To the Pandhandling Teacher

So we have an Oklahoma teacher, who went viral while panhandling for school supplies. To be brief: It is is terrible. Truly terrible, as in the root of the word “terror”. If this how we are to save schools, we are already doomed.

Theresa Danks, the start of the video and head of “Begging for Education”, is a white woman. What if the beggar, her words not mine, was a Black woman? Would they be called a welfare queen? Would someone call the cops? What if she was Hispanic/Latina? Would she make $50,000, or would someone call ICE?

Imagine if she was wearing a Khimar.

What if a bunch of Oklahoma school kids were out begging for supplies? If they were black, they might go to jail. We know this because a group of African-Americans were arrested on public land for selling water. Oklahoma is the same state where Terrance Crutcher was shot to death by a police officer while standing still with his hands in the air. The officer was found not guilty by her felow Hokies.

The idea that one can simply walk the street and ask people for money could only come from a place where you believe society is committed to keeping you safe. That is most likely true for Ms. Danks. It is most likely true for the majority of educators, but it is not true for everyone.

This matters because the funding Ms. Danks is supposed to be protesting is, in many ways, a story of racism. In Pennsylvania, funding for a school district is directly tied to the ratio of white people who live there. That’s not an exaggeration.

The trend is the same nationwide. But nowhere on Ms. Danks’ site, “Begging For Education”, does she mention race. In fact, having read her Facebook and GoFundMe, there is zero mention of Race. There is zero words on the state budget, which has been cut to the bone. Nowhere does Danks advocate for organizing teachers, calling legislators, or taking any action other than donating to Danks. She also doesn’t mention gender, like how the teachers suffering from budget cuts, and therefore begging on the highway are most likely women. Or the how the legislators enacting these cuts are men. In fairness to Ms. Danks, it is not that her site ignores these issues. “Begging for Education” is utterly devoid of content. “Awareness” should be made of sterner stuff.

Let’s again assume the best intentions. Ms. Danks and the legions of teachers who rely on GoFundMe and DonorsChoose may believe they are helping, but they are actually normalizing the radically unjust practices of American public schools. The legislators in Oklahoma and every other state who refuse to fund schools are tickled pink by this stuff. What change, what awareness in history has been brought about by begging?

I think about ADAPT, the disability-rights activists who were thrown out of wheelchairs and arrested for protecting everyone’s Medicare. I think of activist teachers in Philadelphia, arrested fighting for the rights of immigrants. I think about Autherine Lucy. And I think if I brought them my apolitical puppies-and-rainbows plan called “Begging for Education”, I would simply immolate from shame.

“PERHAPS YOU SHOULD START A GOFUNDME”

Oklahoma teachers don’t need charity. They need a Union. They need to organize, get mad, stand in the road instead of on the side. They need to read the history of labor and resistance. They need to convince every parent to help them shut the State. They need to run for office, raise Hell and taxes. Don’t bite. Danks’ made-for-TV-unicorn-latte-pop-up-autoplay-activism may help her kids today. It will bury the rest of us tomorrow.

I don’t care about cheating teachers and neither should you

In 2013, twelve Atlanta teachers were convicted of “racketeering”. Their crime was a highly organized campaign to falsify their test scores, thus improving their school’s rating. They were given jail time and hefty financial penalties, in addition to having their mug shots in every major media outlet.

Racketeering conjures images of Al Capone, and the wild stories of 1920’s era bootlegging. These teachers should be so lucky. They won’t get a movie, no one will forever remember them in song and film. They will most likely be derelict ex-cons, remembered only be other educators as a cautionary tale.

At the time of the scandal, I had two thoughts. First, it was wild: All the intrigue of a spy novel mixed with all the mendacity of a regular school day. Second, I was overwhelmed with radical apathy. Yes, cheating is wrong, and the scheme these educators concocted was sophisticated and malicious. Even as someone with little regard for High Stakes Testing, I get the cardinal sin of misrepresenting kids’ achievement for one’s’ personal gain.

