Ears on the SRC: February 15, 2018


by Diane Payne
February 26, 2018

 All Present

All five commissioners were present for this action meeting. Eight members of APPS spoke on behalf of public education at this meeting; to view their testimony, go to APPSPhilly.net.

Four additional community members spoke in opposition to resolutions A-7 and B-12. Resolution A-7 proposed a $9,549,665 contract with NCS Pearson for “integrated web access. Resolution B-12 spent a whopping $10 million for various vendors providing online courses and adaptive software. (This is in addition to the $10 million the SRC set aside for blended learning last year).

There were two wonderful performances by students from Franklin Learning Center High School (FLC). Two students (piano and voice) beautifully performed the moving song, Strange Fruit, and another student gave a “Little Black Girl” spoken word performance.

SRC Staff Answers Questions

In his remarks, Dr. Hite addressed the millions going to web access and blended learning in Resolutions A-7 and B-12. He assured the audience of privacy protections and gave what some interpreted as lip service to teachers being primary to children’s education.

Teacher Vanessa Baker, in speaking against Resolutions A-7 and B-12, reported on recent events around the city in which business leaders and social impact investors have met behind closed doors–leaving out students, parents or educators– to discuss the direction of education. On January 29th, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce held a ticketed, closed-door event for members of the business community on Roadmap for Growth: Exploring Business Engagement in Philadelphia’s Schools. On February 7th, Comcast sent a busload of “Impact Investors” to Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Hite addressed Baker after her remarks to assure her that the attendees at Feltonville were only there to observe and see what is happening at the school. So, when the fox circles the henhouse during the day to see what is happening, does the farmer feel secure going to bed that night that his chicks will be safe?

Another recent exercise in exclusion of community stakeholders is that of the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF), whose CEO is SRC Commissioner Farah Jimenez. (Yes, APPS has asked why this isn’t considered a conflict of interest, to no avail.)   Since Commissioner Jimenez has taken the helm at PEF, meetings about public education that were always open to the public have become closed-door events with preference to PEF donors. Jimenez has banned some individuals, including APPS co-founder Lisa Haver, from PEF meetings, and has refused to give any reason despite several communications with her and the PEF board. Discussions among business and nonprofits about the future of our schools now shut out the very people whose lives are most affected by them.

APPS members (and apparently some other members of the community) had submitted written questions to the SRC prior to this meeting about the ongoing approval of expenditures with no supporting evidence or explanation of their benefit. Interestingly, the staff presentations and Superintendent Hite’s remarks addressed some of these questions. Coincidence or public pressure forcing the minimum of explanation? In addition, the SRC staff provided written answers to questions which was made available to the public just prior to the meeting.

Question on Resolution A-2: $4 million to TNTP. What is the independent, peer-reviewed research that justifies this expenditure? Questions and doubts swirl around this organization, yet we are spending millions. The district must be able to justify this expense.

This resolution was “Withdrawn By Staff” just before the meeting but a written answer was still provided. A general question “does coaching improve principal leadership?” was answered. However, the question asked prior to the meeting was unique to TNTP since it is that particular organization that has been the subject of many questions about their debatable expertise and political connections. What was not answered: is TNTP up to the task of GOOD coaching? For some information on TNTP see:

New TNTP President Among the First to Have Her NYC School’s Charter Revoked | deuthch29
TNTP Making Big Bucks from the Destroy Public Education (DPE) Movement | Tultican
Deborah Grill’s testimony transcript for the SRC meeting of April 27, 2017 | APPS

Question on Resolutions A-4 and A-5, $76 million to Kelly Services for substitute coverage: The district should be able to provide the data to show the money saved by this outsourcing and the increased coverage obtained. Where can we see this data?

