Ronnie Polaneczky: Prez at Masterman: Unreal choice

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Masterman students following a back to school speech at the school. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)

SO THE BIG news in the Philadelphia School District is that President Obama will deliver his back-to-school speech today at the Julia R. Masterman School.

Locally, this address might be as controversial - and I type that word with rolled eyes - as Obama's 2009 back-to-school presentation was to the rest of the country.

That speech was delivered directly to students at Wakefield High School in Arlington County, Va., and televised nationally.

Wigged-out conservative parents from here to Utah feared that Obama would use the platform to push a left-wing political agenda. Some even kept their kids home from school that day, lest their children's tender ears be assaulted by the president's live-streamed, dangerous rhetoric.

And what was Obama's message?

He implored kids to stay in school, work hard, be responsible and, when facing hardship, rise above despair.


Obama is visiting Masterman. Is it representative of Philadelphia schools?

"The story of America isn't about people who quit when things got tough," he told them. "It's about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best."

Terrifying stuff, right?

Anyway, after the address, the sky didn't break apart and clatter down on America's schools. Nor, presumably, did any fifth-graders try to convince their parents of the need for Obamacare.

So I doubt that the president's address today will incite a national furor.

However, thanks to the choice of Philadelphia - and, specifically, Masterman - as a locale, it's inciting some sticky local debate.

White House spokeswoman Moira Mack said that Masterman was selected because it's "an excellent example of what's possible when all students are challenged to work hard and work smart, to think critically and to communicate effectively."

"Through an enriched curriculum and a college-going culture, Masterman demonstrates a strong sense of what's possible academically," Mack continued in an e-mail yesterday. "At the same time, the school helps students become active citizens by placing a high value on integrity and personal responsibility."

Well, amen to all of that (and, in the interest of full disclosure, I have a child enrolled in the school, which just earned National Blue Ribbon status).

But there's something disingenuous about using Masterman as an example of "what's possible" academically, especially in an urban school, without acknowledging two critical components of its success:

Masterman admits only students who are already academically high-achieving and who have no prior, serious disciplinary record.

A student can have excellent grades at his elementary or middle school and high standardized-test scores. But if he has a record of being chronically late, cutting class, acting out or spending court-ordered time in a juvenile facility, he won't make the cut.

So, to clarify Mack's statement, Masterman demonstrates "what's possible academically" when an urban school is able to screen out many of the factors that make urban education such a challenge in the first place.

None of which is to diminish the accomplishments of the students (trust me, the workload is intense) nor the dedication of Masterman's staff.

Indeed, as focused as the kids are, I wonder if their academic results would be as impressive if their extraordinary teachers weren't permitted to veer from the district's standardized curriculum in order to keep the students excited about learning.

That point was made beautifully last week by retired district teacher Marsha Pincus in her thoughtful blog, "Her Own Terms."

Pincus spent decades at both Simon Gratz High School and at Masterman, and was twice named the district's Teacher of the Year. So she knows well the heartbreak and the possibilities of district education.

Lately, she's been speaking out in a big way on her disdain for the highly scripted, narrowly proscribed curricula that is being forced upon teachers and students at schools unlucky enough to not be Masterman.

"At Masterman, teachers are treated as professionals," she told me yesterday. "Their knowledge is respected and they're able to develop rigorous, rich curricula that engages and meets the needs of their particular students. It's ironic that students elsewhere are given the least engaging curricula."

In other words, she contends, Masterman is an academic bright light in urban education because its staff is allowed to be creative in ways that staff in other Philadelphia public schools are not.

"Shouldn't that model be emulated in the district?" she asks.

It's a great question. I wonder if the president even knows to address it.

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