A Tale of Two School Districts

Who wants to be depressed? This weekend, the Inquirer posted the test scores of Philly schools. Recognizing the problems with school testing, I nevertheless went through, and pulled out the scores of some notable Philly high schools. Students were put into three categories: Advanced, Proficient and Basic/Below basic.

What is clear, and obvious enough to people who have been here a while, is that we have a tale of two school districts: The magnet schools like Central and Masterman, and everybody else. Check out the numbers below:

As expected, the magnet schools do just fine. While a school like Central might have some problems, kids who go there come out prepared to go to college.

But, the large majority of our kids don't go to magnets, and are in neighborhood schools that are dramatically bad. There is obviously a lot of room for debating how much of this is the schools themselves, and how much of this is our general destructive society. But, entire schools with zero kids testing as advanced? Schools with 90 percent of kids at basic or below basic levels? The word that most comes to mind for me is... shameful.

We are producing thousands of young men and women who have little reading or writing skills, little to no chance to go to college, and little prospect of making a decent wage.

Fixing our schools will cost a lot of money- about a billion dollars apparently. But the price we will pay as a society for inaction, and a continuation of these obvious failings, is immeasurable.


As many people have said through history, there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. When it comes to our public schools, those lies can be particularly damnable.

My main problem with these school rankings is their heavy reliance on the PSSA tests. While standardized tests can be one tool usable to evaluate a school, total reliance on them leaves much to be desired. My father-in-law (a Central alum + former teacher) complains bitterly about the local perception that Masterman is so much better than Central, when many of Masterman's seeming advantages are due to an apples-vs.-oranges comparison. Simply put, Central probably has as many kids in each grade as Masterman has in the entire school. Is a comparison between a huge school + a much smaller one, based on a single test, a valid one? I doubt it. And how can a single test fully tease out the differences between two excellent schools, or between two mediocre ones, for that matter? Simply put, it can't.

Here's a statistical complaint: if you look at the ratings for students finishing as advanced, proficient, + basic/below basic, you see that very few of them work out to a reasonable bell curve. Simply put, a good statistical distribution should have the large majority of people in the middle, with smaller 'tails' above + below the mean. If the distribution doesn't look like that, it indicates that either your measurements are all wrong, or that there's something seriously amiss with the subject of your measurements. In this case, I strongly suspect that it's something of both.

I was somewhat gratified to see that the School District of Philadelphia isn't in the bottom of money spent per student. But, no matter which district finished first and which finished last, the very fact that one district can spend more than twice per student than another one is a slap in the face.

Again, full disclosure: both my family + my wife's are rotten w/current and former School District of Philadelphia teachers.


Two different arguments

Zorro, I can see your point on the Masterman/Central distinction -- that fifteen point spread between "proficient" and "advanced" students may not mean a whole lot in considering the overall quality of each school.

But to come back to Dan's main point, Masterman has about eighty percent of its students ranking advanced, and only 2.5% basic/below, while West Philly has zero (yes, zero) percent students advanced, and only 5.5% of its students ranking proficient. Whatever problems there may be with testing as a policy and the value of statistics at the margin, that discrepancy is stunning -- even if it isn't totally surprising (which may be even more outrageous).

No argument

The difference between the magnet schools + neighborhood schools is, indeed, a major problem for Philadelphia families. Much of it is due to two factors:

1) The magnet schools can both pick + choose from applicants from the entire City + expel students who don't measure up- sending them back to their neighborhood school.

2) The magnet schools raise considerable funds from their alumni. Not to say that, for instance, West Philadelphia High School doesn't have wealthy alumni who donate funds to their alma mater, only that Central, Girls, + Masterman have more, hence more money above + beyond what they get from the City + Commonwealth.

If the problem was easy to fix, it would have been fixed by now. Always remember that complicated problems tend to have simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers. More money is a part of the answer, but not the whole answer. The schools themselves need to be updated. Rabbi Stone from Beth Zion-Beth Israel once observed that the thing which would help Philadelphia's public schools the most would be to go back in time 50 years. The current model of public education is fine for an industrial society, but rather ill-suited for a post-industrial one. Is Microsoft's High School of the Future in West Philly the way to go? Who knows. I'd prefer an open source school of the future (no, seriously, this isn't just a jab at MS), but I don't think that the US as a whole really knows where to take public schools to make them work in the 21st century.

