School governance isn't easy. Many reform agendas have come and gone in urban districts across the country, producing few meaningful results for students.
But that doesn't mean we should stop innovating. On the contrary, more school districts need to take bold steps toward education policies that have been proven to work. The Philadelphia School District has done just that with its new blueprint for transformation, which includes three key reforms that are likely to produce clear academic gains for students.
First, the district plans to provide high-quality, highly structured, individually tailored training for principals and teachers. Studies show that teachers and principals are the two most important in-school determinants of student success. By putting an intense focus on teacher and principal development, the Philadelphia schools will ultimately increase student achievement.
Second, by strengthening school autonomy, the district will increase its number of high-quality schools. Cities such as New York and Denver have had success treating schools more as individual entities, in what's known as the "portfolio" model of school management.
The Philadelphia district has proposed giving high-performing schools considerable autonomy in exchange for strict accountability. Medium-performing schools would be improved through an intense focus on their strengths and targeted efforts to address weaknesses. And consistently low-performing schools would face dramatic turnarounds or closure.
Third, the district plans to do the hard work of closing poorly performing schools rather than attempting to bring them into the new model. Closing schools has proved to be one of the most heart-wrenching and logistically difficult aspects of school governance, but it's often necessary. It's unjust to let kids continue to attend schools that are failing them, and while closing schools is often disruptive in the short run, it's likely to increase student performance and overall school quality in the long run.
Additionally, closing underused school buildings will free up money for other pressing educational needs. If the city does not reduce its number of school facilities as enrollment declines, it will continue to contribute a greater share of resources per student to building maintenance instead of instruction and other important services for children.
It's also encouraging that the district's plan takes bold steps to address its finances. The insolvency of school districts across Pennsylvania has drawn more attention lately. In Harrisburg, legislation has been introduced that would allow the state Department of Education to appoint chief recovery officers for financially troubled districts and to place some districts in financial receivership. The Philadelphia School District has an opportunity to take the initiative by addressing its fiscal problems and making difficult but important decisions about spending now.
In addition, the plan's fiscal strategy would reduce the size of the district's central office and give individual schools greater budgetary authority. Principals, teachers, and others at the school level know what's needed to improve student learning, and they should therefore determine how money is spent.
However, the district must also assure fiscal accountability by tying student achievement to dollars spent at each school, allowing it to determine which schools are spending public money wisely and in ways that help children.
Who vs. how
Critics of the district's plan have argued that it is too market-driven and that it seeks to privatize education by putting more nonprofit organizations in school leadership roles. But when children with potential are languishing in schools with low expectations and correspondingly low performance, shouldn't we be more concerned about how to make the schools better, not who is going to make them better?
For all its substantial strengths, there is one glaring weakness in the district's plan: its arbitrary 7 percent reduction in per-student funding for charter schools. Public charter schools educate the district's students just as traditional public schools do, and they deserve the same level of funding, as well as equal access to school facilities.
Overall, though, the Philadelphia School District's leaders should be commended for taking this step toward dramatically transforming the city's education system. The alternative is to let kids suffer in financially insolvent schools that expect little of their students and get little from them in return. We can do better.