I was pleasantly surprised to hear from Dr. William Hite yesterday, the other candidate for the superintendent position of the School District of Philadelphia. He is currently superintendent of Prince George's County in Maryland, a district with roughly 130,000 students (close to Philadelphia's 147,000) and a lot of students from low-income backgrounds. He has been in that role for the past six years - something unique considering the average tenure of a superintendent in urban areas
(and similar - like PG County) is 3.6 years.
During the Q&A session, he did not use as many buzz words as Pedro Martinez and emphasized listening and reflecting on practice for all - administrators and teachers. He recognized that he has some teaching experience, although it was a long time ago. As concerned with his emphasis on merit-based pay, I asked the following question:
Thank you for being with us Dr. Hite. My name is Brian Cohen and I am a high school math teacher at the Academy at
Palumbo. As a math teacher I focus a lot on numbers and how data analysis drives decision-making.
Research shows that teacher quality is one of the most important in-school factors to promoting achievement of our
students. Some (including myself) would argue that retaining high-quality teachers is one of the best uses of the budget to
increase student learning.
This morning you mentioned that the Financial Incentives Rewards for Supervisors and Teachers program may not have
been the best use of funds for promoting teacher retention in Prince George County schools. And, according to the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation 2012 study entitled "Primary Sources"
only 16% of teachers feel that performance pay helps to
retain good teachers. With contract negotiations coming in August 2013, what is your plan to retain high quality teachers in
Dr. Hite responded with an explanation of what they did in Prince George's County and how they learned what teachers really wanted in the end: they wanted support from strong, consistent leadership. So, with that in mind, they are changing the system for the next year.
While I am aware and concerned that an interview is no way of determining exactly how an individual will function in the role of superintendent, I have to say that I liked what Dr. Hite had to say and how he said it. If he ends up getting the job, I only hope he continues to listen to students, parents, and teachers to inform his decision-making.
I spent an hour this afternoon with other educators from across Philadelphia to ask questions of and listen to Pedro Martinez, one of the "finalists" for the superintendent position
in the School District of Philadelphia. Coming from Clark County, Nevada (Las Vegas is in this county), he has a varied background and a recent focus on education. He lived in poverty in a town in Mexico, brought to Chicago by his hard-working immigrant father, grew to appreciate education and eventually graduate from college. Since then he has worked in various financial positions, including for the archdiocese of Chicago, later gaining the attention of Arne Duncan, then-superintendent of Chicago public schools. He is currently a deputy superintendent in Clark County and is vying for the position in Philadelphia as well as in Washoe County, Nevada.
Mr. Martinez seems like a wonderful person with a passion and desire to improve the education system in Philadelphia. He said a number of things regarding collaboration with teachers and their unions that I do appreciate and agree are important. That being said, however, much of what he said today seemed to be tailored to us as an audience of teachers. When pushed to talk about aspects of competition and school choice in the Q&A session, he dropped hints of his education at the Broad Superintendent Academy
(a relatively conservative place that wants to transition business-type executives into school systems).
I decided to ask a question focused on this issue:
"My name is Brian Cohen and I am a high school math teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. I want to thank you for
taking the time to meet with us and to hear our comments and questions - as someone who has been directly affected by
prior superintendent decisions I think it is crucially important that the next person in this position understand what it is like to
work in a low-income, high-need urban school district.
To that end, I would like you to speak about the contrast between the Broad Foundation principle that "competition among
American schools is healthy" and your belief in "a vision in which all children reach their potential regardless of their family
income or ethnic background." Competition inherently leaves people behind. How does your vision for Philadelphia
schools balance these issues?"
At first he dodged the question but subsequent individuals pushed him to share his views. It seems that he is a believer in the market system and that it should drive schools to improve themselves; if they don't, then they should be closed and replaced.
I don't think Mr. Martinez truly wants to collaborate on this venture. If he did, he would recognize that schools (charters, private, parochial, and public) are not competing on an even playing field and competition will eventually lead to a two-tiered system where the "haves" are performing well and the "have-nots" are left out to dry.
I recently finished reading Chris Paslay's The Village Proposal
, a book discussing anecdotes of his experience as a teacher in Philadelphia, balanced with his perspectives on education policy and research. The book is a fairly easy read and brings up many situations I encountered in my first year of teaching as well as comments on policies on a grander scale that affect teachers across the country.
One of the most important aspects of the book is a theme that I call the Dichotomy of Cause. Paslay references this numerous times, especially when he emphasizes the debate on the reasons why children fail.
On the one hand there are people who acknowledge issues of poverty and racism and truly believe that the school and teacher are the entities responsible for fixing everything. This side of the issue supports free and reduced-price meals for students, social supports for families and children, and often acquiesces to the demands of parents because "it isn't their fault."
On the other hand there are people who see the same situation and believe that the child needs to take some responsibility for his or her own actions; if a teacher has called home numerous times, pulled the student aside for conversations, differentiated assignments and instruction, and that child still
fails, then it is not the school's fault.
