Bill Hite Has the Hardest Job in the Country
On the third Thursday of every month, William Hite is subjected to four hours of ritual torture.
The sessions take place in an auditorium at the headquarters of the School District of Philadelphia, on North Broad Street. Starting around 5:30 p.m., several hundred education obsessives march in and locate seats. Sometimes they bring musical instruments. Hite sits at the front of the room next to the five members of the School Reform Commission, Philadelphia’s peculiar version of a school board. Well-built, impeccably dressed, perfectly composed, Philly’s school superintendent awaits the onslaught.
In theory, the point of these meetings is for the SRC to vote on things. In practice, they are dominated by ferociously opinionated people using their three minutes of allotted time to yell at Bill Hite. Most commenters fall into one of three categories. There are the (mostly) white, female activists who decry Hite and his SRC abettors as blood-sucking corporate fetishists. There are the (mostly) white, male charter-school operators and reform advocates who dismiss these people as teachers-union toadies. Then there are the (mostly) black parents and students, who tend to have a greater personal stake in the decisions before the board. Three reporters live-tweet everything. Hite stares at his interlocutors and nods in silence. The pattern repeats itself every month.
The SRC meeting that took place in January — and “meeting” doesn’t fully encapsulate the extent to which these occasions devolve into demolition derbies — was different. Yes, there was the usual name-calling and jeering and dead-eyed tweeting. But there was also real drama. Last fall, Hite recommended that Wister Elementary, a low-performing school in Germantown, be taken over by Mastery Charter Schools, a well-reputed charter network. A week before the meeting, seemingly out of the blue, Hite changed his mind and decided that Wister had made enough progress that a takeover wasn’t necessary after all. “We have to do something,” Hite said. But that “something” wasn’t going to be a charter-school annexation.
Hite’s decision set the tone for the meeting. The fate of John Wister Elementary — a 389-student K-5 school located in an impoverished neighborhood and named for a mustachioed 19th-century iron magnate — for a few hours became a proxy for Philadelphia’s entire education-reform debate. Karel Kilimnik, a retired teacher who attends a lot of SRC meetings, accused Mastery supporters of “sowing division.” A dreadlocked father named Syiee Parker, who attended Wister as a child, came at it from the other side: “Everything that [my daughter] is learning is the same curriculum that I learned when I was going there. And that is sad. … Mastery has  other different schools in Philadelphia. Why are you trying to stop when it gets to ?”
The debate went back and forth like this, plus insults, till about 10 p.m., when SRC member Sylvia Simms dropped a bomb. Moved by parent testimony, Simms said, she called from a vote to reverse Hite’s decision and allow Mastery to compete, once again, for control of Wister. The SRC voted yes. The pro-Mastery folks erupted, while a West Philly pastor stood up and accused Simms of a conflict of interest. Hite, his chin resting on his hand, looked annoyed.
Around 11 p.m., after the meeting ended and a scrum of reporters broke up, I followed Hite to his office. The space, which faces Broad Street, is comfortable, not extravagant, and decorated with family photos. Compared to the rest of Philadelphia’s high-blood-pressure political class, Hite, a youthful-looking 54, is the picture of equanimity. But tonight’s SRC meeting seems to have boiled something over in him.
“Some of these people,” he says, “as nice as they can be one-on-one, at the meeting it’s just shouting and — ” He stops and tries to say something diplomatic. A few minutes later, though, he’s still fuming. “Karel had the nerve to say I orchestrated it,” he says, referring to the Wister vote that publicly humiliated him. His pillowy Virginia lilt sounds sharper than usual. “I was going, ‘I’m not letting you say that.’ So she asked, ‘Did you know? Did you know?’ I’m like, ‘I’m not talking to you about that. But I’m not going to allow you to slander me, either.’” He looks incredulous, like an NBA player called for a bogus foul.
This was going to be the school year when things calmed down, when Hite could, you know, focus on education. “Just think about this,” he says. “Year one, you gotta close schools. Year two, you gotta lay off people. Year two and a half, you send out letters that say, ‘We may not be able to open.’ … For the first time, we’re starting a year off not reducing something, cutting something, eliminating something. Just like … WTF.”
