Shock Doctrine Comes to Philly Schools

by Jody Sokolower

Philadelphia teachers and parents—and educators throughout the country—were horrified a few weeks ago when Thomas Knudsen, the School District of Philadelphia’s chief recovery officer, unveiled a five-year plan to close 64 schools (25 percent of the system), move 40 percent of students into charters, slash the central office to 20 percent of its former capacity, and divide the rest of the district into “achievement networks” run by third-party operators.

Mayor Michael Nutter said the district faced near “collapse” and that the plan was something Philadelphians needed to “grow up and deal with.” Can you believe that city officials later admitted that the charters and achievement networks wouldn’t actually save the district any money?

We are proud that one of the voices of sanity and resistance came from Helen Gym, a Rethinking Schools editorial associate and longtime parent activist in Philly. We are reposting her open letter to Knudsen here—not only because it analyzes so articulately what is happening and what is at stake in Philly—but also because Philly is not alone. Similar “saving the district from collapse” scenarios have already played out or are in progress in cities as widespread as New Orleans, Detroit, and Chicago.

Commentary: You’re not speaking to me, Mr. Knudsen

by Helen Gym

I am the mother of three children in District and charter schools in this city. I have been actively involved in stopping good schools from decline and helping low-performing, violent schools turn around. I believe in the essential role that a high-quality public school system plays and have fought for that vision. My 7th grade son will soon have outlasted four superintendencies, including yours. And I’m here to tell you that you’re not speaking to me.

You’re not speaking to me with this brand of disaster capitalism that tries to shock a besieged public with unproven, untested, and drastic action couched as “solutions.” You’re not speaking to me when you invoke language like “achievement networks,” “portfolio management,” and “rightsizing” our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.

You’re not speaking to me when you plan to close 25 percent of our schools before my son graduates high school. You’re not speaking to me when you equate closing down 64 schools – many of them community anchors – as “streamlining operations,” yet you’ll expand charter populations willy-nilly despite a national study showing two-thirds of Philly charters are no better or worse than District-managed schools.

You’re not talking to me when your promises of autonomy come minus any resources, and when the best you have to offer parents is “seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds.

You’re not talking to me when you say all schools are public schools. They are not.

You’re not talking to me when you’ll go out of your way to spend $1.4 million for six-week consultants with whom you’ll boast of an “intimate, hand-in-glove” relationship, yet exclude community and public voices till you’re ready to drop the bomb.

You’re not speaking to me when you’ll go to any extreme to radically transform “education delivery,” yet the most basic things parents and staff and students have called for – more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, art and music, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings, and playgrounds – are completely and utterly absent from your “plan.”

In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been around the block a few times.

We’ve seen how promises of an 85 percent proficiency rate fall flat when all they’re based on is rhetoric and no concrete plan on how to achieve it; James Nevels’ School Reform Commission tried that. Contracts will do that? Sorry, we’ve been around that block, too. Ask yourself where the 2002 purported savior of Philly and Chester education, Edison Schools Inc., is today. Ask the Truebright Science Academy parents how it felt when their five-year contract didn’t work out, or the Martin Luther King High School community — after 10 years of Foundations Inc., they ended up with a school arguably worse off than when it started.

We’ve seen how privatization and charters have done little to radically impact systemic achievement and improve education. There are some great charters out there, but no more than there are great public schools.

We’re tired of the ridiculous labeling of schools as high-performing and low-performing. The label mentality assumes schools are in permanent stasis rather than in varying stages of evolution and devolution highly dependent on resources and institutional priority. By simply expanding high-performing seat capacity and closing down low-performing schools, you fail to understand or even seek to understand the very elements that make a level of performance possible. You don’t understand schools, you don’t understand success and failure, and you don’t understand how change happens.

I believe in something.

I actually believe in the value of institutions, despite having been burned by them plenty of times. I believe that professional educators can do a better job than the majority of the hucksters and hustlers and ideologues scoring off of public education’s demise.

I believe in the possibility of school transformation and the role that community and parent voices play in concert with schools and districts. I believe in the value of the public sphere and the responsibilities it owes to the most marginalized of communities — our immigrant students, special needs populations, and young people struggling with disciplinary issues.

I believe in choice options that co-exist to supplement, not destroy, a public school system. I believe in real, creative innovation in our classrooms, not the “drill-and-kill” test prep replicated in too many of these “high-performing” charters you tout. I believe in a vision of schools that is aspirationally led rather than deficit-based. Your focus on the bottom brings everyone down.

I believe our communities have always been there to pick up the pieces after administrations of hubris pass on. And I believe our public schools are worth fighting for.

Mr. Knudsen, these are the things that speak to me. So if you’re not speaking to me, who are you speaking to?

