There are some intriguing proposals in the District’s strategic plan, but these may get lost in the hubbub as the District stubbornly continues to pursue one bad idea that it should simply lay to rest – that by hiring school managers, it can hand off the problems of its lowest-performing schools.
In 2001, before the state takeover of Philadelphia schools, state officials said, to paraphrase, “Philadelphia is hopelessly incompetent at running its schools, so we’re going to hire someone who knows how – Edison Schools, Inc.” The following year, the newly appointed School Reform Commission continued down the same path, while fine-tuning the message: “We’re going use the free market to find the best school managers money can buy.”
Despite more than $100 million and six years invested in education management organizations, the District’s privately operated schools experienced few remarkable transformations but were plagued with massive teacher turnover, dwindling enrollments, and grueling political conflicts.
Arlene Ackerman speaks of bringing on external – and internal – managers for 30 or more of our struggling schools. Only now they must have “a proven track record” and will be able to close the school down and reopen with new staff. Communities will get to “recommend” a provider, but it isn’t clear what that process will look like.
We question whether there is a market of “proven” school managers who are eager to run these schools, particularly the large high schools. And it’s not obvious that just because a person or entity runs one good school, they can replicate it all over town.
Whether the managers are internal or external, this strategy seems to us like an end-run around what is really needed – a focus on building capacity within the system to address chronic problems like teacher turnover, weak school leadership, and negative climate.
Turnaround is meant to quick-start a culture change, and there are those specially trained to do this. Using their expertise makes sense; but assuming that there are managers for hire who will resolve the deep-seated problems of struggling schools is wishful thinking.