Common Core

Are Pennsylvania students being set up for failure? New education standards, graduation exams highlight school resource needs

PHILADELPHIA — After three years of stops and starts, the state of Pennsylvania is moving ahead with new public education standards and exams required for high school graduation. But without funding to implement the new mandates, educators in Philadelphia and other cash-strapped districts say their students are being set up for failure.

Many teachers, administrators and advocates praise the Pennsylvania Core Standards for their emphasis on critical thinking and greater depth in fewer topics. They also like the idea of graduation exams to make sure a high school diploma has value. But they vehemently disagree with state officials’ contention that schools should not need additional resources to comply with the new requirements, since districts train teachers and revise curriculum routinely anyway.

“There isn’t enough money in Philadelphia to provide for basic instruction,” said Rosalind Jones-Johnson, education director for Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, predicting that the new exams will lead to an increased high school dropout rate and, consequently, increased poverty. “To mandate this and not provide the funding, the human resources and the intervention is unconscionable.”

Assuming that policy adopted by the state board of education isn’t halted in Pennsylvania’s regulatory review process, students beginning with the current high school freshmen will be required to pass Keystone exams in literature, algebra and biology to graduate. The exams will be aligned with the Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state’s version of the national Common Core standards being adopted in most of the rest of the country in attempt to improve American students’ global competitiveness. Pennsylvania officials initially decided in 2010 to adopt the national Common Core but changed course largely in response to conservative concerns over states’ rights.

Students who fail an exam repeatedly will be permitted to do a project on the same subject instead, and district superintendents will have the authority to grant a small number of waivers. Nonetheless, the stakes are high, particularly as the state is looking to add exams for even more subjects in future years, including writing and civics.

Philadelphia, mired in a crippling budget crisis that nearly stopped schools from opening on time this fall, offers perhaps the starkest example of financial needs. But it is far from alone.

“Philadelphia is simply the tip of the iceberg,” Democratic state Sen. Andy Dinniman said at last month’s state board of education meeting where the standards and exams were approved 13-4 over his objections. “School after school is on the brink of bankruptcy without the resources to do remediation.”

Students work on wiring during electrical class at Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center in Philadelphia, where class sizes in some cases exceed 40 this year. (RON TARVER / Philadelphia Inquirer)

In Harrisburg, one of four districts the state has labeled “financially distressed” (Philadelphia is not among them), high school science teacher Sherri Magnuson said she doesn’t know how all her students will get through the Keystone exams. She is particularly worried that even special education students will be required to take the tests to graduate, as will those still learning English. “That is absolutely crazy. I don’t even have words for it,” said Magnuson, who is president of the Harrisburg Education Association and teaches at Harrisburg High, where a disproportionately high percentage of students have special needs. (A state spokesman notes that students with disabilities whose “individual education plans” require alternate forms of assessment will be granted special accommodations.)

A 2007 state-commissioned study found that 471 of Pennsylvania’s 501 school districts had less than adequate funding, while 30 districts had more. The estimated cost at the time to level the playing field would have been $4.38 billion a year, including an additional $4,184 per child in Philadelphia. Nineteen other districts came out with even greater needs than the city, with the biggest gap, $6,437 per pupil, in the Reading School District.

No comparable study has been done since then. However, in 2010, the Pennsylvania State Education Association researched the cost of remediation for every high school junior to pass the state standardized tests that preceded the Keystones — considerably easier tests than the new ones. That price tag was $300 million per year.

Politicians have traded jabs over who’s to blame for the financial problems of schools in the state. When President Obama blasted Republican Gov. Tom Corbett this summer for “brutal cuts” to education, the Corbett administration countered that the governor’s Democratic predecessor, Ed Rendell, had artificially inflated school spending. The state is now providing $700 million less in education funding than when Corbett was elected in 2010, but some of that is because of an end to one-time federal stimulus dollars. The governor maintains that he is still putting more state money into education than at any time in Pennsylvania’s history.

Meanwhile, even wealthy suburban districts are reporting financial challenges to train their teachers and modify curriculum to align with the Pennsylvania Core Standards.

“There was a lot of financial cost that was unexpected, and I only can imagine school districts that don’t have the resources of Lower Merion,” said Wagner Marseille, assistant superintendent of the Lower Merion School District, which came out as the highest-funded district in the state in the 2007 study, receiving $4,972 per pupil above basic adequacy levels. Although the district spends money every year to update curriculum, the new standards have made it necessary to review all grades and subjects simultaneously.

Darren Spielman, president of the Philadelphia Education Fund, is calling upon the philanthropic community to step up to the plate if the state is unwilling or unable to give schools the funding needed for the new mandates.

“If there aren’t public dollars, we need to find the private dollars,” Spielman said. “We can’t ask our educators to deliver on this without giving them a fair shot on preparation.”

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While some educators have a long list of needs, from professional development to money for remedial student tutoring, Charles Baltimore has only a few requests. Baltimore is principal of Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center in north Philadelphia, a high-poverty, predominantly Latino school known for its vocational programs.

Tenth-grader Angel Rivera cuts butter during the culinary arts class at Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center in Philadelphia. The school has seen its enrollment balloon this year as the staff was substantially reduced. (RON TARVER / Philadelphia Inquirer)

This year, as part of a turnaround initiative for low-performing city schools, Baltimore was granted the power to select his own staff, and he replaced half of the teachers with candidates he said he thought were better from elsewhere in the district. He is excited about the potential of his new team and eager to implement the new standards.

But he has a problem in numbers: He has only 82 teachers this year, compared with 110 last year, the result of two major federal grants expiring at the same time as the city’s budget crisis.  Fifteen support staff positions are now 10; the school must now close its library at 11 a.m. because there is no one to supervise it later in the day.