Helen’s letter was originally published at The Notebook: An Independent Voice for Parents, Educators, and Friends of Philadelphia’s Public Schools.

Related Resources

Rethinking School Reform offers a primer on a broad range of pressing issues, including school vouchers and funding, multiculturalism, standards and testing, teacher unions, bilingual education, and federal education policy.

Keeping the Promise? the debate over charter schools examines the charter school movement’s founding visions, on-the-ground realities, and untapped potential-within the context of an unswerving commitment to democratic, equitable public schools.

7 thoughts on “Shock Doctrine Comes to Philly Schools

  1. I remember when I was in elementary school and overheard my parents discussing school. My mother was saying that she couldn’t believe that the reading program was being changed yet again. I mention this simply because that was over 50 years ago. Things do not seem to change here. What bothers me most and what I cannot understand is why there is never a person whose background includes actual teaching who is brought in to help in fixing the system. I am a teacher and I know that most of what is done is done by those who have never or have, long ago, briefly taught children. You have no idea of what it is to teach. Teachers show up early and work late. We know our kids and want the best for them. We know that starting test prep on the first day of the school year is ridiculous, but many schools (including the one I worked in for three years and which I left this school year) did and do just that. I would like to know who oversees the charter schools? There is so much corruption there plus the fact that the money that is given them is, I am told, more than the public schools get for our kids. I went to the Philly schools and graduated with two scholarships to the college of my choice. Eighty-two percent of my class went to college, and it was not a suburban school. My school was 79% Black and that 82% included plenty of the Black students. This was in 1963. When I went to school there was one standardized test, the Stanford test, which was given for two hours once a year, without any kind of prep. We had art, music, and gym ans recess. We also did not have our social studies classes turned into reading classes. The city of Philadelphia needs to get rid of the business people who are charging too much and not remembering that kids are not businesses. Call on us. Teachers know what is needed. Ask us. We know what has to be done. You don’t. You will never fix it. We can.

  2. As an ex-School Board member on the opposite side of the country, I believe he’s speaking to everyone in telling them that the traditional ways are not working. The budget is not working. The unfunded Government mandates aren’t working. Lowering class sizes and increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching curriculum has been unattainable. “Seat expansion” – which just means larger class sizes without extra funds is always the inevitable.

    I believe that he’s simply trying a new way to see if it works. He’s being proactive because he has years of experience being reactive…to no avail. He’s tired of not giving you what you want, and what he knows your children need: more teachers in our schools, bilingual counselors, nurses, art and music, librarians, fresh food in the cafeteria, new buildings, and playgrounds.
    Most likely he too “believe(s) in real, creative innovation in our classrooms, not the “drill-and-kill” test prep replicated” and has “a vision of schools that is aspirationally led rather than deficit-based.”

    I believe that he knows that failure in public schools is more prevalent today than ever, and so does the School Board. He knows he has been part of the problem, and so has your School Board and all of the Boards and Superintendents before them.

    See, they keep trying to shuffle the puzzle pieces within the system, and it is not working. It’s reached the breaking point. The inevitable. They try to add pieces, but they don’t fit. He’s recognizing that the puzzle pieces in education will remain the same, but that the puzzle as it is put together needs to be recut, shuffled and put back together again.

    Instead of being offended that he’s not listening to you…go talk to him. Go learn about his plans. Be open minded. Understand that he and your Board knows how invaluable their constituents are, but they are finally admitting that they can’t serve you the way things are and have been. They are telling you that it is at THIS TIME that they need you more than ever.

    Will you step up beyond writing articles? Will you learn about their plight and vision, and help in any way you can? YOU can be the solution to their problems. YOU can do more than government has, more than excuses will and YOU have the power to be open minded and flexible to ensure success.

  3. Hi Julie: Your former school board role is evident in the frustration that echoes in your comment.

    I do hope however that as someone on the other side of the country that you don’t make assumptions about what Mr. Knudsen knows or wants simply because of his title. Mr. Knudsen, who has only a six-month contract here, has zero experience in the public education sphere, having spent his career in the private sector and most recently heading up a gas company. It doesn’t rule out his ability to run a district, but his lack of engagement with public schools should certainly caution you from saying he “knows what children needs.”

    At the end of the day, what we’re seeking around public ed reform is not a “know it all” individual who promises magic bullets, but a broad process and dialogue that engages communities in setting priorities, taking action and understanding and adjusting for consequences. The ed reform landscape is littered as much by the hubris of administrations and constant starts and re-starts of reform than anything else.

    The one area though I would really take issue with is the patronizing tone with which far too many school and district officials have toward parents. Assuming there’s been no dialogue with Mr. Knudsen is not helpful, nor is lecturing parents that we can be the solution to Mr. Knudsen’s problems. We ALL need to take a role in solving some of the most challenging issues of our day. We are not here to solve Mr. Knudsen’s problems. We are here to tackle the most challenging threats public education has seen in decades. No one is stating that things need to stay the same. But not all change is equal or good.

