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 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?