Fighting for and over public schools in Philadelphia and Delaware: better alternatives needed

Public schools in both the city of Philadelphia and my home state of Delaware have been fighting uphill battles to improve student outcomes in the face of often discouraging performance. In that regard they are like many embattled public school systems throughout the country.

Philadelphia has nearly a quarter of its population living below the poverty line, the third highest poverty rate among major American cities, trailing only Detroit and Cleveland. The state of Delaware, which is smaller than the city of Philadelphia, has over 10% of its population living below the poverty line. And in each case the percentage of children living in poverty is higher than that for the population as a whole.

In Philadelphia, the school district has permitted private companies to open and operate charter schools which now educate over 15% of public school students. Charter schools have had mixed success in Philadelphia, with some failures and breakdowns in oversight and accountability. The school district is now confronting dramatic proposed cuts in state funding, as it copes with continuing problems of violence and disruption.

The state of Delaware’s small size has permitted a consensus to develop around a plan to improve student performance by holding schools and teachers accountable, a plan which qualified for federal Race to the Top funding awarded competitively. But the school board in the Christina School District had second thoughts and initially resisted the requirement that it transfer teachers deemed to be underperforming, until it was strong-armed into compliance by the threat of loss of funding.

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All elected and appointed public officials are politically and morally obligated to “do something” about any problem affecting children. They have to choose from the policy alternatives available to them in order to announce, “This is what we are doing to improve the public schools.”

The problem is that some of the better alternatives for improving student performance and outcomes are simply not available, not on the table for policy makers to choose. The alternative of improving home life for struggling students of underemployed single parents is not available. The alternative of making public school teaching attractive to the best and brightest young college graduates who now choose to go into investment banking or to become lawyers, is not available.

This last point is especially salient to me since I am privileged to teach some of the best and the brightest as they train to become lawyers, having ruled out careers as public school teachers. Some of them have been or still are public school teachers, who seek more rewarding and satisfying careers. Some have been Teach for America volunteers, whose valuable experience teaching in public schools has been insufficient to persuade them to stay.

If we really think having the best teachers in the classrooms of our public schools is important, we have to develop policies that lure the best teachers from other professions. We need to develop an alternative policy for our public schools that includes these three parts:

First, better pay for teachers comparable to what they could earn in other professions. Second, assurance that they will not be held accountable for problems beyond their control. Third, a role in the governance of the schools in which they teach, including in the hiring, promotion, and tenure of their fellow teachers.

There’s a reason why the elite of the world send their children to attend American colleges and universities, which are considered the best in the world. It’s ironic that American public schools are not held in the same high regard. But they can learn from the best practices of American higher education in adequately compensating faculty, protecting faculty from administrative interference through tenure, and recognizing that faculty have the greatest stake in maintaining academic standards by giving them a clear role in governance including in the decisions to hire, promote, and tenure their fellow teachers.

Until that alternative is made available to those making decisions for our public schools, I can only sympathize with those responsible officials as they try to choose from the less attractive alternatives.

For those in the WHYY Channel 12 viewing area, former New Castle County Council President Stephanie Hanson and I will be discussing these issues on the program “First” which airs between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. this Friday, May 6, 2011.

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