January 23 — 3:14 pm, 2018

The city needs a transformation to improve education, not just a new school board

A former teacher and social impact strategist shares a bold vision for Philadelphia's future.

photo for kevin story Image by Jessica Kourkounis

The first thing I did every day as a teacher in Philly was to kick a trash can.

I was checking for mice in my classroom. So instead of helping Angela boost her reading level, my first daily act as a middle school teacher in this city was pest control.

Why do we allow working and learning conditions like these in our schools? Imagine if employees at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Vanguard, or even City Hall had to deal with these sorts of working conditions.

Yet this is the reality in many Philadelphia schools today. And it’s unlikely that our soon-to-be appointed school board will find ways to resolve this. Even though much good can come from local control, urban school boards are basically set up for failure.

Though we ultimately spend more per student than many of our peers in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), we still get lackluster results because of how we spend. The federal government gives too little to schools compared to peer countries, while states consistently reduce their contributions to schools. Consequently, localities must inevitably ratchet up property taxes, further deepening inequities among districts.

Most countries that outperform us have nothing close to the number of U.S. school boards – more than 15,000. For example, the Canadian province of Ontario (which is similar in size to dozens of our states) saved millions when it halved the number of school districts across the province. The money saved went more directly to schools and students, and increases in student achievement followed. We’ve got one or two layers of governance too many, and dissolving the SRC doesn’t single-handedly change that.

Philadelphia must learn from other countries’ and other localities’ successes, then put those lessons together into something new and bold. 

First, how we define the problem matters a great deal. Our so-called achievement gap is a racist construct that impoverishes our ability to solve the real problems facing our families. What Philly actually has on its hands is a massive education debt, accrued over time. The powers that be have systematically delivered sub-standard resources to Philly’s students. That history must be faced and recompensed.

Second, the incoming school board should follow Finland’s lead by partnering with local universities to start a National Academy for Teaching Innovation based here. The academy can centralize training for Philly teachers into a single institution and offer enrolled teachers-in-training higher salaries, robust loan forgiveness, and even free tuition. (Another option: Offer affordable housing for teachers like San Francisco does.)

Third, while gentrification is an unfortunate reality of our economic system, let’s leverage the increasing tax base for more equitable distribution of resources. Virtually no high-performing school systems have anything like our market-oriented approach to education. School choice, alone, is insufficient. The most effective “choice” method deployed to improve education is school desegregation. Districts around the country as varied as Wake County, North Carolina, and New York City have used forms of controlled choice to achieve racial and socioeconomic integration.  

Fourth, let’s follow Shanghai’s lead and spread our resources evenly across all schools. Get rid of so-called “ability grouping.” Employing the power of peer learning will allow our kids to go even further while easing burdens on teachers.

Fifth, we must overhaul and repurpose existing facilities to cut costs and align learning environments with emerging pedagogical trends like competency-based education. Schools around the globe are already reshaping their schools to look like the environments that our students will occupy in the future.

Finally, education must go far beyond the schoolhouse door. Kids suffer in school when their families are hurting. Philly should follow the lead of Stockton, California, and offer a modest universal basic income for all parents with children in Philly schools. It would mean the difference between graduation and incarceration for thousands of our kids.

A new school board won’t be a cure-all for what ails Philadelphia. The board must be a political force that fights for the rights of this state’s poorest and most vulnerable children. While the battle for equitable funding rages on at the state and federal levels, we have a chance to mitigate its negative impact through this new board. It’s an imperfect tool, but a chance to start to innovate our way out of this mess.

Paul Perry is a former Philadelphia teacher and current city resident. He works as a writer and social impact strategist.

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