Mmmm, Pittsburgh is following Philly's lead in the school reform realm. A major urban school system taking an unorthodox approach to district leadership and school planning/programming. Not an easy thing -- gotta take your lumps with your future success -- but I'm encouraged by the decision to go after 'what works' rather than simply what is familiar:
Under pressure to right the finances and improve pupil performance, school directors hired a nontraditional leader who implemented a new curriculum, enhanced professional development, closed bad schools, increased the district's use of K-8 schools and launched a project to improve high schools.
Before this became the story of Pittsburgh Public Schools, it was the story of the School District of Philadelphia. The larger district has shown that improvement is possible, if traumatic and slow, using some of the same strategies that have been proposed for Pittsburgh.
Only time will tell, but worth keeping an eye/ear on.
Otherwise, it's only about point fingers. Talking failure. Taking sides. Fear. So easy to point the casual finger at big city public schooling -- "Oh, it's not what it used to be" -- and claim some sort of holier-than-thou editorial stance. In spite of easy target stats and the unspoken socio-economic biases that still run amok even in 'polite' circles, I'm not so sure our system is failing, or that public education needs yet another soundbyte critic to go there.
Let's try a different spin:
Public schools in America are succeeding wildly. Beyond expecations in some respects. The only problem? They're succeeding for a context and scenario that existed a generation ago, with students and teachers having to do back-flips that were inconceivable in past lifetimes (hey, put away your papyrus diploma and ancient Greek lessons...and really think back as to what you were expected to do a generation ago against today's standards/challenges/context. Considering the obstacles in their way -- real and self-referential -- it's amazing anyone goes, anyone still dreams, anyone still succeeds. When everyone thinks you're destined to fail, a little bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Taken another level, the entire 'experiment' of public education as we know it is a remarkably 'new' experiment. Yes, experiment. 200 years of mass literacy and training for mass employment in an 'urban' context is pretty radical stuff, if you think about the entire span of human/social history. Let alone the 'everybody gets to come' piece of the puzzle. And then society began expecting schools to do, well, everything else in less time at the very same time that the entire understanding of what 'learning' really means on an individual and/or collaborative level.
And the real kicker? Instead of being in awe of the changes, we look only to discuss failure in a desperately territorial manner.
Not only do I think districts like Philly and now Pittsburgh demonstrate that much is still possible, but I think we need to finally begin to admit that the great experiment of public education was a crazy risk 200 years ago and that it pretty much succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. And then instead of concentrating on the growing fear of failure, we need to re-visit the entire premise of education, what we mean by learning, orienting schools around engaged learning more than just the 'system' of education, and begin to imagine what we'd do from scratch if we were to be considering public education for the first time today.
Is it mind fodder? Yes. If you're a "the system is failing" kind of guy/gal. Or perhaps its an opportunity to rekindle something more primal, more powerful, more full of potential. Perhaps. Or just a chance to wish Pittsburgh a bit of luck as they navigate in some pretty uncharted territory in the meantime.