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.

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.”