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Closing Philly’s racial achievement gap: A long, bumpy road

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Despite the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision rejecting “separate but equal” schools in America, it took years for districts like Philadelphia – as racially segregated in some ways as any in the South – to focus attention on the gap in academic performance between Black and White children.

As the courts here grappled with the question of desegregating the city’s schools in a long-running legal action, a succession of school administrations employed various strategies to boost achievement among low income students of color. But more than a half century after Brown, wide racial gaps in both opportunities and outcomes remain.

Racially isolated schools “continue [to have] much less experienced teachers assigned to them and receive no compensatory programs in exchange,” said Michael Churchill, the attorney representing community groups in the lawsuit addressing segregation and equity.

“Advanced placement and high standards classes are less available in the neighborhood high schools [attended mostly by] minority students,” Churchill added.

Desegregation debates

Beginning in 1968, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) sought strong measures, including mandatory busing, to desegregate city schools. In Philadelphia, as in other northern cities, White resistance to desegregation was broad and deep, and the District vociferously fought the resulting lawsuit.

Among African Americans, in part because of the strength of this resistance, community-based movements beginning in the 1960s focused on demands that they believed would raise Black student achievement. They included changing the curriculum to promote a positive view of Black history, greater community control over how schools are run, and a more equitable distribution of resources.

Gains made in these areas in the 1960s during the reform administration of Mark Shedd were reversed after the election of Frank Rizzo as Mayor. Rizzo fired Shedd and presided over a period of stagnation marked by falling test scores, rising absenteeism, and political patronage. Budget problems and teacher strikes further crippled the system during the ’70s and early ’80s.

In the late 1970s, pressure from the PHRC lawsuit resulted in one lasting reform: the creation of several magnet schools as a tool to promote desegregation, such as the High School for Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA).

The appointment of Constance Clayton in 1983, the city’s first African American superintendent and a respected educator, raised expectations for equity. Clayton introduced a standardized curriculum and moved to end social promotion. An initiative to restructure the city’s comprehensive high schools was launched.

Over her 11-year tenure, test scores showed modest movement but then leveled out. The new curriculum was faulted by teachers for rigid pacing schedules. There was a de facto return to social promotion, and high school restructuring was torpedoed by the teachers’ union and administrative resistance.

Hornbeck and Judge Smith

The appointment of David Hornbeck as superintendent in 1994 again raised hopes, coinciding with an upsurge in activism and a major shift in the 25-year legal battle.

Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith moved it away from a focus on desegregation and towards improvements in “racially isolated” schools. In a February 1994 decision, Judge Smith wrote: “The record amply demonstrates the school district has not provided … equal allocation of resources, or a commitment to eliminating racial imbalances in the schools.”

The judge ordered the District to develop a plan that would include full-day kindergarten, smaller class sizes, more parental involvement, professional development, and higher academic standards.

Hornbeck’s “Children Achieving” plan embraced most of the Court’s concerns. He introduced more accountability in the form of a performance index for schools and dedicated staff to equity issues.

But efforts by Judge Smith and the District to compel the state to take responsibility for funding the plan proved futile. The state Supreme Court ruled that Judge Smith had no authority to enjoin the state as a party in the case.

Stymied by the higher court, Judge Smith found in 2001 that the District was in essential compliance with the court plan and in 2004 she suspended active involvement. Today, community plaintiffs that were added to the case in the Hornbeck era retain an option to intervene.

Hornbeck’s blunt challenges to the state legislature, accusing it of inequitable funding of the city’s schools, set the stage for his departure and the state takeover of the School District – with its emphasis on turning over low-performing schools to private management – in 2002.

New focus on accountability

The state takeover coincided with the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act by the Bush administration. The law requires that schools meet performance standards for each major student demographic group. But while NCLB focused attention on the racial test score gap, it has not provided school districts with new resources to address it.

CEO Paul Vallas imposed a standardized curriculum with increased emphasis on literacy and math and expanded afterschool remediation. Test scores went up, particularly at the elementary level. But there was little reduction in racial disparities.

During Vallas’s tenure, the SRC also mandated the teaching of African American history and created dozens of small high schools, including some carved out of the large, failing neighborhood schools. But Vallas also dismantled structures Hornbeck had put in place to promote and monitor equity, preferring a “rising tide raises all boats” approach.

Despite the test score gains, the system made little progress at producing proficient graduates. Just one-third of Philadelphia 11th graders score proficient in reading and math, half the percentage for the state as a whole. And thousands of Philadelphia students drop out before even reaching 11th grade.

Over the past 40 years, the leaders who offered plans to boost student achievement and narrow racial gaps rarely have had the money to fully implement them. After a freeze of the state funding formula in 1991, per-student spending in Philadelphia slipped far behind that in affluent suburbs, giving those with the greatest need the fewest resources.

This year the Rendell administration committed to significantly boosting state education spending and steering big increases to the neediest districts, including Philadelphia. But it remains to be seen whether more such increases will occur.

Advocates point out other shortcomings besides resources. Nicholas Torres, director of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, said that the District has historically fallen short in “tailoring the educational program to the needs of communities and making communities partners in that process.”

And Deidré Farmbry, a long-time educator who was briefly the District’s interim superintendent in 2002, said that high expectations are key.

“Regardless of whether a school is integrated or segregated, students will rise or fall to the expectations that are set for them,” Farmbry said. Many older Black people, she said, talk positively about the high expectations set by their Black teachers in segregated schools. “Conversely,” she said, “I have seen Black students victimized by a culture of low expectations in desegregated settings.”

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman now confronts the challenge of generating the resources, relationships, and high expectations needed to dramatically change outcomes for Philadelphia’s Black and Latino students.

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