And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to give a hoot. Something seemed off, out of place, almost surreal. There was an obtuse outrage about the policies of No Child Left Behind driving this sort of action, but that seemed petty (plenty of teachers do crazy stuff to earn test scores, but they don’t erase answer sheets). Then there was the racial aspect, in which the white policy makers get reelected and the people of color who are actually helping kids are sent to prison. Valid? Yes.

But cheating is wrong. Cheaters are wrong. We can should look at the larger system, but this is wrong and must be punished. I couldn’t quite get there. I couldn’t shake the nagging voice in my head, but neither could I make out what it was saying. There was a wrong here that was greater than these Atlanta teachers, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

This week: Eureka

ProPublica released a doozy that rivals the Atlanta tale, mitigating a lack of intrigue with an incredible bevy of “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?”. Here’s the skinny: To boost their state scores, public schools teamed up with “alternative” charter schools in order to dump their lowest achieving students. From the piece:

In Orlando, both traditional and alternative charter schools manipulate the accountability system. The charters exploit a loophole in state regulations: By coding hundreds of students who leave as withdrawing to enter adult education, such as GED classes, Sunshine claims virtually no dropouts. State rules don’t label withdrawals for that reason as dropping out. But ALS officials cannot say where Sunshine students actually went — or if they even took GED classes at all.

And:

But a broad swath of the schools short-change their students, ProPublica’s analysis of federal data shows. Nationwide, nearly a third of the alternative-school population attends a school that spends at least $500 less per pupil than regular schools do in the same district. Forty percent of school districts with alternative schools provide counseling services only in regular schools. Charter alternative schools — both virtual and bricks-and-mortar — in Ohio, Georgia and Florida have been accused of collecting public money for students who weren’t in classes.

Oh:

Yes, alternative charters work for some kids. But kids aren’t sent to Sunshine for their own welfare. They are exiled because their scores – or their family situation, or their immigration status, or their undiagnosed learning disability – may hurt the chances of the principal getting a performance bonus.

This is not an inherent flaw with charters or choice. Disciplinary schools have long and storied histories in US public schools, as do teachers complaining that only the kids “who want to learn” should attend.1

But those teachers will probably keep those kids, and will have to deal with an angry parent or administrator if they cross the line. And the teachers in Atlanta went to jail. The people who bullied children into enrolling in dropout factories will be rewarded for their end-of-year graduation rate, the people who wrote the policy can pat themselves on the back for improved proficiency rates, and the people behind the scenes will receive a cut of taxpayer money that really should go to tutoring.

Cheating is easy. Cheating is wrong. Don’t look at the other student’s test, don’t plagiarize, don’t write the answers on the inside of your water bottle label2. “Gaming a system in a way that hurts kids but maybe helps others and aren’t those kids failing anyway” is messy, and difficult. Like, you know, a child.

Pay attention, vote, remember that most people making decisions on schools know nothing about them. But, first and foremost, remember that the difference between racketeering and education reforms is a lucrative management fee, and the difference between a great school and one on the chopping block may rest on how many kids their are willing to dump in a strip mall.


  1. Throw in whatever racist/classist/apathetic meaning to the phrase “who want to learn”, it will likely stick. 

  2. A friend did this. Really 

Questions for the man who would “save Philadelphia schools”

I am fond of journalists. Here’s a profession, vital to the institution of our country, under siege by unsavory profiteers, reckless disrupters, and the cold heart of technology. I sympathize. And I disagree some and I antagonize a few, but that should not be conflated with disrespect. Most of the journalists I know, and most that I don’t, hold strong feelings for a job that can feel completely void of meaning. I get that.

So this post is about lazy journalism, and I take no joy in it. I relish being a heel, when the time calls for it. I don’t enjoy roasting a journalist. We need them, and we need more of them.