Things have not, in fact, calmed down. First, the SRC staged its surprise mutiny. Then, three weeks later, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania stripped the SRC of many of its powers. Stir in a hostile teachers union, apathetic Republican leadership in Harrisburg, a five-member board Hite doesn’t control, a funding system that inherently rewards wealthy districts, and a school population devastated by poverty, and we’re at WTF all over again.
“It’s an odious job, it’s awful,” says Jeremy Nowak, the former president of the William Penn Foundation. “The job has been unacceptably hard,” says Darren Spielman, president of the nonprofit Philadelphia Education Fund.
Yes, it is an awful and unacceptably hard job. But Bill Hite knew that coming in. He’s managed those odious conditions with measured tones and reasonable-sounding policies. Hite conceives of himself as the adult in the room. While his antagonists — on the left and the right — call for sweeping, politically unfeasible change, he has agitated for steady, incremental progress. In the face of what Hite considers magical thinking, he has governed as a realist.
But what if doing the steadiest job, under the worst possible circumstances, leaves us right back where we started? What if the School District of Philadelphia, forever plunged in crisis, needs something more than pragmatism?
THE AVERAGE URBAN SCHOOL superintendent sticks around for 3.18 years. Departures are often hastened by self-inflicted wounds. Hite’s predecessor, Arlene Ackerman, governed like an autocrat, alienated half the city, and presided over a cheating scandal that implicated almost 140 educators. Her predecessor, Paul Vallas, had a better record, but it was ultimately overshadowed by a disastrous privatization effort and crippling debt.
Hite’s been running the show for approximately 3.75 years. He was hired in 2012 as a sort of Goldilocks candidate — not too radical, not too wedded to the status quo. The Richmond, Virginia, native has spent almost his entire career as an educator; unlike many of his contemporaries, he didn’t pick up his management know-how in corporate America. But he’s well versed in the language of education reform. He wrote his dissertation on the effect of extending the school day. He attended the Broad Academy for superintendents, a reform-y right-of-center crash course that has spawned a number of prominent school chiefs. “I could pick 10 districts in the country that if he had any interest would hire him,” says Mark Edwards, a superintendent in North Carolina for whom Hite worked years ago, in Henrico, Virginia. “A big district in Texas recently called me. They said, ‘Any way we can get Bill Hite to come here?”’
But even if a candidate like Bill Hite turned out to be perfect, his job would still probably be at risk. “What happens with turnaround superintendents,” his predecessor Vallas once commented, “is that the first two years, you’re a demolitions expert. By the third year, if you get improvements and do school construction and test scores go up, people start to think this isn’t so hard. By year four, people start to think you’re getting way too much credit. By year five, you’re chopped liver.”
In Philadelphia, the catch-22s are especially perilous. If an average urban superintendent swims for 3.18 years against a vicious current, Philadelphia’s does so surrounded by a bunch of hell-bent, superintendent-devouring barracudas.
Barracuda No. 1: A persistently disastrous budget situation, largely engineered and allowed to fester by former governor Tom Corbett and What, me worry? Republican legislators. Hite inherited a projected five-year deficit of a billion and a half dollars. Education policy, naturally, took a backseat to accounting. “Everybody wanted to get to other questions,” says the city’s former education chief, Lori Shorr, “but there were looming crises constantly, and they weren’t the type you could put off. You would run the data, run the analyses, and you would come to the conclusion: If this trend continues, we may not exist.” “We” being the School District of Philadelphia.
Not existing wasn’t a great option, so Hite’s first big move was to close 24 mostly low-performing, under-enrolled public schools. “No one wanted to close schools — no one came out and said, ‘I’m in support of this,’” Hite says. But if he hadn’t taken that step, “We’d be broke. We would not have been able to function this fall.” Because the district’s budget is so dependent on state funding, some saw Hite’s austerity plan as a misguided gambit to curry favor with Harrisburg — if not an act of outright villainy ripped from the pages of the Republican playbook. Most of Hite’s political support evaporated.
