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Empowerment Schools are not all the same

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

Over the last two years, the Empowerment Schools have been consistently characterized by the local media as being the lowest-performing District schools.

Since the inauguration of the Ackerman administration in 2008, 85 schools designated as Empowerment Schools have been treated to intensive interventions. When the 2009-2010 school year began, 11 more schools were added to this group. This was also the same year in which the McGraw Hill/SRA Corrective Reading and Math programs were put into place at the Empowerment Schools.

And what measures were used to determine this label of “low-performing”?

After viewing the 2008-2009 Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) test scores of several of the Empowerment School cohort, it is clear that there are significant differences in the scoring ranges of their respective students. In fact, the evidence indicates that more than a few Empowerment Schools are not the failures they are made out to be. To illustrate this variability, I have provided a brief comparison of a few Empowerment Schools.

The performance indicators for Dr. Ethel Allen School, for example, appear to support its characterization as a school in need of improvement. Their 2008-2009 PSSA test results are significantly below both the District and state averages, with 18 percent of its third grade and 27 percent of its sixth grade scoring at proficient or advanced in reading.

This however is not the case in other Empowerment Schools. Arthur, Cramp, Fitzpatrick, L.P Hill, and Holmes, to name a few, are performing at considerably higher levels of achievement than the lowest achieving schools in the District. When looking at reading scores at L. P. Hill, a K-8 school, 70 percent of its third graders and 75 percent of its eighth graders scored proficient and advanced on the 2008-2009 PSSA reading test.

At Fitzpatrick, a K-8 school, 90 percent of its third graders and 91 percent of its eighth graders are reading at the proficient or advanced level. The reading score results at Cramp, which has a significant population of English Language learners, were also impressive, with over 50 percent of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders and 70 percent of third graders scoring at the proficient and advanced levels. These results were achieved before the implementation of the Corrective Reading and Math programs.

When making high-stakes intervention decisions fairness requires that each school in need of improvement be judged on its own merits and not on the basis of the group with which it is identified. Yet the across-the-board implementation of the controversial Corrective Reading and Math programs has been the prescribed remedy for all of the “empowered” schools. The implementation suggests an assumption on the part of central District administration that all of the children in these schools are the same. In fact, the student bodies of Empowerment Schools are far from homogeneous.

The performance information available on the School District’s site illustrates a wide range of differing student academic performance levels and abilities within and across the Empowerment Schools.

As there is a great variation of student test scores, there are also significant variances in other performance indicators (i.e. student attendance, staff attendance, suspensions, serious incidents, poverty rate, size of special education populations, number of NCLB sub groups, etc.) for each of the schools that make up the Empowerment School cohort.

Dr. Ackerman has frequently stated that what we do in our schools should be done with the best interest of every child in mind. In order to do so, a school must determine the individual needs of the students that it serves and then provide differentiated instruction to meet those unique needs.

The widespread implementation of Corrective Reading and Math in Empowerment Schools does not address the reality that all students’ instructional needs are not the same. If a school were truly “empowered”, it would not be required to institute lock step, scripted basic skills programs for all of its students. It would identify and implement evidenced-based instructional reform strategies that meet the needs of its own particular student body.

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