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How low can you go? Leading schools into (or out of) ruin.

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by James H. Lytle

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The School District announced last week that its budget for next year would be cut by 25 percent. When coupled with the nearly 20 percent reductions the two previous years, school resources will have shrunk by at least 40 percent.

Next year, according to Superintendent William Hite, schools will have principals and teachers, and that's about it. No secretaries, no counselors, no music, art, sports, or extracurriculars. Definitely no afterschool programs. In these stripped-down conditions, every classroom would be filled to the maximum of 30 to 33 students.

That means schools, staffed at the lowest levels in 50 years, will still be accountable for meeting the performance standards that continue to grow ever more demanding.

Neither the mayor nor the governor has shown any leadership in addressing this crisis; neither seems inclined to do so. City Council is sitting on the sidelines. Even state legislators who support the city schools are frustrated over the lack of political or public outcry.

Like dutiful soldiers, the governor-and-mayor-appointed School Reform Commission and their selected leaders, Superintendent Hite and Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn, behave as though carrying out orders from on high. Making the balanced budget the District’s first priority, they have opted to close schools, reduce the size of the workforce, reduce salaries and benefits for the rest, as they continue to off-shore students by moving them to charter schools. All the while, they argue that the ship needs to sink before it will float.

Amazingly, this same District leadership continues to mouth platitudes about improving the quality of teaching and learning in schools. How can they pretend that the District can cut resources by 40 percent and improve outcomes at the same time?

What we are witnessing is what leadership expert Ronald Heifetz calls “technical change,” a clear problem that requires an expert's solution. Ostensibly, each of the actions taken to put the District in order can be justified as a necessary solution following years of profligacy. But the District and political leaders have misidentified the schools crisis as a technical problem. 

District officials have failed to see the need for what Heifetz calls “adaptive change,” which requires a more creative reimagining of the problem and an ongoing and collective exploration of how to solve it. Had they done so, District leaders would have taken the steps to organize the community to build support for political action. They are not exploring ways to reinvent schooling in the face of declining resources. Nor are they helping the community understand the long-term implications and consequences for the city of this public education wring-out.

What they are doing is testing the question "How little can you spend on city kids and get away with it?" while claiming that Philadelphia can continue to provide a “free and appropriate education” for its children -- in a city that keeps bemoaning its dearth of human capital.

What the situation calls for is advocacy from every quarter and leaders who have the courage and commitment to steer us out of this debacle.

James H. Lytle is a practice professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former urban principal and superintendent.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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