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From AERA: Are the schools in Philadelphia trending in the right direction?

By Paul Socolar on Apr 4, 2014 04:14 PM

The American Educational Research Association conference is April 3-7 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center and the downtown Philadelphia Marriott hotel. This excerpt is from a presentation on Friday by Notebook editor and publisher Paul Socolar in a session about "The Landscape of Education Reform in Philadelphia." The topic was whether there are positive trends in school performance in Philadelphia.


Yes, since the state takeover in 2002, the trends are positive on a number of indicators … and not just test scores. Graduation rates are up – now, finally, two-thirds of students are graduating high school within six years. And more of the graduates are going to college.

But the story of how Philadelphia schools are doing is complicated and much murkier.

My vantage point for this is as editor for the past 15 years of the Notebook. We’re an education newspaper whose mission is to help grassroots communities understand what’s going on in this troubled school system -- so they can become active and engaged in it. The Notebook pays close attention to data and tries to figure out what’s useful and not misleading.

As Philadelphia has been on the cutting edge of reform, it’s also on the cutting edge of high-stakes accountability. Schools have been under intense pressure to produce good results -- to produce good numbers. Student achievement data are often published for the purpose of battles over the direction of school reform. So the Notebook has been witness to more than a few efforts to manipulate or selectively use the data.

I attended all the annual School District press conferences where for nine straight years, from 2003 to 2011, they announced rising test scores in reading and math with total gains of 20-40 percentage points during that span. There was no explanation why it was that 3rd-grade reading scores on the state test, the PSSA, were up 20 points, but the scores on the DRA, the Developmental Reading Assessment, administered by teachers to those same 3rd graders every year, were essentially flat.

We heard from school staff that the pressure they were under to raise scores and some ways that teachers and schools taught to the test and gamed the system. That was why in 2011 we investigated whether the state had ever done a forensic analysis of the answer sheets on the state test.

We discovered that there had been such a study in 2009 that had been essentially buried, and when we got our hands on it, it showed that statistically improbable patterns of wrong-to-right erasures were rampant in schools across the state. That was the beginning of Pennsylvania’s cheating scandal; dozens of districts were ordered to investigate suspicious results. In Philadelphia, there were serious erasure issues over three years at about 50 schools.

The public has been told remarkably little about the findings of those investigations, even less outside of Philadelphia than in our district. We do know that in some cases, the suspicions of cheating were corroborated. After new test security procedures were implemented, the scores plummeted at many schools in Philadelphia and across the state. We do not know how much more valid the test scores are now than they were before the security changes. The state decided, because of cheating at some schools, that students and staff in all Philadelphia District schools must now be subject to different and stricter testing protocols from students in most districts. Their regular teachers can’t proctor the standardized test.

Jumping to the topic of increased high school graduation rates – they can’t be changed so easily with an eraser, but it’s important to be aware that in a high-stakes environment, different factors may be playing into the improvement we've seen here. Philadelphia has developed an innovative system of second-chance, accelerated high schools that are succeeding at re-engaging students who stop going to school. That’s one of a few interventions that certainly helped boost graduation rates. But there are also periodic stories about teachers being told not to fail students – do we know that this is not also a part of the increased graduation rate?

Data about school climate and safety are among the murkiest because of inconsistent reporting. The Notebook is generally reluctant to report these as if they have any validity as an indicator of school climate and safety.

In sum, the school performance indicators that are most widely used are too crude and inadequate for telling us whether more students are getting the high-quality education they need for post-secondary success.

What’s available now and may be a much more meaningful metric -- but still isn’t widely shared -- is data through the National Student Clearinghouse that can show us, by high school, whether students are enrolling in higher education, persisting to a second year, and graduating.

While we wait for that type of data about postsecondary success to become more readily available, we take the data that we have with many grains of salt and check multiple indicators because there are often inconsistencies. We've learned to be skeptical about a school that stands out on one indicator. An example: Mastery Charter Schools here has gotten kudos for its turnaround efforts, including boosting state test scores and graduation rates. But Mastery students’ SAT scores in reading and math hover below or around 400, 100 points lower than the national average, and well below the average for African American students.

What requires a whole other conversation is the other areas that aren’t well-measured or aren’t tested – writing, the arts, social studies, teamwork, leadership skills. It’s hard to say there’s meaningful improvement in Philadelphia schools without considering whether these important areas are even being seriously taught anymore.

