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SRC plan sparks debate. Will debate help?

FIXING THE SCHOOL district would be simple, if only: The schools went back to teaching basics.

FIXING THE SCHOOL district would be simple, if only:

The schools went back to teaching basics.

We'd stop siphoning off money to charter schools.

We'd open more charters.

We had the means to get rid of bad teachers.

We had a way to get rid of bad students.

Parents cared more.

We made sure there were music and art classes.

The state funded the schools they way it is supposed to.

This list could go on — and on and on, limited only by the number of people you ask.

Everyone has an opinion about how to fix the district, and the district has an opinion about how to fix itself via a new set of proposals that would close 40 schools, move many students to charters, establish "achievement networks" and require major concessions from the unions to close its fiscal gap.

Tuesday, City Council members offered their own opinions, quizzing the School Reform Commission as they consider providing $39 million to the district. Some expressed concerns about aspects of the proposal, including how fast it's moving and how much public input has been contributed. Around the city, community members and parents are voicing their opinion to the SRC, some challenging plans to close some schools.

This is not unfamiliar territory. Since the term "education reform" gained traction 20 years ago, both the city and society as a whole have been debating how to best educate our children.

Those debates must continue. But we can't help thinking that the debate needs to change its tone, and some of its content. Because, despite some improvements, the schools — both in Philadelphia and out — are still failing too many kids.

Why have two decades of well-intentioned proposals and visions not worked? Is every plan destined to fail, no matter what its merits?

These are critical questions as we review the latest ideas from the newly formed SRC; not just because this is a group that seems far more engaged in finding solutions than previous commissions, but because the financial situation is more dire than ever.

It may be time to admit that while change is necessary, few people have an appetite for change. Parents want their schools to stay open, or they want more educational options. Teachers want the wages and benefits and protections they've negotiated for. Elected officials want high-quality education for the same cost as ever. And some of the public want to believe that education will never be as good as the one they themselves received, and it's not worth trying.

During a recent conference on cities at the Federal Reserve Bank, Will Dobbie, a doctoral candidate from Harvard, presented findings from research on what makes the difference in education. He debunked many theories, including the impact on class size, and instead pointed to five policy areas that make the most impact. Topping the list: high expectations. Schools that articulate high expectations of students, parents and staff are the most successful.

Maybe it's time we applied that research to the debate about education. What would happen if we raised our expectations of public schools and what they can accomplish — and our expectations of the city's 200,000 students in those schools? That would be a radical change that could actually work. n