Walkthrough team deemed reading area 'clutter'
by Andrew Ganim
Andrew Ganim of West Philadelphia testified to the School Reform Commission on January 19 about school officials’ sudden dismantling of a comfortable reading corner in a classroom in Lea Elementary School. The following guest blog post by Ganim ran on February 9.
This story quickly received national attention, appearing on the Washington Post’s education blog, The Answer Sheet. On February 23, School District officials restored the reading area, days after announcing that they would no longer be mandating use of a scripted curriculum in schools with low test scores.
Talk to teachers in Philadelphia, and you’ll hear more than a few complaints about walkthrough teams. These are the groups of educators sent each month to struggling schools to see how well teachers are following the details of the mandated curriculum, down to such items as how desks are arranged and what’s on classroom walls.
One of these walkthrough teams came into my wife’s 3rd grade classroom in Lea Elementary School, took one look at a lovingly assembled reading corner, and determined it was “clutter.” As if that were not enough, the District then paid someone to come in over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend to remove it.
Does the headline “Walkthrough team deems reading area ‘clutter,’ removes it,” sound more like something you would expect to read in the Notebook, or in The Onion?
Unfortunately, it actually happened.
I live in West Philadelphia, across the street from Lea. This school educates impoverished students and is in the so-called “Empowerment” category due to its relatively low proficiency scores on tests. As such, it is required to use a very specific scripted curriculum, and it gets additional resources. Among these “resources” are the monthly walkthroughs.
Lea sits in a neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania and has a vibrant and active community of parents and neighbors interested in helping it improve. In 2008, I joined with a number of others to contribute to a DonorsChoose.org proposal for a reading area in a Lea classroom. The reading area was designed to create a fun and comfortable place that would encourage students to read. (Despite what happened in this case, contributing to proposals on DonorsChoose.org is a great way to help improve our schools!)
The reading area has been a hit. As I write this, I am looking at photos of kids enjoying this space and the grateful letters they sent me.
For over three years I have heard from students who used this resource. I can assure you that these kids were excited when they got to use that space, which really translated to them being excited to read.
Then a month or two ago, one of the District walkthrough teams described the area as “clutter.” Other comments from the team included quite a few strange things like “too many words [!] on the word wall,” and “13 class rules.” There was no comment as to why these were problems.
After that visit, my wife implemented the changes that were essentially neutral and resisted those that she considered damaging to the learning environment. In the case of the reading area, she chose to ignore the comment since she knew it was much more valuable than “clutter.”
Then, on Tuesday morning, January 17, before the kids got in, she sent me a picture message. It was the corner of her room with the reading area, except all the furniture was gone.
The last thing this walkthrough team was interested in was whether the students used and enjoyed this area, or what removing it would mean. When asked afterwards, they declined to explain their reasoning.
Now, these 8- and 9-year-olds do not understand why their special spot is gone and why they have to read at their desks. They think they are being punished, and they have no idea why. Moreover, relationships among the staff at Lea have been seriously damaged.
Of course, since Lea is an Empowerment School, skilled teachers like my wife are effectively handcuffed to the scripted curriculum. They are not free to use their knowledge and expertise, because the District says that it is better for them to act like automatons and follow the script. The walkthrough process only adds insult to injury. Besides denying them the freedom to apply their teaching skills, they are also taking away teachers’ classroom resources.
How exactly is this supposed to help the students learn? Instead of investing in walkthroughs, the District should be investing in opportunities for teacher peer review, knowledge sharing, and high-quality professional development. There are more than 100 of these Empowerment Schools now. How much do these walkthroughs cost?
I want to be clear that these are my words and not my wife’s. I am speaking out because it shocks me to see the District blindly undoing the efforts of the Lea community, and I want to see something positive come out of this. I am still optimistic that something will: Since I spoke at the SRC, I’ve been engaged in ongoing discussions with the staff of several commissioners. But their plates are full and they have lots to keep track of.