Philadelphia Metropolis

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No More Zombies

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Thumbnail image for zombie.jpgThere is a too-muchness about the Philadelphia School District, with its 249 schools, 207,000 students, 20,000 employees and its $2.5 billion annual budget. Unlike the old days, when they kept data under lock and key, information about district operations and student performance is plentiful today, almost too much so, for outsiders who want to make sense of what is going on. It's easy to get lost in the blizzard of numbers.

But, if you are looking for a clarifying moment, let me offer one small set of statistics that is revelatory.

Each year, the state tests students in Pennsylvania on their knowledge of the basics of math and reading.  Students in grades 3 through 8 are tested, and then it skips to 11th graders. The test is called the PSSA.

I find the results of 11th graders the most interesting.

These are kids who have spent their entire lives in the system, so they can serve as barometers of the cumulative effect of their classroom experiences. They also are just one year away from heading into the real world, so the numbers are an indicator on how they might perform in college or a first job.

The test scores are divided into four categories: advanced, which means superior academic performance; proficient, which means satisfactory performance; basic, which reflects marginal academic performance and below basic, "Below basic work," according to the state guidelines, "reflects inadequate academic performance... [it] indicates little understanding and minimal display of skills..."

Over the last decade, Philadelphia public school students have been making advances in the PSSA, but you wouldn't know it on the high school level, especially among students attending the district's 29 neighborhood high schools -- Roxborough, South Philadlephia, Germantown, Northeast High, etc.

Here is how 11th graders in neighborhood high schools did in the 2009-2010 PSSA's.

PSSA

Math

Reading

Advanced

9%

7%

Proficient

14%

21%

Basic

14%

20%

Below Basic

63%

52%

To summarize, the numbers are dismal. The majority of students perform below basic, which "indicates little understanding and minimal displays of skill." It's as if they hadn't learned anything in their years of schooling. They are educational zombies. They look to be alive, but in reality they are dead, at least academically dead. On a more personal level we ask:

What do these numbers mean for these kids?

College is out of the question. They may not be able to read the instructions for the SAT test, let alone answer the questions. Their only hope of getting into a school would be to do some heavy-duty remedial work.

In the workplace, the numbers mean these kids lack the tools to understand complex tasks -- ones that require you, for instance, to read a training manual or perform math in your head. Skilled, well-paying jobs are out of their reach.

In short, these young men and women will soon be emerging from high school to face the economic equivalent of the death penalty. Economically, they are the undead. They look like they are alive. They think they are alive. But, they are dead when it comes to a future in the job market. They are zombies.

Despite their dismal performance, despite their failure to grasp the basics of math and reading, thousands of these students will walk down the aisle, dressed in cap and gown, in June of next year to receive their diplomas from the Philadelphia School District.

This is a radical outcome for a system whose principal mission is to educate children.

Which makes it strange to hear the latest plan to change the system labeled as "radical" by its opponents -- the teachers union, some parents and community groups, who are making a lot of noise in opposition.

The plan is born out of financial necessity. The district is broke. It just went through the painful process of cutting $600 million from its budget, mostly by laying off employees, including 1,300 teachers. Still, it faces budget deficits in each of the next 5 years unless it does something quickly to control costs.

The interim leadership has proposed shutting down 40 schools next year and more the year after that. It is seeking wage and benefit concessions from its unions. It wants to, in effect, dismantle the district's central bureaucracy and turn over management of the schools to "achievement networks," consisting of 25 or more schools that would be run by outside providers or district staff.

The idea at the heart of the plan is to empower principals and teachers to run their schools with minimal interference -- provided they deliver major improvements in student performance.

The district leadership also wants to expand the role of charter schools -- which, generally, have been successful and popular with parents. It proposes raising charter enrollment until it equals 60,000 students. (Charters enrollment now stands at about 40,000.)

From a political standpoint, the School Reform Commission and the district leadership is using this crisis to make fundamental changes that will affect students, parents, teachers and district bureaucrats. The closing of so many schools alone will traumatize neighborhoods.

At the same time, the plan seeks to make a major power shift over who rules the district. It seeks to end the power of the central bureaucracy by dismantling it and the teachers union, in ways yet disclosed.

No one likes to lose power. No one wants to lose their local school. No one likes to lose services and employees. People prefer the status quo.

And why not? In some ways, the district works well. It is a major job provider -- the third largest in Philadelphia. It lets millions in contracts to outside providers each year -- ranging from roofers to lawyers, to food service workers. As an economic engine -- despite the recent hits it took -- it makes a significant impact on the lives of Philadelphians.

In other words, the district would be a success story if it wasn't for the children not learning.

That's something to keep in mind in coming months as the future of the district is debated. The forces of status quo will blast this "radical" plan; hint darkly that it is a right-wing plot to destroy public education. They will demonize charters, citing ersatz evidence that they do not work. They will try their level best to keep things as they are. Because it works for them. It works very well for them.

If it gets to be too much, take a break and look again at the small chart at the top of this post. It will tell you why radical change must happen. The system is not educating children. It is shuffling them through 12 years of schooling and out into the world, unable to perform basic math and reading, unprepared for the demands of the modern workplace.

We can do better -- we have to do better -- than to produce another generation of educational zombies.

-- Tom Ferrick

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