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Comments (29)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2014 8:27 pm
I hope he reports on all the positive gains and climate improvements from the Renaissance Charter Schools.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 1:33 pm
I hope you are being sarcastic...positive gains??? Climate improvement??? Joke!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 4, 2014 9:53 pm
I'll try to make this simple so you can understand it. How can you measure ANYTHING when you don't have ALL the information or the information you do have may be as bogus as Chase Utley's knee problems. Get a grip. Charters don't have to be open, in fact, that's the way the pols like them. Transparency is the last thing they want for obvious reasons.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 6, 2014 6:08 am
Please stop including Renaissance schools with all charters. They are different!
Submitted by annon (not verified) on April 6, 2014 9:48 am
Right - they get $3000 - $4000 more per pupil, free to cheap rent, and the blessing of the SRC/Gleason. Mastery and ASPRA have huge staffs in each building while District schools are starved. Not only Bartram is short on staff. Mastery and ASPIRA also remove the "difficult" students and send them to Camelot. So, yes, they are different from SOME charters but the dumping of students is not unique.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 12:35 am
Philadelphia is on the 'cutting edge" of reform? You've got to be kidding me...
Submitted by Teacher Since Time Began (not verified) on April 5, 2014 11:16 am
Just saw this posting: The Montgomery County Intermediate Unit and many of the school districts of Montgomery County cordially invites you to attend the Annual Recruitment Fair for prospective teachers and administrators. Come speak with district personnel and building administrators about professional opportunities within our 22 school districts in Montgomery County. The Fair will be held at Abington High School from 6 PM to 8 PM on Wednesday, April 23, 2014. We look forward to meeting current teachers - especially those with certification in Mathematics, Science, Special Education and Foreign Languages. Please bring sufficient copies of your standard application, certification, letters of reference, transcripts and resumes to distribute to our recruiters. I'm 66 and just two months away from retirement, but I knew two SDP colleagues who landed FANTASTIC jobs and wonderful salaries in the 'burbs through this particular Fair. Any younger teachers interested?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 12:26 pm
The problem is those teachers who have Masters Degrees and have been teaching for more than 5 years will not get those jobs because they aren't willing to pay what would be comparable in salary for a teacher with those credentials and experience. They want the "just graduated college" student who is young so they can pay them at a much lower salary. It's unfortunate, but that's how it works. I have 15 years teaching plus a Maters Degree and went on 3 interviews in the suburban Districts and they ended up hiring the young person who just received their Bachelor Degree.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 1:01 pm
What you say may be valid - but it's much less true for those with "high demand" credentials - Math, Science (especially Chemistry and Physics), Special Ed and Foreign Languages. There is a real paucity of graduates with these certs, and I can attest to this because I am an adjunct instructor in a teacher education program, and for the past several years, I have seen who among our graduates gets hired first and fast - many of my pupils have been teaching for years and are working on their second (or third) masters. So there IS a chance - and I'm hoping that in your case, the fourth time is the charm. Good luck!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 7, 2014 11:54 am
Even for the high demand; I career changed into teaching in my late 40's, certified in the sciences and mathematics. Suburban districts in central and upper bucks, and monty counties loved me as a per diem and long term sub, but when it came time to fill the positions, that Master's + 30 I entered with is too $$$. The ones that were hired were the fresh kids with a parent in the district school or admin. It took 7 years, and the 'permanent' placement is in a Philly Charter, 45 miles from my home.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 7, 2014 4:32 pm
Absolutely. You get stuck in a district because the suburban schools all want to start teachers at step one regardless of your experience you may have. They want us to life long learners yet once you go to get a teaching job there with higher qualifications -it's all about the money and will decline hiring you. Very hard to get a job teaching in the suburbs unless you have a friend , politician,relative or someone to help you get you a permanent placement-pushing aside all the other more qualified candidates.. I've seen this time and time again. Once in awhile you may luck out if they can't fill the position from all the patronage candidates- but very rare.
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 5, 2014 2:26 pm
