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The Therapy Sessions
Wednesday, December 29, 2004
 

A school experiment


Philadelphia schools experiment seen as model
Two academic years after Pennsylvania took over the failing Philadelphia school system and made the controversial move to contract out management of about one-sixth of its schools, test scores are up and class sizes are down. The district plans to expand private-sector involvement and is closely watched by U.S. educators as the leader in inner-city school reform.

"It's not that other cities don't contract out some of their schools, but Philadelphia does to a much greater extent than the others," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of 65 school districts from the largest U.S. cities.

Private companies and universities today manage 45 of Philadelphia's 270 public schools. As private managers, they set curriculum and hire teachers and principals. But they are subject to the same state-wide performance criteria as schools that are under the district's management.

I was somewhat sceptical that the "Philadelphia Experiment" would have any positive effect on student achievement, and I still am.

It's not that I was against privatizing Philly's schools. Lord no! I was 100% for that.

How illuminating it has been to see private firms sweeping the bird shit and bat guano out of the corrupt, over-politicized, inefficient bureaucratic nightmare known as the Philadelphia School System.

Lo and Behold! Private firms are finding that $9,000 per student ($3,000 more than Pennsylvania's average per student spending, with Pennsylvania taxpayers footing the bill for their own children AND Philadelphia's) is more than enough to keep the heat on, the bathrooms clean, the libraries stocked and the buildings painted. The teachers are in the classrooms teaching, not baby sitting.

The schools now look like schools - not worn down factories - for Christ's sake.

We have dispensed with the silly idea that you can't measure performance through testing, and we are finding that large numbers of teachers weren't qualified to teach their subjects (one of the good things about "No Child Left Behind").

Who'd have thunk?

But let us be realistic. I think that the student improvement we have seen so far is little more than a "dead cat bounce." We are, after all, talking about the most hopeless of Philadelphia's schools. While some improvement is nice, they are still far from producing young scholars.

And I don't think we will ever get there. No matter how money or effort is expended.

As a society, we drastically overestimate the ability of schools to mold children.

This is a sad fact: In the first eighteen years of life, a typical child only spends about 10% of his time in a classroom. The other 90% is spent sleeping (of course), watching TV, playing video games, hanging out with friends and living with parent(s).

Stupidity begins at home: the typical poor home in Philly (and in poor rural white areas)is headed by a single parent who hasn't read a book in a decade. It is a home where the TV blares constantly and children are left to their own devices.

There is a culture of poverty that this country desperately needs to address, and it needs to do it free of the opaque lens of racial politics.

Well run schools won't change that.

But then, they can't hurt.


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