Core Standards, lack of aid strain Pa. schools
First of three parts
Pennsylvania's public schools have been waiting for three years to find out whether the state will move ahead with new education standards designed to make students more globally competitive.
Without official direction, many schools went ahead and began teaching the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which go deeper in fewer topics than prior guidelines and emphasize nonfiction more than novels.
Now, it seems, the state is giving the green light not only to the standards but also to related exams that students will have to pass to graduate from high school. But it is not providing additional funding to implement the mandates, and educators in Philadelphia and other cash-strapped districts say their students are being set up for failure.
"There isn't enough money in Philadelphia to provide for basic instruction," said Rosalind Jones-Johnson, education director of the 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."
State officials contend that schools should not need additional resources to comply with the requirements, since districts train teachers and revise curriculum routinely anyway.
Assuming the policy adopted by the state Board of Education is not 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 national standards called Common Core that are being adopted in most of the rest of the country, including New Jersey.
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 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 of Chester County 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."
A 2007 state-commissioned study found that 471 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts had less than adequate funding. 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 district.
No comparable study has been done since. 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.
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 district.
Darren Spielman, president of the Philadelphia Education Fund, is calling on 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."
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.
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.
Edison's instructional coach, Darryrl Johnson, said the Keystones would 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 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 deliver lessons on the standards in the way they feel best. There are no mandated textbooks or reading lists.
That point has helped 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.
For years, the city's schools had a highly scripted curriculum that teachers said took away their creativity. Now, the situation is the opposite.
"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 union's education director.
State Board of Education members argued heatedly over fairness and equity before voting to approve the new standards and exams last month.
Dinniman, who represents portions of Chester and Montgomery Counties, said the state 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?"
But board member Kirk Hallett countered that 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 community college classes. "That to me is criminal," he said before voting in favor of the standards and exams.