Philadelphia Metropolis


Learning to Compete

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When I was a kid and complained about what was served for dinner, my father would always say: "It you don't like it, you can always go down the street."

That always shut me up. This was in the 1950's and we lived in a new suburban development.  There was no place down the street to get better food.  There were only trees.

Fast forward years later to a similar incident with my sons.  They were complaining about the dinner they were served and, almost on automatic pilot; I repeated my father's line. Their faces lit up. 

"Really!" they said, "We can go down the street and get something to eat?"

No wonder they were happy. We lived a section of South Philly where, if you walked two blocks in any direction, you would hit a hoagie store, a pizza parlor or a restaurant.  There was a place to eat down the street.  In fact, there were a dozen places.

I got to play Dad-The Old Fool when I grumbled "That's just a figure of speech."

I thought of that moment when I was reading Superintendent William Hite's "Action Plan V1.0," his blueprint of his goals as head of the Philadelphia School District.

On Page 21, Hite says one goal is to "improve customer service."  By customers, he means parents.

As long as I've been around, parents have never been called "customers." In the public schools, parents are called....well, parents.

Customer is a word Hite borrowed from the business world.  They are the ones who purchase the goods and services a business creates. Without customers, a business would fail, which is why establishments emphasize service.  It's why the customer is always right.

Public schools didn't have to treat parents like customers because they had a virtual monopoly on education.  If you didn't like the education they were dishing out, so what?  They could to tell you to go down the street because there was nothing down the street -- at least nothing within the financial reach of most Philadelphia parents.

As Hite signals, that attitude must change because parents today do have options and they have been going down the street -- mostly to charter schools. Charter enrollment in the city has more than doubled in the last 10 years.

And that includes not just bricks-and-mortar charters.  As Connie Langland reported in one of our Cover Stories (The New Home Schooling) cybercharters are attracting more and more parents. Enrollment of Philadelphia students in cybercharters will exceed 5,000 this school year, about the same size as the Quakertown School District.

In his parent-as-customer section, Hite includes these sentences:

"We work on behalf of the public, for the public.  We currently have no way of measuring parent-family satisfaction with the quality of education provision, apart from the dramatic shift of students into charter schools."

Shift is a euphemism.  It is more like a slow-motion stampede.  And it's not over.  Philadelphia charter schools have waiting lists in excess of 25,000 children.

The word "customer" keeps rattling around in my brain because a few years ago, when I was working on a large study of public, Catholic and charter schools in the city (for Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative) we held focus groups of parents. In the charter parents' group, several folks used the word to describe why they liked charters.  They said they were treated like customers.


Sociologists tell us it takes 40 years to change a fixed attitude.  That's sounds about right.  It took about that long for cigarette smoking to go from an accepted habit to nearly a criminal act.

The public schools don't have another 40 years to shift their view of parents from  something of a bother to valued customers.  The ground is shifting from beneath public educators. Unless traditional behaviors change people will continue to go down the street.

In his plan, Hite also comes close to using another rarely used word in public education: competition.  The sub-text of his report is to tell his people they have to adapt to the new world of public education, which includes a heavy dose of competition.  Yet another concept from the business world.

It's not easy to compete -- especially given the sad state of district finances. (Much of Hite's plan is a stark recounting of the public schools financial plight.) 

Bur Hite does plan to compete, at least on one small corner of the education world.  He has talked about having the district open and run its own cybercharter operation to compete with the providers out there today -- providers who have siphoned off 5,000 district students.   He says the district can do this modern version of home schooling better and cheaper than existing cybercharters.

I say let the competition begin.  And let it be just the beginning of the district competing for the minds and hearts of, customers.

-- Tom Ferrick

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