Questions About Renaissance Schools

Will struggling students be helped or hurt by the latest fad?

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 9 | Posted Feb. 21, 2010

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Will the Renaissance Plan help or hurt Philly students?

Am I the only one who smells something stinky about the school district’s “Renaissance Plan,” which marks poorly-performing public schools for takeover by for-profit and non-profit educational management organizations? Kinda like the Project Edison tried a few years ago. You know, the one that failed miserably?

I’m fortunate to know a number of teachers, but it was difficult to get them to talk publicly because of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s well-earned reputation for vindictiveness and payback. They're frustrated that increasing demands to "teach to the test" are making it more difficult to educate Philly kids -- and they're skeptical the Renaissance Plan c

"Look, I don’t have a problem with remedial work for kids who need it, but we are hardly doing the core curriculum at all," said one teacher. "Now it’s all about test prep. I’m at an Empowerment school (I think that’s what we’re called this week). You wanna know how bad it is? We don’t even teach social studies anymore, just test prep. And so the kids are falling behind, they’re not learning anything."

My friend isn't the only one who's noticed the shift in priorities. Louie Ackelsberg at Young Philly Politics visited a public school recently, and saw it up close and personal. "After one day I learned how the PSSAs [the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment test] were crippling them. A couple things I saw: Social Studies? Gone. Now the social studies teachers simply have to teach PSSA prep, sometimes over multiple periods to the same students. Reading and math teachers were struggling to do both, but in the end, were doing test prep."

"They do fill-in-the-blank tests all day, or practice with short answer questions," the teacher told me. "But they’re not getting experience like writing papers. It's all shoved aside for test prep. It may make my students better on the PSSA, but is it making them smarter? No: the kids are miserable, misbehaving and skipping school, because all they do are these practice tests."

All the attention paid to testing is impacting the students who need extra attention: indeed, it may be forcing some schools onto the Renaissance list, in effect setting them up for failure. This is especially true for kids from immigrant families who haven't mastered English.

"In beginning of year, I had my own roster of kids, who were pulled out for extra ESOL [English for Speakers of Other Languages] attention. Now there aren’t any pullouts at all, which really hurts those students. It’s mandated by the region, but it was never explained why," a teacher told me. "Instead, we're 'push-in,' ostensibly bringing ESOL strategies to classes that have 30-plus regular students and English Language Learners combined. This sounds good on paper, but it doesn't really work. The main component of ESOL, getting kids to speak, is lost in these big classes. So the district will claim that they are delivering ESOL services, just in a different way. It's all smoke and mirrors."

If you look at the schools listed for the Renaissance Plan, a LOT of them are in high ESOL areas like North Philly. So if these students aren't getting the individualized attention they need to master English, how can they possibly be expected to perform well in their classes? Why would anyone who cares about kids do this?

The Renaissance Plan turns those immigrant kids into guinea pigs.

Eric Braxton, Small Schools Project Coordinator at the Philadelphia Education Fund, explained how it'll work: "There are 14 eligible schools. They'll be reviewed in March and have chance to demonstrate they’ve made progress. Not all will become Renaissance schools, but if so determined, there are a number of models those schools might take. For example, the “

innovation model

” could be a good thing: in this model, a group of teachers and principals can take over a school, and be given more autonomy and resources. These would remain union schools."

Braxton adds that another model, "Promise Academy," also maintains direct district control over a Renaissance school. Two other models either give the schools to a private company or turn them over to charter schools -- and that seems a likelier scenario, the way things are working.

One person with direct knowledge of the plan, who insisted on anonymity, said that the "innovation" schools were only added after outcry from educators. "Renaissance schools can’t hire back more than 50 percent of teachers (and that) is an unnecessary indictment of the staff. The timetable is also a problem, and no one's talking about it. Essentially, if you’re a Renaissance school, you get a forced transfer on April 1, but hiring begins April 15. What it boils down to is that these schools will be the last ones to hire."

"You and I might want to turn around our own school," this person added, "But we’re up against companies like Mastery and others with huge budgets. How can we compete, when the district's not giving us supports? A lot of people want to hand it over to outside entities, but what we’re saying is increase the district's capacity to change own schools. This has worked in Boston and Oakland, where teachers and principals got the support they need. Outsourcing didn’t work so well last time we tried it but this time they say it will be different."

So: by neutering ESOL in Renaissance-eligible schools located in neighborhoods with high numbers if immigrants, the district is effectively setting those schools up for failure -- possibly to unload on private companies like Mastery or KIPP. Maybe that’s because there’s more money in failure than success: let's face it, the feds are dangling LOTS of money in front of districts for failing schools.

Which is why privatization feels like very obvious goal, to the teachers I spoke to. And then you think of all these special remedial programs: companies like Scholastic and McGraw Hill are gonna make a fortune. And the district stands to gain a lot too: they'll cut costs by dropping poorly performing schools, including the cost of unionized teaching staff; they'll get to take the credit when the remaining district schools' testing scores rise' as lower performers are weeded out; and they'll be able to blame any failure of the Renaissance Plan on the private companies that took over.

