Top 10 Education Stories of 2010

From rising test scores to a Justice Department settlement about “unlawful discrimination” against Asian immigrant youth at South Philadelphia High School, education news this year was more prominent than ever. Money poured into the district thanks to stimulus funds and Gov. Rendell’s commitment to an education funding formula. But it was the spending of that money that came under scrutiny, from contracts to salaries to million dollar turnstiles at District headquarters. Here’s my pick for the biggest local education stories of the year.

10. Big money for vouchers in the gubernatorial race: When three suburban Philadelphia businessmen made an unprecedented seven figure contribution to Sen. Anthony Williams’ gubernatorial campaign, you can bet folks sat up and noticed. The reason for the investment was clear: revive vouchers. A Republican sweep of the governor’s office and legislature make it likely this 90’s-era relic will re-surface statewide and in Philadelphia.

9. Minority contracting: The Inquirer’s investigation into Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s role in steering a $7.5 million no-bid security contract to a Black-owned business unleashed renewed complaints about the District’s poor numbers in minority contracting. Black-owned participation is a dismal 13% in the District; white female-owned is 9%, and Hispanic-owned comes in at 4%. Asian Americans receive less than one half of one percent of District business. The question remains whether the District will engage in a transparent process as it tries to improve those numbers.

8. Where's the SRC? Whether it was school violence, a looming deficit, or a willful CEO spending money often without their approval, the failure of a proactive and decisive School Reform Commission was the biggest non-story of the year. This past year, they rubber stamped a host of contracts, met for hours behind closed doors on issues like school finances that ought to have been public, then failed to take decisive action while a budget deficit blew up under their watch (see below). When faced with controversies like the violence at South Philadelphia High School or minority contracting, they stood largely silent before hundreds of people at SRC meetings. One exception: The SRC initiated a task force to identify school failures in addressing black and Latino male achievement though it's unclear how their report will result in significant change. While some commissioners have indicated a need for improvement, as a whole its members seem unable or unwilling to assume their role as fiscal stewards and assure the public they'll provide essential oversight to the often frenetic decision-making in the District.

7. Executive salaries: Daily News columnist Phil Goldsmith made a big splash this summer by highlighting Superintendent Arlene Ackerman’s $338,000 salary (not including perks and benefits), among the highest in the country. Salaries overall have ballooned at the District, with chiefs in the public relations, human resources, and legal departments all earning paychecks that rival the Mayor’s. The District’s claim that such salaries are “budget neutral” will have a harder time flying given the pending deficit.

6. West Philadelphia High School: West, once a school on the upswing, became a victim of a Renaissance process gone haywire and a superintendent’s wrath. The problems started when West was slated for outside turnaround over the protest of the principal, staff and community. Things got uglier when Ackerman ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents on the School Council for conflict of interest, threw the staff into upheaval, and yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz. West experienced chaos this fall, with many parents and students laying the blame at the feet of District interference.

5. Renaissance schools: Philadelphia jumped onto the school turnaround bandwagon promoted by U.S. Secty. of Education Arne Duncan. The District identified its lowest performing schools through a complex performance index, then invited outside providers to convert them to charters serving the same students in the same buildings. The District also invested millions into its "Promise Academies," which are District-managed investments into low-performing schools. Promise Academies received new principals and teachers – most young and inexperienced – as well as new technology, extra hours of instruction, and enrichment activities. The approach raises questions about outsourcing our most troubled schools and whether the District can guide low-performing schools through a meaningful process of improvement.

4. Rising test scores: For the first time, at least half of Philadelphia students met or exceeded proficiency standards on statewide testing. The Governor, Mayor and District leaders herald the test scores as historic. While the 2010 results are significant, other indicators of academic progress are more sobering. The Nation's Report Card showed that fewer than one in five of Philadelphia’s fourth and eighth graders are proficient in reading and math on national tests – well below the national average – and the Fordham Institute ranked Pennsylvania near the bottom of the nation in terms of rigorous state testing.