But this article raised my dander. I don’t believe in conspiracies1. I don’t think this is biased journalism, bloggers playing make believe, or fake news. It’s just lazy. Laura Goldman, the author, refused to provide the reader with an iota of context, research, or critical thought. She spends an entire paragraph slobbering over a Yass, and not a single sentence on the plight of the inequitable school funding system in the country. It’s barely clickbait because clickbait holds interest; the author aggregates an idea, throws around words like “bette noire” as if style matters, slaps a fancy headline and gets the eyeballs.

But Ms. Goldman will most definitely keep her positive relationship with the source. So there’s that.

There’s plenty of terrible journalism. Why write about this? Well, I’ve argued with journalists before, but never before has one explicitly asked me to do their job.

@CMcGeeIII @mr_saltz I attended an event and reported on what Yass. It is the job of others to point out the fallacy of what he said.

— Laura Goldman (@laurasgoldman) January 6, 2017

I’ve never been to J school, and as El-P says, I don’t like working for free. All that aside, I submit some questions for Mr. Yass about his plan for Philadelphia schools:

 

1). According to every verifiable source, Philadelphia spends far less than the $16,000 figure you quote. You appear to take the total amount spent in the city and divide it by the number of kids. While Ms. Goldman fawns over your ability with numbers, that’s obviously not the way money is distributed. In fact, Philadelphia spends far less than most major cities on its children, and your plan for savings would be short almost $3,000 per family – over 18% of what you advertise.

Another pitfall in your plan: Certain children have special needs. Children with ADHD or dyslexia, those on the autism spectrum or with low-incidence disabilities are much more expensive to educate. In your plan, schools would have a strong incentive to reject special needs students, or at least those with serious disabilities.

What do you say to parents of special needs children, who would see your plan as an attempt to shortchange their child’s education?

In addition, most who study education argue that education funding should be weighted. That is to say that children in poverty or in adverse circumstances should receive more funding to promote equity.

What do you say to those who study education and have concluded a weighted funding formula is needed to combat poverty?

2). Ms. Goldman goes to great lengths to illustrate your skill in the financial world. Yet, she neglects to mention your failures in politics. You backed Anthony Hardy Williams who, despite having huge establishment support, failed to garner 30% in the primary election. You also backed Rand Paul, who could not even qualify for the final debate.

Why do you believe that your success in the financial world would translate into the world of education, as it has clearly not worked in politics?

3). Your plan would be laughed out of Lower Merion or any other district, but Philadelphia is not in control of its schools.

Since you believe in the power of choice, do you believe that Philadelphians should have the right to vote on a school board, or other governing body?

Additionally, voters in Philadelphia have firmly rejected two school-choice candidates, in Governor Tom Corbett and State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams (who literally has his name on a charter school). Indeed, voters overwhelmingly elected a union-backed, pro-public-education Mayor along with fierce advocate for public schools in Councilwoman Helen Gym. Neither you nor the author mention this.

Why would you impose your plan on people, even if they have firmly rejected similar ideas at the ballot box?

4). You have supported many libertarian candidates, including Rand Paul who famously would not support the Civil Rights Act. As most of the people you wish to help are people of color, it feels hypocritical to say they your support their right to an education but not their right to equal protection under the Constitution?

Do you support the Civil Rights Act? How would your plan help those most impacted by systemic racism?

5). You describe, unchallenged by any journalist, Philadelphia schools as failures, and that teachers “torment” their students.

What experience do you have in Philadelphia schools? Which have you visited? Which parents have you spoken with? What time have you spent in our city’s schools that you can reach such a bombastic conclusion?

Additionally, hundreds of educators from some of the top private and independent schools in the country will come to Philadelphia to learn how to innovate. Many of the presenters are Philadelphia public school teachers and students, the same ones you and the author describe as tortured failures.

Have you gone to EduCon, EdcampPhilly, or any other events that showcase Philadelphia’s best schools? Would you? Do these events impact your negative ideas about Philadelphia schools?