"It’s the Halliburtonization of the school district of Philadelphia," my teacher friend says. And it's a damned shame they're using kids that are struggling to learn English to do it.

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 9 of 9
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1. Brian S. said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 12:21AM

“I have 3 young children attending a poorly preforming public school and the scattered-brained curriculum is a joke. It is a wonder that theses kids learn anything leap-frogging from one lesson plan to the next and back again. Thankfully I can supplement their education by correcting where the schools grossly fall short, but this can not be a continuing practice. When you add this cooked up scheme called the "Renaissance Plan" into the equation along with these quirky teaching methods and a Corporatist of a School Superintendent, yes it is all starting to let off a foul stench. Halliburtonization is a perfect term to call this potential takeover, but may I add with a Reagan/Thatcher privatization twist.”

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2. Freshman Comp said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 12:36PM

“Clearly privatization and the corporate model is the way to solve our education crisis, because our privatized, corporate health care model has worked so well after all (she states facetiously). (Blame Milton Friedman and read The Shock Doctrine.) I taught freshman comp for several years at PSU, University Park, and after several semesters, it was easy to identify the kids from inner city Philly: They are the ones with abysmal skills, big ideas, bigger energy, and huge fears about writing and performance because they know they are way behind their suburban peers. The suburbs of Philly have public schools that produce some of the highest test #s in the nation, while a school ten miles away is all too often a breeding ground for little more than fear at best and jail at worst: This must be addressed and rectified, and I highly doubt the corporate model is going to fix it.”

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3. Anonymous said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 02:27PM

“Brendan,

Great article--but freakin sad! Just forwarded it to my whole Teaching Social Studies masters Class.

BD”

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4. Anonymous said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 04:52PM

“Using poorly performing schools and the students as social experiment guinea pigs is wrong. How about look at what works in the good schools and apply it there...starting with hiring qualified teachers. This shouldn't be about protecting teacher jobs...it should be about hiring and retaining excellent teachers, getting rid of the bad ones and expect and demand student and parent accountability. My siblings and I did quite well without the need for ESOL or ESL...we mainstreamed right away and didn't have a problem. ESOL and ESl are a waste of time and sets students back in their language learnig and acculturation.”

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5. brendancalling said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 05:10PM

“@anonymous: esl is a waste of time?
that's a fascinating point of view: so, you believe students learn better when they can't speak the language they're taught in?

i challenge you to go to, say, china with no knowledge of the language, and find work, order from a menu, navigate the bureaucracy, etc.”

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6. amy said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 06:14PM

“I appreciate the idea that some ELLs learn very quickly with little intervention from an ESOL teacher. This is very rare. Most ELLs need direct instruction in English. Of course, there are many models - two way bi-lingual, bi-lingual, sheltered and what some call mainstreaming. Each model has advantages and disadvantages. What is now being implemented in the SDP does not reflect any model that has been researched in the ELL field. They are throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping it sticks. We know it sticks when the PSSA test scores go up. This is not sound pedagogy or practice. We can and must do better.”

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7. Teach In Phila said... on Feb 22, 2010 at 09:39PM

“Great article, another knee-jerk, waste of time reaction that will be rushed through and a failed plan. Someone needs to investigate 3 things:
1-the hiring practices of all of Ackerman's friends, Broad/Columbia students, sorority sisters and staged praises at the SRC meetings.
2-the management style of her entire staff dubbed "administration by intimidation"
3-the failure and waste of time of the "gotcha" empowerment teams that go out and (no matter how you spin it), their main function is to surprise, criticize and pressure the schools to do well on the standardized tests, forgetting good old fashioned schooling.
I am a seasoned, veteran school teacher,ready to leave the district for a more caring, professional atmosphere of a suburban district.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jun 19, 2010 at 04:32PM

“I understand your concern but here is the problem I'm having. Right now, the kids are not safe in school. The teachers are not safe and have gotten to the place where they could care less. The schools are failing now.
My granddaughter graduated from a Vanguard School where she was able to get the help and attention she needed. The schools they interview for take children with the better grades. That keeps her on these waiting list. She therefore must go to a neighborhood school. The high schools in her neighborhood are both low performing schools. The children are rough and out of control and I don't feel it's safe for her.
I'm willing to give anything a try.
My daughter graduated from Shoemaker and Overbrook. They both steadily went downhill after she graduated.
Mastery has turned Shoemaker around. They have proven themselves. Why would you not want to give this a chance for our children. It's not about the teachers for me.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jan 26, 2011 at 03:21PM

“I am currently working as a tutor in an empowerment school. I tutor 1st grade children in math and reading. I completely agree with the comment from "teach in Phila" about the "gotcha" empowerment teams that visit the classrooms. I have witnessed first hand how truly unempowering the visits and "teaching methods" are. They are more interested in the placement of words on a word wall than if the children really understand the meaning of the words. The teachers are told to do one lesson per day whether or not the children understand the lesson. Just move on! The classes are overcrowded, and interrupted twice a day for "corrective reading and math". Another waste of time! Special needs children in my class (one austistic) are really not being taught as they should be. The "so called" special ed teachers are not really accomplishing anything in twenty minutes. It's such a farce!!!!”

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