A Consulting Firm Won’t Save Philly Schools

We're not outsourcing our way out of this mess.

Here’s the walk that has to be walked by anyone proposing reform of the Philadelphia School District: Come out from behind desks and board tables, set aside doctored-up statistics about graduation rates and half-true reports about school safety, forget about PSSA scores, and spend a lot of time, like almost every day for the rest of this school year, in the worst schools—not being led around by the nose by a nervous principal who’s afraid of being criticized. No one can improve what he or she doesn’t truly understand.

A school’s success or failure is dictated by its culture. If students feel protected within the bricks and mortar of their school buildings, and if they’re confident that their physical, intellectual and spiritual well-being can and will be guarded by the adults in their schools, success and achievement will be natural results. I don’t mean spiritual in a religious sense; I’m talking about the willingness and ability of faculty and staff to protect students from the spiritually pulverizing, soul-destroying fallout of the bullying, violence, and anarchy that prevail right now in many public school buildings. It’s a plague in urban high schools, and it’s creeping into the middle and elementary grades. Most teachers have the willingness to advocate for their students, but recycled cover-your-ass mandates prohibit their ability.

Last week, the William Penn Foundation committed $1.5 million to fund another attempt by the School Reform Commission to get a handle on Philadelphia’s public school crisis. The grant will cover a contract with Boston Consulting Group, a firm that supposedly has experience with school turnarounds. I am trying to put the Edison debacle out of my mind, but 2001 is not that long ago.

I want to believe in Pedro Ramos, the new SRC Chair. He’s a home-grown, North Philly success story, exactly the kind of role model kids could use. I respect that his own kids are products of the city’s public schools (even though those schools are Masterman and Central, where students don’t tell teachers to “Shut the f*** up”).

Back in 1998, when the state started throwing its weight around, and huffing and puffing about taking over the worst districts, I had a child who was about to start school in a district that was on “the list.” For a whole year, I went to every meeting on the topic. I even organized one with then State Secretary of Education, Charles Zogby. When local politicians and school administrators heard he was coming, it meant the local press would be there too, so they all wanted a piece of the action. My PTA colleagues and I turned it into a forum, and it became a standing-room-only affair.

It was clear that there wasn’t a real plan for the pending state takeovers. All this panel of policy makers and enforcers had to offer was more meaningless rhetoric, and the most shocking part to me, being the young idealist that I was back then, was that they knew we knew that they were full of shit, and they didn’t care. I walked away defeated and frustrated, and my child was in Catholic school by second grade. The only thing that public schools got out of that round of “intervention” were expensive, unrealistic, standardized tests and more bureaucracy, all mostly to placate the taxpayers. It was a paradoxical conclusion because the heart of the matter is the inequity in funding, and the new mandates ended up costing the poorest districts more money. If the plan was to kick distressed schools the rest of the way down to rock bottom, mission accomplished.

When Ramos was appointed to the SRC last year, he said one of his priorities would be, “ … increasing safe, good-quality educational opportunities for all Philadelphia children.” Note that he wants this for all Philadelphia children, not only the ones in the “better” schools, where accountability is alive and well and parents are a part of the process, but even ones where they aren’t. Let’s face it: The idea that all students have parents, guardians or families who care and participate is a horse that needs to be buried. Many students just don’t and never will, and that doesn’t give their schools a right to fail them by making excuses for them and then lowering the bar even more.

Many urban districts state and nationwide are in the same position as Philadelphia. Too many students have been or will be cheated, and uneducated citizens don’t participate in a democracy or help revive a failing economy, and why should they? They’ll only be doing what they were taught, which is nothing.