  4. HI Helen,
    I apologize if my comment had a patronizing tone. I do not know of your situation personally and don’t assume to have the answers, only perspective. From both sides of the fence.

    Let me explain.

    I can see both sides of the fence because I am a parent who became a School Board member to try and better the system and bring the parent’s voice to the district. After all a School Board member is ultimately responsible for only two things: high student achievement (via policies) and representing the constituents of the district.

    My son is 13 years old, I was raised by a mother who taught 3-5th grade for 40 years. She’s on the Whos who list of educators; an amazing lady. I had an amazing public school education myself. When we moved to our small town after doing much research on our schools we came to learn that all was not really well, but the brochures sure were. We had unknowingly entered the public school system in a downtrodden district who seemed to continually make bad choices and had for years.

    I got on the school board just to learn how the education system works so that as a citizen and parent I could help the district understand what parents want and children need. To no avail. 4.5 years later (and 7 on the Budget Committee) I learned many things, one of which is that the entire system purports to be in it for the kids, but does not do what they need to do for them. My reality tells me that not only do they not do what they need to do, they cannot because the system is in such a knot.

    I have seen both sides of the fence and I continue to stick up for the parents, for I am one. When I got on the Board we had our entire community participate in a new strategic plan so we could build the schools they wanted. To no avail. The Board changed, the Supt. retired and within 1 year everything we worked together on was gone due to new narcissistic Board Members, who had no kids in schools, and voted to close an 88 year old school in my rural community.

    So, I urged you and everyone to get to know their Administrators, Board and Staff because maybe they do have some great wisdom to share, and maybe they don’t. Maybe through your communication you will be able to show them the way. Maybe you will be more successful than we were. Maybe the parents will be able to develop a new relationship with the district before all is lost like it is here. But this will require shifting your paradigm.

    That said, starting last May we the parents said “Hell with em’ then, we’ve tried it all. We’ve been on Boards, PTA’s, Site Council, Boosters, spent countless hours volunteering and trying to no avail. We’ll design our own system and show them how education can work.”

    We designed and started Evans Valley Education Co-op in September of this school year. We get our curriculum from an accredited “school from home” Charter School that provides each student 1 hour of personal teacher time each week. We designed the program to have a “classroom” environment. We hired our own full time multi-endorsed teacher (who saw our vision) and have parent and community volunteers to aid in the the classroom. It’s been amazing. Kids who came with low grades are getting A’s and B’s. Kids with IEP’s (academically challenged) are making the grades and enjoying school again. Kids who had behavior issues in public school can finally take their bad name badge off. Kids like mine who are TAG students are working at their own pace and flying high. We have professionals come teach Photography, Survival, Mapping & Compass, Agriculture (gardens, mushrooms), Art, Sewing, Scrap-booking, Hiking, Music, Weights/gym, Astronomy, Archery, Dutch Oven Cooking, Applegate Trail, Art appreciation, Wood Shop, CPR-First Aid, Cooking, Yoga, etc.

    We don’t have a school location because our district has used up a year doing their usual circles for us to lease the decaying school. Wouldn’t you know the insurance agents want us to DOUBLE insure the district? We started out with 5 weeks at local church hall and spent another two weeks in a garage at a local ranch. While we continue to work with the district, in November we rented a 4400 square foot house on 112 acres.

    Sounds like we’re rich to be able to pull this off, but we aren’t. Many of our parents probably make $20-$30k a year and it costs each family roughly $125 per child attending. We fund-raise our booties off and our 6,000 person community is supporting us by coming to carnivals, dinners, Mother’s Day Teas, Garage Sales, Community Breakfasts, buying pies that WE make together at Thanksgiving and more. Our budget is $6k a month. $4000 to the teacher and $2k for our the house and utilities. Luckily our athletes can still play sports in the district, but the district may be cutting sports in the next couple of years.

    All that said, we still attend Board Meetings and try to work with the district to get our beloved school back and show them the vision of what can be done. In the meantime they will continue to work non stop to free their binding knots that cannot be unbound. In the meantime our kids will get an education they deserve.

    So, that is why my premise is that you NEED to be there “to solve Mr. Knudsen’s problems.” He can’t. And worse yet, the system won’t let him so he bounces out with wild ideas and heartbreaking decisions like closing 25% of your schools. So much energy will be thrown at hating the system and blaming that nothing positive will come of it. UNLESS, in my humble opinion, you can go meet him, try and work with them and see what influence you and other parents can have together.

    It is only then you will know if it’s hopeless, or hopeful.
    And if it doesn’t work out, give our out of the box solution at try!

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