Snow Days As Data #phled

(Last week, a certain education-themed extension of the financial secotor1 wrote a piece for the Philadelphia media touting some gains at their pet schools.  While we love hearing success stories at public schools, the authors didn’t tell the whole story.  I suppose and their ilk were already awash with real teachers telling their stories, so they decided not to publish our response. 

This piece is co-authored by Larissa Pahomov.  You should read her blog and follow her on Twitter)

With six snow days so far this year, the routine has become familiar to all students and their families in Philadelphia. There’s wild speculation in the days leading up to the storm, constant checking and refreshing of news sources for updates, and a celebration when the day off gets called.

Unfortunately, the snow day routine reveals something else about students in our city: a lot them hate going to school.

We’re not talking about the appreciation of a day off. Students (and educators, too) like a break from routine as much as anybody. But a winter like this reveals the wide gap between school’s missions and the students they seek to serve. Administrators fret about lost “instructional time,” but students literally jump for joy because they have been freed from their desks. Book bags stay closed on snow days. The last thing students want to do on their holiday is learn.

How did things get this bad? Unfortunately, a part of the problem is the increased emphasis on “proficiency,” as measured by standardized tests. Too many schools are telling their students the only knowledge that matters is what can be bubbled in on an exam. When Mother Nature disrupts the schedule, she brings some uncomfortable questions with her. When the tests end, does that mean our children stop learning?  Do we have to keep them locked in the classroom to stop their brains from melting?

The good news:  There’s a better way.

At Franklin Learning Center, teacher Ann Leaness inspires her students to read and become readers.  The method?  Stop grading reading and start encouraging students to see themselves as readers. For a snowbound teenager (and their parents), the ability to curl up with a good book is invaluable – for their sanity and continued learning.

Leaness’ class is just one example of a growing movement. All over the District, teachers are realizing that when kids are given the chance to pursue their passions, we don’t need to obsess over “proficiency.” At Science Leadership Academy, Seniors work overtime on Capstone projects, from designing machinery to crafting screenplays to producing their own hip hop album.  At Central, teacher Dan Ueda and the Robolancers teach students to build technology instead of merely playing with it.  So-called “Makespaces” at The Workshop School and Chester A. Arthur encourage kids to make things because it is something worthwhile to do, rather than because it will show up on their report card.

The education discussion in Philadelphia is obsessed with numbers, data, and the assessments that drive them.  This Winter reminds us that we can do better.  If students, guided by caring and passionate adults, are owners of learning instead of consumers, snow days become a day to work on a project, finish a book, or collaborate with a teacher. Authentic learning cannot be gridlocked.  We should stop looking at what kids do on a bubble test, and start looking at what they do on a snow day.

Larissa Pahomov and Andrew Saltz are public school teachers and members of the Philadelphia Teacher’s Action Group

  1. I’m trying Larissa, I’m really trying 

5 Question on the #PhlEd Action Plan

Dr. Hite announced the release of a new “Action Plan” for the Philadelphia School District.  You can read the plan here and the news coverage here.  The document asks for “candid feedback by emailing us at“.  I don’t expect a response1, but below is what I sent. (This was written before Dr. Hite released the financial section of Action Plan 2.0)

To Whom it May Concern:

I have taught students English, Literature, and Public Speaking in Philadelphia for 7 years.  I am a homeowner in the city.  I am also a father  Much of my life is invested in the health of the School District.

I read the Action Plan 2.0, and I have 5 questions about the document.

1.  Why is the plan so reliant on high stakes testing, and how will this plan, and leadership, react to the Opt Out Movement?

Parents and students across Pennsylvania have decided that the Era of Standardized Tests has not been a good one for students.  Currently a parent can write a letter, sign a confidentiality agreement, view the test and then opt out.  The Action Plan talks about parents as a “vital asset” (21).  Yet the current systems compels parents into an ordeal that is difficult and dishonest2.

