One of the more frustrating things about working for better schools in Philadelphia is that all sides tend to clamor in rancorous agreement. Ignore Twitter for a second1 and go to a conference. Presenters trip over themselves explaining that we all want the same things – great schools, great teachers, fair funding. Witness SRC Chairman Bill Green, who broke negotiations to impose work rules on teachers, chanting along with the protesters to “save our schools”. He’s one of us, you know.
So I feel obliged to point out the details, minute as they may be, that help draw the lines. I can’t speak to motives. I suspect that the people pushing to close schools or cut nurses really do think they are making a positive impact, but they have the privilege2 to tune out the negative consequences. We can’t see into people’s hearts, but we can see into their schools – and that’s important, too.
For consideration: A recent news feature focused on the takeover of Simon Gratz, a large, neighborhood High School in North Philadelphia. The school now belongs to Mastery, a large3 non-profit chain of schools; they are the darling of the corporate community. It’s a good article: Honest about the transfer rate, clear on the successes and failures, humble of the task we have.
There’s a lot I like about Mastery. They’re organized and efficient. They have great teacher coaching, albeit made necessary by their attrition rate. They attract great people and try to honor the work that is done. Their Mastery 3.0 program, a much more progressive system, shows admirable reflection and change.
A lot of progressive educators dislike Mastery. From a political perspective, they cut a predatory image. The author notes some serious concerns: The Principal hints that there’s no learning at other schools, a theme among the city’s charters; there’s a separate detention facility for behavior problems, housing almost 10% of the student body; a quarter of the teachers, selected by the principal, left after 1 year.
This quote, however, speaks volumes about the differences in the way people approach urban education:
“A lack of electives is evident in the course offerings at Gratz. Students get a technology course in ninth grade, music in 10th, an internship their sophomore year and a college prep seminar senior year. Spanish is the only language taught.
Ideally, said Gordon, the CEO, “we want to have more options, more electives, but it’s going to take time. We’re moving in that direction.”
But “we’re not Lower Merion,” said Palmer. “We’re working in a place where students are being asked to make up for a huge deficit in their education previously and to overcome the tremendous issues of poverty”
Emphasis mine. I was terribly excited for an explanation about how unfair funding affects all schools. But, no. The kids here do not get electives, not because their school is too poor but because the students are. Our kids are products of a lot of poverties: Poverty of resource, poverty of structure, and, here, poverty of pedagogy.
You know where I learned my grammar? German class. Coding teaches math and organization. Want kids to read more? Give them a starring role in the school play. Most kids in Cooking will never go to culinary schools, but they will learn about the way heat interacts with matter in a way that is infinitely more enjoyable than a textbook. I took sewing in 7th grade, and learned that I needed to be better at planning. I learned a bit of C++ coding in High School, and discovered that I could do math. I worked on my writing so I could be an editor at my school newspaper.
SLA Principal Chris Lehmann says it better than I do: Sucking the passion out of school is guaranteed to fail kids. “Invent to Learn” posits that shop class not a supplement to math class, it is a replacement.
The article insinuates that kids who transferred, nearly 25% of the student body4 couldn’t handle their expectations or structure. It’s also likely many of them left because the slackers love art. You know, like people.
Kids deserve great schools, meaning schools that will not only teach them to read and do equations, but also to follow their passion. This is not hippy-dippy stuff. Being confident and able to pursue interests breed entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders. On a more micro level, kids perform better on things they care about – be it the teacher, the subject, or the score. Great teachers, and schools, focus on the first two. Focusing on the latter, at the expense of the former, is wholly bankrupt.
The differences are not simply union cronies vs. corporate cronies. There are real contrasts in the future of schooling.