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Challenging the Status Quo

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SD HQ Use this.jpgThere is a lot of consternation over the plans to reform the operations of the Philadelphia School District and I can understand why.  The proposal advanced by the leadership of the district is almost too big to wrap your arms around. It is recommending major change in a town used to only incremental change. It challenges the political status quo. But, if you parse it into its component parts, it emerges as the right plan at the right time.

Here are the basic components of the proposal:

1. Right the ship.

Because of the profligacy of the previous regime - and the loss of hundreds of millions of  state and federal money - the district is the financial equivalent of a sinking ship. Unless it brings spending under control, it will face an accumulated deficit in excess of $1 billion four years down the road. It cannot wait until tomorrow in the hope things will get better; it has to act now. 

The district already has laid off thousands of workers.  It is seeking contract concessions from its many unions with the goal of lowering employee costs.  It is moving quickly to close 40-plus schools that are under-utilized - too many seats and too few students.

Some facts: 12 of the city's large neighborhood high schools have more empty seats than students, as do 14 middle schools and 22 elementary schools. 

It costs just as much to heat, clean and maintain a half-empty building as it does a full one.  Closing schools is politically painful, but it a must financially.

The district is also asking for $94 million in additional aid from the city, a proposal tied by the Nutter administration to the mass reassessment of real estate now underway.

2. Restructure the top.

The district's central bureaucracy already has been downsized by layoffs and is due to be cut even more under the plan. And it's just not for financial reasons. As Thomas Knudsen, the interim head of the district put it, there's recognition that in today's educational world a top-down, command and control organization is not what is needed.

In the past, I have likened the district bureaucracy to the Kremlin. At others, to a Mandarin court. Whatever you prefer, the result is a stifling atmosphere, with dictum being handed down from on high - and then changed shortly thereafter based on the whim of the Empress. Teachers and principals have complained for years about the district's lumbering, authoritarian bureaucracy. But, it did serve one useful purpose. It gave them someone else to blame for the district's failures. To hear them tell it, they would do much better - and be more creative - if freed from the heavy hand of The Parkway or, in its most recent manifestation, Broad Street.

All I can say is: be careful what you wish for.

3. Be result oriented.

The central administration will be replaced by "networks" of schools, which will be assisted by support staff. Think of them as mini-districts. These networks will include both public and charter schools and will stress collaboration. This network idea has become a flashpoint for opponents of change in the district, who see them as a backdoor way of privatizing the schools.

That fear is a red herring.

One way to understand the restructuring is to consider the work of John Timoney, who was Philly's police commissioner from 1998 to 2002.

When Timoney arrived in town from New York City, where he began his career at a beat cop, his analysis was that the department had become too process oriented and did not pay enough attention to results. To change that around, he began with the department's captains.

Captains are key to department field operations. They head the city's 21 police districts, but many had retreated from the streets into their offices, where they "managed" their district: controlling overtime, the budget, the makeup of street patrols, etc.

Timoney pushed all that aside and demanded instead that captains be responsible for the crime in their district. Using the newly created Compstat system - which could track and map crime in real time - he called clusters of captains to weekly meetings, attended by him and the department brass - and went over in great detail the goings on in their district. Why were burglaries up? Why so many drug arrests on that corner? Why some many auto thefts? And so it went.

It has a bracing effect on the captains. They got out of their offices and headed to the streets. Arrests rose. Crime went down. Timoney used this results-oriented system, initially imposed on 21 captains, as a fulcrum to change the 7,000-officer police force.

In the same way, the SRC plans to make principals responsible for the results in their schools. They will not be judged on how well they process forms, handle overtime or keep a lid on student behavior. They will be judged by how well or how poorly their school educates its students.

No one is talking about this yet, but this clearly will require major changes in the contractual relationship between the district, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the principal's union (CASA), whose contracts are due to expire in August, 2013.

For instance if you are going to hold a principal responsible for performance in his school, what happens if performance does not improve over, say, four or five years?

The short answer is: the principal should go - and not just transferred to another school, but booted out of the system.

And how can you hold principals accountable if they do not even have the power to choose their own staff? Under the current system, teaching assignments are decided by seniority, so principals can't pick staff. Nor can they remove staff that performs poorly (In theory, yes. In practice, no). That will have to change.

What happens if the principal decides that his high school will work better if classes begin at 9 a.m., but teachers report an hour earlier so they can meet and go over reports on students' progress or problems? The PFT rules on length of the work day would preclude that. So that may have to change. (By the way, this late-start system was instituted at Olney High this year but since Olney is now a charter school, union rules do not apply.)

In short, the unions will be asked to make changes in their work rules so the district can get the results it wants. One side benefit will be more freedom in each school and each classroom on matters such as curriculum and teaching styles.

The district plan has been called "radical" but it's not radical at all when compared to the world of private enterprise - where results are emphasized over process, where managers must meet goals or move on, where staff is assigned according to their abilities, not their years of service.

Even with these concessions, the unions will still be left with contracts that provide decent salaries, gilt-edged health coverage and a generous pension.

That said there's no doubt these changes will be met with hostility by the unions. The summer is 2013 is going to be a painful time in the district.

What's interesting in reaction to these plans is the incoherence of the opponents. Some say it moves too fast. Others object to the cuts in the budget. Some have developed an odd yearning to keep the central bureaucracy intact. The teacher union hits darkly that the proposals are a plot to turn the district over to right-wing extremists whose mission is to destroy public education.

What no one has done - what no one has offered - is a plausible alternative. What would do you do? Ignore the deficits? Keep half-empty schools open? Not provide additional city support for the schools? Keep the current bureaucracy in place? Declare all work rules sacrosanct and unchangeable?

Apparently, the answer to all those question is: yes. What the opponents of the SRC plan are saying, in effect, is: We want the district to stay just the way it is. We are satisfied with the status quo.

In a way, the opponents are right. The status quo serves them well. The only group it hurts is the children, who sit in class day after day, year after year, and still do not learn.

Can we afford yet another generation of young Philadelphians who cannot function in the modern world of work? Whose lives are circumscribed by the failure of our educational system to educate them? The sooner this vicious cycle ends the better. This is no time to stand by the status quo.

-- Tom Ferrick

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