I read Meredith Broussard’s recent Atlantic article, “Why Poor Schools Can’t Win at Standardized Testing” and shook my head in exasperation: nothing changes in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania… and worse: the solution isn’t more tests or more penalties or more charter schools: it’s more carefully spent money.
Based on the information presented in the Atlantic article here’s what hasn’t changed in Philadelphia since I was a teacher at Shaw Junior High School:
- There aren’t enough books
- There aren’t enough administrators
- There aren’t enough teachers
- The central administration is overwhelmed with paperwork
- Technology is outdated and under-supported
- As measured by standardized tests, students are performing poorly
Here’s what is different:
- The state controls the schools (and has for roughly two decades) because they can do a better job… but student performance has not improved one iota since the State takeover.
- Many of the schools are operated by privatized charters, because the private sector can solve the problems better than the “government run” schools… but for-profit charters have not improved student performance even though they draw from the children of engaged parents.
- The per pupil spending gap is wider as compared to surrounding suburban school districts because “money can’t solve the problems”… even though parents and community members in the suburban districts willingly pay more for their better schools… oh.. and those schools DO have textbooks for each child and sophisticated data systems to monitor the allocation of resources and progress of each-and-every student.
- The central administration emphasizes the ineffectiveness of teachers instead of the needs of students. Mark Shedd and Matt Costanza, the Superintendents in the late 60s and early 1970s, spoke eloquently in defense of the hard work teachers were doing and the challenges they faced given the effects of poverty. Since then: it’s all about bad teaching.
And… based on the information presented in the Atlantic article here’s what hasn’t changed in Pennsylvania since I was an administrator in suburban Philadelphia in the mid-1970s: economically disadvantaged students do poorly on standardized achievement tests and students in affluent districts do better and the test results are used to draw the conclusion that schools serving children raised in poverty are “failing” and schools serving children raised in affluence are “good”.
Broussard’s article presents the stark reality of public education in Philadelphia without judgment… and it’s not a pretty picture.
Diane Ravitch posted an explanation on why unions are needed from one of her commenters, Lloyd Lofthouse who, like me, is retired from education and somewhat frustrated with the current state of affairs in public schools. I left a comment on the post, which I am elaborating on below.
Here’s my perspective on teachers unions as a retired Superintendent with 29 years of experience in 5 states:
=> The teachers union is not a monolith: each district and each State has it’s own unique history and, consequently, each union has its own unique reason for being. The mainstream media is prone to oversimplified black-white analyses. The right leaning media (e.g. Fox News) are especially prone to this and often cast “the teachers union” as a lock-step organization that dictates education policy to the states and has the Democratic Party in it’s pocket. Anyone who is at all familiar with public education knows this is untrue… but since repetition reinforces learning the public has bought the notion of a highly centralized and dictatorial union hook-line-and-sinker.
=> Younger teachers have not experienced the adverse effects of working in a non-union environment and are therefore unaware of the benefits and protections they are receiving as a result of the hard work done by those like Lloyd Lofthouse and other commenters who organized the first set of unions. Veteran teacher union leaders expressed this concern to me over a decade ago and I know anecdotally that many locals are finding it difficult to recruit leadership. Few teachers want to make the time commitment and assume the sometimes adversarial role that is needed to be a leader of a local teacher’s union. Since most education policy writers are in urban areas, they do not appreciate how difficult it is to lead a union AND teach full time, which is the predominant model for unions.
=> Unions are inherently conservative in the sense their desire to maintain the status quo. Because “the devil they know” is always preferable to the unknown, they are reluctant to change the step-and-track system compensation system, to accept individualized compensation packages, to make changes to the current scheduling format for schooling, or adopt peer evaluation systems. This adherence to the status quo makes it possible for “reformers” to present themselves as “bold innovators”. I am especially concerned that teachers unions have not taken more of a leadership role in defining how to make the best use of technology. I think that if the unions demanded better access to technology in their schools and made it clear they expect their students to have access to technology they would be taking the wind out of the sales of those who are seeking to disrupt schooling.
As one who believes in economic justice, I appreciate the need for unions in all sectors of the economy and believe that their diminishment has contributed to the suppression of wages over the past two or three decades… I would like to see all unions speaking up against the current system that values shareholders at the expense of the 99% and would like to see national teacher’s unions speak more stridently about the effects of poverty on children and less about the effects of the economy on their membership…