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High and low points from the AERA education conference

By James H. Lytle on Apr 14, 2014 02:32 PM

I had to go to a national conference to find out what was happening in my own city’s schools. Conveniently, the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting was held in Philadelphia this year, the first time this gathering of 15,000 academics and policy folks has met in our city.

The conference lasted for five days, and at any time there may have been as many as 50 different sessions going on. In deference to the host city and in recognition of how much experimentation is going on in our public schools, a number of the sessions focused on Philadelphia, covering such topics as portfolio management and parent engagement. There were also planned visits to local schools and communities to meet with locals and plan or share research.

My own highlights and "low" lights:

  • Mark Gleason, head of the Philadelphia School Partnership, explaining his organization’s strategy for improving student achievement: “Dump the losers.” Whether he meant low-performing schools or low-performing students was unclear.
  • Superintendent William Hite, explaining the District’s financial situation, citing the two new Renaissance charter school conversions and the three new high schools opening in September as examples of the District’s determination to increase access to good schools, then referring to students as “clients,” in keeping with the market metaphor driving Philadelphia reform.
  • Hiram Rivera, executive director of the Philadelphia Student Union, on a panel with Hite, asking him why he chose to leave with Gov. Corbett rather than stand with students when Corbett decided to cancel his talk at Central High School and not deal with student protesters.
  • The Benjamin Franklin High School student, at an evening meeting on "Urban School Reform, Engagement and Justice in Philadelphia," who asked why no one was listening to students or involving them in such significant decisions as school closings.
  • Gloria Ladson-Billings, a former president of AERA who grew up in West Philly and attended public schools here and is considered be many to be the nation’s leading scholar on educating black students, passionately critiquing Philadelphia’s portfolio strategy as inherently racist. She expressed deep concern for reform approaches that make kids commodities to be tested, chosen and sorted, and worried about a reform agenda that contradicts democratic principles and equal opportunity.
  • Helen Gym, local parent advocate, calling out AERA members for not using their research knowledge or voices before decisions on such issues as school closings or high-stakes testing are being made, then doing research on the effects of these decisions. She also talked about how counselor shortages in Philadelphia schools have hampered the college application process for high school seniors, belying the goal of college access for all.
  • The recurrent theme of resource shortages in Philadelphia schools, disparities with suburban districts, the need for a state subsidy formula, and the effects of budget cuts and instability.
  • The recurrent theme of mis-measurement through reliance on standardized tests, and the need for more balanced and appropriate indicators.
  • The contrasts between Philadelphia and other large cities, and particularly New York, where school reform has had consistent, positive outcomes.
  • The shadow of Bartram High School, the front-page story in the April 4 Inquirer, emblematic of Philadelphia’s troubles.
  • Visiting Carver High School for Engineering and Science to tour the school and hear local graduate student presentations on school-based research projects. An outpost of hope and sanity.
  • Frequent reference to the rapid increase in Philadelphia charter school enrollment, despite the dearth of evidence that charter schools are, as a group, outperforming District schools. And the contradiction in the School Reform Commission rhetoric about the drain that charter schools are putting on the District budget, confounded by the SRC’s continuing pattern of converting District schools to charters.
  • The unaccountable and disconnected school governance processes here, and the need for a responsive, elected school board.
  • The influence of major corporations and national foundations on education policy, with privatization and profit as the underlying motives.
  • The questions about whether increased school autonomy, particularly at charter schools, is leading to fragmented control and diminished parent and teacher influence, and whether the emphasis on choice has put individual preference ahead of the common good.
  • The imminent gubernatorial election, the looming mayoral election, and the opportunity to press for attention to public education as the central issue in the city and state.

I emerged from my AERA experience with deep misgivings about Philadelphia public school conditions and policies, and the sense that only political activism will get us out of this mess.

James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (16)