6). Many in the Pro-Charter (and Progressive Education) movement see schools as a way to resist modern racism and support marginalized groups. They argue that, in addition to test scores, schools must fight systemic racism. More conservative reforms have pushed back.

How do you feel about schools that see fighting inequity against marginalized groups? Would you want government funds supporting them?

7). Assuming the numbers work, $10,000 would be enough to send most kids to Catholic Schools. But it would be barely half the tuition to send them to the top private schools in the area, where tuition is well over $20,000.

Why do you believe that Catholic Schools should be prioritized over, in your words, Government Schools? What would you say to students who prefer a secular education?

8). You posit to “save” Philadelphia schools.

Has anyone actually asked you to save them? I mean someone in and of the schools, coming up to you saying “Please, Mr. Yass, save us!”.

I ask this because the image of a rich white man coming to “save” a bunch of poor people of color is not a good one. Especially when that “saving” won’t allow them the same access you and I may have to elite private schools and the other benefits of white privilege.

Are you concerned that you are “saving” a population as a rich white man who has been elevated to power through a lack of democratic process?  

______________________

I have  no illusions these will be answered. Powerful people don’t like answering questions. But next time someone has an idea to “save” Philadelphia schools, be a journalist. Don’t let them get away with it.


  1. conspiracies are done privately 

“Blue Ribbon” Letter to the Daily News

On September 28th, we got news that the Penn Alexander School would be named a national Blue Ribbon School. The Daily News followed up with an editorial on, generously speaking, labor practices and building better schools.

I sent my response as an Op Ed:

———————————

The Daily News Editorial on the Penn Alexander School’s success provides us with a what educators call a “teachable moment”, about the difference between people playing school and those actually doing it.

Although the DN goes out of its way to be gracious to the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, they are fundamentally mistaken on the facts.

The 2009 PFT contract –frozen due to the current ineptitude of the School Reform Commission – establishes “site selection” (page 72), in which Principals, teachers, and student meet to help select new staff. The Daily News Editorial pines for all schools to run this process for new hires. Well, Christmas comes early, folks: The vast majority already do.

According to the contract, every single school designated “High Needs” selects all of their vacancies through site selection. These schools have not become Penn Alexander.

The other schools in the District, magnets, special admit, and school with good test scores, are 50% site-select, with the option to move to 100% by a staff vote. At 50% or 100%, it is safe to say that those school also did not become Penn Alexander.

Dr. Hite has established his own set of “turnaround” schools. In addition to curricular changes, these schools may fire the majority of their staff and replace them at the principal’s discretion. The results? Not Penn Alexander.

In 2014, the School Reform Commission illegally nuked the teachers’ contracts. They also instituted 100% site selection at all Philly schools regardless of previous status. This move, and you know what’s coming, did not result in every single school becoming Penn Alexander. But it did leave thousands of kids with no teachers for an entire academic year, and caused many great teachers to quit regardless of whether their hiring included a demonstration lesson.

The Daily News argument echoes the cacophony of lobbyists who want you to believe that seniority is what ails our schools. But a grand total of zero schools rely on seniority as a way to fill their ranks. When I ran the numbers in 2014, I found nearly 80% of schools do exactly what the Daily News is calling for. Why spill so much ink over a fraction of a fraction of the teaching staff?

Look, it would be great if we could hire teaches like Google, with their legendary intelligence and personality tests. But Google pays six figures, and goes out of their way to keep their employees happy, motivated, and invested in their work. Creating a system where we get 10 applicants for every 1 vacancy, where people really want to go to work, would do more for teachers than any other change in labor rules.

The Daily News notes the considerable resources available at the Penn Alexander School. But take a minute to consider what they don’t have: They don’t have as many children in foster care, or the corrections system. They don’t have as many children from abject poverty or homelessness. They don’t have to worry about their school being closed down or flipped over to a private company (while the SRC and their families take their cut). This is what happens when a school becomes whiter and wealthier – the teachers and administrators have space and resources to do the work of educating young people.

