teachers and principals and make it a top priority to retain them. Better pay would help, but if that’s not possible, the district should use the strategies that all good managers employ to keep top talent happy and engaged: Involve them in school or district-level decisions; give them projects to manage; make them feel like the highly valued employees they are instead of just anonymous cogs in a vast educational machine. If the new contract allows, schools should create career tracks for teachers that provide a sense of progress without taking teachers permanently out of the classroom. Make the best teachers department chairs or mentors—and pay them for it.

Teacher training and development should also be an integral part of the school day. The teachers contract already mandates that the abbreviated workday include at least 30 to 45 minutes of prep time (in addition to lunch and recess). Poor and mediocre teachers should spend much of that time learning from better teachers.

On average, teachers stay in the district for just five years. Some who leave aren’t cut out for the difficult work. Some find better teaching opportunities elsewhere. But many—including some truly great tea­chers—leave out of sheer frustration. They’re disgusted by incompetent principals. They’re excluded from decision-making at their schools. They’re handcuffed by mandates from headquarters. And so they flee. For the district to thrive, that cycle must be broken.

Step 5

Use district leverage and legislative power to make ed school more like med school.

There’s another way to get better teachers: The university departments that educate and certify them aren’t doing nearly enough to prepare their graduates for the difficult realities that await in city schools. Too many professors of education are out of touch with the reality of K-12 teaching today, particularly in urban settings. Too little attention is paid to the actual classroom efficacy of teachers who graduate from teacher training programs. And at most programs, too little time is devoted to clinical work, such as observing and assisting a master teacher in an actual classroom.

These fixes would go a long way toward improving the teacher pool:

  • Schools of education should emphasize courses in classroom management. Keeping order in an unruly classroom is overwhelming for many new teachers, and many schools of education forgo or minimize such instruction. The fact that this no-brainer reform hasn’t been broadly enacted is proof of how isolated ed schools are from the real world their graduates must confront.
  • Teacher training programs should adopt models that more closely resemble—in method, if not length—the fusion of theory and clinical work that medical students endure.
  • The School District of Philadelphia should break the ed-school monopoly on teacher training by rewarding teachers with advanced degrees in the subjects they teach (math, chemistry, English literature) and stop automatically paying more to teachers with master’s degrees in education. There is no data showing that graduate-level degrees in education improve teacher performance.

These aren’t particularly new ideas. But too many schools of education seem inured to criticism and unwilling to adapt. These programs are cash cows for universities, and they have little incentive to change.

Together, the school district and the state legislature could provide some very convincing incentives. The district is, in essence, a major client of these institutions, big enough that it should be able to make at least some universities respond to its needs. The state, meanwhile, should compel state-funded schools of education to adopt at least some of the accountability culture the state has forced on school districts. Public universities that fail to improve their schools of education—and resist gauging their effectiveness based on the performance of their graduates—should see their funding slashed.

Step 6

Shame city uni­versities into doing more.

The district and civic and political leaders should lean on the city’s biggest and most capable institutions to build more and better partnerships with public schools.

The spectacular success of the Penn Alexander School in West Philadelphia—which Penn provides with professional development services and a healthy $1,330-per-student subsidy—has shown how effective this model can be. But one such partnership isn’t enough. Not nearly.

Even within Penn, there is bewilderment that the university hasn’t established similar relationships with five or 10 more West Philadelphia schools, particularly since president Amy Gutmann’s Penn Compact ostensibly puts just this kind of community engagement at the core of Penn’s mission.

The money in question is chump change for a behemoth like Penn—about $730,000 a year in per-student subsides to Penn Alexander, for instance—particularly since universities don’t pay property taxes. And for universities with fewer cash resources than Penn, there is all manner of non-financial assistance to offer city schools.

Universities would be ideal internship partners with city high schools, and not just on the small scale that exists today. Imagine a new West Philadelphia high school geared toward educating students for careers in health care and featuring extensive out-of-classroom work at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

The same applies to Drexel, Temple, Thomas Jefferson and other big eds-and-meds institutions.

This work is self-evidently in the best interest of the universities and hospitals. Good schools are unparalleled engines for neighborhood redevelopment—à la Penn Alexander—and an improved K-12 pipeline would create a stronger workforce, which big institutions require for everything from administrators to accountants to lab techs to janitorial services. “One of the things we forget is, city kids often don’t have much experience in organizations other than school,” says James H. Lytle, a Penn education practice professor and former superintendent of the Trenton school district. “Learning those behavioral skills at someplace like the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania would be extraordinarily helpful in making kids employable in the long run.”

Part of the problem is that the district hasn’t asked for help, at least not in a coherent way. “This is a place where the district has to better define what we want universities to do and not just wait,” says Hite.

