Dec 29

We Still Need Arts Education

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

Theo at the Leger Exhibit

I know this post is not exactly espousing a radical notion, but it’s still worth putting words to the page.

Theo loves to draw. He’s got an amazing imagination that translates to the page in ways that astound his mom and me. And our house is rapidly becoming the Theo Gallery.

And we live four blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As a dad, I’m incredibly fortunate to have the financial means to afford a family members to the museum so I can expose Theo to the world of art inside the museum’s walls.

But not every family can afford membership to their local art museum, and even fewer families live within walking distance of a world-class museum.  But every child can be exposed to the world of art – both creating and appreciating it – through school. And every child should be.

And yet, with all of the cuts to education and all of the time and energy expended on preparing for high-stakes tests, art education has been cut in many districts and many schools – and disproportionately in our neediest schools where parents may not have the money to afford a family membership. That’s criminal.

I was raised in a house with tons of artwork because of my mom’s love of art. My mom first fell in love with Leger on a school trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art when she was in 6th grade. She grew up in Camden, NJ which wasn’t a well-funded district even then, but they had art education. No one ever took her out of art class to make sure she could pass some test. Presumably, no one ever told her teachers that field trips to a Philadelphia museum took the student away from “time on task.”

I want every child to have the opportunity to have a rich art education. As Gary Stager has said often, “We are the richest country in the world, our schools should be able to afford a cello and a computer.” I want kids to go to museums, I want them to sculpt and draw. I want them to listen to jazz and classical and play instruments and sing. Here in Philadelphia, private organizations are trying to fill the gap. The Philly Stamp Pass program does an excellent job of giving kids access to museums and Stanford Thompson and the folks at Play On, Philly are doing amazing work with music education in Philadelphia.

But we should never have to rely on private philanthropy to fund what should be publicly funded in our schools.

The exhibit Theo and I went to today was entitled “Léger: Modern Art and the Metropolis” — it is just wrong that so few students in our metropolis were able to see it… or even had a class where they could have learned about it.

Oct 10

Dear Gov. Corbett – How Many Kids Must Die?

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Laporshia Massey died on September 25th after having an asthma attack at school. According to the article in City Paper, it was close to the end of the day, the school called home for advice, and dad told his daughter that they’d deal with it when she got home. She got home, and Dad realized how serious the problem was, and rushed her to the hospital. It wasn’t enough, and Laporshia died later that day.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Bryant Elementary doesn’t have a full-time nurse, and the 25th wasn’t one of the days their nurse was staffed at their school. The school called home, a teacher drove her home at the end of the day, so it is not as if the school did nothing. And in case anyone thinks they could have / should have seen this tragedy coming, you should know how hard it is as a lay-person to make the call to call 911.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you should be outraged by it.

I read the article and thought about the many times we’ve had kids in crisis, and I have had to make the judgement call to call 911 or not because we don’t have a full-time nurse for our school of 490 kids. In many of the cases where it hasn’t been obvious to call, I did what the school did, I called the parents. I tried to explain to the best of my ability what I was seeing with their child, and then I tried to work with the parents to make an informed decision about what to do. After one of those times, I was reviewing the case the next day my school nurse was in, and ever since then, I’ve included calling her for a consult as part of my procedure, but I didn’t think of that until she told me. But even if part of the procedure was that every principal had a nurse at another school on speed dial, that wouldn’t change how important it is to have a school nurse every day.

I’ve been a coach for many years. I’m CPR and First Aid certified. I’m a parent myself. I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. And yet, I am scared to death that I will make the wrong call one day. At the height of the School District budget, we had a nurse three days a week. With the cuts we have endured over the past several years, we are down to two days a week. We have medically fragile children. We have dozens of kids with asthma. And three days a week, I – with my First Aid and CPR certification and my Masters Degree in English Education – am the person responsible for making the decision if a child needs to go to the Emergency Room.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

And while the nursing services have gotten worse in the current budget crisis, this is a long-standing problem for Philadelphia District schools for a long time. Our city schools have been under-resourced for years, which makes the current crisis all the more painful.


