Good afternoon, Councilwoman Blackwell, and members of City Council’s Education Committee. On behalf of the fifteen thousand teachers and instructional support staff that make up the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, I’m pleased to have this opportunity to share our thoughts about the future of public education in Philadelphia.
The challenges facing our school district are as large as they are numerous. The PFT recognizes that turning our schools around will require input from everyone—educators, parents, elected officials, students, community groups and the business community.
Those of us who have spent our careers in public education welcome the interest and enthusiasm from those outside of the profession. We welcome involvement that focuses on unique perspectives and skill sets they can bring to the learning environment. We welcome open discussion and the sharing of experience that can contribute to new ways of thinking about the challenges we face in our daily work with students.
My opposition to the plan for public schools presented by the Boston Consulting Group is well documented. The manner in which it was developed and presented to the public is the primary bone of contention held by Philadelphia’s teachers, parents and communities.
To be clear—there are many specific things in the Boston Consulting Group’s plan that we disagree with. But the real problem with the plan is the process under which it was developed and presented to decision makers and residents of our city.
As I just mentioned, we have some serious concerns about elements of the BCG plan. In the view of the PFT, the proposal is essentially a system of governance and management that does not speak to the needs of our students and does nothing to raise student achievement. While we understand that dealing with the district’s $282 million deficit is a top priority, any plan for schools should be developed using research-based, proven methods to raise student achievement for every child.
The BCG report does contain recommendations for re-aligning the school district, but most of these have not been proven to improve student performance in other cities. For example:
- Closing schools based on achievement does not improve student achievement nor does it save money.
In fact, while this is proposed as a cost-saving measure, there are many hidden costs associated with the shuttering of school buildings. This has been done in Washington, D.C., where the closing of 23 schools in 2008 cost around $40 million, or four times the budgeted amount.
The financial cost of closing school buildings doesn’t even begin to address the very real social cost to parents and children, who often are forced to travel significantly longer distances to get to school. Neighborhood hostilities have often made their way into the classroom, creating an unsafe environment in schools and surrounding neighborhoods.
- Charter schools are not the magic bullet.
The school district alone is paying more than $525 million – more than 20 percent of its total budget to charter schools. In the district’s five year plan, this number will balloon to over $800 million!
A huge chunk of the school budget is being allocated to charter schools, which are often operated by large, private companies who are often more beholden to their owners, funders or shareholders than to the children and communities they serve. As the double-down on charter schools continues, our traditional public schools are seeing cuts to key programs, courses, staff and services that our children rely on.
- What is perplexing about this strategy is that, overall, charter schools have yet to prove that they outperform traditional public schools. Researchers at Stanford University recently concluded that students in Pennsylvania, on average, make smaller learning gains in charter schools than they would if they attended their neighborhood public schools.
- The “portfolio school systems” proposed by the BCG have been ineffective in other cities.
BCG provides no evidence that a portfolio school system works. The evidence on portfolio school systems from Chicago, New York City and New Orleans shows they do not improve student achievement in any significant way.
At the heart of the portfolio school district model is a system driven by testing and test prep. As many education researchers point out, test fixation arguably hurts the neediest children in the lowest-scoring schools in the poorest neighborhoods. It also impedes the recruitment and retention of principals, teachers and school staff.
This is not to say that we dislike everything in the BCG recommendations. There are several ideas and approaches in their proposal that are worth further exploration:
- We agree with many of the BCG’s findings on charter schools, including the concern with the number of low performing charters; the discrepancy in per-pupil funding given to charters compared to traditional public schools; and the fact that current law gives charter schools the freedom to selectively enroll students, and admit students with far fewer special education needs.
The BCG proposal further contends that charter schools should be held accountable to the same performance standard as traditional public schools. As it stands right now, charter schools have not been subjected to the same level of scrutiny for their performance.
- In fact, the PA Department of Education recently tried to change the way charter school performance is measured so that they could appear to be out-performing traditional public schools.
- The BCG also correctly points out that Philadelphia’s earlier efforts to “decentralize” the school district have failed, noting that the school district’s “Blueprint for Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools” seems to be doubling down on past failed strategies.
