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PennGSE TFA panel

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

If the panel discussion held earlier this month hosted by the University of Pennsylvania and Teach for America was supposed to be a welcome to Philadelphia new teachers, it wasn’t ideal.

I found out about it three days before it was going to happen when Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, tweeted out that the event might prove interesting for those in Philly education scene. Not being a TFA alumnus, I wasn’t sure whether I’d be welcome. Another School District of Philadelphia teacher and fellow blogger Brian Cohen expressed his interest in attending. After checking with Chris to make sure that we would indeed be able to get past security, we decided to make it an early Saturday in the middle of summer break to see what this panel was all about.

So on that Saturday morning we walked into Huntsman Hall and joined 267 Greater Philadelphia area newly minted Corps Members. The panel consisted of Mastery Charter Schools CEO Scott Gordon, KIPP Philadelphia Schools CEO Marc Mannella, and Lehmann. It didn’t take long to notice that these three people represented very different views on education. I wondering how this was going to all play out. Would there be heated exchanges and pointed disagreements? Did any of the Corp Members in the audience have an idea as to educational philosophies espoused by these men?

Each panelist introduced themselves, Scott Gordon going first. His big theme for the day was that the state of education in Philadelphia is “a house on fire.” This would mean that the emergency situation is being remedied by the proliferation of charters and teachers like the Corps Members sitting in the audience. Marc Manella went next. He connected with the audience through his own biography as a TFA Corps Member being placed in a Baltimore middle school back when many of the audience were born. Manella agreed with Gordon on the state of education in Philadelphia recalling a TFA summer institute in 2003 when the cohort had to leave the state because “there were no excellent schools in Philadelphia” to visit. Chris Lehmann began his introduction with “I like to talk about teaching and learning.” A difference among the panelist was clear.

The panel was not a policy panel, or a pedagogy panel, or even an this is what it means to teach in Philadelphia panel. If the point was to showcase the different schools of thought, the forum didn’t allow for much in-depth discussion around the matter. But some things were clear.

Gordon is above the fray, part of the post-ideological reform movement that is output based. Manella said he was “agnostic” about how teachers in KIPP schools taught, and that teachers pick the how while the school picks the what. Interestingly enough Penny Nixon described some of the upcoming school autonomy measures in the exact same way (link). Lehmann was focused on having schools’ missions drive everything about the schools, getting everyone to row in the same direction.

So nobody fought. Lehmann pushed back on a few things Gordon said, and on some thoughts from the moderator. The most pointed exchange of the morning was on the value of the PSSA. Gordon pronounced that the PSSA represents a “floor of knowledge” for kids. Lehmann responded that he gave his wife the a copy of the released items from the 11th grade science PSSA test and she threw it back at him. These tests are harder than we give them credit for. I have a very loose connection to Penn GSE, so I’m not familiar with their politics, but I was surprised that the moderator didn’t try to conceal her contempt for the School District. She called SLA a “fancy” school and said that the three men should start a “greater Philadelphia Charter School.”

Manella gave, what I thought, was the most interesting idea of the panel. During the discussion on the value of testing, he said he doesn’t understand the LSATs. He doesn’t like the thought games and isn’t sure what they prove about a student other than they are good at taking the LSATs. He went on to say that if Barack Obama didn’t pass the LSATs, he wouldn’t have gone on to Harvard and became President of the United States. “We’re going to screw kids” if don’t prepare them for these tests was a bold proclamation.

I’m not sure what I took away from the panel. I’m even less sure about what a group of new teachers took away from the panel. I wanted to jump up on stage and give some context for a presumably out-of-town crowd. Very little time was left for the question-and-answer period. A few Corps Members tried to elicit some practical advice for the ever-nearing school year, but time did not allow for much back and forth. The “house is on fire” is clearly a deficit based education model. I hope that isn’t the idea those new teachers bring to their practice. Panels tend to be good at spreading information and bad at coming to concrete understanding or action. I came away glad for the experience, but confused about its impact.

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