This is a story about a bad idea. It starts as a quixotic bad idea, then a comically bad idea, and then a fairly dark, bad idea. But mostly, it’s a story about how, despite loads of money, research, and talented people, education reform is largely amateur hour.
Allan Domb, the self proclaimed “Condo King”, is running for City Council at Large . Since Domb is running for office, he needs an education plan. Domb’s idea, gleefully championed in the Philadelphia Citizen, is to convince private enterprise to “adopt” schools, thus creating kids with work-ready skills.
“Imagine, for example, a Comcast Benjamin Franklin High training students to become linemen, or technicians, or customer service reps. An Urban Outfitters South Philly High, teaching retail skills, from design to sales to bookkeeping. A SmithKline Edison graduating students ready to work technical jobs at the pharmaceutical giant. Domb envisions schools that are successful in a way test scores can’t measure, and that could actually draw students from outside the city, looking for real skills.”
Look, kudos to Mr. Domb for thinking beyond “Quality!”, the platitude-tiled bathroom floor most candidates where most candidates play dead. But there’s no two ways around it: This is bad idea.
“Adopt” explicitly means something is unwanted or uncared for. We adopt stray kittens or highways that nobody else wants to clean. When Domb suggests that Urban Outfitters could adopt South Philly High1, he’s ignoring what actually goes on at Broad and Snyder. Under revered principal Otis Hackney, Southern has earned praise for improvement in climate, new CTE programs, and plans for a community school. I’m sure Domb didn’t mean to insult the community – perhaps the most diverse in the city – but I’m equally certain he didn’t do a shred of research. He wanted a “failing” school and, reality be damned, he got one.
But wait there’s less! Urban Outfitters has already faced controversy for trying to profit off the Kent State shooting or the Holocaust. Under Domb’s plan a school that is 65% African American would be run by a company that sold “Ghettopoly”. Comcast is widely considered the worst company this side of the Umbrella Corporation.
And schools already use private entities to help prepare student: Internships. If Domb wanted to leverage his influence in the business world, he could call on any company with over a certain number of employees to provide internship opportunities to Philadelphia’s neediest high schools, an idea both helpful and rooted in reality.
Yes, the idea of private business stepping in where the public sector has failed is appealing to zealots and lobbyists alike. But the history of educational for-profits running schools is abysmal. Domb wants more abyss. That makes sense, because if Philadelphia’s children are going to succeed the city will need to re-think the property tax abatements at the core of Domb’s condominium business.
The story doesn’t end there. Larry Pratt and Ajay Raju, the editor and financier of the aforementioned Philadelphia Citizen, held a “gathering of civic innovators” to talk about adopting schools. The result? Not much. Raju, who expected Millenials to “be packed to the rafter”, bemoaned the 40 or so people who showed up as an “echo chamber”.
Raju is familiar with such a place. He and Platt are the force behind The Philadelphia Citizen, “journalism that focuses on solutions”, and they love Domb’s plan. In fairness, they love everything. The Philadelphia Citizen is the most upbeat anti-authority disruptor you’ve ever met. They’re high on solutions. None of the disruptors or millennials or game changers they feature need be subjected to critical thought by their very nature. It’s like if the kid in High School who wore camo and a hundred punk-band/anarchy patches got a frontal lobotomy.
As neophiliacs, they also love charter schools. There’s nothing wrong with loving charter schools, even if you love them because you see them as disruptive schools rather than good ones. But loving outside-ness in a void of context is problematic. Here, The Citizen fawns over Young Scholars at Frederick Douglass:
The teacher points to a yellow line painted on the floor about two feet from the wall. “Remember, you stay on your side of the line,” she says. Then she watches each kindergartner walk towards a star—also painted on the floor—that indicates a “crosswalk,” where they turn, and quietly make their way back against the opposite wall, next to another yellow line. Throughout, the teacher issues reminders—“Walk straight. Eyes forward”—until they arrive back at the start, where they do the whole thing again.
Nowhere does The Citizen concern itself with the the ethics of this neo-Spartan regime. There’s no reason to think about the real Frederick Douglass, a man who was forced to walk straight with eyes forward until he physically upended his tormenter. Like Domb’s plan, this must good. The old has failed. Hail to the new.
The vast majority of these new turnaround and “adopted” schools would be filled with poor children, most of them historically underserved minorities. These children would go to schools like Young Scholars, where walking on the right side of the line is emphasized as much as writing. They would then go to High Schools run by companies who train them to work in jobs where dutifulness is valued over critical thinking – folding shirts for Urban Outfitters, taking calls (or making coffee) at a Comcast Service Center. The bottom rung of the economic ladder would be specializing for jobs with a guarantee of low wages, since taxpayers are providing a bountiful pipeline of employees.
Yes, I am embracing the tinfoil hat. And no, not every child can be a doctor or lawyer or, this is for you Citizen, creator of the next Uber. These ideas, corporate schools and militant climate, are presented with zero context. That’s the only way they can survive. Plenty of schools are disrupting education by embedding student voice and choice, along with democratic principles into the classroom. They’re adding recess to High School.
They’re also calling for an end of the absurdly inequitable funding system, and pushing back against a climate where test scores rule. You won’t hear that from Domb, Raju, The Citizen, or anyone else pitching the next great thing education. As Frederick Douglass said, progress always requires sacrifice. Disruption, even dressed in its Sunday best, requires the sacrifice of others.
Note to Condo King: all the locals call it “Southern” ↩