Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Why the Pennsylvania government should bypass the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia

…and fund each Philadelphia public school directly, per capita and per special needs.

Consider, from a recent issue of Edweek, some news that seems not to have made it into Philadelphia’s local papers:

In little more than two years, the Philadelphia school district has stripped $400 million out of its annual budget, closed 30 schools, eliminated nearly 7,000 jobs, and lost more than 20,000 students.  
The teetering city system, said Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., desperately needs "to show a win."  
So Mr. Hite is placing a controversial bet: Although scores of schools opened here this month without regular guidance counselors, nurses, or basic supplies, the superintendent is pouring millions of dollars into expanding what he considers to be three of the city's most innovative schools. They include Science Leadership Academy, an acclaimed magnet high school at the forefront of the national effort to marry educational technology with so-called "deeper learning.”
Science Leadership Academy is distinguished by two things: project-based learning and technology:
Lesson units… build upon student questions and culminate in project-based assessments, as well as using digital tools to track and share a wide range of student work and data.
As I note earlier, SLA is also distinguished by low scores on tests that measure scientific content knowledge—a basic prerequisite for college-level science courses. Among Philadelphia public high schools, it places in the 3rd quintile on the Pennsylvania state science tests, with only 15% scoring "advanced," and 59% "below basic."

At SLA, it’s not science learning, but technology use, that reigns supreme:
Much of the national attention Science Leadership Academy has garnered—including recognition from President Barack Obama and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates—has focused on the school's abundance of technology. Since its founding in 2006, every student has received a laptop, and SLA was named an Apple Distinguished School in each year from 2009 to 2013.
It’s not surprising that Apple loves SLA. Indeed, those connected with the educational technology market have every reason to praise Principal Chris Lehmann:
"He's truly a visionary leader, known for giving teachers and students the freedom to excel," said Brian Lewis, the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education, which in May gave Mr. Lehmann its "Outstanding Leader Award" for his use of technology to support learning.
Outside the tech world, there are detractors:
Skeptics … question whether investing scarce resources in a small, highly selective magnet school is the best strategy for sparking citywide educational improvement.
Consider SLA’s highly selective admissions process. This past school year, accordingly to Mr. Lehmann, SLA had 2,100 highly qualified applicants for 125 available slots. Given (1) how skewed the applicant pool is skewed to begin with and (2) that an applicant’s of admission is less than 1 in 16:
Critics argue that the ability to handpick top students minimizes the significance of Mr. Lehmann's accomplishments and the potential impact of replicating his model, especially in Philadelphia, where independent charter operators have successfully brought to scale strategies for dramatically turning around some of the city's most challenging neighborhood schools.
Edweek says that Mr. Lehmann “bristles” at comparisons with these successful charter schools--which, unlike SLA, are legally required to base their admissions on random lotteries. Instead of explaining why his cherry-picked model is more deserving of expansion than that of a successful charter school, Lehmann simply “highlights what he sees as major pedagogical and cultural differences between his approach and that of many large charter management organizations.”
"I want to build a structure that smart, creative, kind people can come in and imbue with their own energy, ideas, and passion," he said. "I don't want standardization."
What Lehmann personally wants, it turns out, is much bigger than what his highly selective cherry picking might suggest. Despite selecting students not just for their intelligence, but also for their affinity to project based learning (the application process includes a project presentation), Mr. Lehmann’s got the solution for schools everywhere:
"I'm passionate about this idea that schools can be authentic and empowering and relevant and caring places," he said. "And what we have seen over the last seven years is there are a lot of families who want that for their children."
Whence all the cherry picking of applicants. It’s been a virtuous cycle, beginning with Mr. Lehmann’s genius at buzz and promotion (check him out on Youtube—here, here, here and here), as well as the lure of all that technology, all those technology awards, and all those trendy “21st century skills.” The more smart self-starters the school attracts, the more successful it looks to outsiders. Students who score high enough on state tests to get admitted to SLA will tend to continue to earn high test scores in math and English while enrolled there. Clearly, this is not the case with science scores—which, more content-based, are more a function of current instruction (or lack thereof). But people pay much less attention to science scores than to those in math and English. Smart self-starters make the school look good in other ways as well—churning out flashy performances and projects–regardless of what the school is actually teaching them.

The more successful SLA looks to outsiders, the more students apply the next year. The more students apply, the more selectively they can be cherry picked. And on and on, with apparent success driving selectivity and selectivity driving apparent success, even if the school’s curriculum and pedagogy add no more value than does your average Philadelphia public school.

In SLA’s expansion, housed on the third floor of Beeber Middle School, a neighborhood school in West Philadelphia, the cherry picking continues:
Inside Beeber, sharp disparities were evident between the new high school and the struggling middle school now sharing a building.  
On the first and second floors, middle schoolers—nearly all poor and African-American—wore uniforms and passed by glazed windows that let in only a hint of the bright fall sun outside.  
On the third floor, SLA@Beeber's new 9th graders, a multiracial mix drawn heavily from the city's top elementary and middle schools, were dressed in an array of colorful styles. Through newly installed windows, they could look out over the tops of the nearby rowhouses, on to the city skyline in the distance
The continued cherry picking will guarantee that most people view SLA’s expansion as a success, prompting even more expansion in the future--until such time as everything implodes. As Edweek notes:
Expanding the three school programs [which include SLA] could cost more than $28 million over the next five years, more than 90 percent of which would likely have to be covered by a district currently unable to buy adequate supplies of paper for most of its schools.
And as Ethan Gray, Executive Director of the Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust argues:
"I don't think it's a very significant accomplishment to replicate a magnet school. At the end of the day, it still results in a broad group of underprivileged kids being continuously underserved."  
 As for the Philadelphia school district superintendent:
Mr. Hite said Science Leadership Academy is the type of school he wants to see proliferate throughout the 136,000-student district.  
...which is why the Pennsylvania government should bypass the leadership of the School District of Philadelphia, starve it of discretionary funds, and fund each Philadelphia public school directly.

1 comment:

Deirdre Mundy said...

I don't get why you'd BOTHER with project-based learning for top students...

I went to a highly selective math/science/cs/engineering magnet high school.

While we had projects, most of our learning (even in CS) was through lecture and problem sets. (The teachers WERE very good lecturers, though). We had to learn the information before we could apply it. And we had to be able to code on paper before we coded on the computer.

There's no point in project-based learning for smart, motivated kids-- lectures are a much more efficient way to give them the information they need. They'll be engaged because they're the kids who just like learning new stuff anyway.

Where I *HAVE* seen project-based science learning work is in mixed-ability classrooms where there are huge numbers of unmotivated students. Then, the self-directed, project based approach can let the kids who actually want to learn, learn. (My SIL teaches in an inner city school and is, frankly spectacular at this. But she's spent a lot of time developing the particular tasks and breaking them down into discrete subtasks that teach specific things.)

But for a homogeneously grouped class of high achievers? They could learn so much more through traditional methods!