Meanwhile, student enrollment has ballooned from 1,130 to 1,310. Class sizes in some cases exceed 40, although not all are that crowded because the school serves a transient immigrant population where not all students show up consistently. Teachers are giving up their lesson planning time to help supervise the hallways. The instructional coach has taken it upon himself to coordinate laptop distribution and technical support so that students can get extra help online, if not from a live teacher.

“What I need are smaller class sizes, more teachers,” said Baltimore, who was his school’s third principal in a year when he took over last year. He supports the idea of graduation exams in theory but says he needs classes of manageable sizes staffed by excellent teachers if his students are going to be prepared, and he needs time to phase in the requirement, as he is making up for years of inadequate instruction and assessments.

If he can retain the right to hire the teachers he thinks would be most effective and remove those who are ineffective, Baltimore is confident the rest will eventually come together. He said the new standards are “not anything earth-shattering,” and he got a lot out of a three-day training that a few assistant superintendents provided city principals before the start of the new year.

Edison’s instructional coach, Darryrl Johnson, said the Keystones will be a good motivator for students to focus on academics — assuming the school is in a place to sufficiently prepare them. He said students knew that the prior state assessments did not have personal consequences for them. “Now with it being a graduation requirement, if we provide all the support we can for them, they should take it seriously,” said Johnson, a 15-year veteran of the school who is helping to review the city’s math curriculum in light of the new standards.

State leaders have been quick to point out that the Pennsylvania Core Standards are not curriculum. They are simply guidelines for what students need to know. For example, fourth graders should be able to “determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details.” Individual school districts are free to decide how to deliver lessons on the standards in the way they feel best. There are no mandated textbooks or reading lists.

That point has helped to appease some conservative opponents of the standards, who want to maintain local control of schools. But in Philadelphia, where budget cuts have resulted in far fewer content specialists to develop curriculum for the district, it poses a problem.

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For years, Philadelphia schools had a highly scripted curriculum that teachers said took away their creativity. Now, the situation is the opposite.

Some, like University of Pennsylvania literacy professor Diane Waff, see teachers’ increased instructional freedom as a welcome development. “We’re really excited that in this new landscape, despite the fiscal challenges, that scripted curriculum is no longer in place and teachers have some freedom to have students engage in the kind of reading and writing that will really advance them as learners,” said Waff, director of the Philadelphia Writing Project, which partners with local schools. Waff provided summer training on the literacy standards in 2011 and 2012 to staff at three city elementary schools, but one of them closed last spring and the other two could not afford to continue participating.

But others say it is unrealistic to expect overworked teachers to develop curriculum, particularly given that half of Philadelphia’s teaching staff has five years of experience or less.

“For large numbers of new teachers in overcrowded classrooms, there is little or no time … to turn around and be experts in curriculum development,” said Jones-Johnson, the education director for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which has been in a public feud with the governor for months over his refusal to release a $45 million federal grant to the city schools unless the union agreed to teacher wage cuts. Corbett finally released the money today, saying he’s seen enough improvement in the city’s schools to warrant the action.

In addition, Jones-Johnson said, with Philadelphia’s highly mobile student population, there is no instructional continuity for children when they transfer schools. With statewide standards and exams, she contended, “there is nothing more important than having statewide curriculum…. They are implementing an assessment system that will determine whether or not a student graduates from high school that varies greatly based on curriculum as well as the resources in a school system.”

Charles Baltimore, principal of Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center in Philadelphia, watches a student in computer class. Baltimore says he needs more high-quality teachers to ensure his students can pass new state graduation exams. (RON TARVER / Philadelphia Inquirer)

About 100 Philadelphia elementary classrooms began the year with half the students from one grade and half a grade ahead, giving those teachers a difficult choice in which standards and curriculum to follow. In a class where half the children are in first grade and half are in second, “do you follow the second-grade curriculum, like a run up the stairs, or do you dummy it down?” asked Robert McGrogan, president of the city’s administrators union. With fewer teachers in subjects like art and music, academic teachers have less time for planning and professional development during the school day because students aren’t getting sent away for electives. “Meaningful professional development is really a thing of the past,” he said.

State board of education members argued heatedly over fairness and equity before voting to approve the new standards and exams last month.

“We need to, before we approve these regulations, understand what the cost is on our local school districts,” Sen. Dinniman said, pounding his right fist on a U-shaped conference table in the board’s Harrisburg meeting room. He said he has been asking the state education department for a fiscal note on the policy for two years and never received one.

Acting education secretary Carolyn Dumaresq shot back that Pennsylvania districts are being given a long runway to use the $27 billion they collectively receive in local, state and federal funding to adjust instruction and buy materials. “There are monies the state has given,” she said. “None of that matters to you.”

An enraged Dinniman said the commonwealth would be “putting a stamp of failure on increasing numbers of young people.” Describing a hypothetical Philadelphia ninth grader attending classes with 40 other students, he asked, “How does that kid have a chance?”

Rep. James Roebuck Jr., a Philadelphia Democrat, joined Dinniman in losing his temper. “We have chaos because of this board of education, … this administration, this governor,” he said, yelling. “It’s disgraceful, absolutely disgraceful. We all ought to be ashamed of this… How can the board of education not be concerned about the funding of the largest district in the state?… What are you doing to help a district … that has been underfunded when even money that’s appropriated doesn’t get to them?”

But their colleague on the board, Kirk Hallett, countered the state must put an end to students being able to collect high school diplomas and “think they have really achieved something,” only to find out that they aren’t prepared for entry-level community college classes. “That to me is criminal,” he said before voting in favor of the standards and exams. “Up to this point, there’s been millions and millions and millions of dollars put into that ninth grader, and he or she still is not getting a valid diploma…. That student is damned anyway.”

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