Pity the Superman sent to Krypton

Posted: June 15, 2012

"Waiting for ‘Superman'?" showed us students whose lives hung in the balance waiting for a lottery seat in a charter school. Teachers with careers in the balance want successful schools.

In what is becoming an annual rite of spring, teachers are perusing the district's annual vacancy list. A growing number of these teachers have been turned out of schools where they worked diligently, accused of being the problem for children, rather than one of the solutions in the lives of some of our most neglected citizens.

The downside to the scrutiny of relentless measuring and ranking responsible for the stratification, in conjunction with more transparency, has led to the lower-end stigmatizing of schools and every community member associated with them, including students, parents, teachers, and administrators, and the fear of being reconstituted.

In this climate, however, the teachers receive the lion's share of the blame, while parents and students are powerless victims. It's simple: bad teachers equal bad schools equal reconstitution. Flush those laggards, who then become the castoffs from failing, disbanded schools.

The district uses its own School Performance Index (SPI) for ranking schools. It is comprised of numerous indicators — Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), graduation rates, the achievement gap, SAT preparation, college enrollment, student attendance and survey results indicating parent, student, and teacher satisfaction. The top schools receive "vanguard" status and receive more autonomy, while the lowest-performing schools are supposed to receive interventions and become empowerment and renaissance schools.

I have been in schools on both extreme ends of the scale, a "1" for the best and a "10" for the worst. This is hardly unusual for many teachers.

When I was in a bad school I was considered a bad teacher, part of a bad teaching corps. However, many of my bad teacher colleagues transferred to the very best special admissions schools in the district as rated by their own SPI, and there, miraculously, became excellent teachers.

At my very good current teaching assignment, there are a lot of teachers who have experienced this truly astounding phenomenon. In fact, a total of four bad teachers who were from my old bad school also now became very good teachers at my present good school — two of them have been longtime adjunct professors at area universities. A total of four bad teachers from my old bad school who moved on to other schools became Lindback Award winners, each receiving $3500. A couple, however, were still bad teachers because their new schools were still bad according to the district's SPI. As such, the schools could be targeted for overhauling in the not too distant future as the district spins its reconstitution wheel, and everyone will have to scramble for new placements.

But my new good-teacher colleagues, even though presently sitting pretty and apparently stable for the foreseeable future, are very well aware of their roots and fragility. At our last Philadelphia Federation of Teachers chapter meeting, while planning for our weekly Friday morning informational picketing regarding the SRC overhaul plan, one of our young transfers from a bad school, where she was miserable and suffering, said, "We are them."

It was quintessential solidarity and truer words could not have been spoken. It's just fortuitous that she and I are in a school where the preparedness and home situation of students make us seem competent, rather than still in a school where students' reading levels, attendance and profound home concerns make teaching and learning at grade level so very difficult, though we never, never gave up on kids. Instead, the district gives up on both teachers and students when they label those schools "failing," with the looming prospect of reconstitution.

If the research says that the teacher is the most important factor in student achievement then Superman more closely resembles a teacher. Some, however, work on Krypton, often an indigent, desolate and inhospitable landscape set up for failure with scant resources despite the disingenuous lofty rhetoric of mission statements and high-quality education, and the ridiculous notion that schools can be quick-fixed like it's some sort of iron-chef competition.

A staggering 50-60 percent of new teachers drop out from the district within the first 5 years. And it's looking even dimmer ahead.

The difference between bad school-good teachers in "empowerment-renaissance" schools and good school-good teachers in "vanguard" schools struggling and battling mightily every day is a good SPI rating and an address.

I say keep up the good fight, undaunted, knowing the profound impact on those teachers in the schools deemed failing.

And to those teachers in schools deemed successful, I say: Complacency is when you are most vulnerable, particularly in these very antagonistic and unstable times — and don't forget your roots.

Jeff Rosenberg

Wyncote, Pa.

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