The staff presentation by Louis Bellardine, Chief Talent Officer and Teresa Rita, Deputy Chief, Talent Acquisitions addressed the $76 million to Kelly Services for substitute coverage in resolutions A-4 and A-5. Mr. Bellardine’s presentation showed an increase in substitute coverage. Kelly services seems to be maintaining a good fill rate so that part of the question was answered. What was not answered was the cost comparison. Is the cost about the same, a savings, or more costly? That was not included in the presentation so that part of the question remains unanswered. The two page power point can be viewed on the SRC website.

Question on Resolution A-7: $9.5 million to Pearson, Inc for instructional management. In this age of increased data collection vs privacy concerns, there are increasing fears about data mining our children for the benefit of others.   Considering these fears, please provide the following information about this system: who will have access to this information within the school district? Will any organization, company, or entity have access to our students’ data from outside of the SDP? How clearly will parents be informed of data use, privacy options, and opting-out?

 Melanie Harris, Chief Information Officer (CIO) answered Commissioner Richman’s question: is student data or information sold or made available to outside vendors? She noted the district uses encryption and firewalls for safety of student information. The written answer included a promise to have updated Privacy Policy on February 28, 2018. It should be noted that all the protection and safeguards in the world are never foolproof. Just look to the many breaches that have surfaced in news articles from credit card companies to credit reporting companies and more.

Question on Resolution A-11: $257,750 in contracts to Jounce Partners, TNTP, and Hendy Avenue Consulting. As noted above, the questions and concerns swirl around these organizations. Please provide the data and independent, peer-reviewed research that supports the selection of these questionable organizations as the recipient of our school district dollars.

 The written answer indicated the district followed federal guidelines under the allocation of Title II funds to non-district schools. This was not a district choice but a non-district school choice that falls under a federal guideline.

Question on Resolution B-9: $15 million to CLI. Since our schools starve for the bare necessities like stocked libraries staffed with certified librarians which research has proven to equate with student success what data supports spending this amount of money on an initiative? The resolution notes in part, “to support the District’s overall work towards meeting Anchor Goal 2, ensuring all students are reading on grade level by age 8” yet abundant research supports school libraries staffed with certified librarians. Please supply the data to justify using this money on an outside agency rather than beginning to restore our libraries and librarians.

In the written answer provided by the SRC staff, it was noted that “national research supports teacher coaching in early literacy as an effective way to mitigate some of the harmful effects of high teacher and student turnover endemic to large, urban school districts.” Again, the initial inquiry didn’t question the effectiveness of coaching, but did question the use of funds to support an outside initiative in support of literacy rather than using that money to begin to reopen our school libraries and staff them with certified school librarians. Research DOES support school libraries having a positive effective on student outcomes.

However, this answer raised another question, if the district knows that high teacher turnover is harmful, why does the Hite administration continue to force teachers in struggling schools to reapply for their positions and allow only a small percentage to remain? Cognitive dissonance or bad policy–or both? APPS members have been testifying relentlessly on the harm of teachers and principals being forced to reapply for their jobs. The district knows this is harmful but does it anyway.Why?

Question on Resolution B-12 : I will be very anxious to see the research that supports this very large expenditure to expand the amount of time our children spend in front of screens rather than engaged in real instruction with real people. There is a huge controversy over whether we should be pushing ANY more screen time on ANY of our children let alone our most vulnerable and needy children. This also ties into the question of data mining our students. PLEASE provide the independent, peer-reviewed research that supports this resolution. Technology has a very important place in our classrooms but the place it does not have is in lieu of a real teacher.

 Cheryl Logan, Chief Academic Officer (CAO), answered questions on Resolution B-12 from the Commissioners prior to their vote. Logan explained that this resolution was approving money for “approved vendors” which schools can choose from when deciding on computer based student help. There were four levels of student support: struggling student support, gifted student support, credit recovery, and Advanced Placement classes. Logan stated there was no attempt to replace teachers and that screen time was a concern so no program should require more than 15 to 20 minutes as part of a rotation in the classroom (daily, weekly?). Here’s where it got interesting: When Commissioner Jimenez questioned whether teacher interventions were also part of approved interventions, Logan stated, “absolutely.” She said that about 75% of the interventions used for children were teacher-led small group instruction, one-on-one instruction, community based in school programs held at lunch or after school. Would classroom teachers agree with that percentage? Teachers are required to use the approved software interventions–this goes back to the statement Dr. Hite made in his presentation that teachers are primary. They are primary as long as they follow the district’s approved vendor list? Often, though, they are not primary when it comes to their independent professional expertise.   And, to be clear, teacher evaluations will reflect whether they deviate from district demands no matter their professional evaluation of what a child or their class needs.

