From the archives: 'They kept a lid on information because outcomes were so bad'
The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia's school system.
From the Spring 1995 print edition:
by Helen Gym
Last September, a seven-member education team appointed by Judge Doris Smith published a report blasting the Philadelphia School District for its dysfunctional organization and failure to educate Philadelphia's children. The team identified a lack of "public will" as one of the primary obstacles to change.
Norm Fruchter, a member of the team and program advisor for education, Aaron Diamond Foundation, spoke with Notebook reporter Helen Gym about his findings.
One of the major issues that the educational team's report focused on was a "lack of public will," which you define as an unwillingness to support or even acknowledge that change is needed to reform Philadelphia's schools. Could you explain your point further?
l think we saw that there was less engagement by the business sector, less engagement of civic and nonprofit sectors, and less engagement by local community and neighborhood-based organizations ... than we had seen in other public school systems.
We thought that was a major problem. We laid so much stress on rebuilding public engagement with the school system because we didn't think that it would change unless those constituencies got re-engaged.
What factors did you see contributing to this lack of widespread public involvement?
I was appalled by the lack of any kind of information ... (that) the school system put out for parents, community members, and constituencies with potential to mobilize to support schools .... I'd never seen such a poor database and so Iimited and restricted a capacity just to say, "Here's how the schools are doing."
It seemed to me that there was a deliberate attempt to keep the lid on any information about outcomes because the outcomes were so bad. The strategy was: We will just not release anything. That way people won't know anything about this school system.
What kind of information do you think is needed to engage the public?
I think that frankly the information that needs to come out is the information that the Philadelphia lnquirer supplement demonstrated [Oct. 23, 1994]. This is a school system that is massively underresourced, and it is a school system that massively fails to educate most of its kids.
Do you think then that Harrisburg and City Hall would be willing to assume more responsibility for the schools if they had more information?
My hunch is that the people who make the decisions about money have some sense of the realities of the school system.
I think the response of different layers of urban power ... has to do with how responsible they feel to the constituencies that have power. Both in New York and Philly and in lots of other places as well, the public school constituencies are so relatively powerless compared to other constituencies that have a claim on the public treasury, that public officials feel when they've got to cut, it's the school system that's going to take the hit.
The main constituency they have to worry about is not the families that send their kids to public schools, but the unions. That's who they've got to deal with. But when ... you have a situation where there's a real political and ideological chasm between the unions and the families who send their kids to public schools, then you don't get any alliances to defend the public schools. You get each constituency trying to argue independently. So it's easier for public officials to either pick them off, make their deals with the stronger of the constituencies, or pit them against each other.
In your experience, what are the consequences of a lack of public engagement?
I've worked in several New Jersey cities where the political constituencies that ran the cities ... saw the school systems as ones that did not serve their kids. They served other people's kids. And so the school systems were used as patronage dumps and as places to loot, but not places to be responsible to because they were for other people's children.
That means the political constituencies can walk away from them. Again that's because they don't have to worry about paying a price for ignoring the quality of education they deliver.
So where's our starting point?
One way or another, we've got to create local organizing in the neighborhoods where people send their children to public schools. We have to build constituencies that are going to demand what the schools need, to demand performance, and to demand good outcomes of the schools as well