Philly School Teacher: Why New Plan Won’t Fix Broken District

"Achievement networks" are code for exclusivity.

My students are deeply curious about me. They ask about my background, my personal life, my relationships and more. One of the most common questions I get is, “why would you ever want to be a teacher?” More than a little too often it is asked with a level of sharp disdain for the profession.

While I know and agree with answers like “to make a difference” or “to be a part of the development of children,” for me, it is something deeper. In the Talmud, a book of codified Jewish argument and perspective, it says, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

I believe that education saves lives.

Public schools provide a place not only for academic engagement and social-emotional development, but also a space to equalize the playing field for all, regardless of background.  The Philadelphia public school system came into existence in 1818 and has been pushing to provide that place for school-aged children ever since. This effort to equalize the playing field for all is an effort in life-saving as far as I am concerned.

Unfortunately, the proposed plan to dismantle the public school system in Philadelphia seems to me to be a regression from this ideal. The idea of an “achievement network” reeks of an exclusive club restricting access to their own kind, whomever that may be.

I understand the goal of these networks is to allow a decentralized vision of the School District to persevere while supporting dynamic leaders across the city. The outcome of this, however, is almost certainly a tiered educational system where the children of the “have-nots” are left behind. While those with the time to put together proposals may do so, I imagine it will be more difficult for those in low-income neighborhoods to do the same.

When I joined the School District of Philadelphia in 2009 I thought I was coming on board a rising wave of support for new teachers. Hundreds of us went through New Teacher Induction that summer and joined the staffs of schools across the District, hoping to engage with our students and make learning happen. Instead, we have been mandated to use scripted curricula, stripped of collaborative environments, reduced in number from lay-offs, and demotivated every step of the way.

Over the past three years I have heard or experienced so many regrettable situations where teachers are pushed to their extremes. While I began my career at West Philadelphia High School, I was force-transferred to the High School of the Future last year, and now I am at the Academy at Palumbo. I am lucky to be at this school because the divisive walkthrough teams have not plagued it; they are well known for reducing an educator’s skills to a green dot, a yellow dot, or a red dot. How much more demoralizing can it be to have your practice reduced to one of three colors?

The leadership of the School District of Philadelphia has made great strides in some aspects of transparency: switching the times of meetings to the evening in order to accommodate more community members; streaming meetings on the Internet as they take place; and more. However, they still seem to be making decisions behind closed doors in ways that negate the hard world of all stakeholders in schools. This plan was not created with community buy-in and it is no surprise that we are upset because of it.

Yet, I still think there is reason for hope.

Over the past month, I have had numerous conversations with students about the current political situation in the School District of Philadelphia. They are curious and engaged in learning how they can share their voice in the current debate. Organizations like the Teacher Action Group, Youth United for Change, and the Philadelphia Student Union are all shouting rallying cries to get involved.

The time has come to join the struggle to save education and save our students. I urge all people living in Philadelphia to get involved: write a letter, call a Congressperson, attend a rally, vote. The democratic process is something those in power would like us to forget. Do not let community apathy remain the strongest tool of the enemy war chest. Join with others to fight to keep our public school system and improve it together.

My personal pledge is to begin contacting my state representatives in Harrisburg and attending any meeting run by the School Reform Commission. I promise to provide copies of my letters to readers of my blog for your own personal use as well.

At the very least, remember that the loudest voice in the battle against inequity can be the small cry of a child. Let us do our best to be sure that child does not cry for long.

Brian Cohen is a public school teacher at Academy at Palumbo. He blogs regularly about education in Philadelphia.