I concur, Superintendent. And if that and backroom goading aren’t enough, elected officials and civic leaders should start publicly calling out universities and hospitals. Perhaps some Council hearings on the lack of property taxes paid by big nonprofits are in order?

Step 7

Cut deals and take tough votes to end the fiscal insanity—or declare bankruptcy.

The district’s fiscal crisis isn’t a bluff. It’s not a ploy by cushy union interests and entrenched bureaucrats to wring still more money from taxpayers outside the city. The present cash shortage is entirely real, and though it’s partly a product of past mismanagement, it’s also a direct consequence of sharp and sudden state and federal funding cuts.

That doesn’t change the fact that getting significantly more money for the schools is a politically wretched proposition. But there are concrete steps Philadelphia’s leaders can and should take to—perhaps—win adequate funding for the district.

The revelation in mid-January that Governor Corbett will call for more education funding in this year’s state budget is obviously a good sign. The governor is vulnerable on education, and he knows it. But the $200 million he reportedly proposes investing statewide isn’t nearly enough, and Philadelphia politicians must press for much more.

But to have a puncher’s chance, city pols must cease the incessant squabbling and carefully cultivate allies in the ’burbs and other impoverished districts, which have their own problems with the state’s inadequate funding of education. And so long as Corbett is governor, city Democrats must be willing to put schoolkids ahead of their other constituencies. Strike a deal to privatize liquor stores, as Corbett wants, if it means more recurring revenue. Cross the public employee unions on state pension reform if it gets the district off life support.

In exchange, the district and its political allies should be looking for 1) More money, to the tune of about $300 million a year. 2) A coherent and predictable funding formula for schools, instead of the backroom bullshit that passes for a formula today. 3) Relief from teacher pension obligations, which are crippling districts across the state and are entirely controlled at the state level.

None of this is unreasonable. The $300 million is actually significantly less than what the state would have owed city schools had Corbett kept investing in education at the pace set by governors Rendell and Schweiker. And the state should be making that investment, not just in Philadelphia, but across the Commonwealth. The state’s share of financial support for K-12 education ranks 10th from the bottom in the nation.

City Council and Mayor Nutter should secure more local funding for the schools, too­—about $87.5 million per year. “With very few exceptions, good schools exist where local taxpayers have taken ownership of those schools,” says Mark Gleason.

Voters also have a role here. Ph­iladelphia­n­s—and anyone else who believes quality education for city kids is in the best interest of the state—ought to demand that Democratic candidates for governor make urban education a focal point of their campaigns. And unless Corbett changes course dramatically on education funding, city and suburban voters who value Philadelphia schools should turn out in large numbers to see him defeated.

If all of this fails—if city politicians lack the competence and the courage, if the opposition of GOP legislators can’t be overcome through conventional political means—then Hite and the SRC should either declare the district bankrupt or refuse to open schools next fall. Both options are legally fraught and desperate courses of action.

So, what good might actually come of investing cash back to the district? To start with, a restoration of the basics that suburban parents take for granted: school counselors, aides to keep an eye on kids at lunch and in the hallways, perhaps even some reopened school libraries. Just as important, establishing a semblance of fiscal stability would give Hite an actual chance to craft a coherent strategy. It would give the district a better shot at recruiting and keeping the best teachers and principals. And it would give parents like myself the confidence, just maybe, to stick it out.

Step 8

Do as I say, not as I did.

There is one final way to dramatically improve city schools over time. All it requires is that middle- and upper-middle-class parents like me actually stick it out in Philadelphia, and send our kids to the now-struggling city schools instead of opting for private options or moving to the ’burbs.

Most research suggests that economic and racial integration of city classrooms can have profoundly positive effects on overall classroom performance, including that of low-income kids, for a lot of different reasons. Luring quality teachers is an easier sell at economically integrated schools. Staunch middle-class buy-in to the local school district makes elected officials wary of underfunding the schools. And a lower concentration of extreme poverty helps address all kinds of poverty-associated problems, such as school violence and learning disabilities.

Busing is in the past. But gentrification is alive and well in big cities across the country, and it has become an increasingly potent integrating force in Philadelphia. The highest performing elementary schools in the city are also the most economically integrated: Penn Alexander in West Philly; Meredith and McCall in Society Hill; Greenberg in Northeast Philly; and so on. Students at these diverse schools are, as a group, nowhere near as privileged as kids from Tredyffrin or Cherry Hill, but they match or exceed the performance at most suburban schools.

While gentrification comes with its own set of problems, economically integrating more schools would be good for the district, good for teachers and good for students. For that to happen, more parents with the means to send their kids elsewhere need to make a leap of faith. I balked, and that decision gnaws at my conscience.

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