This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Follow the evidence. It was a common refrain from Superintendent William Hite at Monday’s School Reform Commission meeting, which was meant to clarify the community’s understanding of the nuts and bolts of Hite’s school-reform blueprint.
Before a relatively small audience of 50 or so, Hite said he wanted to make crystal clear how the District plans to achieve the two-pronged goal of raising academic achievement at all schools while bringing the District back from the brink of insolvency. Each of the strategies and action points outlined in the plan, he said, would provide concrete and data-supported evidence for stakeholders to measure the District’s success.
“This is about doing what works and doing it well,” Hite said. “We are going to follow the evidence.”
Hite explained the breakdown of his plan. Going through each of six strategies ("identify and develop committed, capable people," for example), he showed how each strategy has its own set of actions ("implement principal, teacher, and specialist evaluations"), which are in turn tied to a metric. Those metrics will inform the District as to whether the prioritized actions were effective.
Lisa Haver, a retired teacher and education activist who attended, criticized the plan for the absence of an action for which she said there is abundant evidence: Lower class sizes. “To me, you can’t improve schools without lowering class size,” Haver said.
Hite disagreed. “What we know now by research is that the quality of the teacher — and I don’t want people to misinterpret this — the quality of the teacher has more of an impact on student outcomes than all of the other things combined.”
Class size, Hite said, also remains an issue of affordability. To reduce a classroom by even one student across the District, he said, would cost about $10 million, give or take a million.
“What’s the best course of action — take a class from 33 to 30 and it costs $30 million, or is it better to spend a portion of that to increase the quality of teachers in all classes?" asked Hite. “In our budget system, we can’t afford to lower by one.”
In a response to the superintendent’s plan, Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania spoke of the need to create an Office of Strategic Partnerships that would connect schools to every segment of the community, most significantly the city’s higher-education and medical institutions.
Harkavy, director of the university’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, said that the city’s anchor institutions — “eds and meds” — are in it for the long haul. They should serve as the core partners in creating pipelines to career and college readiness, he said.
He cited Penn’s own work with a health center and two West Philadelphia schools as model approaches to partnerships.
Mama Gail, unimpressed by Harkavy’s presentation, said she was frustrated by the jargon of a speech she couldn’t understand. Her own experience, she said, was that higher-education institutions had taken from communities more than they had given.
"I’m saying to you, sir, we can’t just accept anything in our community anymore," she said. "I don’t care if it’s University of Penn. I’m saying we will not accept anything anymore."
Harkavy agreed that universities have been exploitative to communities. But he said that "there’s a new day and possibility," and that this new action plan would galvanize all partners, those with resources and those without.
On the question of authorizing new charter schools, Deputy Superintendent Paul Kihn addressed the administration’s philosophy: "If parents wish to send their children to charter schools, we want to ensure the options they have are for very good, high-quality charter schools.”
Although the District’s financial straits would not allow any new charters to be authorized this year, he said, next year, the question is open.