The Philadelphia School Reform Commission recently chose to ignore a great opportunity to encourage and support authentic grassroots school reform efforts in the District. They did so by rejecting a self-governance school reform plan submitted by the Creighton Elementary School community.
Members of this school community had sought the support of the School Reform Commission for their proposed self-governance initiative to bring parents, community members, and teachers together to work on ensuring that their school is moving toward greater success.
This notion of self-governance is similar to a model described by Research for Action’s Eva Gold and Elaine Simon in which community organizing can create a new forum for school accountability. According to Gold and Simon, public accountability “is essential for improving urban public schools. Broad-scale, collective responsibility increases and diversifies the resources available for improving schools and also permits new voices to participate in defining when a school is ‘successful.’"
The transformation plan advocated by Creighton’s school community would have provided for the collective responsibility that Gold and Simon discuss.
In Creighton’s plan, the principal would be replaced, a governance council composed of teachers and parents would be created, and instructional reforms would be implemented. This is a comprehensive, yet low-cost approach to school restructuring that involves all of the major stakeholders in making important decisions.
Unfortunately, the SRC rejected this plan. The members instead decided to “restart” Creighton as a charter school that would be governed by an outside management group. This is a much more costly option and will replace the current staff that is committed to making Creighton a better school.
Both the transformation and charter conversion models are promoted by the federal Department of Education as two of four preferred options for fixing schools with persistently low standardized test scores. The other two models they support are the turnaround and school closure models. Interestingly, there is little evidence nationally that any of these ideas will work on a large scale. Scattered examples of remarkable improvements at individual schools are offered as proof that these school-restructuring strategies can work. But the individual successes identified are more often the exception rather than the rule.
Given that there isn’t a great amount of evidence to support the long-term effectiveness of school turnaround strategies and charter conversion, it seems hypocritical for the Chief Academic Officer Penny Nixon to reject Creighton’s plan for a lack of sufficient evidence.
A more reasonable response from Nixon would have been to offer District supports and resources to help this school to implement a robust reform plan. A new principal could have been site-selected by a committee of teachers, parents, and other community leaders. This new school administrator could have been charged with the responsibility of helping to develop and support a distributed leadership team. The services of a leadership coach, curriculum specialist, and community organizers could have assisted with the development and implementation of a school community-based governance model. Budget funds that had already been allocated to finance the conversion of Creighton into a charter school could have been used for this purpose. These would be the types of services that I would expect to be offered by the “achievement networks” described in the District's transformation plan.
The members of the Creighton school community have demonstrated a willingness to be held accountable for the future success of their school. Their energy and commitment should have been honored. This school already has a considerable amount of invaluable social capital on which to build a better school. This should be recognized and utilized. But instead, the SRC voted to disassemble this school community. This is unfortunate. It also raises grave concern for any other District school that may find itself designated as a failure in the years ahead.
If our low-achieving schools are to have any chance of becoming highly effective learning communities, then they must be provided with the opportunity to take charge of their own destinies. This particularly should be the case when a school community like Creighton demonstrates they have the capacity to create a reform plan and a willingness to carry it out.
Accepting the Creighton School proposal would have given the SRC an opportunity to demonstrate that they support school-based transformation efforts and a vibrant public school system. From the SRC's actions so far, it seems that its main focus is on turning over the management of District schools to third-party providers, converting them to privately managed charter schools, or closing schools entirely.
If they continue to follow this course, there soon will be little left of our public school system. And in this greatly reduced space, there will be no room for the broad-scale public accountability that is essential for improving urban public schools. The voice of the people will be diminished as private interests gain far too much influence in determining what is best for our children and their future.