Which leads us to Barracuda No. 2: Hite’s left-wing opposition, led by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. To this cohort, the school closures were Hite’s original sin. “Hite acts like a Harrisburg Republican,” says Andrew Saltz, a 32-year-old teacher at a small public high school in West Philadelphia and a vocal member of the city’s fiery left-of-center commentariat. (He’s an occasional Philly Mag contributor.) “He’s done everything possible in the center-right playbook. One, shut down schools. Two, attack the teachers union. Three, turn schools over to charters. Four, don’t mess with rich white schools.” All that, Saltz argues, without much to show for it: “At this point, he could burn down the PFT building on 18th and Chestnut and pee on its ashes and erect the Grover Norquist Charter School for White Boys and they still wouldn’t get anything from Harrisburg.”
This second cohort of barracudas has complicated Hite’s life in a couple of ways. For one, negotiating with the teachers union, which continues to operate without a new contract, has become all but impossible. Moreover, the PFT and its allies have channeled their anger into a political movement that’s undercutting what meager local political support Hite has. “My decision to run for City Council came from your decision to close 24 schools,” newbie councilwoman and education activist Helen Gym said at the January SRC meeting. “Divesting in them and then shutting them down cannot be called working in the public interest.”
Barracuda No. 3 is the group of policy wonks and edu-philanthropists who don’t think Hite has been disruptive enough. “The idea that the Corbett budget cuts are the problem or the SRC is the problem — none of that is true,” says Mark Gleason of the right-of-center Philadelphia School Partnership, an advocacy and grant-making group. In other words, the district was in trouble before the SRC was created, in 2001, and before Corbett cut about $200 million from its annual budget in 2011. The real problem, to Gleason, is that Hite has been too incremental. “We’re on the 30-year plan,” he says. “That’s three generations of kids left behind if we keep intervening at the rate we’re intervening.”
Hite can’t “intervene” fast enough to satisfy Gleason, nor can he invest in traditional schools enough to please Gym. And he’s clearly fed up with both extremes of the education debate. “I don’t agree with Gleason much,” Hite tells me, but he sure liked it when Gleason publicly called Gym out at the January SRC meeting for sending her kids to elite magnet schools while she simultaneously opposes putting struggling public schools under charter management. “Helen is talking about keeping these schools under district leadership when her child doesn’t go to that type of school,” Hite laments. “And so what are you saying? That everybody else deserves less?” (Gym did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Ironically, Hite’s record includes some solid, nonpartisan achievements that should make everyone happy. A collaboration between the district and Harvard University generated more than 15,000 fewer days of student absences. Student arrests have been cut in half, thanks to a program that pairs troubled kids with social workers and diversion programs. Somewhat miraculously, the district ended its last fiscal year with an $88 million surplus.
Squeezed between two irreconcilable political extremes, in the face of a Sisyphean budget nightmare, Hite has governed as a kind of radical centrist. In another city, under better circumstances, he might be welcomed as a bridge-builder capable of uniting a fractious education community. But here, where by his own criteria 80 percent of public schools are still not educating children adequately, coolness can seem like cold-bloodedness, and being the adult in the room makes you look out of touch.
TWO WEEKS AFTER the Wister vote, I meet Hite at High Street on Market for a 7:30 a.m. interview. He gives me a genial hand-grab and tells me this is his favorite spot to conduct a breakfast meeting. This qualifies as a major personal revelation. Hite, with his shaved head, well-cut suits and hip black leather sneakers, gives off a stolid vibe. He’s warm, but guarded. I order tea; he orders coffee. Hite’s aides warned me that the superintendent was uncomfortable with the idea of a personality profile. “What I don’t want is me looking like a martyr and it getting away from what we are trying to accomplish,” he told me the first time we spoke.
Given that he’s in charge of a crisis-plagued $2.6 billion bureaucracy, Hite’s a relative unknown. He attended Virginia Tech on a football scholarship — he was a running back — and later tried out for the Dallas Cowboys. He began his career as a teacher and a principal, and then became the superintendent of a large, poor district just outside Washington, D.C. His wife, Deirdre, is an administrator at Penn Medicine. He’s got two children and one grandkid and works out five times a week. He lives near Old City.
Beyond that, he’s mostly a cipher. I start at the beginning and ask him to evaluate the quality of his own public schooling. “You know, I’ve never reflected on that,” he says, after a beat. “I remember days when there was extreme boredom and I just felt like I needed to do something else and get out of there. I literally went to school so I could play football. And all my friends were there.”
