Fixing the current state of education in Philadelphia and the nation was the focus of a discussion between education reform heavyweights, teachers and students on Monday evening.
Nearly 100 attendees, made up mostly of K-8 teachers, posed questions about teacher accountability, incentivizing effective teachers and whether charter schools have a place in the education system to a panel of three, sometimes controversial, educators at the StudentFirst Teacher Town Hall.
Former Washington Teacher’s Union president George Parker, magnet school founder Dr. Steve Perry and former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee have been traveling the country holding the events.
“When we set about to do these town hall meetings, what we wanted was to bring differing opinions together,” Rhee said. “In order to fix the system, it’s not going to be any one silver bullet solution and it’s also going to take some time.”
During her three-and-a-half year span leading D.C. schools, Rhee instituted new accountability measures for both teachers and the administration in an effort to turn around a district that was one of the worst-performing in the nation. Hundreds of teachers were fired and nearly 30 schools were closed under Rhee’s tenure, which was hailed by some and vilified by others. She then started the education advocacy group StudentsFirst.
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Less of a typical town hall, the event was more controlled with participants pre-writing questions on cards, which were then asked by the moderator. By the end, however, a handful of inquires were posed directly from the attendee.
Discussing how to get effective teachers in the poorest performing schools, Parker, who calls education reform a "civil rights issue," said he feels it's important to "incentivize" educators to do well.
"There's no incentive to move into the poorest performing schools," he told the crowd. "They often have the worst principals, worst resources...worst discipline. In addition to money, make sure you have great leaders in that school."
Rhee and her colleagues brought their discussion to Philadelphia at a breaking point for the city’s education system, which is the eighth largest in the nation. A $304 million budget deficit forced the layoff of nearly 4,000 teachers and staff, which included every secretary, guidance counselor, assistant principal and school nurse.
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. William Hite threatened not to open schools on time citing safety issues if at least some staff could not be rehired. City officials eventually relented and provided emergency funding to hire back more than 1,000 staff. However, city and state officials are seeking more than $100 million in contract concessions from the teacher’s union. Those concessions are sought in the form of pay cuts and changes to benefit offerings including having teachers make contributions to their health insurance, which they do not currently do.
“When you look at the situation in Philly, there are sort of a number of things that are sort of coming to fruition all at the same time that are causing things to come to a head in the school district,” said Rhee.
Speaking before Monday night's event, Rhee said she believes there are three key initiatives that can help lead to reform in Philadelphia. First, ensuring tax money is being spent wisely by reducing bureaucracy and promoting transparency. Second, keeping parents informed on the issues happening in schools and the district. Finally, and most controversial, Rhee says teachers must be evaluated to ensure all are highly-effective.
“One of the things that should be counted very heavily should be -- is that teacher moving gains in student achievement…but so should things like observation of classroom practice, things like contribution to school community, you know those teachers that coach the school soccer team or debate team,” she said.
Rhee’s town hall co-participant, Dr. Steve Perry had some more radical views about how Philadelphia can change for the better. Calling public school “the largest jobs program this side of The New Deal,” Dr. Perry says the city’s school district is simply too large.
“Philadelphia's school system should be 10 or 15 smaller public school systems, at least,” said Dr. Perry who founded and runs the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, Conn. and taught at Strawberry Mansion High School during his practicum. “What happens when the school systems are smaller is the people in central office have a better handle as to what’s going on in the schools. They get it more.”
Schools can be grouped by type – like arts or vocation -- and that way curriculum can be more easily tailored for students, he says.
At the town hall, Dr. Perry also discussed the importance of parental involvement -- even in contract negotiations.
"There needs to be a parent representative at the table at the time of negotiations," he said.
Dr. Perry, like Rhee, also believes unions must make compromises with regards to benefits like pension plans.
“The reason why we have a budget deficit right now is because no one has the balls to stand up to the teacher’s union…and say ‘Folks, we just can’t afford these pensions that you have us paying for and the benefits and the raises and we can’t just pay for all that,” he said. “So there needs to be some common sense fiscal reform tonight.”
The Teacher Town Hall is meant to bring differing viewpoints together to have a frank discussion, Rhee says.
However, the dissenting opinion was noticeably missing. Not because opponents are being silenced, but rather, the voices were not there.
With the exception of two loud educators who attempted to counterpoint each panelist's answer before being told to shut up by the crowd, the city's most vocal education advocates, including Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan, took part in a separate town hall discussion at the same time Monday evening.
Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Spokesman George Jackson says the city’s education advocates wanted to show a “contrast in approaches” to education reform.
“When we can truly say that our schools are getting the resources they need, we can certainly discuss and debate Rhee's ideas on education. But right now, we have a real crisis on our hands….And unlike Michelle Rhee, we don't get to drop in to town, push our agenda and move on,” Jackson said.