Two vastly different school districts — Oconomowoc, WI, and Philadelphia, PA — had something in common this week. Both boasted of innovations that, when examined, became examples of how not to improve schools. Both chose to forgo parent and teacher input in developing their plans. Both show a lack of respect for the fundamentals of democracy.
Philadelphia, the 8th largest school district in the country, has 192,089 students. Oconomowoc, with 5,081 students, is 35 miles west of Milwaukee.
The Philadelphia plan centers on an aggressive move toward privatization via charter schools run by management companies. The Oconomowoc plan highlights a top-down, anti-teacher reorganization made possible by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on collective bargaining last year.
In Philadelphia, “Chief Recovery Officer” and former gas industry executive Tom Knudsen wants to close 40 low-performing schools in 2013 and another 24 by 2017 — by which time he hopes that 40 percent of all of Philadelphia’s public school students will be in charter schools. His plan also calls for dismantling much of the Central Office and “modernizing” (read, outsourcing to low-wage subcontractors) custodial services, maintenance, and transportation.
Educational historian Diane Ravitch summed up the plan this way: “Close public schools, open privately managed charter schools, cut the budget.”
Ravitch went on to say: “I didn’t see anything [in the transition plan] that would cause learning to improve, just a lot of rhetoric that schools would achieve more than they used to because we say so,” she said. “If you really want to improve schools, you have to do something about teaching and learning.”
Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist (and Rethinking Schools editorial associate) wrote an open letter to Mr. Knudsen, who in essence is the district’s superintendent, appointed in January by a non-elected School Reform Commission controlled by the governor. As Gym wrote to Knudsen, “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 right-sizing our schools – and say not a word about lower class sizes or increasing the presence of loving support personnel or enriching our curriculum.”
In Oconomowoc, meanwhile, the school administration proposed “a profound restructuring of its high school, cutting staff and demanding the remaining educators take on more teaching duties,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The district laid off 15 (20%) of its 75 high school teachers and told the remaining teachers that those teaching academic subjects would loose all planning time. Instead of teaching three 90-minute blocks, they would now teach four 90-minutes blocks. Even though the remaining teachers would be paid $14,000 more, teachers were not pleased.
Mark Miner, a veteran social studies teacher, wrote in the April 29, 2012 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the plan was “recipe for burnout” with “a 33% increase in the teaching load while at the same time eliminating prep time.” Miner called for “true education reform, not mandatory overtime that leaves no time to prepare for class, assess student work or provide the individual attention that all students need.”
The Oconomowoc officials were able to push through their plan without input from teachers because Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature stripped teachers of collective bargaining rights in 2011. The students and teachers in Oconomowoc – like the rest of the state – are also affected by the state budget, which included the largest cuts to public education in the history of the state.
In Wisconsin, the first step towards true education reform will be on June 5, when Wisconsin voters have the opportunity to recall Gov. Scott Walker. In Philadelphia, concerned parents and community members are organizing, hopeful they can stem the rush toward privatization. (To stay atop of Philadelphia organizing, check out the community-based Philadelphia Public School Notebook.)