On a certain level, there are two compelling societal reasons for public education. One is that well-educated people make better workers. And another is that participatory democracy only works in the presence of an educated electorate. Unfortunately, the more monied members of society have determined that it's better to keep a number of people stupid, both because this makes them easier to manipulate (primarily via fear + religious pandering), and because stupid people are willing to work for less in menial jobs, while the high-paying jobs are kept for the children of the monied elite. This can be seen in action when you realize that wealthy suburbs almost always have far better-funded public schools- largely because that's precisely how the school funding system was designed. If you design school funding so that it is based on local property taxes, you will, by design, have a system which is all-but guaranteed to create a vast pool of easily-manipulated poor, with a small number of wealthy professionals to rule them. I don't know about you, but that isn't the America I was raised to believe in.

If we want public education to serve the two purposes I describe above, we need to update the methods + system for the 21st century. We can't have high school graduates who are, for all intents and purposes, qualified to do little more than flip burgers or clean the houses of the elite. We need to give them the tools they need to prosper today- and without requiring them to attend education beyond high school. The assumption seems to be that kids need to go to college b/c high school isn't enough. I agree that high school isn't enough, but the solution to that should be to fix the primary + secondary education system, not to require people to pay for college.

One final note (I've got lots of thoughts on public education- that's what happens when you grow up around teachers): if you wait until high school to start worrying about kids learning, you're way too late. Education begins at home- the best thing a parent can do to help his or her child to well in school is to read to the kid. Turn off the TV + read a book yourself- let the kids see that reading is something good to do in and of itself. Plop the kid and read to him or her from the earliest possible age; that way, the kid associates reading with the warm feelings of being held by Mom or Dad. Reading is, perhaps, the single most fundamental learning skill. A kid with advanced (for his/her age) reading skills is more ready to learn than a kid without reading skills.

Then, make sure that the elementary schools get parental support. Public schools are very much a case of self-fulfilling prophecy: if parents of smart kids think that a school is good, they send their kids there + get involved; if a school has both smart kids + involved parents, it will be good.

What's the lesson? That parents have to help the schools. That the schools need money. That the schools need to be rethought for the 21st centuy. In short: it ain't easy, and it's going to take time. But this is a job which needs to be done. To paraphrase President Kennedy, this is a job which we need to do not because it is easy but because it is hard.

Sorry if I rambled- it's late,

There will be a bell curve

but only for the whole population or a good sample of such. The only way you would find a bell curve in each school is if the students were equally accomplished at each school. Only at Lake Woebegone, where everyone is above average would you find that.

Or you might find it in a really first rate school system that focued its resources on bringing everyone up to a level of competence Twenty years ago, by the way, that is what Japanese elementary schools looked like. And I think that is what Helen and others are, rightly, arguing for here.

Retired teacher of statistics

Brainstorming Solutions

The need for more money and investment in the schools is a given, but I'm curious: what other progressive solutions (or salves) are there for Philadelphia schools?

Some of the questions I'm thinking of are bread and butter: What are the priorities for investment? How do we train and retain teachers? Do we need more magnet/nontraditional schools? If so, what kinds? What's been the effect (if any) of site selection, catchment areas, etc.?

Others are, well, more pie-in-the-sky: What if we partitioned the school district into a handful of community districts? What if we worked to create a big regional ISD to share institutional resources? What more can the schools do with digital/distance learning (and educational support)? (I am clearly missing a thousand things.)

Let's put it this way -- suppose tomorrow we got the billion dollars. What would we do?

Educational policy and reform are too important to remain a black box to anyone not immediately invested in the system. We need as many intelligent and committed people as possible to roll up their sleeves, to get themselves up to speed, and to start thinking seriously about this.

No more magnet schools

Quick thoughts to yours:

  • If we're concerned about how the large comprehensive high schools are doing, then the last thing we should be focusing on is building schools with special admission requirements, which only serve to pull off the students from struggling neighborhood schools. One of the reasons for the severe decline in these schools is that the massive expansion of small high school options as well as charters, has significantly drawn down the population (resulting in fewer dollars on a per pupil spending formula) and left behind the students least able to seek alternative options.
  • Site selection is great at high demand schools, but I dare say Germantown HS offering site selection won't yield more qualified candidates unless it's combined with something else.
  • In a district which still lacks basics like reduced class size or decent facilities, or art and music and science as options,pie in the sky options you suggested just seem like a way to avoid addressing real problems

I am personally of the feeling that the District undoubtably needs more money but it also needs to be more responsible with the money it has. That being said, if privatized EMOs are a real part of the landscape, there is no reason to tolerate not being up on those contracts, holding them accountable, not spending more than you have to, and cutting contractors loose when they don't work out. Private contracts easily account for a significant portion of available funds, and the District's failure to oversee them and demand performance and accountability over them is one of the main reasons we see huge expenditures and poor results.

