Article published by Philadelphia Business Journal on August 22, 2022. Revised 9 am.
As the new superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, Tony Watlington faces many issues that need to be addressed. To his credit, he has established five transition teams consisting of a broad array of leaders to provide guidance in the following priority areas: assess student and staff well-being; engage our stakeholders and build trust; assess teaching and learning; assess district leadership capacity and alignment and assess district operations, facilities and finances.
Ninety-two individuals comprise the transition teams. What is striking is that there are only six teachers on these teams. Teachers are on the front line of education, delivering the school district’s product—education. They serve in the trenches, dealing with issues every day. There should be more teachers on these teams.
There are no students on any of the transition teams. This is the equivalent of a business attempting to determine a strategy to provide a great customer experience without asking any customers how they could improve. There should be a high school senior on the teams to get the input of a student.
In addition to addressing the adequacy of teacher pay and the difficulty in hiring teachers to fill classroom vacancies, I would hope that the transition teams focus on the following four areas:
Are there opportunities to shift resources from central administration to the classrooms?
I recently interviewed an elementary school teacher who left her public school to teach at a charter school. She told me that the difference in resources available to teachers is like night and day. When working for the school district, she was allocated a woefully inadequate $100 each school year for classroom supplies and incidentals.
A few years ago, my wife and I adopted a second grade class at the Ellwood Elementary School in the Oak Lane Section of North Philadelphia, providing classroom supplies that the school did not provide. The students attending this school are disadvantaged, and the teachers were spending their own money to provide classroom supplies beyond those that could be purchased by the $100 provided by the school district. We felt that it was disgraceful that the teacher should need to spend money out of her own pocket to educate her students.
Are there opportunities to shift financial resources from the school district administration to classrooms by reducing central staff? Rightsizing the organization to create financial resources to invest in other areas is a process undertaken by all businesses. This process needs to be pursued by the school district.
How are leadership skills and performance of school principals assessed?
Principals play a key leadership role in the school district. Do they receive leadership training? What tone at the top do they espouse and what is the organizational culture they nurture? How do they inspire the teachers and other professional staff at their schools?
Does the performance assessment of principals include input from the teachers and staff they lead? Assessing a principal’s performance goes beyond whether their school achieves numerical metrics on student performance. Input from direct reports using the 360 degree process can provide a more complete picture of an individual’s leadership behaviors and has become a standard in many business organizations.
Are principals and teachers empowered to improve their schools?
Do principals have the freedom to launch initiatives to improve the education of their students, or are they held to rigid standards dictated by the school district central administration?
Empowering employees on the front lines to implement improvement initiatives is no longer best practice, it’s common practice at leading organizations. If it’s not part of the culture within the Philadelphia School District, it needs to be.
If teachers are not part of the educational improvement process, the school district is wasting a valuable resource.
What strategies are being undertaken by the school system’s public schools to compete with charter schools?
I encourage transition team members to visit both public and charter schools to get a sense of the differences –not only visual differences in facilities, but also the atmosphere.
What are the differences in how the charter school principals are empowered to make decisions that enhance the education of their students, compared to public school principals?
What are the differences in resources available to teachers as well as their freedom to innovate?
My sense is that the transition team members would see a world of differences which would serve as a guide to their recommendations.
The arrival of Dr. Watlington is an opportunity for change. Let’s hope he receives effective input from the transition teams and implements their recommendations.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.