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Philadelphia board promises change after report on low achievement, racial disparities

Joyce Wilkerson holding gavel
Philadelphia board of education president Joyce Wilkerson
Bastiaan Slabbers / WHYY

A report presented Thursday to the Philadelphia Board of Education showed that just 32% of third graders read on grade level, with stark gaps among racial groups and particularly low scores for English language learners and students with disabilities.

The report classified 63 elementary schools as “off-track,” 64 as “near-track” and 21 as “on-track,” categories based on their progress toward meeting five-year goals in reading, math, and college readiness. The benchmarks for the report were gleaned through the district’s internal reading assessment, AIMSweb. Those considered on-track are likely to reach the goal of having 62% of students proficient by 2026.

In a stark example of inequity within the district, the board’s data show that schools considered on track enroll fewer than 5,000 students and are disproportionately white, while the near-track and off-track schools enroll more than 31,000 students in the grades studied, kindergarten to third grade.

At its first meeting since announcing its intent to focus on how the board can assure all students succeed, the board spent two hours questioning Superintendent William Hite about the poor results and discussing strategies for improvement. As part of their five-year “goals and guardrails” focus, they have set a goal for 62% of students to be proficient in English language arts by 2026. This is the first of many promised presentations on the goals and sub-goals. The next report will explore reading achievement for third grade through eighth grade.

Board members have promised to hold Hite and themselves accountable for making improvements, even if it means substantial changes in how they have traditionally operated.

“These trends are not surprising to any of us, now we have to talk about what we can do about it,” said Mallory Fix-Lopez, the board member who led the session.

Potential answers include abandonment of longstanding practices around teacher assignment and putting more resources into some schools compared to others, both of which have been largely off the table in the past. Hite said the findings would inform upcoming negotiations with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose contract spells out the terms for how teachers are assigned to schools, which still relies heavily on the choices of teachers.

He and Fix-Lopez said it might be time to offer incentives for teachers to go to and stay in challenging schools.

“We need to understand better what’s causing teachers to move,” Hite said.

Among the causes are school climate, including serious disciplinary incidents as well as student and teacher attendance rates. He pointed out that attendance in the top-tier schools is much higher, with 71% of students attending 95% of the time, compared to 54% in the near-track schools and 43% in the off-track schools.

Besides the numbers showing much lower student attendance, Hite said the bottom group of schools had much higher poverty rates, and more students learning English and with special needs. A higher percentage entered kindergarten already behind and without pre-kindergarten experience. The lowest tier schools also as a group had less experienced teachers, more teacher turnover, and a lower percentage of teachers rated “distinguished.”

At all the schools, regardless of overall achievement, there were racial achievement gaps, with Black and Latino students scoring below whites and Asians. Black and Latino students in the top-tier schools are on track to reaching the goal of 62% proficiency by 2026, with about half reaching the mark now. But two-thirds of white and Asian students in those schools are already there.

Even at the top-tier schools, English learners and special education students are not on track to reach the goal.

Board president Joyce Wilkerson said the district needed to have frank discussions around race, expectations, and “bigotry,” and the potential effect on student outcomes.

“I have this unease, when we talk about subgroups we seem to be masking issues of race,” she said. “I worry that we’re not tackling directly low expectations we have for some kids and the role that that might play....we said we will grapple with the role of structural racism, I worry that we’re glossing over the role of race, bigotry, low expectations, in talking about this in a very sanitized way...if we’re going to do the work, we need to do it in a very authentic way.”

Wilkerson asked whether the researchers controlled for factors other than race that could account for the disparities, such as homelessness. Hite said there were correlations with race, poverty, food insecurity, school attendance rates, and neighborhood conditions, and that the district would further probe that data. Wilkerson also promised to look into disparities by race in student disciplinary referrals and why the percentage of Black and Latino students has declined in coveted special admission high schools.

In response to Wilkerson, Hite also stressed the need for changes in teacher professional development that focus on long-term growth rather than “drive-by” sessions, and that more deeply explore attitudes and expectations.

And he also said that there would be changes in the reading curriculum based on the findings, moving from a “balanced literacy” approach to one that pays more attention to phonics and phonemic awareness.

As part of the “goals and guardrails” reorientation, the board changed its speakers policy, limiting it to 30 members of the public and up to 10 students, and giving them two minutes to speak instead of three. The changes did not go over well with those who spoke Thursday, many of them regulars.

They weren’t mollified by the board’s intent to hold regular town halls every two months, saying that is no substitute for letting people speak at the board’s monthly action meetings.

Jesse Godschalk, a teacher, said he applauded the “frank and open discussion” around the goals and guardrails, but said the change in the speakers’ policy is a “huge step in the wrong direction” that will short circuit any effort by the board to build trust with the community. “We see you replacing this public forum with smaller ones and new procedures that you have full control over,” Godschalk said.

Karel Kilimnik, a retired teacher and member of the watchdog group Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, also criticized the speakers policy and called the goals and guardrails presentation a “colorful rubric…[with] verbiage thrown at the wall to see what sticks.”

The board also indicated its approval for the district’s hybrid learning plan scheduled to begin next month, with six of the seven members speaking in favor of it as long as safety protocols are in place. Only Angela McIver said she was opposed.

She said she “can’t in good conscience” support reopening, planned for Pre-K through second grade students in late February, while “hospitals are overwhelmed by a virus our country has failed to control.” Several speakers also blasted the plan; one speaker called it “ridiculous” with the advent of new variants of COVID-19, another said the administration was forcing teachers to make “life or death” decisions.

“We will hold you responsible when your decision inevitably results in illnesses, deaths, and community spread,” said parent Sonia Rosen.

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