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The arterial road you see in that map is City Line Avenue. It is, quite literally, the city line of Philadelphia. Above Philadelphia is Lower Merion School District. One of its two high schools is Harriton HS. Harriton HS has 1188 kids and four full-time nurses. Science Leadership Academy has 490 kids, and we have a nurse two days a week. This year, the average per pupil expenditure in Philadelphia hovers just under $10,000 per child while Lower Merion is able to spend over $25,000 per child. The way we fund schools in this state is criminal, and it has to change.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

The way we fund schools in Pennsylvania quite possibly cost Laporshia Massey her life, and yet Governor Corbett is holding up $45 million dollars of state money until he gets the work rule concessions he wants from the teachers’ union. $45 million dollars translates into 400 more professional employees (teachers, counselors and nurses) to work with our kids. When schools have no counselors, when schools don’t have full-time nurses, that is the equivalent of blackmail.

And it has cost at least one young woman – Laporshia Massey – her life. I wonder if Governor Corbett even knows that she died.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you better be outraged by it.

Aug 19

The Public Trust

[Influenced by this article: New evidence: Philadelphia test cheating is likely far worse than previously revealed | Philadelphia Public School Notebook.]

I’ve been frustrated by what has been long, drawn-out scandal in Philadelphia education for the last year. It seems that some number of schools in Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia specifically, cheated on the PSSAs. In Philadelphia, there are 53 schools that have been identified as having suspicious erasure patterns. I don’t know how many of them actually cheated on the tests; I don’t know, if schools did cheat, if it was done by principals or teachers or both; and I don’t know if these were concerted efforts or the act of someone panicking about what would happen if the scores weren’t high enough.

And yes, we need to have a conversation in this country about the pressures being placed on schools, especially urban schools, because of the high-stakes nature of these tasks. We are seeing a growing number of the scandals in cities all over this country. And as the recent scandal at Stuyvesant High School shows, it is not just the adults who are feeling the pressure, the kids are feeling it too. But let’s be clear – it’s wrong when kids cheat. It’s wrong when adults cheat, no matter what the pressures are.

There are a million thoughts going through my head about this, but I keep coming back to one thought lately about a lot of what I see in the public sphere, whether it is a Republican candidate for president refusing to release tax returns, or the thought that a teacher or a principal may have cheated on tests:

We work in the public trust.

That has to mean something. And while I have no desire to romanticize the past, I worry that this idea means less and less these days. And that’s just dangerous. Working in the public trust must remain profound work. It has to mean an understanding that your work matters more than making widgets, and that the seriousness of purpose with which you undertake your work must matter. It means that you have to the understanding that your work probably won’t make you rich, but the work is necessary and the work is good. And I believe there should be an understanding that the willingness to work in the public trust meant a pension after 35 or 40 years of doing so, because it is important that a society takes care of those who have taken care of the society.

There are many, many problems with the continued corrosion of faith in our public sphere. First among those problems is that what replaces it – an ever-increasing competitiveness and individualism – is having incredibly deleterious effect on our nation — and specifically on our educational system. Whether it is the thought that CEOs of charter schools should make more than the President of the United States or the former CEO of a test-prep company bragging about how many millionaires his company has created or principals thinking they need to falsify student test answers to keep their jobs, we are seeing a movement in education that continues to erode the public trust.

“I got mine” has no place in education, public, private or otherwise. When you endeavor to teach children – whether in a public school or as the head of a private company that sells curriculum to schools – you work in the public trust. That trust should be sacred, and yet, so much we have seen has eroded that trust. And it is incumbent on all of us in education to begin to repair that trust.

So by all means, yes, let’s punish those in our schools – in my city – who have been proven to have cheated on the PSSAs. And let’s do what we can to make sure that no one else thinks that falsifying children’s scores is a way to protect a school or save a career. That behavior has no place in our schools, as it is toxic and a fundamental betrayal of what I believe is a sacred trust.

But then, let’s look across the educational spectrum and ask the hard questions in all corners of world of education that need to be asked so that we can remember the goal of what we do, and we can repair the public trust.