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My Visit to Philadelphia – Diane Ravitch

May 4, 2012

No time to write commentary tonight (seriously, no time) so I am going to post this piece from Diane Ravitch on her recent visit to Philadelphia.

Yesterday I went to Philadelphia to speak to the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. Before I left New York City, the local spokesperson for Parents Across American, Helen Gym, asked if I would meet with some journalists to talk about the “reform” plan just released the day before. She sent me a link to the plan, and as I read it, it sounded just like the plans recently proposed or adopted in such cities as Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Cleveland: Close public schools, open privately managed charter schools, cut the budget. That’s the basic formula, and it is always accompanied by impressive promises of glory to come: higher test scores, higher graduation rates.

In the Philadelphia “blueprint,” as elsewhere, there is always talk about evidence and research, but truth to tell, I couldn’t find any in this plan. The Philadelphia reformers say they want to downsize the central headquarters and establish “Achievement Networks” to manage portfolios of schools. This is supposed to be based on the New York City model. I called around to veterans in the system and asked them to tell me about these networks that are a model for others. Their first question: Are they talking about the second reorganization of the New York City schools, or the third, or the fourth? Do they mean the Student Support Organizations (now gone)? Or the private partnerships? Or something else?

I suggested to the journalists that they need to know two things about New York City’s experience of the past decade. One is that the Mayor has doubled spending on education, though class sizes are not smaller. Was Philadelphia going to do that? Of course not, Philadelphia expects to cut the budget.

The other thing they need to know is that New York City has not gotten remarkable results, even after doubling spending (much of which went to no-bid contracts, consultants, IT, dramatically increasing the number of schools and the number of highly-paid administrators, and a 43% boost in teachers’ salaries). The city’s proficiency rates, which seemed to be flying up by leaps and bounds every year, got deflated in 2010 when the State Education Department admitted lowering the cut scores on state examinations. Overnight, the New York City miracle disappeared, as the percentage of students who reached proficiency fell to levels near where they had been years earlier. And the achievement gap was as large as it had been in 2002, when the mayor took charge.

What is so maddening about the reformers’ promises is that they are not based on anything at all: Trust us, they say. Turn the public schools over to private managers, inject competition into the system, close low-performing schools, and student scores will go up. But nothing in the plan says what they will do to improve teaching and learning. There is nothing about class size, nothing about support for hard-pressed educators. Just trust these guys who know how to make money in the private sector.

When I read Helen Gym’s blog about the reform proposal, I realized that she knows far better than I that this latest reform plan is just the latest in a long series of empty promises that do nothing for children and communities. So I am putting her blog here. It is a wonderful caution against those who promise miracle cures but offer neither evidence nor experience to support their plans.

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