High and low points from the AERA education conference
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.