In general, this debate is summarized as such: does a school affect the community or does the community affect the school?
I am not totally certain where I lie on this spectrum. I do think there are myriad problems affecting children in poverty that need to be dealt with in order for them to even take school seriously; if my students do not live in a stable enough home to have supplies every day, what are they going to get from my class? But, at the same time, if I can influence them in a particular way, perhaps they can begin to advocate for themselves and figure out how to get resources for themselves.
If out-of-school factors are playing a larger role in student achievement
, then we may need to change our policy to match.
After reading Diane Ravitch's book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System
I decided to research for myself the origin of the charter school movement. In her book she talks about how the first charter schools were supposed to be run by teachers for the benefit of their local school districts. It is truly amazing how this plan has thus far been skewed.
In order to find out about this in depth, I read what many consider to be the first major mentions of the idea of charter schools: Roy Budde's narrative of the "Education by Charter"
idea and the following speech by then-president of the American Federation of Teachers
, Al Shanker. Both discussed the idea that charter schools should have fewer restrictions placed on them, more control over curriculum-decisions, increased autonomy in budgetary decisions, and more. But the main difference between what was proposed then and what is happening now is who was running them and to what end.
Their explanations of charter schools revolve around teams of teacher leaders who take charge and craft proposals of schools-within-schools, to be run for 5-10 years, with their outcomes and positive changes to be brought back to the traditional school district. Budde proposes a 10 year cycle whereby "new blood" can make a significant difference quickly
without waiting on the bureaucracy that inevitably exists in large school districts. Al Shanker's speech builds support for this idea as well.
It is a sad day, then, when I see almost the exact opposite of that taking place across the country, especially in Philadelphia. Instead of working to support their efforts, the School District of Philadelphia denied the teachers and parents at Creighton Elementary
a chance to shape their futures. I experienced something similar when I worked at West Philadelphia High School three years ago
Instead of creating an adversarial relationship with teachers and their unions, the School District of Philadelphia should look at the true origins of the charter school movement and bring teachers into the planning process, instead of larger corporate-style non-profits. Perhaps that would reduce animosity and bring back the long-term vision and morale we need.
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As my third year of teaching comes to a close I continue to recognize how amazing it is that no matter where you teach in the School District of Philadelphia, chaos rears its ugly head at the end of the year. Students do not heed their schedules, bizarre requests are made and early dismissals are given on a whim. It is as if the structure we took so long to take care of simply dies in the last few days.
Over my three years I will say that the situation has improved somewhat. In the 2009-2010 school year grades were to be completed a full 6 days before the "end" of the school year. In reality, once grades had been input, there was no reason for students to show up - so they didn't. In the 2010-2011 school year, we stil had four days between grades being due and the end of the year - a modest improvement but still difficult to pursue. This year, grades are due on the last day of school - even better for those of us wanting to give more chances (and more education) to our students.
Unfortunately, even this year there has been a breakdown of the rules as final exams were proctored over the course of the past week and if a student does not care about them (or has completed them), s/he may very well disregard the rules of the building and create headaches for the staff.
While I do not think that every suburban policy makes sense for urban school systems, I do believe that the end of year final exam schedule from Lower Merion
has a lot of merit. When I attended LMHS as a teenager I found it relieving that we would have only two finals per day and that if we did not have to take a final, we did not have to come in. It made logical sense: do not force students to meander from classroom to classroom watching movies with teachers who have plenty of grading to do.
I am hoping that with increased autonomy in schools next year there can be more flexibility of these schedules. Perhaps the end of the year can be more organized and joyous so that it is no longer a headache for many of us.
Over the past month I have spent a lot of time thinking (and writing) about my opinions regarding education issues in Philadelphia and the country. It has been a very interesting time of reflection on my own beliefs as well as the concept of activism. My brief 3 minutes in front of the School Reform Commission last Thursday was a fascinating experience that I hope to take part in again.
But all of this has been wondering: are we listening to each other anymore?
In my three minutes in the "hot seat" there were a number of times where people in the audience cheered and I felt truly part of something larger than myself. But, as I think about it more, I wonder if the people behind the big tables were actually listening and will take to heart anything I (or anyone else who spoke) had to say. I know the current SRC members have portrayed themselves as a transparent group willing to accept feedback and criticism, but I wonder how true that is.
In fact, I wonder how true that is of anyone these days.
My Google Reader is currently set up to give me updates on news and blogs I subscribe to; I attend meetings with like-minded individuals who are passionate about the same issues I am; and I rarely interact with those who disagree with my opinion. More and more often people on one side of an issue are only paying attention to themselves, without regard to those on the other side of the aisle/fence/whatever you call it.
Especially with what is happening in Wisconsin right now
I hope we can all keep in mind that these beliefs may be the core of who we are, but others have contrasting ones that are similarly as ingrained. It is important to keep this in mind so as not to totally disregard someone else's feelings.