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Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Whiskey for a Broken Back: State aid to Philadelphia schools

The Philadelphia Inquirer, 10/9/13, p. B5 reports that William R. Hite, Jr., Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, has expressed disappointment that so many Philadelphia public schools were judged by the Pennsylvania State Department of Education to be inadequate and subject to possible closure.

More than half of Pennsylvania’s 92 “worst-performing” schools are in Philadelphia. Thirteen of the 47 Philadelphia schools on the DOE’s list have been closed based on low enrollment, maintenance needs, and chronic academic problems. (No specific statistics were mentioned on the relative rankings of these three faults. But mentioning chronic academic problems last in the list tends to draw our attention to it.)

Hite pointed out that it was important to take into account that the school district is the largest in Pennsylvania (11th largest in the US in 2008 at 178,241 pupils according to the USDOE), and it has the most low-income children and students with special needs.

These are important mitigating factors, indeed, one would think, which should forestall a rash condemnation of poor school performance and the consequent penalties, for example, being handed over to charter school operators to be “turned around.”

Do such "handovers" promise improvement? Of the five charter schools operating in Philadelphia, one, Hope, in the Germantown section, agreed to close in June for being a “low performer.” (See Charter School Scandal? Again? You Can Bet On It…)

We might wonder what kind of thinking is going on here when Dr. Hite adds what he seems to think is needed to remediate the situation in Philadelphia:
This is a further call to action around the need to dramatically improve instructional practices in our schools.
(See Killing the Messengers? Disregarding School Reform Critics)

What happened to the issues of the school district’s monstrous size, long known to be an impediment to its effective governance? And even more immediate, what about the extensive poverty mentioned and the great number of special-needs kids? Why would Dr. Hite mention any of these things if he really believes that instructional practices are so primary? (See Destroying Schools to Improve Them?)

Well, if you’ve got a broken back, and no money or access to a doctor, a half-a-bottle of whiskey might offer some short-term relief. Perhaps what Hite is scratching for is help from the Pennsylvania State Department of Education, always abstemious for being underfunded and animadversive to most things Philadelphian. What is pedagogically anti-scientific is often popularly acceptable and politically astute. (See Top School Leadership: fooled or fools?)

Carolyn Dumaresq, states the Inquirer, the Pennsylvania’s acting Secretary of Education, will send DOE representatives, “academic recovery liaisons,” to “work with” principals to help the targeted schools. (See Pathologies of Enthusiasm: cheerleading is not engineering)

Hocus pocus! You’ve got a broken back and the State Health Department sends a liquor salesman to talk with your local pharmacist?! (See Technician, or Magician: Can You Tell the Difference?)

Think for a minute:

1. write down the possible links in a imaginable chain of connections between
A) academic recovery liaisons working with principals and, say,
X) student academics showing improvement.
choosing such intermediate links as will NOT be affected by the size of the school district (thus, of the school and of class sizes),or of the poverty of the students or of their special needs.
2. Find research evidence to support your linkages.
If you have succeeded with 1 and 2 above, you will have the ammunition to lead yet another reform movement in the more than a century-old crusades to “improve” public schools.

If not, you should loudly advertise the failure of your efforts. Otherwise, someone more ruthless and clever will appropriate your results and go ahead, anyhow, like their predecessors, leading their own seventy-six trombones in another open raid on the public coffers.

To examine these issues and related issues further, see The School Failure Mythology

See, also,Politics, Promises and School Improvement

--- EGR