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Rasheed should never have graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Or so the statistics said when he was born in 2009. Rasheed’s mother had dropped out of West Philadelphia High—mere blocks from the prestigious university—like well over half of her classmates. She gave birth to Rasheed when she was barely 18 years old and single. Though she later completed a GED, her education left her unprepared for all but low-skill, low-paying jobs. Rasheed was raised in the same dilapidated neighborhood as his mother. In west Philly, this was the norm. Almost no one raised there—three percent to be exact—finished college.
But finish he did, at age 21, in four years. And Rasheed was not alone. Nearly a quarter of the kids he grew up with—like him, mostly poor and African American—earned college degrees in 2030. What seemed improbable when they entered the world was now at least attainable. High school graduation had also become commonplace; all but a tenth of the kids from his neighborhood earned regular diplomas.
What made this progress possible? West Philly remained a disadvantaged community. Parents were no better educated to help their children learn. Public education had not benefited from a windfall of tax dollars. High school standards had not been dropped to make graduation easier. The University of Pennsylvania, like many American universities, remained the envy of the world and tough to get into. So, what happened?
Public education improved. Finally.
Shaking Up the System
Rasheed attended the same schools as his mother, beginning with Samuel B. Huey, a once esteemed K-8 school that educated some of city’s leading citizens as recently as the 1950s. By the 1990s, however, the school, like the neighborhood, had been declining for decades. Two-thirds of Huey’s students regularly failed state reading and math assessments. And, when they attended West Philadelphia High School, most, like Rasheed’s mother, dropped out.
The School District of Philadelphia tried to halt the slide. In the 1990s, the district was led by one of the nation’s leading reformers of the time, David Hornbeck. Class sizes were reduced, a standard curriculum introduced, and professional development reinforced. The schools benefited from a steady flow of supplementary funding from the state. But whatever progress resulted was too little, too late. Over half of the city’s students still failed the state’s assessments annually. In 2001 the state seized control of the district.
Though it would not become apparent until years later—about the time Rasheed began school—this was a turning point for public education in Philadelphia. The School Reform Commission, created by the state to oversee the schools, acted boldly to improve them. (Its most outspoken advocate for change, James Gallagher, had graduated from the Huey School, and gone on to the presidency of Philadelphia University.) Two actions were paramount. The Commission hired Paul Vallas, a tough CEO—not a superintendent—from Chicago to get results. And, it invited outside firms, reform organizations, and universities to run the 45 lowest achieving schools in the district. The combination epitomized the nation’s most promising reforms: hold schools accountable for student achievement and introduce competition to spur innovation and improvement.
The takeover worked. Achievement throughout the district turned around. In some schools it improved dramatically. Huey was one of those. Supported by a private manager, its failure rate on state assessments dropped from 80 percent to 20 percent. Over half of its students scored proficient, satisfying grade level standards. The gains were largely made the old fashioned way: clear standards, high expectations, demanding curriculum, and a principal willing and able to attract, motivate, train, retain, and hold responsible a team of dedicated teachers. But the progress laid the foundation for more fundamental change already underway.... Read more from this article.
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