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