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Imitate, Don’t Replicate, Successful City Schools

Posted 02.15.2019

By David Hardy

We in the charter world salivate like Pavlovian dogs when it comes to “replicating” successful schools.  It’s easy, right?  You pack up all the experience and wisdom of a successful school, take it somewhere new, unpack it, and presto!  Like magic, an identically successful school is born.

The School District of Philadelphia apparently agrees with this approach, for charters at least.  In its guidelines for opening new charters, the District favors those who claim to be replicating a successful model.

But the act of replication is no easy feat, and as evidence, consider the District’s own inability to replicate its highly successful Center City programs at Meredith or Greenfield elementary schools (both National Blue Ribbon Schools).

Most of the children arrive at these schools far more prepared for the educational experience they receive.  When a problem arises, it often is remediated with family knowledge or resources.  But in those Philadelphia communities mired in generational poverty, replicating a successful Center City school is much more challenging.  In Kensington, the scourge of drug addiction has exacted a horrible toll on the children who live there.  News reports have described the desperate measures that teachers and parents are taking just to shield children from the trauma induced by the ugly realities of a drug-ridden community.

Yet none of these makeshift remedies include changing the basic method of delivering education in the classroom.  There are no recommendations, for example, to change the length of the school day, or school year.  No suggestion of Saturday school or homework support, and no meaningful attempt to foster and support behaviors that allow children to escape the conditions they now endure.  Their efforts, while often heroic, amount to trying to take down an elephant with a pea shooter.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that teachers are to blame.  Not at all; this is a leadership problem.  Schools must change to meet the needs of the children they serve, and this change must start at the very top of the chain and travel throughout the organization.  And we’re talking real change, too; a complete redeployment of people and resources organized in different ways.

Public education tends too often to confuse uniformity with equity.  The focus has been on standardizing the process, so that all children get the same product.  But this approach does not prevent great disparities in outcomes, primarily because there are stark differences among the children who occupy the classroom seats.  It is not enough for schools to say that they took the same approach with all children; or put another way, that all children were treated the same way.

Instead of trying to standardize public education, let’s personalize it.  That means it may look different from school to school.  It means that each school has a mission to serve the children who walk through the door.  And instead of lamenting that children don’t come to school prepared to succeed, the focus should shift to ensuring that they leave school (as nearly as possible) identically prepared.

Think Jaime Escalante, the calculus teacher immortalized in the film “Stand and Deliver.”  His calculus class may not have looked the same as the top high schools in the country, but it had similar results.  That they used a different way to get there is immaterial.

To the members of the Board of Education, take heed: You can imitate a successful school. But you cannot replicate one.

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