If I had a billion dollars for schools

well, we could change the world, but with or without the billion, I would think the priorities for me would be as follows:

1) reduce class size across the District K-12. Vallas used to thrown around the number of $10M per grade per year but this figure has to expand to include real reduced classroom capacity reduction of 20 in grades K-3 and no more than 25 in grades 4-12. That will require a massive expansion of building facilities.
2) invest in retaining and professional development of quality teachers. District stats show that less than 50% of Philly's teachers have more than five years experience. People get recruited to teach in our schools all right, but no one can stand to stay (i guess I'd have to include myself who left after 4 years). No wonder if you can earn tens of thousands more in suburban schools with half the grief. We'd want to boost salaries across the board, increase requirements for professional development, increase peer teaching and review programs, and get rid of failing teachers after a substantive but clear set of procedures.
3)increase the number of support personnel in school. We're overrun with technology and security but we've sacrificed the most important academic tool -- nurturing supportive adults who show kids they care -- bring back classroom aides, music and art teachers, have a full time nurse, counselors as well as a crisis management team, librarians, department heads at high schools to help with curriculum and professional support, etc.
4) provide decent food to kids. Many studies have shown the link between fresh food and improved academic and behavioral performance. We're feeding our kids on maybe $2 a meal including packaging and delivery. That's not a meal program for our kids, that's a health crisis.
5)focus on literacy in the early grades. Build in instructional supports to boost literacy by grades 3, including school libraries, literacy interns, literacy professional development investment and training for teachers.
6) building significant training and mentoring in middle schools; and
7) build up science teaching, instruction and facilities (labs) in every school.

I didn't prioritize high school in these efforts, but if the focus is on priorities, mine would be preventative rather than redress.

This is a superb list

1) How much of the class size problem, would you estimate, is a building facilities issue, and how much is the cost of hiring more teachers and staffing additional classrooms?

2-3) I've gotten very interested in professional development in education since my older brother moved from a HS math teacher to supporting math teachers across his district in Michigan. It seems like the more on-site professional development you can do (including peer teaching/support, but also from teaching specialists) the better. I am also a fan of creating a new public university in Philadelphia with a prominent teacher education program, which we've talked about before.

4) Access to nutritious, inexpensive food is such a major issue, in Philadelphia and other cities, for school-age children and adults. Sometimes it seems like we need to rebrand it to get people's attention: "urban food crisis," anyone?

5&7) It ties into 7, but literacy expands beyond reading as well: scientific literacy, financial literacy, digital literacy, etc. I don't want to dilute the basic idea here at all.

6) Do you mean training and mentoring for teachers?

more thoughts on schools

The class size issue is both a facilities as well as a personnel cost issue. It starts with personnel as the first barrier. For example Parents United for Public Education recently won a victory to have the district rebudget 120 some teachers to reduce class size at the lowest performing schools to a tune of $11-some million. The costs are significant when you consider the average tacher cost, incl. benefits is $92,500 and District estimates shows there are some 100 oversized classes (that's those above 30 in K-3/33 in 4-12 ). Just getting those classrooms down below the maximum is $10 million.

On the other hand, in the most overcrowded schools in the Northeast and east region the problem is facilities. In terms of flat money, facilities will obviously cost far more than hiring teachers (buildings range between $20-40 million). Vallas chose to prioritize his facilities money to build small high school options (which were underfinanced). One could argue that the money could also have gone to strategically placed elementary school expansion to eliminate situations where you've got 35-40 younger kids packed into a classroom, falling further and further behind in school.

Professional development was very much the missing piece in Vallas' reform vision. PD is the nuts and bolts of urban school reform. You can't compete with the burbs offering 25% or more in salary with a cushier environment. So those you do recruit you have to retain. You need to retain by building in supports, treating people like they're professionals and providing them with the resources to do better. Everyone, I think, wants to be good at what they do. There are far too many poor PD courses, they're centralized rather than localized, and they're not focused. It's a hodgepodge thrown at people rather than a consistent campaign on primary grade literacy for example, or middle school mentoring, or tackling special ed in high school. I personally would like to see teachers develop a course of study as part of their PD where they set a professional goal, map out a PD course for themselves, see it backed in part by District resources and are evaluated on their progress.

