photo by LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS, used via creative commons
“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Rice University, September 12, 1962
I’m a product of the tensions
I’m a product of the tensions, anxieties and yearnings of an educational system and country always trying to keep pace with an ever-evolving world.
At Greenfield Elementary, opening its doors two years before I hit Kindergarten, and one year after Neil Armstrong placed a foot on the moon for all mankind, I was welcomed into newly integrated, open classrooms, gathering the best and brightest from across the city, and bringing together all the transformative ideas about urban education that had developed during the previous decade in one building.
By the time I was a middle schooler, special school day carve-outs like “mentally gifted” and ‘academically talented” classes buttressed my otherwise too slow-paced homeroom lessons.
I attended science fairs where futurists predicted a day we would live in a world wearing our TV screens on our wrists and communicating, Star Trek style, with people everywhere. I was given free roam of the immaculately stocked libraries, and encouraged, like my Hero Max of “Where the Wild Things Are” to let my imagination take me where it may.
Skipping 8th grade, I headed off to High School where, at the experimental Franklin Learning Center, I was allowed to pick my own classes and, in theory, complete the curriculum at my own pace—slowed only my own desire to work hard.
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This newly minted academic freedom became my undoing, in the way unexpected liberties often do.
Starting over at a community-run, independent high school, I finally settled into the more standard routine, solidifying my college-bound phase, but with a heavy dose of practical, vocational exposure.
Before the mid-twentieth century, most Americans didn’t require more than an eighth-grade education to meet the needs of a full adult life. By the time a second World War broke out across Europe, education reform made the US the unquestioned world leader in free public education in the primary and secondary years.
My schooling had been crafted in the post-war world of the 50’s. Expanding on the easier successes, the comprehensive High School movement swept the nation in response to the rise of office work, the space race and the burgeoning technocratic middle class. At the very same time, a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education declared separate schools were “inherently unequal”, ordering the desegregation of schools nation-wide, “with all deliberate speed.”
30 years after the monumental shift, as I typed out my final Wite-Out spattered high school term papers, a little firm called Macintosh was smashing the world I had been preparing to inhabit with a sledgehammer.
Another revolution was already afoot. We were not prepared.
In the 21st century, urban education has become increasingly fraught with political divisions, fractured in its approach to teaching and learning, segregated along class and racial lines, and confused as to how best to prepare students for an ever-changing world. Who is important? How do we best address their needs? What is it that they need to know and, most importantly, who is going to pay for it?
Our current system fails to adequately address the needs of diverse, urban communities, leaving a significant number of students without the necessary tools to succeed. It is clear that a new approach, one that reimagines education broadly and addresses the challenges of urban education, specifically, is our only hope.
Let’s start with the brutal truths. Nearly 75 years after Brown we still must assert that access to quality education should not be a privilege but a fundamental right for every child.
Schools in Philadelphia are underfunded when compared to the more affluent, suburban neighbors. Classrooms are overcrowded and lack the necessary resources to provide a quality education. The average age of buildings operated by the district is 73, with some as old as 120 years.
The per capita income of the families served by the district is $36k, with 29% of all persons younger than 18 falling below the poverty line. Non-white students make up 85 percent of the 113, 327 enrolled in 218 schools.
These facts perpetuate a cycle of multiple disadvantages and limit the potential for upward mobility. To transform this landscape, seriously focused, large-scale investment is crucial. We need a moon landing, not a railroad.
Adequate funding must be allocated to ensure schools have sufficient resources, such as well-trained, highly motivated teachers, modern facilities, individualized learning plans and real-world immersion opportunities, all supported with technology matching the needs of modern learners.
These investments can help level the playing field and pave the way for success. I am intentional in the order of these priorities (Teachers, Infrastructure, Student Support and Technology).
Carried out in Tennessee from 1985-1989, Project STAR (Student/Teacher Achievement Ratio) randomly assigned one cohort of 11,571 students and their teachers to different classrooms within their elementary schools. Famously, Harvard’s Raj Chetty demonstrated that students within the cohort who were randomly assigned to higher quality classrooms (more experienced teachers, lower student/teacher ratios) in grades K-3 earn more, are more likely to attend college, save more for retirement, and live in better neighborhoods.
Highly qualified teachers, chosen competitively and compensated at rates commensurate with their college and graduate educational costs, and paired with opportunities they are best suited to is clearly the most urgent need. Philadelphia should become the most “teacher-positive” city in the country, supplying enhanced benefits in housing, continuing education, healthcare, and retirement. Most importantly, outcome measures must mix standardized scores with more student/family-centered measures, rewarding great instruction and community building.
Following closely behind is improvement in the spaces where learning is performed.