3. The DEFICIT: A dogged media confirms that the District’s deficit next fiscal year will far exceed the $230+ million acknowledged by the Superintendent and could approach half a billion dollars. (Note: Former Superintendent Paul Vallas was raked over the coals for a $73 million deficit in 2007). Both the Mayor and Ackerman held a press conference to scold the media for "speculating" about the numbers. In most camps speculating about the budget is usually called sound financial planning, isn’t it?

2. South Philadelphia High School: A year ago dozens of Asian immigrant youth won international attention when they boycotted South Philadelphia High School to draw attention to prolonged racial violence against them. Earlier this month, the U.S. Dept. of Justice charged that the District remained "deliberately indifferent" to "severe and pervasive harassment" which constituted "unlawful discrimination against Asian students based on race, color, and/or national origin at South Philadelphia High School." The Justice Department and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission issued groundbreaking agreements that set a national standard on how to address racial bias and harassment in schools. A new principal has calmed the school and made clear the difference between a quality leader and a poor one. At the center of it all stood a resilient group of immigrant students, who summed it up best:

“We will always remember December 3, [2009], but we refuse to be defined by that day. A year ago we came to you as victims. Today we come to you as youth activists, as organizers and leaders who have shown the power to make change.”

1. Arlene Ackerman: Yes, the superintendent is my pick for the number one story of the year – for becoming the news all the time. In addition to orchestrating the District’s disastrous response to civil rights violations at South Philadelphia High School, she oversaw a reverse turnaround at a once-stabilized West Philadelphia High; suspended suspected whistleblowers in a contracting dispute; fired and demoted a host of underlings for decisions that turned sour; and won national awards and impressive displays of public support. Her style and personality transcended almost any issue and demanded that every controversy become a personal referendum on her. Last February, a small group of parent supporters held up signs that seemed to embody the District's approach: “It’s Dr. Ackerman’s way or no way.”

With a paralyzing budget deficit looming and school closings on the horizon, education – and Arlene Ackerman – promise to stay at the top of the news agenda in 2011.

Thanks for this post.

Thanks for this post. I don't follow education news as much as I once did and really appreciate the thoughtful summary.

Very useful summary

Thanks, Helen.

When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad, and that is my religion.
--Abraham Lincoln

sam@dogoodprojects.com

Thanks for reading it!

Thanks for reading it!

Renaissance schools

Would be interested to hear updates on the "Promise Academies". The outsourcing concept has merit. Make the education industry more professional, strategically and competitively managed and teachers regarded as professional executives (like IT and Finance Executives) for reaching their targets. They get bonuses and get fired depending on performance and their service to students in motivating them to learn.

Outsourcing education

A Bad idea. Here's why.

1. 44% of Philadelphia teachers leave within the first five years of their career. Thus our teaching staff changes by virtually half every five years. In the 17 years I've been teaching that means the turnover has occurred 3 times, yet we still blame teachers. Seems an insane policy to me to keep blaming teachers. Who keeps hiring these bad teachers anyway?
2. Researchers have demonstrated turnarounds like the Promise Academy work one in five times. Not a good enough batting average to keep one in the major leagues. Look at Potter Thomas. Last year 550 kids, this year 400 kids. Where did these 150 children go and how has that affected the school? Look at the Dodge School in Chicago, Arne Duncan's turn around model. He moved the kids out of that school, sent them to places that had little problems with violence and bingo, the new school made the news last year for frequent gang fights and a murder. Remember? In the mean time Duncan talks about how changing the teachers made a difference. Isn't it the press's job to call him on this?
3. Our teachers in Philadelphia come from the same universities as the teachers in the suburbs. Do people believe Penn, Temple, Holy Family, etc. can't train teachers adequately? Why don't their graduates fail everywhere instead of just here?

Outsourcing education is done by those who can't fix the problems themselves because they don't know how. Why we are paying people to develop an outsourcing model is beyond me.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Syndicate content