I attended the MCIU job fair last year; it was at MCIU headquarters in Norristown. The job market for teachers in the Philadelphia area is really tight. Getting hired in the suburbs is really hard for new teachers who have no experience, especially those who don't have connections to people in the suburban school districts. The principals and other representatives from the districts at job fairs speak with dozens of people at a job fair and hundreds of people over the course of the spring. Some districts, e.g. Southeast Delco and Lower Merion, expect teachers to have previous experience. I recently saw a post for a position as a teacher of students with autism in the SE Delco SD. One of the requirements was previous experience teaching students with autism. Substitute teaching is probably the best way to get your foot in the door, but being a substitute doesn't pay well. Most districts pay $80 to $90 per day and there are no health benefits for per-diem subs. Most suburban districts are small and contract with either Kelly Ed Staffing or the Substitute Teacher Service for per-diem substitute teachers. Larger districts, e.g. North Penn, do hire their own per-diem substitute teachers. Either way, it's hard to support oneself as a substitute teacher unless one has other employment or a partner/spouse. Substitute teaching, especially in the suburbs, basically necessitates that one have a car. I am fortunate to have my position with the District teaching special education. It's a really tough job, but I like it more and more as time goes on. However, one of the perks of teaching in Philadelphia is that the pay is VERY competitive for new teachers. I make a better salary than I would as a first-year special education teacher with a master's degree in many suburban districts in the area. I see the higher salary as "combat pay" and compensation for having to spend so much on supplies. If the District has its way and cuts salaries and benefits, then the pay for new teachers will be nothing special while the working conditions are worse that conditions in other districts. All cutting salaries will do is promote more churn. But that seems to be what the powers-that-be want.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 4:34 pm
How right you are! Experienced teachers ARE preferred in high needs fields like Math/Science/Foreign Languages because these teachers can readily find employment in private industry as actuaries, chemists and lab techs, court interpreters, etc. The young folks in these fields - and especially in Special Ed, which has an enormous turnover rate - tend to flee the classroom after a couple of years and go for higher salaries in the corporate world. In these areas, experience IS an asset to the applying teacher.
Submitted by annon (not verified) on April 5, 2014 4:27 pm
Teachers who stay with the SDP are on the low end of the salary scale. So, yes, starting teacher salaries are competitive but if you stay more than 10 years, the salary is no longer competitive. Many suburban districts also provide retirement health insurance. We get nothing in Philly.
Submitted by Taxpayer (not verified) on April 5, 2014 9:33 am
Totally racist diatribe.
Submitted by anon (not verified) on April 5, 2014 11:43 am
hmmm. mastery students are outperforming on one standardized test (pssa) that is self-monitored and underperforming on another (sat) which i presume is independently monitored? i-m-a-g-i-n-e that! "We've learned to be skeptical about a school that stands out on one indicator. An example: Mastery Charter Schools here has gotten kudos for its turnaround efforts, including boosting state test scores and graduation rates. But Mastery students’ SAT scores in reading and math hover below or around 400, 100 points lower than the national average, and well below the average for African American students."
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 5, 2014 1:57 pm
I'm skeptical of reading much into test scores. I took the SAT and ACT. I preferred the ACT; The SAT was torturous. However, I spent time at a Mastery school and Mastery encourages teaching to the test. They have benchmark tests every 6 weeks. Students who scored proficient or advanced on these tests were publicly recognized for doing well. I wonder what kind of benchmark tests the students with multiple disabilities at Clymer have to take. It's also hard to compare schools when a typical SDP-run school has one or two administrators while every Mastery school has FIVE---a principal, plus an Assistant Principal for Instruction, and AP for Culture, an AP for Specialized Services, and an AP for Operations. Plus, every Mastery school has at least one dean. The AP for Specialized Services of a Mastery school does many of the duties that an SEL in the SDP does. But only the larger schools in the SDP have an SEL who is released from teaching. In scientific research, variables except for those under study must be held constant. High-quality scientific research that real scientists do would not be making apples to oranges comparisons, saying that some schools succeed while others don't, without rigorously controlling of variables. Anecdotal stories are not a basis for drawing solid conclusions. Peer-reviewed scientific research is necessary for drawing solid conclusions. This kind of research is clearly missing from the whole school reform debate.
Submitted by LS Teach (not verified) on April 7, 2014 5:02 am
Very True. I am an SEL in a K-8 school with around 400 students. I get one period release time to handle special education issues. I am the middle school math teacher and teach the upper grade learning support students. Why would anyone a job that is not defined or appreciated? I do it to help my principal. But years ago, Ackmerman allowed SELs to get paid extra by filling out time sheets for work done outside the school day - so that is why it was such a coveted position a few years ago.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 1:00 pm

