There were sighs of relief in Philadelphia schools this winter when District leaders announced they will no longer mandate the use of scripted curricula. This was the first clear reversal of a burgeoning trend to narrow what is taught and prioritize drill on the discrete skills measured by state exams.
That trend was good news only for the booming industry that sells materials tailored to help students improve their PSSA scores. Scores have gone up, though there is now skepticism about the validity of those gains. But the effect in the classroom – for both teachers and students – many described as deadening. The scripted approach undercut years of work to lay a foundation for a curriculum that gives students a higher level of understanding in reading, math, and other subjects.
Nowhere was this trend more pronounced than in the curiously named "Empowerment Schools," where students got tightly regimented Corrective Reading and Math programs, which have won few converts. One teacher said about her school: "Teachers must use the script and are chastised for deviating. … There is no room for student questions. There is no room for student inquiry." Students in the most disadvantaged schools were getting the most limited learning experience.
Changing the approach to curriculum and instruction in all these schools will not be easy in a district strapped for funds for new materials and training.
But as we talk to District educators, a more daunting obstacle is a pervasive sense of fear. A culture of leadership by intimidation that grew worse under former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has not dissipated – and is not conducive to building a strong professional community. Consistently we hear that teachers and principals who are creative, innovative, and successful feel compelled to "fly under the radar." If the District truly wants to empower the professional staff at schools, it must understand what this fear is all about.
For starters, it is clear that educators don't want to stand out and risk criticism for not being "with the program." From many, we heard a sense that becoming visible as a successful educator can make you a target, threatening both insecure administrators and sadly, one's peers. It can prompt questions like, "Why are you separating yourself from the pack?" Among principals, standing out can result in promotion, but to a job they may not want.
A shift to a culture of collaboration is seismic – but crucial as the District moves to meet the demands of the Common Core standards soon to take effect. Most teachers and principals have been shut out of discussions around issues like school turnaround. They need meaningful opportunities to feel they are contributing, and that their contributions are valued.
Opening up the committees that are helping reshape the District's academic program is a good first step. But after years of command-style management, a leadership approach that embraces collaboration is necessary in order to rebuild learning communities across the system.
There are signs, thankfully, that those responsible for choosing the District's next superintendent recognize this. It remains to be seen whether these leaders will have the vision, commitment, and resources to become a learning organization – one that models the kind of community that young people should experience in their schools.