So no, the public schools Billy Hite attended in the largely segregated city of Richmond, Virginia, weren’t great. But here’s the thing. For a good chunk of the 20th century, graduates didn’t need a great K-12 education to get a decent job and earn a reasonable wage.
“Think about Richmond,” says Hite, whose father worked days for a local transit authority and odd jobs at night as his mother worked for a department store. “There were three primary corporations. Philip Morris was there. DuPont, at the time, was in Richmond. And the Ethyl Corporation was there. And there was just block after block, city block after block, of warehouses manufacturing things. So the point is, everybody worked. Now, all those factories have become condos or hotels or historic shopping areas.”
In that world, the basics were enough. “Reading, writing and arithmetic — you may not have needed more than that to sweep floors in a tobacco warehouse,” says Hite. “And it would pay you $18 an hour. But that did change. Which then created the impetus for reform. Because all of a sudden, now we have people graduating and those jobs aren’t available.” In 1979, around a quarter of black workers held manufacturing jobs; today, less than 10 percent do.
Which meant that over time, the education debate and the poverty debate began to intersect. “Some of the other jobs that are available,” Hite says, “take a very different skill set.” Public schools couldn’t just be 8 a.m.-to-3 p.m. babysitters. They were the best anti-poverty tool the government had. Unfortunately for public schools, the crisis of deindustrialization coincided with white flight, which destroyed cities’ tax bases, which further imperiled the mostly African-American and Latino families that remained in urban public-school districts like Philadelphia’s.
IF BLACK AND HISPANIC children had any hope of catching up to their wealthier, white, suburban-raised peers in the job market, the yawning school “achievement gap” had to be narrowed. Schools in Richmond or Philadelphia didn’t just have to be as good as those in wealthier white suburbs — they probably had to be better. Subtract from the equation family connections and decades of accumulated wealth; add to the equation a school population traumatized by gun violence, public health crises, drug addiction and fractured family lives.
In wealthy Lower Merion, only 11 percent of elementary-school kids tested at “basic or below basic” levels on last year’s state English exams. In Philadelphia, that number was 69 percent. Nearly everyone in the public-policy community agrees that closing the achievement gap is critical. What they disagree about is how to do it. One camp, led by vocal left-wing scholars like Diane Ravitch, argues that the real problem plaguing urban education in America is poverty. Because public education is largely funded by local property taxes, poor urban school districts have less money to hire more and better teachers, provide more personalized learning, refurbish aging buildings, and provide the sorts of services — iPads in classrooms, nutritious cafeteria food — that some suburban districts take for granted.
And then there are the resources public-school students themselves lack. A teenager living in Wynnewood can fall back on a pedagogic safety net if a school doesn’t do its job: immersive summer camps, college-educated parents, approximately zero threat of gang violence on the way home from school. In cities like Philadelphia, where 80 percent of students qualify for federal free or reduced-price lunches, that safety net is missing. There are policy levers that can address these problems; all of them require vast government spending.
The other camp argues that the most important factor in improving educational outcomes stands in the classroom. Better teachers make better students. Better students go on to lead better lives. One of the leading researchers of teacher effectiveness is Eric Hanushek, of Stanford’s Hoover Institution. Hanushek calculates that a teacher at the 84th percentile of effectiveness, compared to an average teacher, will bestow an additional $400,000 in lifetime earnings on her students every year she teaches.
The chief impediment to quality instruction, in other words, is bad teachers. And the chief obstacle to replacing bad teachers, natch, is teachers unions. The reformist camp’s political efforts — aided by philanthropists like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — have been dominated by attempts to weaken union policies that make it harder to fire old teachers and hire new ones.
In Philadelphia, the education debate has split along these exact lines. Helen Gym and the PFT and their allies argue that right-leaning local reformers obsess over union-busting and ignore the real problem — which is poverty. “The hedge-fund-funded, Walmart-funded, Gates-funded reform is getting discredited,” says one City Council aide.
