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Philadelphia School Board Approves Goals & Guardrails Initiative to Improve Student Achievement

  • The School District of Philadelphia Board of Education has charted a new course for overseeing the district, one that promises big changes in how the board views its role and does its business.

    One practical result: The board will spend less time reviewing contracts and significantly more time asking the question, How does this action impact student learning? 

    The aim is to boost student achievement to levels at least comparable with other, more successful urban school districts. 

    “The board’s vision is to ensure that all of our students receive an education that allows them to thrive, succeed and lead in a global society,” board president Joyce Wilkerson said in a statement. “The board is committed to making the necessary changes to our work to give students, educators and leaders the tools they need to realize this vision.” Joyce Wilkerson

    The board resumed control of the district two years ago after nearly two decades under the state-imposed School Reform Commission (SRC), which focused primarily on management and financial issues such as the awarding of contracts. A study conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools estimated the SRC spent just 10 percent of its time on questions related to student learning.

     “Let’s focus less on who gets what contract and more on the big picture,” said Wilkerson. 

    The district has made progress under Superintendent William Hite, who has been in the post since 2012, with increased graduation rates and more schools rising in state rankings, but students continue to struggle. Just 17 percent of district fourth graders read at or above grade level on the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, with 18 percent at or above grade level in math.

    A main goal of the new plan is to boost the percentage of third to eighth graders who read on grade level on state tests from 35.7 percent to 65 percent by 2026. The board also will track progress for subgroups of students, including by race, ethnicity, economic disadvantage status, English learners and special education students. Suspension data will be tracked for disparities in disciplinary practices.

    Philadelphia is not keeping up with its big-city peers, Wilkerson acknowledged. “It’s sobering,” she said, quoted by Chalkbeat. “It shows that as a district we are not doing what we need to for our students.”

    The initiative is titled “Goals & Guardrails,” and the guardrails it describes amount to nonnegotiable conditions that should exist in schools. The conditions include being welcoming and supportive, being environmentally safe and clean, with mental health supports in place.

    Schools should offer well-rounded school experiences, with arts and athletics, should partner with students and families, and should address and dismantle racist practices. 

    The board also is seeking wider engagement and input from students and community members and intends to make wider and routine use of data that is shared with the public. 

    The idea for the initiative began in the summer of 2019 when members of the Philadelphia school board attended the Accelerating Board Capacity (ABC) Institute at the Harvard Business School.  

    Custom-designed for the Council of the Great City Schools by a team of Harvard University faculty members, the program incorporated a mixture of case studies using real-world situations and large- and small-group discussions among the participants to focus on developing strong and effective school board governance. 

    After attending the institute, the board reached out to Council Executive Michael Casserly and started working with him as well as AJ Crabill, the Council’s director of governance. The board spent two years working with them on the project and also consulted with school boards elsewhere to inform its work. And the Goals & Guardrails strategic plan, adopted in December, draws significantly from a working document, “School District Governance 101,” crafted by Crabill, which draws directly from the Council report, “Student Outcomes Focused Framework, A Continuous Improvement Model.”

    One board member described the new approach as “a paradigm shift” while another characterized the intent to focus on student achievement as both “obvious and revolutionary.”

    Hite agreed, saying the plan represents “a focused effort around student outcomes” and “changes how we look at the data [as well as] the types of questions we should be asking.  

    According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, quoting board members, the plan could mean lower class sizes in struggling schools but not in higher performing schools as well as an effort to place more experienced teachers in schools needing improvement. That measure would need buy-in from the teachers’ union. 

    With its lens on student performance, the board intends to review the district’s progress on its three main goals – students performing at grade level in reading and math and ready at graduation for college and careers. 

    There are about 120,000 students in district-operated schools, 68,000 in charter schools, and 12,000 in other settings overseen by the district. The city is often described as the poorest big city in the country, with a poverty rate of 23.3 percent in 2019.