When the wonderful kids travel to Penn Alexander, they pass green spaces and new businesses. When my wonderful kids come to school, only a few blocks north, they see a very different picture. Many of my kids come from South West and North Philadelphia, where there is no “West Philadelphia Initiative” to build supermarkets and provide extra police officers. Many of my kids walk from Mantua. Instead of passing Ben and Jerry’s, they see the Youth Studies Center. They see the shell of West Philadelphia High School, waiting to be turned in condominiums that would not welcome kids from around the block. The message of their value, and their learning, is clear.

The view of schools as a labor problem is pitifully narrow. Next time, ask a teacher.

Andrew Saltz

Teacher, The Paul Robeson High School For Human Services

PFT Caucus of Working Educators

Suspensions, culture, and high fives

So there’s this neighborhood high school in Philadelphia. The Principal decides they are going to really stress “culture”. Notably, culture always means something authoritarian, never Shakespeare or wine tastings. The decision is made that that the two administrators directly under the Principal will stand at the door each day to make sure every student in the building is ready for school. No uniform? Go home. No backpack? Go home.

This principal is not alone, and the head honchos at the District get wind of this. They too want to promote a “culture”, which commands all the Spartan leanings so long as no one has to defend them to a newspaper or judge or social worker or anyone. It is so decreed (in an email, Friday at 3:30pm): Any child who sets foot on your property has to stay.

The next Monday, the two administrators are on opposite ends of the street meeting the kids. No uniform? Go home. No backpack? Go home.

I was reminded of this anecdote as the District announced, with great fanfare, that schools were no longer allowed to suspend children in Kindergarten. This decision was hailed as a great step. Ironically, the loudest revelers came from the charter schools who bragged that their school culture is built on the tears of kids suspended for the wrong color socks. Gritty.

For those of you not in the ed circles, yes there are a lot of Kindergarten suspensions. Yes, it’s insane. Yes, African American and Hispanic kids, especially females, are far more likely to be suspended when their white peers might receive a stern warning.

This is good. But don’t count me in the high-five parade.

Just like banning cell phones doesn’t teach a child how to focus on learning, banning a punishment doesn’t help faculty learn how to cope with a difficult child. I’m hopeful that schools will build towards discipline and away from punishment. But there’s that principal and the assistants, telling kids to go home. My hunch? More in school suspensions, more off-the-books suspensions, more “special rooms” with work-packets. More of the same.

Please don’t let teachers off the hook. Before education reform and charter schools, the online dialogue was discipline. Phrases like “home training” and “can’t save them all” were encouraged. Importing “broken windows” from police to school came from an educator (who now regrets his role in it).

But have some empathy for these educators. They have huge classes. They have a massive number of kids moving in and out of the system. They are under tremendous pressure. They very well may love the kids and they very well may hate suspensions, but they also know that when Debbie is out of the room every kid seems to do better.

This is the reality of schools. Changing the rule doesn’t change these facts. What needs to be done? First, authentic, long term training on alternative approaches. That’s a whole year, not one afternoon. Second, smaller classes with more help. Many of these kids need attention more than anything else, and can feel terribly unfair when the classroom is stuffed to the gills. Third, recruit more teachers from the neighborhood, and push cultural competency as a skill like reading instruction.

Declaring we are no longer suspending 5 year olds is fine. But declarations are just one step above a Change.org petition – cheap, risk-free, and practically meaningless.

Kindly keep your filthy #edtech talons off of Pokemon

Full disclosure:
1). I have been playing Pokemon Go
2). I thoroughly enjoy it, and am convinced it holds important lessons
3). The thought-pieces on “Can you Use Pokemon Go in the classroom>” are driving me towards felony. Fast.