On the flip side, you have your data-fixated, right-of-center reformists like SRC member Bill Green. “There are two major impediments to a true turnaround,” he says. “The first is resources. The second is a PFT unwilling to change work rules to allow evidence-based practices to come into our public schools.” Because charter schools tend to have non-unionized teachers, Green and most of his SRC colleagues like to see low-performing schools like Wister Elementary run by organizations like Mastery.
Less clear, ironically, is the education philosophy of the guy theoretically calling the shots. “I’ve been in meetings with him many times,” says an aide to a local politician when I ask him where Hite falls on the spectrum. “We have phone conversations and conference calls. I have no idea. I gotta be honest. He doesn’t give much away.”
Part of that is personality. Hite’s got a gravitas that stands in stark contrast to the stridency that pervades Philly’s education community. Part of it, too, is that he hasn’t actually been able to accomplish all that much. Unwilling or unable to say whether he and Hite are ideologically aligned, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, a card-carrying member of the reform camp, concludes, “What I think is, he’s been a survivor.”
Hite is in fact more moderate than many urban reformers, including former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and his predecessor, Arlene Ackerman. While Ackerman fostered an unhealthy test-score obsession, Hite has created a network of “innovation schools” that have moved students away from months of tedious bubble-filling test prep. And while charter enrollment has swelled on his watch — charters, which cost the district thousands in extra dollars per student, may be a runaway train at this point — the January SRC meeting represented the first time in two years that the board recommended handing over district schools to charter operators.
Still, if you talk to Hite long enough, he reveals himself to be more Eric Hanushek than Diane Ravitch. “When I first became a superintendent, I felt like I controlled everything that happens from the time a child leaves her home until that child returns,” he says. Not anymore. “Now, I think very differently about this. I think we need the best people standing in front of children.” In his view, the problem — and the solution — started with classroom discussion.
As a teacher and a principal, Hite says, he saw kids getting “written off.” “In some cases, it was intentional,” he says. “In other cases, it was just because individuals didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know how to engage children. They didn’t know how to teach math in a way that would cause children to understand it. What happens is, you see children who sit with adults in front of them for 13 years, who then leave school with the inability to do anything. So that’s how I got to this point.”
If Hite’s vision was to fundamentally reimagine the teaching profession in Philadelphia, it looked, for a brief moment, like he might get a chance to. In February 2014, Bill Green became chairman of the SRC. Green vowed to serve as Hite’s “blocker and tackler.” A month later, the SRC voted to strike down the seniority provisions of the teachers’ contract. By the fall, the SRC had suspended the entire contract, to force teachers to pay into their health insurance plans. In January, new Democratic governor Tom Wolf arrived in Harrisburg, and with him, the promise of more education funding. Things were looking up for Hite!
Or not. Soon after he took office, Wolf replaced Green with Marjorie Neff, a former principal of the prestigious Masterman School — Green’s ideological and stylistic opposite. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court reversed the SRC’s suspension of the teachers’ contract, before the Supreme Court went even further and stripped it of more power, casting doubt on its ability to function, period. Meanwhile, in Harrisburg, budgetary gridlock persists.
Zoom out from Philadelphia, and the entire underpinning of the education reform movement appears to be crumbling. Fifteen years ago, the federal government claimed a bipartisan success story with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, a system of national standards meant to evaluate schools. Today, the Barack Obama-endorsed national “Common Core” curriculum is a dirty word in politics, and NCLB has been all but gutted. A series of cheating scandals in which teachers doctored student test scores dealt a blow to the perceived reliability of ranking schools and teachers using data, while aggressive reform types like Michelle Rhee and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel alienated voters with their uncompromising coarseness.
Mayor Jim Kenney, once a supporter of private-school vouchers for public-school students, has undergone a similar transformation. His signature education proposal is to create a network of “community schools” that aim to address neighborhood inequities as much as they do instruction. Geoffrey Canada, whose Harlem Children’s Zone pioneered a version of this idea in the 1990s, describes the model as a sort of “conveyor belt” that ferries students safely from pre-K to college. South Philly High School has already experienced some success with a version of this model — Kenney’s schools chief, Otis Hackney, is South Philly’s former principal — while the Obama administration’s West Philly “Promise Zone” shares DNA with community schooling.