We have submitted, for the record, a summary of research findings to support our reaction to many of the specific pieces of the BCG plan. But what is ultimately—and conspicuously—missing from the proposal are the answers to the most basic question we should be asking: What do Philadelphia’s students need from their schools?
To answer this question requires us to go well beyond the typical menu of charter school expansion, school closings and other top-down business model approaches to our schools that have dominated the discussion. It is a single question that has many answers, and each answer creates even more challenges that we must undertake:
One thing we must closely examine is our schools’ curricula. What are we teaching our children? Are we preparing our students for the world of the future, whether they choose to go to college or enter the workforce? Are we teaching skills that will help them solve problems and think critically, or are we engaging them in simple memorization so that we can feel good about improving test scores?
Education should be preparing our kids for the future, whether or not they choose to go to college, or enter the working world out of high school. Every child should be prepared to take the next step to being a part of our local, national and global economy. That means an education that provides career and technical; as well as academic options, like the great work they do at the West Philadelphia Automotive Academy.
We can no longer ignore the impact that poverty has on student performance. A child that comes to school hungry will not be able to focus on lessons. A child that doesn’t have adequate healthcare will likely miss more school and fall behind his or her classmates. Nearly 25 percent of our children are in poverty. If our schools don’t provide adequate wraparound services, our most vulnerable students will ultimately fall through the cracks.
The most successful schools and districts take for granted many of the services and staff that we lack in Philadelphia. Students and parents rely on the services of staff such as librarians, counselors and school nurses, yet these positions are becoming a rarity in our schools.
- Over 100 school nurses have been laid off, putting the health and safety of thousands of schoolchildren at risk.
- We have 50 librarians for the entire school district, and some schools don’t even have libraries, even when we know that access to libraries enhances student achievement.
- We haven’t solved the problem of violence in our schools, yet we continue to lose counselors, NTAs and other school personnel that keep our schools safe and provide a more positive environment for teaching and learning.
There is much talk about teacher accountability, but precious little discussion about what our teachers need to succeed in the classroom. Budget cuts at the state and local level send our educators a message of “do more with less.” There is much discussion on holding teachers accountable, but much less talk about providing them with support, tools and conditions for high quality instruction. We have created an environment for teachers where they are constantly being judged on the performance of their students while being told that they will not be given the basic materials and classroom tools that they need. It is little wonder so many of our teachers become frustrated, and often leave the profession.
Never before have we been asked to do so much with so little. If we’re serious about raising the quality of teaching and learning, this dynamic must change.
We need to shift the emphasis from cost-cutting to re-investment in our schools. We can’t provide our children with the education they need if we keep taking money from public education. We shortchange our kids when we cut services; eliminate courses like art, gym, and music; fail to provide adequate computers and technology; textbooks and materials; eliminate summer school; and allow buildings to fall into disrepair. It is disturbing that so many are silent about these conditions, even as they go out of their way to call our public school system a failure.
- No system can thrive under the years of consistent disinvestment that our public schools have been subjected to. Our parents, teachers and students are doing all they can with limited resources. We need Harrisburg to take more ownership in the success of our schools by devoting the resources our district needs to be competitive with neighboring counties, who spend nearly twice as much per pupil, resulting in significantly higher student performance.
- We are calling for a school funding strategy that combines adequate levels of state, local and federal investments to ensure that our schools are providing the high quality academic resources, programs, materials and services to every child.
I want to extend my appreciation to Councilwoman Blackwell for holding this forum. This is a great opportunity to take a step back and have an in-depth discussion of shortcomings and potential of the BCG plan.
More importantly, this is a chance to widen our focus and work on an education plan that addresses the bottom line, but emphasizes the needs of our students and incorporates the input of the real owners of our public schools—the citizens of Philadelphia.
An outsider’s perspective can be a valuable thing. We need a sober and objective approach to the fiscal problems facing our district. But this objectivity must be balanced with what the people of Philadelphia want and need for their children. We can’t get the schools we want by pulling funding, eliminating programs and closing school buildings.
We’ve had enough of the “austerity” model of education reform. Philadelphians have a vision of what our schools should be. I look forward to working with the entire community on a plan that helps us realize that vision.