((Apologies to Professor Shapiro, who didn’t write the piece but had to deal with me anyway))

Stop with the sliver-bullet-against-obesity app. If a child doesn’t have to worry about being mugged, jumped, arrested, or falling in a pothole walking around with a $400 smartphone? Sure. But lots of kids do worry about that. They play football or futbol or double-dutch in a vacant concrete lot. They get exercise, talk with friends, and learn about their abilities. Yet the response from teachers too often ranges from “They should be doing their homework!” and “Where are fathers?!”.

Apologies to the newly-minted Sierra Clubbers, but a big reason kids stay indoors isn’t video games – it’s homework. Your homework. Yes, even that sweet “flipped video”.

Next, Pokemon Go is hardly novel. Geocaching enthusiasts have been doing the work for 16 years. Geocaching teaches leadership, STEM, and, dare I say, grit. Geocaching or Google Lit Trips were user-created and open source. Compare that with Pokemon Go, in which pokestops and gyms are assigned by a proprietary algorithm1.

Geocaching is user-created, democratic, and free. Niactic rehashed this idea, locked it in a closed box and added a layer of corporate branding along with an insane amount of data collection. What does it say that ed-tech “thought leaders” have fallen in love with the latter?

The power of the game, like World of Warcraft or Minecraft, is that it allows kids to be social while exploring their world at their pace. Wonderful. There have only been a few dozen books on this exact topic written in the past few years.

The shower of thought-pieces smell not of innovation, but of desperation. It’s grown people flailing to stay relevant, hysterically clawing at the latest trend to showcase their own youth and vibrancy. I feel like I’m watching dozens of Homer Simpsons, skateboarding over a gulch to prove his youth to an audience that never cared about it in the first place.

Look, I get it. Classrooms should be relevant. But there’s a pretty visible boundary between “we’re connecting with your interests” and “I’m hip! I’m with it!”. Why can’t kids keep Neverland? Why can’t teachers leave some space where they can learn without adults probing, adding standards and notes to whatever it is they do to keep moving through adolescence?

Can we use Pokemon, Snapchat, or the next app-crazy in our classrooms? Sure – if we open ownership of what we do to our students. That means students have ownership of the content, the device, and the methods. This, however, is a shared process, meaning no one can farm blog hits or retweets; nobody can hawk their “Make Your Classroom Go with Pokemon!” e-book if the students have done all the work. No gold, or pokecoin, can be spun.

Running the type of classroom we want is frustrating work. It’s easy to latch onto a fad or app. So, yes, we could use Pokemon Go in the classroom. But, if the kids have any say in it, we should pass.


  1. and, I assume, a to-be-established six-figure deal 

14 things I learned this year

1. “Letting great people do their own thing” is a good leadership strategy. It also has its limits.

2. A good sample can be more important than a good rubric.

3. No matter how passionately you believe you are right, doing “your own thing” in the classroom has a transaction cost, where kids have to figure out what you are doing instead of what they are doing. Renegading feels good, but is not best practices.

4. A school without vision and values is a school in conflict.

5. I’m not sure if social media exacerbates or creates madness, but the levels of depravity seemingly normal people are capable of is truly and terribly magnificent.

6. If you really want kids to remember something, there are worst strategies than just repeating it every single day.

7. I’m never scaffolding enough for freshmen. They devour scaffolding.

8. Poetry slams are really fun, until they go too long. Then they are no fun at all.

9. Convincing kids to revise a good piece is 10 time harder than convincing them to write a good piece.

10. Arguing on Twitter is the proverbial fighting monsters. You inevitably become one.

11. It’s the year 2030, and there’s still that one kid who insists on emailing a Microsoft Word document instead of Google Docs.

12. Testing has become the status quo. Kids expect to stress over mandated testing, and expect you to be part of that stress.