Hite likes the idea in theory but fears that real-life, measurable progress will get lost amidst warm and fuzzy buzzwords. “Just the act of making a school a community school doesn’t teach one more child to read. Doesn’t teach one more child to do math,” Hite says.
For the first time in three years, there are no mass layoffs or school closures looming in Philadelphia. The district’s fiscal problems are dire, but no longer existential. Yet the forces of politics, of bureaucracy, of public opinion, seem aligned against Hite.
“Somebody asked me a question yesterday,” he says toward the end of our breakfast interview. “‘Are you still optimistic?’ And it’s the first time since I’ve been in Philadelphia that I struggled with the response.”
WHAT IF THERE’S a middle path? A way to improve schools without turning to polarizing charter schools or radical legal gambits, and without waiting for a redoubled federal war on poverty that may never materialize? In late January, several hours before the Wister Elementary SRC meeting, I sit in on a PowerPoint presentation put together by one of Hite’s assistant superintendents, a North Carolina native named Eric Becoats who’s dressed in lavender tones. Clustered around the table is a who’s who of Philadelphia’s philanthropic power crowd, representatives from the foundations most likely to pour money into city schools — provided it’s spent how the foundations prefer. Becoats’s presentation details the district’s latest proposal: a network of low-performing traditional public schools designated for internal “turnarounds.” His guests have been invited to provide feedback.
The second slide — a gauzy quote from Hite — suggests inclusion rather than disruption: “The purpose of our work is ensuring that geography is not destiny and that ALL children in Philadelphia have a great public school close to where they live.” But Becoats also underscores that the process will be research-driven, citing “five essential elements of school turnaround” delineated during a 2013 University of Chicago consortium.
The Turnaround Network proposal, which was formally introduced in March, looked great in theory. But the fifth slide of Becoats’s presentation helpfully reminded the audience that near-identical gambits had failed twice in the past decade:
Restructured Schools (SY2002-2005)
Outcome: A transition in leadership led to a change in priorities and positive gains were lost.
Promise Academies (SY 2010-2011)
Outcome: Financial constraints led to an inability to implement with fidelity and positive gains were lost.
“I’m sure there is fatigue in schools and communities and families,” says one foundation representative once the slideshow ends. “A Renaissance Academy, a Promise Academy, a restructured Achievement School — people have seen a lot.”
It’s not just Hite’s Turnaround Network that feels like déjà vu. His much-touted school assessment tool, the SPR, looks a lot like the SPI, which Ackerman devised. Paul Vallas’s tenure was marred by his decision to outsource 38 schools to private for-profit operators that promised big gains in student performance but failed to deliver. Hite has similarly come under intense criticism for relying on an underperforming start-up, Source4Teachers, to staff schools with substitute teachers.
Hite recently signed a five-year contract extension with the district, but nobody will be surprised if he leaves Philadelphia before it’s up. As three-time mayoral candidate and education-policy gadfly Sam Katz says, “If there was a role model out there with a substantial body of impoverished students operating at remarkable levels of educational attainment, well, everybody would be copying it.”
I ask Hite for some optimistic talking points. “We have seen an increase in graduation, and increase in the children who are persisting in college,” he says, cracking open his silver-linings playbook. “I think we will over the long run begin to see the dividends from the work that we’re doing, particularly around the early grades, with literacy. And I do think individuals will see more technology in their schools. They will see a larger focus on art and music. They will see innovation. They will see a structure that is based on a foundation of STEM” — science, technology, engineering and math — “where children are problem-solving and thinking critically and engaging with others. We’ll see teachers who are excited about growing their practice. Those are the legacy-type things that I would love to see.”
Even if all that happens, though, what does it mean for the city? Hite doesn’t bullshit me. It translates — maybe — to a modest uptick in people who choose not to leave Philadelphia altogether: “Look, if we’re successful with this, we move from 203,000 children to 210,000 children.”
In the face of daunting structural obstacles and never-ending budgetary madness — oh, and barracudas — the best Hite can do is push his massive boulder ever so slightly up the hill, and pray it doesn’t tumble back down.
“It is what it is.”
Published as “The Realist” in the April 2016 issue of Philadelphia magazine.