Page 10 lists all the measures towards accountability – almost 2/3 of them rely on tests scores.  Can this plan survive if families opt out of the high-stakes testing?  Will District leadership react with hostility towards parents, students, and schools who do not see tests as indicative of or conducive to learning?  Are parents and students who feel testing hurts their education valued in this process, or are they lumped in “adult theatrics”?

2.  Is teaching in Philadelphia only for the young or financially privileged?

The Action plan speaks volumes about recruiting and retaining great people.  But All of these “benefits” are targeted at a specific group – those who aren’t currently teaching.  I love new teachers, I remember being a new teacher, and I am certain we could do a better job recruiting and supporting them.

What does the Action Plan offer people currently involved in the struggle to remake schools?  A pay cut.  A 15% pay cut that wasn’t in The Plan, but is most certainly in the plans.  What this plan says to veteran teachers:  “If you want to stay, bravo.  But we’re spending your paycheck recruiting your replacement.  And that after-school program is going to be gratis.”

Is that the plan?  Has leadership concluded that the only way to keep costs down is to act like the Miami Marlins, keeping the roster small, young, and cheap?   If so, I’d like the Action Plan to reflect that.  Tell parents that their students will be best served by less experienced teachers.  Tell those of us in it for the long hall that we should look to the suburbs or marry a doctor.

And if that’s not the plan, how do we retain good people?  Not for years, but for decades?

3.  Why does the plan not allow for Charters to return to the District?

According to the flow chart on page 15, a poor performing school can become a charter.  A poor performing charter can become a better charter.  And great schools, District or Charter, can expand.  But there’s no path for a poor performing charter to return to the District.

We need more District schools.  Why are we leaving out this option?

4.  What are the measures of a “quality charter”?

The document lauds four Charter providers for “turning around” poor performing schools.  Yet3 some of these organizations raise serious red flags.  Aspira, for example, has spent thousands to keep their teachers from forming a union.  Since the Action Plan 2.0 explicitly states support for “formal and informal” teacher groups (p. 21), how is this laudable?  Shouldn’t that money go to the football team or theater department?  Or maybe to find their missing $3.3 million?

Is a “quality school” measured solely by their numbers?  Because if that is the case we are going to see even more schools, charter or other, playing the perverse numbers game.

5.  How do we balance “best practices” and school flexibility?

Action Plan 2.0 cites the need for school flexibility but also adherence to “best practices”.  In my experience, this amounts to the following:  Magnet schools get to do whatever they want and comprehensive schools are micromanaged to death.  Development for schools like Palumbo involves technology, student ownership, and authentic projects.  Development for schools like Overbrook is a strict lesson plan, using certain vocabulary words every day, and Pearson workbooks.  Thus students in the latter school, more likely to be poor and Hispanic or African American, receive a very different type of education than those at the “good schools”.

A lot of good educators are moving towards a project based, student centered model4.  How we bring that to students with poor social-emotional skills is a challenge.  We need to answer it.

No school suffers from too much flexibility.  The Action Plan must call for equity in pedagogy between schools, or explain why they don’t feel it’s important.


I remain devoted to the cause of public education in Philadelphia.  I would be happy to discuss any of these issues.

Thank you,

Andrew Saltz

The Paul Robeson High School for Human Services

As always, thank you for reading.  Please consider sending an email to the Action Plan team – or post your thoughts in the comments.  


  1. or even a cursory glance 

  2. parents must state a “religious objection 

  3. and I say this with reservation, because it seems fairly likely one of these will be a future employer 

  4. even Mastery, renown for its test-prep curriculum, is instituting a similar Mastery 3.0 system. Props to them for growing, although I’m concerned that, like a District school, it’s only for the “good” kids 

I Support Universal Enrollment

Growing up in Lower Merion, my schooling followed a predictable path.   I traveled from Penn Wynne Elementary School to Bala Cynwyd Middle School to Lower Merion High School.  My Father, who grew up a few blocks away, took the exact same path, as did most of my classmates.  We didn’t really think about it.