As an aside, I am pretty down on a lot of our teacher ed programs at the local universities. They simply don't prepare teachers for urban struggles, don't engage with social justice issues, and as a result the thing most new teachers can't deal with is the injustice and "culture shock" in some ways of teaching in environments they're not prepared for psychologically, politically or socially. That's something our universities need to recognize and address themselves.

Middle school and the 9th grade transition more than anyplace else is where we lose our children. So I was hasty to just leave it at mentoring in middle school, but if it were up to me, I would concentrate additional academic resources in elementary and beef up support services in middle school. This is not to say Iacademics should slide in middle school, but just that I think the focus might have the most benefit if its about identifying struggling students and figuring out the supportive services to help them through. This is the time when kids are saying I am not going to make it, or why should I make it - what do I have to look forward to? Simply doing the standard drill and test routine with them doesn't reap the same benefits as it does in elementary (if there are any benefits to drill and test). We have to invest in social service supports, identify students who struggle, target families as well as children for city services and intervention, and redress academically. Kids need counselors and counseling teams; we need full time nurses to check on health issues; they need access to inspiring caring adults in multiple walks of life; they need to engage in a variety of programs that show numerous skills and options for school and life in general.

And of course we need to retrain middle school staff who need lots of support for dealing with children in this age range (as all of us YPP parents well know). Currently the state has no middle school certification. Middle school teachers are either generalists in the K-8 elementary, or they are high school specialists for grade 7-12.

Class size/school size

I think that it's clear that one of the most important school reform issues to address, if not the most important, is class size. I can't think of any single factor that can affect our schools more dramatically. Sure, I have worked with incredible students from China, as an example, who excelled in schools where class sizes of 60 or so were commonplace; but, that's a different culture, with different cultural norms and facing different challenges (and also, the students who excelled in such environments were outliers).

That said, I think that school size is a related issue that is also very important. Even if class sizes were smaller, having smaller schools that are more conducive to building supportive school communities is very, very important. While the problems that you describe with charter schools are important, and while I'm no fan of Vallas' policies, I do think that the creation of charter schools has served a need in the sense of creating smaller school communities. But there is no reason that creating charter schools needs to be the only way to achieve smaller schools.

I have no idea how to prioritize all these issues; professional development, remuneration, support staff, etc., are all very important factors to address. But I have no doubt that focusing on class size and school size would have synergistic effects, and that both issues need to be at, or at least close to, the top of the list.

Class size

I've seen conflicting studies on the importance of class size. Catholic schools, for instance, tend to have larger class size than public schools. I'm not dismissing the potential importance of class size in school quality, only suggesting that it is only one part of a complex puzzle. Remember: complex problems, simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers.

The question here is deceptively simple: what is the best way to help children learn? The answer to the question is, by necessity, a complicated one, because children are, themselves, complicated. Not all kids learn the same way: some learn better by doing, some by studying on their own, some by having things explained, etc. How best to teach a varied group of children? Here's where smaller classes help- they give teachers more opportunity to focus on the different way in which different students learn. And don't forget the problem of teaching to the mean: when a teacher focuses on the average students in the class (who, according to the bell curve, should be the majority of students), the outliers will be either bored or confused. Do you solve this by taking the outliers out of the class- via enrichment or special education classes- or by creating still smaller classes so that the teacher can avoid teaching to the mean?

Then you have the problem of teacher training. First off, as any teacher worth his/her salt will tell you, there's no way to teach someone how to teach: you either know how to impart knowledge to students, or you don't. But you can teach people methods to reach different students- to an extent.

Fixing the public schools isn't easy. That's one reason why the issue keeps being punted from generation to generation. But, if we have any hope to keep the US from becoming the heavily-armed third world nation into which it seems to be changing, we need to try.

One bit of advice to liberals interested in public education: put your kids where your mouths are. Ilana + I are going to send Darah (and our future kids) to public schools. If you really believe in the idea of public education, prove it- send your kids to the local public school and, as I said above, get involved. That helps more than any theorizing about class size + teaching methods could ever hope to do.


No conflict, redux

Even if some schools with bigger classes are more successful than other schools with smaller classes, there just ain't no way that reducing class size wouldn't improve education. If you took Catholic schools that are outperforming public schools, and reduced their class sizes, they would improve also.

In addition to the didactic benefits you describe of decreasing the logistical obstacles for teachers to individualize their instructional methodology to better match their students needs/learning styles, there are numerous emotional benefits to allowing teachers to relate more individually to their students.

