Like Veterans Stadium and the Spectrum, the Philadelphia School District is about to be blown up. The School Reform Commission announced plans last week to close 40 schools next year and two dozen more by 2017. It also plans to allow outside organizations to make proposals to run groups of schools.
The idea of breaking the district into smaller, more manageable chunks is not new. Former schools chief David Hornbeck broke the system into "clusters" in the 1990s. Unfortunately, that created all kinds of unintended bureaucracy, which is why the next schools CEO phased them out.
"What we know through a lot of history and evidence and practice is that the current system doesn't work," SRC Chairman Pedro Ramos said at a recent news conference. Ramos had a legitimate point. But we also know that chronic restructuring often fails to achieve meaningful results, too.
Jim Collins made this case in Good to Great, in which he analyzed elite companies that made the leap from average to outstanding and sustained the results. After poring through mounds of data, Collins and his team concluded that constant overhauls are a recipe for failure.
The best companies followed a pattern of gradual improvement leading to breakthroughs. One word that kept coming up in Collins' research was consistency. Successful companies had plans that they stuck to, resisting the latest fads.
This remains perhaps the greatest flaw of the Philadelphia School District. Every few years, elected officials bring in new district leaders with another grandiose vision for school reform. Usually, it costs big bucks and involves fundamental restructuring. Tragically, though, genuine school reform is rarely able to grow roots. Time and money are invested in plans that end up on the chopping block before they can be fully realized.
The SRC is right about the need to save money by shutting near-empty schools. But students shouldn't be shifted to charters. Research continues to show that charters perform no better than traditional schools, lack oversight, and fail students with special needs.
Instead of giving scarce resources to outside managers, the district should reinvest in its community. It should provide struggling schools with proper support. It should make the curriculum more individualized and authentic. It should treat teachers with respect and trust their expertise. And it should expand programs for troubled youths. In other words, it should invest in families and a culture of learning for all children.
The SRC's new vision for the district has merit, and school officials should be commended for their efforts to bring about change for the better. But true change comes from within. Philadelphia already has enough dedicated citizens, educators, parents, and students to remake the district and achieve results.