In Philadelphia, the simple of act of going to a place one is legally mandated to attend becomes a mind-bending ordeal.  Students going from K-8 to High School have dozens upon dozens of options:  Charters, Neighborhood Schools, Magnets, City Wide Admits, Independent, and Parochial Schools.  There is a move to make “universal” the enrollment process.  This is a good idea, and I’d like to help.

Continue reading

Other Gaps

As a “hook” to our Legal Clinic, I spent a day in January working with graphs and charts about the legal system.  Charts and graphs are awesome tools in the classroom.  If you are a teacher and don’t use them, you should do so.  I don’t care what subject.  Reading data is a type of nonfictional reading, essential for basic citizenship.  It’s also fun.  On this day, my class walked into a “gap”.  I think we’re still stuck there.

The prompt for charts is “What do you learn from this?”  Students are encouraged to list as much as they can.  Normally I go with “There are a bunch of right answers and a bunch of wrong ones.  Defend your answer and try.”

For this chart however, there’s only a few possible choices.  Almost every student observed a higher number of African Americans in NC prisons than Whites, about half concluded it was suspicious.  One student noted that the layout of the graph was ineffective – laying the population numbers side-by-side and the prison numbers side-by-side would be less confusing.  Critical thinking, people!

There were a few students who deduced that African Americans commit more crimes than Whites.  This was troubling.  It was easily dismissed with a few questions1, but it was hard to fathom and, in retrospect, something I should have dealt with.

This is an awesome graph if you like teaching awesome graphs.  First, it’s an absolutely staggering illustration of the US prison population.  Next, it lends itself as a lesson against the lazy reading of data.  Most students claim that crime has gone up every year – proof “our generation” is the worst2.  But a simple “every year?” pushes student to test their hypothesis.  When I ask if they can find any years where the number of inmates went down, you can see the gears start to move.  What was the turning year?  1980 or 1984.  Why?  Lots of answers here.  Drugs, gangs, disco, wars.  In each of my 3 Junior classes I had some studenst who connected the year with the rise of crack cocaine.  The lingering question, of course, why are there so many people still in jail if we have way fewer people using crack?


The last one (link is better than my screenshot) is a heat map of crime in our fair city.  It’s a fun one.  Since the lesson was done through the projector, we toured the city together.  The point here is that some of the highest crime is in places you wouldn’t expect it – 15th and Market has a the larger concentration of crime than 61 and Kingsessing.

In two classes, we never made it this far.  When were “touring” Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill, a student in my largest class explained “There’s no crime because that’s where all the nice, White people live”.  And silence.  In a class of 32 African American young people, not a single easily-outraged teenager was moved to outrage over an out-and-out racist claim.

I addressed it.  I did so with data and logic and more angst than usual.  I didn’t scream, even though I really wanted to.  And I was humbled by the job, thinking about all the gaps we are trying to fill.

Teachers in Philadelphia are inundated with the Achievement Gap, the one which shows that African American and Latino students are falling behind their peers.  We see it at every professional development.  Our school’s contribution to that gap will make up a healthy chunk of my evaluation.  It’s the constant boogeyman – say what you want, but you can’t deny these numbers.

But it’s not the only gap, and our focus on skills and standards belie the other challenges we face.  If students believe their neighborhoods are worth less because the people who come from those neighborhoods are incapable of civilization, they are going to have some problems succeeding in school.  If they honestly believe that people who look like they do and talk the way they talk possess an innate talent for ruining nice things, they will go out of their way to avoid nice things.  They will lower their expectations.  They won’t follow through on a college application or “forget” their financial aid or become as small as possible so as to slither through the closest available crack.

I have no idea what to do about this.  I addressed it in class, I addressed it with individuals.  I add context to my lessons that (hopefully) connect with my students’ lives.  I’m relentlessly positive about my students.  But in the end, I come from a different place and lack the specific ethos to make an impact.

So what are you doing about this gap?  What systems are in place to break these stereotypes?  What do you do to reinforce the good and question the bad?  The stereotype threat is real – what are we doing about it?

  1. “Is everyone in jail guilty?” “Does everyone who commits a crime go to jail?” 

  2. A favorite talking point