Reducing class size doesn't necessarily ensure that teachers are capable of better tailoring their instructional methodologies to individual students. Nor would it guarantee that teachers will be able to create better relationships with their students. Neither teaching nor communication skills will be directly improved by reduced class size. But there's no doubt that to the extent that teachers can tailor their teaching and build relationships with their students, their ability to do so is maximized by smaller class size.

At some point you have do prioritize different reform strategies. At some point, you'd have to say that the marginal return from reducing class size would be less than other reform efforts. I don't have any statistical proof, but I as a teacher who spent many years working in public schools - specifically with populations of "under-performing" students - I have no doubt that we aren't anywhere near the point where the the relative importance of decreasing class size is anyplace other than at the very top of the list (whew! A complicated sentence. Translation = I think reducing class size is important).

I'm not saying that the puzzle isn't complex, and obviously, trying to be categorical about educational reform is very problematic: the variables are impossible to control and so empirical research is always of limited value. But, (yes I know I'm repeating myself), I am fully convinced that creating better conditions for teachers to individualize instruction and to build relationships with students is paramount to improving our educational system.

On the contrary

Class size is important because it touches on so many problems with urban education, from teaching strategies and time spent with students to sufficient resources and controlling students' behavior. It takes a toll on teachers and kids and the buildings and parents, too. Now, while Catholic schools may have larger class size than public schools in general, I doubt they have larger class sizes than overcrowded urban schools. The discipline issues are also different, as is the parental involvement.

First off, as any teacher worth his/her salt will tell you, there's no way to teach someone how to teach: you either know how to impart knowledge to students, or you don't.

I disagree; I don't believe that teaching is really all that ineffable. Teachers are difficult to teach, in large part because they're resistant to change their ways. And it's true that the practice of teaching is different from preparation. But any teacher worth their salt will tell you that the performance is only possible because of their preparation, and that the preparation and performance is a work in progress.

One bit of advice to liberals interested in public education: put your kids where your mouths are. Ilana + I are going to send Darah (and our future kids) to public schools. If you really believe in the idea of public education, prove it- send your kids to the local public school and, as I said above, get involved. That helps more than any theorizing about class size + teaching methods could ever hope to do.

Again, I disagree. I'm absolutely interested in fixing public education, because it's really troubled. I'm absolutely interested in fixing the Market Street corridor in West Philadelphia, but I'm not going to ask my wife to take my son there at midnight. If my wife and I find a public school that we like in Philadelphia, we'll send our son there. If we can afford a private school that we like, we'll send him there; and if neither of those things are true, we are splitting town. I have no more piety about public schools, just as I have no more piety about subscribing to newspapers or local grocery stores or anything else. I fear that if we're too pious, that can blind us to the problems we really face.

Zorro's correct on class size conflicts

There are quite a few studies which question the incremental benefits of reduced class size. However, the disagreements often happen when they ask whether 25 students is better than 20. There is no question though that Philadelphia with a class size standard of 30 kids per teacher in grades K-3, and 33 kids per teacher in grades 4-12 is in a class by itself.

At this point class size reduction is necessary not only for academic reasons but in the most basic, does my teacher even have any time for me reasons. It's also important in terms of preventing the teacher drain from our schools. I got fed up having 37-38 fifth graders packed into my classroom year after year.

USA Today recently wrote about a study where it's not so much that lower class size makes teachers teach better, it's that it inspires kids to feel more connected:

Small classes work for children, but that's less because of how teachers teach than because of what students feel they can do: Get more face time with their teacher, for instance, or work in small groups with classmates.

"Small classes are more engaging places for students because they're able to have a more personal connection with teachers, simply by virtue of the fact that there are fewer kids in the classroom competing for that teacher's attention," says Adam Gamoran of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who analyzed the findings.

Some say that if teachers were then to take advantage of small classes and do more, we'd see even more benefits from class size reduction.

Tipping points

the disagreements often happen when they ask whether 25 students is better than 20. There is no question though that Philadelphia with a class size standard of 30 kids per teacher in grades K-3, and 33 kids per teacher in grades 4-12 is in a class by itself.

This reminds me a bit of the intelligence research that shows that the effect of environment and genetics on IQ changes depending on which part of the spectrum you're on. Basically, if you grow up middle-class in a modern society in a stable household, additional environmental changes (say, giving your kids flash cards or having them listen to Mozart) have a negligible effect. Moving from 25 to 20 doesn't make much of a difference, and moving from 15 to 12 may make even less, but 30 to 24 may make all the difference in the world.

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