Much reform, little progress
Interviews with school system veterans find that few are upbeat about improvement.
In the past two decades, Philadelphia’s education landscape has changed tremendously.
The state took over the District’s governance. Charter schools proliferated. Dozens of neighborhood schools were closed, including such landmarks as the 99-year-old Germantown High.
Despite the state takeover, the District’s financial condition has only become more desperate.
State and federal pressure to intervene in schools with consistently subpar performance mounted; standardized testing became the major driver of school rankings.
Overall, families today have a wider variety of choices, including high-performing charters, more specialty District schools, and alternative schools for dropouts and near-dropouts. Groups of parents and students have become more vocal and involved in understanding the system, driving change, and demanding their rights.
Student proficiency as measured by the standardized tests is higher now than in the 1990s. But many of the teachers, policymakers, administrators, and advocates we interviewed wondered whether the gains are meaningful and worried that the singular focus on tests has harmed education.
“If there’s this narrow definition of reform ... that it’s all about testing kids, we’ve lost a lens for understanding what transforming the learning experience ... should look like,” said Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, who has worked for 25 years on improving neighborhood high schools.
With more high school options and second-chance schools, graduation rates have gone up. But the number of students attending and finishing college is still disappointing.
And in both test scores and graduation rates, there are still wide gaps in achievement among racial and ethnic groups.
All these changes have happened within larger shifts – demographic, political, social, and economic. Philadelphia has become the country’s most impoverished big city, with 13 percent of residents – an astonishing 200,000 people – living in deep poverty, or on less than $9,700 for a household of three.
As income and wealth inequality have worsened, the dividing lines in this region by race and income are starker than ever. Philadelphia school enrollment is mostly Black and Hispanic and low-income, while the surrounding districts are mostly White and middle- or high-income. Spending gaps between wealthier and poorer districts have never been bigger. Philadelphia schools struggle harder to overcome the effects of concentrated poverty – all while the District’s funding base has crumbled.
As the District, with no taxing power of its own, copes with structural deficits, pleas to City Council and Harrisburg for recurring, predictable sources of revenue have gone unheeded. Political leaders seem unmoved by schools without nurses, libraries, counselors, and basic supplies, even when overburdened principals personally plead for help.
“What’s really disappointing when I think about the last 20 years,” said Diane Castelbuono, who during that time worked for three superintendents and the state Department of Education, “is that while I think we’ve done a much better job defining a high-quality K-12 education ... we have actually done much worse on delivering that kind of quality for low-income students, students of color, and students whose first language isn’t English.”
Although good teaching is critical, the teachers’ union and the District are still stuck behind old battle lines, while teacher morale sinks. Charter schools, meant to seed innovation, compete with the District in an often-ugly fight for a shrinking pot of money.
“Charters have made a lot more parents happy. They feel their children are safe and you do see some academic gains,” said David Hardy, founder and CEO of Boys’ Latin Charter School. “But I don’t think we’ve managed the charter process enough to get out of charters what we should. We should be using them as incubators, where the good things we’re doing are taken back to the District. But that is not happening.”
For this edition, the Notebook asked people who have been active in Philadelphia education for at least 20 years the two questions: “Do students have better opportunities today than they did then? Is the system better?” Here are excerpts from the conversations.
Then: Working with the Philadelphia Schools Collaborative, an effort to transform neighborhood high schools
Now: Director of post-secondary success for FHI360, a national nonprofit human development organization. (She is also a member of the Notebook board.)
“Today I don’t have to make the argument that all kids need to be prepared for some formal education beyond high school. ... We know that’s imperative. And our understanding of what that preparation looks like has shifted. It’s not only academic, but how to organize oneself, study skills, [and] understanding of finances.
“But if you looked at what percentage of high school students have access to high-quality, highly supported opportunities for post-secondary success, with an environment, resources, coursework, and continuity, my sense is that has not grown.
“Twenty years ago, we were interested in school transformation, not just people in the schools, but families and communities.”
Then: Principal of Dick Elementary School in North Philadelphia.
Now: Chief academic officer of Camelot Schools, an alternative education provider, after serving as a high-level administrator under several superintendents.