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The Therapy Sessions
Monday, March 15, 2004

Philly Education Follies

One of the most depressing things about living near Philly is watching know-nothing liberalism kill reforms that the region needs to pull it out of its tailspin.

When the city was forced (by the state) to hand over control of its most atrocious schools to the privately-run Edison Schools, the Democratic machine, and the Philadelphia Inquirer, went loony with paranoia.

The Philadelphia Inquirer featured apocalyptic warning stories about Edison's carnage in a run down suburb. The story ran on its front page: Edison schools' scores drop in Chester Upland.
Average scores on the latest Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests declined in all nine Chester Upland schools run by Edison Schools, a district report released yesterday shows.

That is, Edison got one year and they failed. End of story.

A year later, the Inquirer buried (on page six, deep in the story) some interesting good news about Edison in the same schools:
(The test) gains were especially noteworthy in the Chester Upland School District, where the for-profit Edison School Inc. took control of nine of the district's 13 schools two years ago. Four elementary schools there made double-digit percentage gains in reading proficiency, and all four district middle schools increased math and reading proficiency levels.

Three of the elementary schools are run by Edison; the district retains control of the Toby Farms Elementary School.

The Edison-run Showalter Junior Academy, serving sixth through eighth grades, improved its proficiency numbers by about 60 percentage points in math and about 26 points in reading. About 71 percent of the school's eighth graders tested proficient in math, up from 11 percent in 2002. In reading, about 82 tested proficient, up from 57 percent.

Showalter eighth graders even outperformed their counterparts in the respected Haverford School District, whose middle-schoolers posted about 76 percent proficiency in reading and about 66 percent in math. The state average for eighth grade was 63.4 percent in reading and 51.3 percent in math.

"I wasn't surprised [Showalter] did well. I was surprised at how well they did," said Juan R. Baughn, vice president of operations for Edison schools in Chester. He attributed the school's breakout results to the hard work of principal Jayne Gibbs and the school's early embrace of the Edison model.

So far Philly is following the same pattern seen in Chester-Upland. Edison's across the board successes so far have been marginal, but they have been successes.

The city had looked away while these schools failed for decades.

No one has bothered to state the obvious: expecting high success rates in such risky endeavors is too much to ask.

Even a 10% improvement in the dismal test scores of the Philly schools would be miraculous. After all, the state gave Edsion only the worst schools - the schools everyone had given up on.

How many problem schools has the government revitalized? Can anyone even quantify such an insignificant number?

There have been other upsides to an Edison takeover: It has been enlightening watching the private firm clear the bird nests and bat guano from corrupt administrations so larded with inefficiency that $7000 per student was too little to buy books.

If the Edison people had merely painted the rooms and replaced the plumbing, it would have been an improvement.

But let’s not kid ourselves: if the goal is creating young scholars, Edison (or anything else) will fail.

It, after all, is only a bandage. Major surgery is needed.

We have known this truth all along: In 1966, a government education study made officials so uncomfortable that many wanted it kept secret.

It concluded:
Socioeconomic background, not school spending or philosophy, is the greatest predictor of academic achievement.

Communities packed with single mothers, welfare and crime are toxic to schools. It matters little whether students are black or white. They are not going to be good students, except in the most extreme cases.

Someday, perhaps we’ll rescue ambitious - but disadvantaged - students with vouchers targeted at the city’s poorest, releasing children from the atrocious schools they are forced to attend now.

Currently, such a program is too much to ask of Philly’s stagnant education community.

And local Republican politicians, fumbling an issue of such clear moral power, prefer to see it as a way to placate rich suburban voters.

The status quo will continue: the most ambitious of the poor will barely be literate enough to work in corporate cafeterias.

How meritocratic is that?

Keep fretting about teacher salaries, class size and management, Philly.

More bandages.

There are some tasks that are beyond government.

Replacing fathers in Philadelphia is one of them.

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