This past fall, Sayre High School students in a program called “Leaders of Change” examined how Philadelphia and state schools function and came to a stark conclusion: Their school system is failing them. The theme that emerged, College sophomore and program volunteer Filippo Bulgarelli said, was that the students - all more involved and high-achieving than the average Sayre student - knew that something was wrong with their school, but didn’t know how it was being addressed.
Bulgarelli said the students saw the problems first-hand: lack of academic opportunities and overworked teachers - not to mention the poor conditions that permeate the city’s schools. These issues plague public schools in cities and rural areas throughout much of the nation, and Philadelphia is no exception.
Nationally, a movement has developed to impose uniform educational standards on public schools. In summer 2010, Pennsylvania adopted the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which seeks to set national academic benchmarks. The Philadelphia School District is implementing the standards for the first time this school year.
But with the reality of a funding crisis in the school district, some experts decry the assertion that the Common Core is of any true consequence in the city’s public schools. The district, which closed 23 schools last year and passed a “doomsday budget” in May after many years of steady funding decline, consequently laid off over 3,000 employees. Philadelphia had to borrow $50 million just to open public schools on time in September. This massive funding deficit creates a host of obstacles to fully implementing anything along the ambitious lines of the Common Core standards.
Donna Runner, the school district’s acting deputy for curriculum and assessment, thinks the major impediment to implementing the Common Core is a lack of adequate teacher training, an issue which “springs from time and funding” shortfalls, she said.
The funding issue is unsurprisingly the ostensible seed from which most other impediments to the Common Core grow. Though Runner would only speak gently on the subject, the district struggles to get basic materials for schools.
With a lack of such fundamental necessities, it seems laughable to critics that discussion of the Common Core even be broached. Helen Gym, an education activist and co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, considers the implementation of the Common Core a goal for the future, not the present.
Gym, a College and Graduate School of Education alumna who was named The Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Citizen of the Year” in 2007 for her work in improving public education in the city, said that while the Common Core has a number of admirable elements, the dearth of resources and preparation is impossible to ignore. Less than 50 percent of Philadelphia public school teachers, for example, have more than five years of teaching experience.
“There’s a massive disconnect between what people at the national level want to tout and the reality on the ground,” Gym said. “The most disappointing thing about the Common Core nationwide is that it has never walked itself down to a basic public school in D.C., Detroit, New York or Philadelphia.”
Implementation hard to imagine
The Common Core standards “offer a more integrative approach to student learning, with an emphasis on higher-level comprehension skills and textual argument in reading and writing,” said Diane Waff, a professor at Penn’s GSE.
The Philadelphia School District has integrated the standards in literacy and math into the curricula of kindergarten through high school, as required by the state, and exams in these particular subject areas will measure the relative success of the program. In grade 11, exams based on Common Core standards in algebra, literature and biology will replace the current annual standardized testing system.
For the 2011-2012 academic year - the most recent for which data is available - nearly 30 percent of students in Philadelphia public schools were below basic math proficiency and nearly 35 percent were below basic reading proficiency, as measured by the old exam. The Common Core aims to alter this trajectory.
While the Common Core provides a set of general national academic benchmarks, the specifics are nuanced and can differ from state to state. Within Pennsylvania, implementation is further fragmented, with each school district determining its “own pathway to reaching the standards,” Waff said.
With such vagary in procedural implementation, individual schools within the school district operate not on a single set of standards, but rather a more idiosyncratic interpretation of the initiative.
Because of the divide between national guidelines and local experience, activist groups like Gym’s don’t even consider the Common Core a matter of primary focus. “We’re so far below any level of standards of basic funding in Philadelphia schools that we can’t even talk about the Common Core,” Gym said.
“I’m not being cynical about the Common Core and I’m not saying that it can’t be implemented,” she added. “It’s just that the current status of Philadelphia public schools makes the implementation hard to imagine any time soon.”
Change is hard to come by
This notion resonates with Penn student volunteers who have experience in Philadelphia classrooms. Through campus organizations like Community School Student Partnerships and the West Philadelphia Tutoring Project, volunteers have gained insight into academic progress between previous years and the present - a time period over which the Common Core has technically been implemented.
CSSP senior staff - Penn students who spend a minimum of 6 to 8 hours on site per week - work both in classrooms during the day and at after-school enrichment programs.
The only thing that has changed in Philadelphia classrooms, CSSP marketing coordinator Dominique Bynoe-Sullivan said, is the size of the classes - in that they’ve gotten bigger. The College sophomore added that at the Lea School at 4700 Locust St., where she has mentored the last two school years, there is a mix of teachers from the recently closed Wilson Elementary School and teachers from Lea. “Adding a new curriculum on top of that is not going to help,” Bynoe-Sullivan said.
Bulgarelli, who is the internal affairs coordinator for CSSP and a mentor at Sayre, located at 58th and Walnut streets, echoed this sentiment. “There are students at Sayre whose schedules weren’t set until November, so they were moving around classrooms,” Bulgarelli said. “If teachers don’t know exactly what they’re teaching and who they’re teaching ... it’s really difficult to implement a new program.”
Administrators at Sayre and Lea were unable to be reached for interviews.
Engineering junior Emily Olson, who volunteers with WPTP, said she perceives the problem to be a lack of commitment to go through the growing pains of change, along with more basic issues of day-to-day functionality. When Olson volunteered at Shaw Middle School, for example, it seemed as though the teacher’s main focus was keeping the students in their seats, giving them menial tasks just to get through the day, she said. Shaw was one of the 23 schools to close in 2013.
Referring to a teacher whose class she mentored last year, Olson said, “If told to implement the Common Core curriculum, she would probably nod her head and say OK, but see it as unrealistic to try something new when she can’t even get the basic stuff.”
In schools that truly are implementing elements of the Common Core, it is not always clear that the outcome is academic enrichment. College sophomore Akailah Jennings, who is the incoming CSSP site coordinator for the Comegys School at 5100 Greenway Ave., will act as a liaison between Comegys mentors and teachers. In her classroom experience, she noted that students are learning how to take the statewide tests required at the end of the year, not necessarily learning the material, and that the students she mentors rarely, if ever, have homework.
College junior Samantha Antrum, who mentors at both Sayre and Comegys and is transitioning to the position of CSSP assistant director, agreed that since last spring semester, schools have increased their focus on the state exams that the Common Core imposes. “The emphasis has continued throughout the year, but I’m not sure they’ve said, ‘There’s this Common Core curriculum and that’s why you’re preparing for and taking [the exam],’” Antrum said.
Gym, the parent activist, is aligned in the belief that public schools are using the exams as the main impetus to learn specific subjects, but noted that even in that capacity the district is floundering.
“When you have one set of standards but different ways to implement them, reliance on standardized testing to assess progress is problematic,” Gym said. “Are you wedded to the learning of the child or just cramming it in for the sake of standards?”