13. In 10 years, Lil’ Wayne’s first verse in “Mr. Carter” will still be an excellent way to teach poetic devices.

14. Even the best schools, the schools you wish you could work in, have their terrible days. To school is to struggle.

Principals, Processes, and 12 Monkeys

For my money, the best time travel movie ever is “12 Monkeys”, which takes place in a pre-and-post apocalyptic Philadelphia. Halfway through, Bruce Willis and Madeline Stowe are assaulted by roving gangs in a amid a background of insane vagabonds, burning trashcans, and abandoned homes. And that’s before the apocalypse.1

The perception of 1990s Philly was bad. Bissenger’s “Prayer of the City” documented Philly’s painful lurch from industrial-belt to rust-belt. We were less than 20 years away from MOVE and the Frank Rizzo “I’ll make Atilla the Hun look like a fag” era of policing. Between all this and mismanagement of the 1993 World Series team, the city was feeling low.

In all this, the University of Pennsylvania had a problem: The decaying city was beginning to kill their vibe. In the retrospective “West Philly Initiatives: A Case Study in Urban Revitalization”, stakeholders call an emergency meeting with Mayor Ed Rendell following the murder of a graduate student.

From the report:

The parents did not want to hear us talk about what we planned to do. They wanted to see immediate results, or else they would pull their children out of Penn. And to make sure we got the point they booed us off the stage. The time for further study was over. Penn’s future was at stake. We needed to act.

Penn decided to embark on a plan of either massive urban renewal or purposeful cultural whitewashing, depending on your political leanings. They established the University City District, multiple business partnerships, a quasi-police force, and their own K-8 School.

This was not charity. Penn’s acted because their core constituency was at stake – well-off white people who were scared to death at their child living in what was, in their perception, an urban war zone.

Penn’s plan worked. The Spruce Hill area is one of the hottest real estate markets in the city, by some estimates potential homebuyers pay a 33% premium to live in the catchment. Crime is down, farmer’s markets are in, and the Penn Alexander School, established as part of the West Philadelphia Initiatives, is packed to the gills and thriving.

Fast-forward to 2016. The Penn Alexander School is searching for a new principal2 . This search is “national”. The school has employed an outside search agency and will conduct special community meetings make sure the cream of the crop apply for the position.

Before we continue, 3 things that are true:
1). Penn Alexander is an awesome school, with terrific kids and teachers.

2). The community at Penn Alexander deserves a community-drive search for a wonderful school leader.

3). So does every other school.

The principal search at most other Philadelphia schools looks very different. I’ve been through one, and was told not to talk about it, so the reader will have to excuse my lack of details. Principal candidates are interviewed by a group of parents, teachers, students, and community leaders – assuming they can make the meetings, held during work hours at 440 N. Broad Street.  The questions are pre-screened3. The candidates are scored without follow ups. And the superintendent is allowed to make a decision without considering any of this. In our case, the principal we were assigned has not among the four we interviewed. Sometimes, the job will be given to candidate whom the teachers, students, and parents scored “unacceptable”.

Frustrating, right? But consider: Principals, like teachers, will gravitate to jobs in schools with a demographically stable student body – one with more money and stability. Magnet schools and high-profile schools offer more resources and a chance to gain notoriety. The reverse is true for schools in the toughest neighborhoods. In order to get principals into the latter, they have to believe in a chance at the former. Put your time in, build your resume, and get a plum job once it comes up.

The principal is the most important single person in the building. Maybe they relish the tough job, maybe they’re pining for the next one. Who cares? The system, as currently built, is undemocratic, unhelpful, and a reminder at the historical inequity that eats away at our core.

Whiter and wealthier schools, Magnet or otherwise, have far more control over the principal selection process. They have this control because the brain-trust of the city knows what Penn knew, that alienating the wealthier and whiter people of the city is bad for one’s long-term prospects.

My school was assigned a principal4, and is located just outside Penn’s official reach. University City has spread, not in terms of official buildings, but in terms of boutique coffee, white renters, and UCD police. Sometimes it’s a boon – many of my kids work at Fresh Grocer, a direct product of the West Philadelphia Initiatives.

