Fresh thinking for city schools

Posted: May 27, 2013

The headlines coming out of the School Reform Commission meeting a couple of weeks ago were predictable: five charter-school renewals approved, one denied; protesters urging the SRC to halt charter-school expansion; others decrying the closing of public schools. All this against the backdrop of another multimillion-dollar funding shortfall and the specter of a "doomsday" budget.

But closing schools is not reform - it's arithmetic: When you're drowning in red ink, you just try to stay afloat. But we also know that those who innovate - those to whom failure is an option - turn out to be the winners in the long run. So reform of the plodding tanker that is our school system ought to look highly experimental, with hundreds - no, thousands - of out-of-the-box pilot programs throughout the district.

Until now, that has not been our ethos, but that may be changing. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. seems willing to try new things. He champions blended learning (combining online and classroom lessons) and even puts teacher seniority on the table, something sure to get him a tutorial in Philly Democratic Party interest-group pressure.

And at that mid-May meeting, far removed from the media spotlight, another encouraging step was taken when the SRC green-lighted a four-school, 480-student pilot program. The Springboard Collaborative is an innovative summer-reading curriculum, the brainchild of 24-year-old Alejandro Gac-Artigas, whom I've praised before.

In charter-managed schools - where principals have the flexibility to experiment - Springboard has been shown to combat the regression in reading comprehension that takes place between June and September among students. It's a problem known as the "summer slide" and is one of the causes of the ever-widening achievement gap. Until now, for a program like Artigas' to be considered in district-managed schools, it had to already be a proven success and a behemoth, scalable throughout the system's 278 schools.

Kudos to Hite and the SRC for taking a chance on Springboard. But that should just be the start. I nominate Alyson Goodner's School Collective to be the next recipient of this newfound spirit of experimentation.

Goodner is a passionate thirtysomething who, upon coming face-to-face with some of teaching's systemic roadblocks, said to herself: "There has to be a better way."

Goodner grew up in Chestnut Hill and attended Princeton. While at Teach for America, she saw firsthand how teachers and principals have little or no time to collaborate and innovate. When all you're doing is putting out fires, you can't think long-term. Rather than resign herself to fighting the good fight, she went to Oxford, remade herself into an educational entrepreneur, and started an educational tech company.

Her product - an online platform that heightens collaboration among teachers, makes their lives easier, and sows the seeds for innovation - is now being used at 23 charters, where 70 percent of the teachers credit the technology for making them "more effective educators."

Logging on to theschoolcollective.com, teachers see a tagline that reinforces their calling: "Be The Teacher You Loved. Teach Better. Plan Together." They're welcomed into a community where they can share lesson plans and view best-practice videos.

"Lots of sites do networking," Goodner says, in a breathless rush, a verbal tic common among our town's young but growing band of disrupters. "We wanted to develop a tool to support teachers, in both an open and closed way. So teachers can openly collaborate on best practices at the same time that they can have private back-and-forths with their principal about his or her classroom observation of them."

What Goodner has done, in effect, is use technology to help systemize teaching, which for too long has been an ad hoc process that has lurched from crisis to crisis. She's come up with something that is both a management and a curriculum tool.

But unlike Springboard, the School Collective is a for-profit concern. For it to be adopted districtwide, it would have to go through the normal review process, which imposes burdensome requirements that an idealistic start-up can't bear.

Goodner debuted her product in a district-managed school three years ago. But when the school funding crisis hit, individual principals lost their freedom to innovate. The result is a district that just might be too big to succeed.

"I get it," Goodner says. "If the day comes when that discretion is returned to the schools, we'll be there to partner with them."

But she shouldn't have to wait. Yes, our school system is in financial crisis. But if that's the only thing we talk about, things will never get better. Only 23 percent of Philadelphians hold college degrees. What is the plan for turning that around?

Here's hoping Hite removes the impediments and tries Goodner's platform in four schools - and then listens to the teachers who use it. In fact, Hite and the SRC should go even further.

Hite and the SRC members, who are used to being screamed at in public meetings and may be understandably defensive as a result, should let down their collective guard and offer a seat at the problem-solving table to rising education leaders like Artigas, Goodner, and Claire Robertson-Kraft, who started Philly Core Leaders. They are a nonideological, practical group agitating for change. Joining forces would be a signal that we're all in this together, and that solutions are just as likely to come from the bottom up as the top down.


Larry Platt's column appears regularly in Currents. He can be reached at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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