Researchers in the UK studied primary school students’ performance level in math, reading, and writing, along with a comprehensive assessment of the classroom environment, which evaluated classroom orientation, flexibility, layout, color, natural light, noise, temperature and air quality.
They found that “placing an average pupil in the least effective, rather than the most effective classroom environment could affect their learning progress by as much as the average improvement across one year.” In short, where we learn is as important as what we’re learning.
The structure and curriculum of urban education must also be reimagined to meet the evolving needs of the 21st century. Traditionally, education has been centered around standardized testing and a one-size-fits-all approach. This approach fails to acknowledge and celebrate the diverse strengths, talents, and interests every student brings to the table.
A reimagined system must prioritize personalized learning opportunities, allowing students to explore their passions and develop skills tailored to their individual needs. This approach promotes engagement and fosters a love for learning, as students are given the freedom to pursue subjects that interest them.
By creating a curriculum that reflects the real world and encourages critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity, students will be better prepared for the challenges they will face in the future.
In 1982, in collaboration with the District, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University responded to a nationwide need for science enrichment opportunities for young women with the launch of of Women In Natural Sciences (WINS) – a science education program for 9th – 12th grade girls in Philadelphia. WINS sought to foster a love of science and connections to peers amongst its participants.
On average, 100% of WINS participants who take part in all 4 years of the program graduate from high school (compared to 65% of students within the School District of Philadelphia), and 63% choose a STEM major in college (compared to 13% of SDP students, and only 1% of students of color). 86% complete their college degrees, and over the years, an average of 44% pursue STEM careers in such fields as engineering, forensic psychology, and veterinary sciences.
What it will take
Creating transformational opportunities for all of the district’s current students will take similar collaborations with multiple informal science and other cultural institutions to magnify these results in real-time.
Understanding the role of technology as a powerful tool to enhance learning. provides access to information, resources, and opportunities that were previously unreachable for many is the fourth pillar supporting transformational success.
By integrating technology into the classroom, students can engage in interactive learning experiences, collaborate with peers, and develop the digital literacy skills necessary for success in today’s digital world. However, bridging the digital divide is crucial to ensure that technology’s advancements do not exacerbate existing inequalities. While some students may have access to the latest devices and high-speed internet at home, others may lack these basic tools. To address this issue, Philadelphia must provide equitable access to technology and internet connectivity for all students, regardless of their socio-economic background as a basic right. We must drop the “pay to play” model of digital access and provide these resources, free to all.
In a 2021 article entitled New Pathways for Education Reform, education policy expert Bruno V. Mano advocates for redefining school/student success in terms of “opportunities that emphasize the aspirations of young people, including pathways for a self-determined life.”
As a society, we must promote systems, education and otherwise, prioritize social and emotional learning (SEL). Many students today face significant challenges outside the classroom, such as poverty, violence, and trauma.
SEL equips students with the tools to manage their emotions, develop empathy, and build positive relationships with others, creating a supportive and inclusive learning environment, and building connections across society that provide personal and professional opportunities for growth. We must begin to employee network thinking, seeing all students and their families as essential nodes in a region-wide network of mutually shared benefit and wellbeing.
The challenges faced by today’s students cannot be solved by schools alone. Collaboration between schools, families, the cooperate sector, cultural institutions and community-based organizations is essential in reimagining our city, our region and the world.
By actively involving parents, guardians, and community members in the educational process, a sense of shared responsibility is fostered. This collaboration can lead to initiatives such as out of school time programs, mentorship opportunities, and community partnerships, enriching the overall educational experience for students.
Those who remember the 70s can recall the “School without walls” that knitted together small cohorts of students from across the region, paired by interest and embedded in both classroom learning and real-world placements. Clearly, this model’s time has come again.
Education for the 21st Century
Reimagining education for the 21st century is crucial in creating equitable opportunities for all students and ensuring our region’s viability in an ever-evolving global landscape. It is the crucial foundation of growing a sustainable STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) pipeline, of recruiting the Army of new educators that will be needed, of responding to the increased need for advanced technical proficiency in the face of the rise of Artificial Intelligence, and meeting our pressing societal challenges like the climate crisis, human displacement and universal civic unrest.
This transformation requires both adequate funding to provide outstanding instruction, adequate resources and modern facilities, as well as a curriculum that celebrates students’ diversity and interests. Personalized learning, technology integration, and social and emotional learning are essential components of this new approach. This is our moon landing moment. This is the hard thing and all the others we must choose.
Ultimately by prioritizing these essentials a reimagined system can empower every student to overcome barriers, unlock their potential, and create a brighter future for themselves and their communities.
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