Submitted by anon (not verified) on April 14, 2014 3:45 pm
is this the same james lytle that was recently quoted here supporting the src's attempt to unilaterally impose its terms on philadelphia public schools and teachers?
Submitted by anonymousl (not verified) on April 14, 2014 4:56 pm
Torch, I suppose you haven't asked any teachers in New York their opinion of the consistency or positivity of ed reform in that city.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 16, 2014 1:35 pm
"School Reform" under Cuomo: more bad news Dr Lytle Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s ambition for higher office is leading the state’s poor, rural school districts toward destruction. His insistence on building a reputation as a tax-cutter and his reliance on the gap elimination adjustment to balance the state budget have driven districts that were already poor and struggling to the brink of educational and financial bankruptcy. Read entire article here:
Submitted by jackmen (not verified) on October 3, 2015 5:18 am
There were also planned visits to local schools and communities to meet with locals and plan or share research.follower instagram | get likes instagram
Submitted by anonymousl (not verified) on April 14, 2014 4:20 pm
Torch, Your first sentence says it all.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 14, 2014 4:12 pm
"Whether he meant low-performing schools or low-performing students was unclear." Don't play dumb, Torch.
Submitted by anonymousl (not verified) on April 14, 2014 4:32 pm
I like the last sentence about the only resolution coming from political activism. Still curious how you felt so comfortable lauding successes in New York while admitting that right here in Philly it took a national AERA conference for you to clarify your perspective on Philly. The ed reform grass might look greener on the other side of the hill. Ed reform is doomed because it lacks grounding in the perspective of teachers and communities in which it is based. Money cannot buy everything. It cannot buy the truth. It cannot buy integrity. It cannot buy authentic relationships.
Submitted by Mr. Tibbs (not verified) on April 14, 2014 6:05 pm
While money can not buy everything it is buying and fortifying a system of educational apartheid as evidenced by 3 new high schools being built in North Philadelphia.
Submitted by anonymousl (not verified) on April 14, 2014 9:44 pm
Can't argue with you there Mr. Tibbs. What I meant is that the ed reform movement WILL fail. When that will happen and how many bloodied stumps there will be before its demise is up in the air. Educational apartheid is not an exaggeration. It perfectly describes what we are allowing to happen.
Submitted by Morrie Peters (not verified) on April 15, 2014 8:45 am
The insidious effects of Higher Education becoming subject to outside revenue is evident. There have been numerous examples of professors at some of our more esteemed institutions writing policy papers that further the narrative of the current corporate/plantation mentality that drives United States economic policy. I remember being a student at Penn in 1991 as Higher Education experts sought to use Reagan's "Nation at Risk" to experiment with our educational system of a free and appropriate opportunity to learn and grow. At the time, our country possessed a healthy and robust middle class. Eleven years later there was a contingent at Penn that was looking for a "silver bullet" that would take advantage of entrepreneurial forces that were pushing there way into the dialogue of education policy. Today, we have created an environment of organized chaos. A man's skull is fractured and young woman dies and no leader takes responsibility. In fact, they do the opposite. They gallivant around the country. They hold meetings that encourage and elicit ZERO serious impetus from students, teachers or principals. They are handsomely compensated for furthering the plantation system. They convince themselves that they are helping people. Indeed we are broken. Honesty and honor are devoid. The Secretary of Education of the United States of America of the first AFAM President in our history has systematically re-segregated our public schools and Higher Education "experts" and the President are either to naive, dumb or self motivated to realize it.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on April 15, 2014 9:45 am
I agree Morrie. Read Dr. Mark Naison's comment below. He is a professor of African American History at Fordham University. I am heartened to know that some in higher education are speaking the truth about education reform. Sadly, they are in the minority. Follow Mark Naison's blog to know we have support in the battle to save public education.
Submitted by Mark Naison (not verified) on April 15, 2014 8:51 am
It is utterly astonishing that this author says School Reform had generally positive outcomes in New York? I am tempted to say "what planet" is this author living on? Is closing 168 schools, many over protests of teachers, parents and students a positive outcome? Is shattering the morale of the city's teachers through comments like " If it were up to me, 50 percent of the teaches in the city would be fired" ( Mayor Bloomberg) a positive outcome. Is schools cancelling recess for test prep, as they did all over the Bronx, because they feared being closed if their test scores weren't up to par, a positive outcome? If you think school reform was so successful, why did Bill DeBlasio win a landslide victory in the election in part running AGAINST the Bloomberg school reforms. And why were his School Chancellor Carmen Farina's first action ending the practice of giving letter grades to the City's Schools and stopping school closings. Any city which wants to follow the example of the Bloomberg Department of Education had better realize that shattering teacher morale and riding roughshod over community input are likely to be predictable consequences.
Submitted by PennKnoxCitizen (not verified) on April 15, 2014 1:57 pm
Dr. Naison, I read your blog highlighted by a reader of The Notebook. Not only is there an attempt to silence the teachers, who face the poverty of our students in Philadelphia each day, the silence is noticeable in Philadelphia, with the squashing of the student support provided by School Counselors. In 2009, the School District of Philadelphia attempted to right the ship by placing additional school counselors in our city's neediest schools, those schools with an overwhelming number of students who are economically disadvantaged. This approach was making an impact and the School District of Philadelphia has the data to show that this form of direct student support increased student achievement,graduation rates and post secondary interest amongst the students in the Comprehensive High Schools. The District was making progress in this area, slow but progress none the less. Yet there was a systemic approach to decrease the effectiveness of student support by first laying off the entire Office within the District that provided support to students. Secondly, bringing back the office but staffing it with leadership with little experience in School Counseling, Response to Intervention and Behavioral Health. When the District did return the Office it was understaffed from 9 staff members that supported 200 schools/over 180,000 students to 4 staff members. Philadelphia did not get into this state overnight and it will not improve overnight. Yet in the infinite knowledge of the SRC/the current CFO, the district determined that our students experiencing poverty did not NEED that level of academic and social support during their school day, to the extent that some schools only have the support of a school counselor a couple days a week and our students that attend school in Philadelphia's Juvenile Justice Center have NO school counselor to support their academic day. While students in some suburban districts have access to a school counselor whose case load is 1:200-300 students. Each day, I see the students that entered our School District with the wonder and dreams of kindergarten students, have their hopes and dreams diminished by individuals within Philadelphia's educational system that is motivated by control of the money within the District and not a vision for our students to achieve. These present activities would not occur in School Districts in our surrounding suburban communities where the majority of the parents and students have social capital and are economically advantaged.
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on April 16, 2014 10:48 am
Canceling recess for test prep. Offering recess costs money to the disdain of "reformers" whose only goal is the bottom line. See this article on what we give up when we give in to the billionaire "saviors" of our children:
Submitted by Beth Patel (not verified) on April 15, 2014 12:39 pm
Benjamin Franklin High School student is Sharron Snyder, leader and member at the Philadelphia Student Union.
Submitted by nicholaschoi (not verified) on May 1, 2014 3:55 am
Thank you for giving us the information of the conference. I hope the conference will be great and participants will be more.

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