After hearing the sales pitch about vetting and rubrics and high quality, the question remains: Are computers being used as an effective tool to enhance instruction or are they the enhanced instruction? When you put a struggling student in front of a screen for help, that is instruction not enhancement. When you put an AP student in front of a screen for a class–that is instruction not enhancement. When you put a failing student in front of a screen for credit recovery – that is definitely a poor substitute for instruction, it is NOT enhancement. Commissioner Bill Green questioned Tanya Wolford, District Chief of Evaluation and Research, about whether the data shows evidence that these programs are effective with students. Wolford had to admit that she could not answer yes or no. She noted there were a quite a few programs covering many different areas and they vet the programs for quality, but she couldn’t state definitively that they improved our student outcomes. Despite the overwhelming community opposition and the expert testimony, the commissioners voted unanimously to spend $10 million dollars on this questionable practice. As pointed out by APPS members, that $10 million could have gone a long way to reopening school libraries and lessening class size in some of our most struggling schools.

Policies and Charter Schools

The policy committee, chaired by Commissioner Christopher McGinley, meets monthly to publicly discuss policy changes and updates. This committee has been working to formulate a policy on charter amendments, Policy 406, in the absence of any clear policy in the state’s charter law. The Committee postponed action on it in December at the request of some charter operators. Several charter school supporters spoke against the need to update this policy and called foul because the SRC declined to meet with them privately to help reframe the policy. As Commissioner McGinley pointed out, this is a public process. He invited them to attend the public policy meeting, register to speak, and include their recommendations at that meeting.

Charter managers have complained recently in the media about not having a seat at the table. They seem to have forgotten the secret meetings that took place over a six-month period last year, that the public knew nothing about, in which charter CEOs met with top district staff at 440 to discuss possible changes in the PA charter law.

That law has been labeled one of the worst in the country by PA Auditor General Anthony DePasquale.

It is the duty of the SRC to oversee the operation of Charter Schools and to safeguard students and taxpayers against academic and financial failure. Many failing charter schools continue to operate, yet the charter industry never weighs in to demand charter accountability. The next policy meeting is scheduled for 10:00 a.m. on March 1, 2018 and the vote on this policy will be at the March SRC action meeting on March 15th.

Hundreds of Millions Spent in Block Voting

The SRC unanimously approved 41 resolutions in just four blocks. Before voting on Resolution B-12 (to spend $10 million on blended learning), the commissioners called up district staff to answer questions. No doubt this was only to assuage the public outcry over this particular expense. Questions were raised before the meeting, and many speakers decried this expense at the meeting. It forced the SRC into some kind of attempt at accountability although their efforts fell far short of justifying $10 million on computer programs for intervention when our schools lack libraries and librarians (which are proven to support outcomes).

The SRC spent $115,457,265 and accepted $3,435,600 in grants and donations.  

Two Upcoming SRC Meetings

Next Thursday, February 22nd, the SRC will hold a special meeting at 4:00 p.m. to vote on the seven remaining applications for new Charter Schools. APPS has investigated these applications and sent written testimony to the SRC. The approval of any new charter school is done at the harm of remaining district students. The cannibalistic nature of this process is enough reason to vote NO on any new charters not to mention the flaws, deficiencies, and questions found in the applications themselves.

The next regular action meeting of the SRC will be held on March 15, 2018 at 4:30 p.m. To register to speak, call the Office of Family and Community Engagement by 4:30 on the day preceding the meeting at 215-400-4180.