by Johanna Ginsberg NJJN Staff Writer 06.07.07 Gay teacher alleges bias in denial of tenure by S. Orange/Maplewood Board of Education when Mark Gleason was president. Robyn Brody-Kaplan, denied tenure at Columbia High School in Maplewood, at a May 30 hearing before the South Orange/Maplewood school board to reconsiderthe decision. Brody-Kaplan, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, said she believes she may have been denied tenure based on her sexual orientation — she is gay — rather than on her classroom performance. Robyn Brody-Kaplan, a member of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, believes the board of education influenced the tenure process based on comments from "a few vocal parents" and overturned precedent by getting involved in a decision normally left to a teacher's supervisor and principal. A social studies teacher at Columbia High School in Maplewood who was denied tenure and effectively fired for the next school year said the move had nothing to do with her classroom performance and everything to do with her sexual orientation. Levy reiterated Gleason's comments and added, "There's a lot of talk about what people think happened. The board gets blamed for a lot of things. That's what happened here. The administration made a decision that this teacher just wasn't right for the district." Hurley, who received tenure in the late 1990s, is the remaining openly gay teacher at the high school. She said the tenor of the township was completely different at the time she became tenured. "This district has gone backward," she said. "At that time, I was being sent to conferences to do sensitivity training for teachers around gay and lesbian issues," she said. "This district could be leading the state in progressiveness, but it doesn't." Maplewood/South Orange advertises itself, and is widely recognized, as a diverse community regarding race, ethnicity, religion, and sexual orientation. It has attracted a significant number of gay and lesbian couples who want to raise children in the community. According to the 2000 census, one in 43 couples living in Maplewood/South Orange is gay, double the average in New Jersey.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 5:45 pm
Just today, I've heard from several sources that Gleason referred to the regular Public Schools as "Losers." This apparently was a remark he made yesterday or the day before. He also said that Philly's goal should be New Orleans. Yes, you read that correctly. You would think the charter groups would fire him for such statements if he made them but so far, he just skates along saying and doing whatever he wants.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 5, 2014 6:00 pm
Submitted by anon (not verified) on April 5, 2014 7:35 pm
that's racist and unacceptable. people need to call for his resignation. at the very least, the school district of philadelphia should disavow any complicity with him. how about it philadelphia? what does it take before you'll draw a line and refute his "back to the past" agenda?
Submitted by Education Grad ... on April 5, 2014 8:52 pm
Yes, there were many Twitter users who tweeted about this comment. (I'm not a big twitter user myself, but saw the tweets in the Notebook's Philly Ed Feed.) For what it's worth, Mr. Gleason's comment shows his true colors and undermines his credibility, which is a GOOD THING. His comment that New Orleans is the gold standard for portfolio districts also shows his true colors because it means he supports making the School District of Philadelphia completely charter schools. (Next year, New Orleans will become 100% charter schools: I recall reading a comment of his in another article that "theoretically, the whole district could become all charters, but reform will happen more quickly by working with the present system." It was something to that end, so he's revealed his ideology before. The PSP may try to say that they are neutral about which types of schools the organization supports, but when the head hancho is making comments about schools being winners and losers and New Orleans being the model school district, people will start waking up to the PSP's REAL intentions. It's no secret that the PSP is in bed with wealthy "philanthropists" who promote charter schools and vouchers. The Walton Foundation calls Mark Gleason an "Education Reformer to Watch" here:
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 7, 2014 9:06 am
People will start "waking up"? In what way will people wake up? How will "the people" make their anger known? What kinds of actions will it take to turn things around? Gleason needs to be driven out of this town. The power brokers who are orchestrating this need to be scared into submission. The people who are recognizing what is going on and are feigning neutrality are complicit in this. WAKE UP!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 7, 2014 4:41 pm
You got that right. Green,Nutter, Corbett, SRC, Gleason, filthy rich spoiled elitist need to all be thrown out of town. What does it take for some people to stop the passive action, thinking things will work out,and stand from the rooftop and shout "'m fed up and not going take it anymore." Things from the vultures listed above, as well as others, will not get better.They are selfish, non -caring creatures equated with the devil. Their mission is to destroy a decent wage, students education, get rid of the middle class and have people service them -as if they deserve it. They are all about power and money. The root of evil. That's why they are such evil people. Name one event any of them did without making sure it wasn't self-serving to them.
Submitted by Joe K. (not verified) on April 7, 2014 5:17 pm
Yes, it is ironic and horribly sad that the first Afro American President ever is allowing his own people to face segregation again. Hard to Believe, Harry !!
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on April 5, 2014 3:17 pm
The Promise Academy and Renaissance model are end runs created to debilitate real public schools. We are witnessing the resegregation of schools by the first AFAM President in U.S. history. I can not imagine a more surreal development in the 24 years I have committed my life to helping those who have the least. Laportia's Massey life and Alphonso Stevenson's skull and psyche lay before the feet of Bill Green, Bill Hite, Tommy Corbett, the Zogby's and the arrogant, clueless "leaders" of this City, State. Nation and World.
Submitted by Philly Parent and Teacher (not verified) on April 6, 2014 9:47 am
Thank you for your presentation, Paul. One set of quantitative data not included in the School Performance Profile (SPP) are ACCESS scores for English Language Learners (ELL). ACCESS scores are based on tests administered to ELLs to monitor their acquisition of academic language. ACCESS is a much better indicator of ELLs academic progress than the Keystones / PSSAs. Why doesn't the PA Dept of Ed include this indicator? Does the SRC/Gleason even know about this indicator? While I agree that the conversation on what isn't quantifiable or tested leaves the SPP an inadequate indicator of student learning, what is included in the SPP also needs to be questioned. Just because a magnet or charter has a higher SPP does not mean it is meeting the needs of all or most of its students. A school with admission requirements or a lottery is excluding students. Therefore, it can hide under Keystone/PSSA test scores.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 6, 2014 12:49 pm
Bill Green said he'd be happy to talk to everyone about education, so go ahead give him a call at 215-979-1000 #5 . I encourage all parents of PSD, family and friends,PFT, family and friends call now time is short 215-979-1000 #5

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