My kids, 95% African American, hear a very clear message from University City. Their neighborhoods are ravaged by poverty and civic disinvestment. But that’s where the comparison ends. My kids don’t get the private meeting with the mayor when someone is shot, or when the District closed their neighborhood school. There’s no national search for a principal. The kids who walk to my school come the north, from Mantua and Haddington. They walk past The Youth Studies Center. They know.

The message?Government is something which is not controlled by people, but inflicted upon them. If Penn’s people wanted Haverford Avenue cleaned up, it would happen. Tough luck.

I’m in my feelings; changing something as small as principal selection process wouldn’t revive these neighborhoods. But it’s a really good idea – not just as education policy, but as social policy. Schools would be closer to what they were intended: The democratic equalizer. Could Hite have the final say? Sure, he’s the boss. But he should at least have to address the community.

Here’s hoping the kids at Penn-Alexander, and every other school, get a say in their school leader.


  1. the actual filming takes place in the Met Theater, an area that is being devoured by development from the North and South. I 

  2. of note: The University of Pennsylvania built a $19 million campus and subsidized $1,000 extra per student to the 100% PFT school. Or, the smartest people looked at schools and said “let’s throw more money at it”. 

  3. Principals have unions too, you know 

  4. who is terrific, even though he doesn’t read this 

The Secret Sauce (#educon reflection)

I go to Educon for a lot of reasons. I love hearing about other schools. I grow from listening to smart people, and new perspectives. I see my Twitter friends and meet my Twitter heroes1. As I’ve grown, it’s become a weird Philadelphia-Teachers-Who-Haven’t-Quit festival, and I spent much of Educon 2016 wandering and chatting.

But, like nearly all of the out-of-towners, I go to peek inside Science Leadership Academy. I’m an unabashed fan of what they do. I’ve bought all the books2 and tried, as much as one can, to apply the principles in my room and, as I’ve grown, in my school. I usually leave frustrated. Laptop envy gnaws at my innards, or I slump my shoulders watching my peers coordinate with the biggest movers-and-shakers in Philly. And the next year I come back, hoping to find the magic words.

This year I was stationed in Larissa Pahomov’s presentation. It was a basic, no-nonsense review of the tools teachers at SLA use in daily practice. It was packed. This, we assumed, was the “Shazam” that made things tick.

So first came the Google Docs. Then some student group contracts. Then more Google Docs. And, by the third time Larissa said “Yes, it’s all on our website“, I was struck with revelation. None of these tools, in her (terrific) session were things I hadn’t seen before or used before. These were not weapons of the gods. Other than the $30k student management system, all of this stuff was within my capabilities.

There is no secret sauce. This school, like any other great institution, identified its values and intentionally built their organization to reflect those values, and they have done it for a decade.

I decided to start lifting weights in college3. I get a good number of freshmen boys asking how they can “get husky”? My answer: Lift a lot and eat right for 16 months. They scowl.

Writing this, I am more-than-a-little ashamed it took me so long to arrive here. How do we get better besides intentional practice? But the way I approached school was much closer to “THIS DAD HAD ONE WEIRD TRICK TO GET SHREDDED AND DOCTORS HATE HIM”.

This also applies to policy. Great Oaks Charter seeks to acquire a Philadelphia neighborhood school. Their solution? Tutors4. That’s what we’ve been missing? That’s the secret sauce?

I wrote my leadership team a follow up email. In short: I’m done with best practices or “go to ___ school and see what we can steal”. We create values and we work towards those values.  Anyone else selling anything else can take a hike.

I enjoyed Educon, I will certainly go again, and I will go knowing the secret is out.


  1. Guys, The Jose Vilson knows who I am. He. Knows. Who. I. Am. 

  2. you should, too 

  3. for us short and slow guys, the options are limited 

  4. and a hefty management fee