by Sue Ann Rybak
The Philadelphia School Reform Commission (SRC) voted Feb. 15 to give roughly $20 million to outside vendors for virtual classes and data collection rather than allocating those funds to address and fix infrastructure-related environmental hazards district wide and hiring experienced certified teachers, counselors and librarians.
Resolution B-12 allocates $10 million for virtual classes and adaptive learning systems to vendors like Edgenuity, Achieve 3000, Imagine Learning, iReady, Teachtown, Learning A-Z, Lexia Learning, and Resolution A-7 awards $9.5 million to Pearson Inc. for cloud-based services that collect data and deliver educational content to students online.
The move upset local parents who think the money could be better spent.
Haviva Goldman, of Chestnut Hill, who is president of Friends of J.S. Jenks, said in an email to the Local that the SRC and school district should prioritize funding to make sure every child has access to a quality education in a healthy, safe and supportive learning environment.
“With Philadelphia Public Schools still suffering from years of budget cuts, the district should first focus on its infrastructural needs (e.g., repairing existing buildings, upgrading infrastructure like electrical systems and boilers, so that students have a safe and clean learning environment), as well as on reducing class sizes, hiring and maintaining quality teachers, staffing libraries, and enhancing music and arts programs,” said Goldman.
“I believe that technology plays an important role in the classroom, but as a supplement,” she said. “Programs like ‘Achieve’ and ‘iReady’ have their place, but not at the expense of safe and dynamic classrooms and teachers. From my own experience I see how children respond differently to these technologies. My son really benefited from online programs like ‘First in Math,’ which allowed him access to endless math games and problems at his level. My daughter has struggled with these same programs, finding them frustrating and a chore.”
Mt. Airy resident Robin Roberts, whose son has special needs, said the SRC vote was just another example of “dismantling the school district from the inside out” and “making sure an outside vendor gets millions of dollars of public money by stating ‘it’s going to help our kids.’”
“Children are being put on screens to learn information they are supposed to be learning in math classes,” said Roberts, who is an employee of the district. “Even though our children are doing the program with fidelity, it is not helping the outcomes of education for our kids. We know, that if we have smaller class sizes and caring, experienced teachers teaching them an engaging, anti-racist curriculum that they are going to be successful. The Academy of Pediatrics has said that children spend too much time on screens and too much time on text, so ‘Why is the district doubling down on increasing the amount of screen time in our schools when research shows it doesn’t work?
“You can’t build on math unless you have a strong framework. Students are graduating from high school who can’t do basic math, but they did their ‘Imagine Math.’ Whose fault is it going to be when people are not able to function in our society? Students need teachers who are able to sit down next to them and explain concepts to them.”
Roberts, who is also a member of the Philadelphia Healthy School Building Initiative, encouraged parents to make their voices heard. She said the school district has a responsibility to make sure that kids are going to school in safe, healthy environments. She referred to the recent article in the Notebook about the school district’s plan to reboot it lead stabilization project after a six-year-old student at Watson Comly Elementary in Somerton ate paint chips last October and tested positive for lead.
“There is no reason a first grader should get lead poisoning from paint chips that had fallen into his classroom,” she said.
Fairmount resident Allison McDowell, a parent who has children in the Philadelphia school district, said many districts are pushing online programs as being innovative in an attempt to replace face-to-face instruction in schools. She said it doesn’t make any sense for the school district to allocate more money to cyber education when schools are not meeting students’ basic needs.
“Digital education is big business,” she said. “Philadelphia has become a hub for educational technology development. Wharton School-affiliated venture capital, combined with research support from the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel and Temple fuel growth in this sector. Many ed-tech companies have positioned themselves as vehicles for social impact investments, which ImpactPHL promotes as a tactic to expand our economy. Digital education benefits telecommunication companies (such as Comcast) that build skyscrapers with tax abatements that undermine tax revenue for neighborhood schools.
“I think students should have the right to have access to a human teacher face-to-face with a reasonable class size. The School District of Philadelphia is letting the buildings fall apart and driving the teachers out, so there will be a platform version of education. If passed, these resolutions will push our schools toward automated education. The district didn’t give us the option to choose between teachers and online test prep, because parents know it is teachers who change children’s lives, not computer code.”
McDowell said programs like Achieve 3000, iReady, and Lexia Learning do not empower children or offer personalized learning.
“Learning online is learning that is constantly monitored and surveyed,” she said. “With a learning management system, the algorithm is in charge, not the teacher. Algorithms are racially biased and classroom devices collect vast amounts of data. Eric Schmidt, former board chair of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, said data is the new oil. Parents don’t want data-driven education.
“I think $20 million is a substantial amount of money. Before anything else, make sure every school has certified teachers in all subject areas, a library, arts, music, sports and fix the buildings. Ultimately, I think this is a decision that should wait until the new school board is formed.”
Councilwoman Cindy Bass said she was not familiar with the specifics regarding resolutions B-12 and A-7.
“However, I do believe that while 21st century learning is vital for our children, it is also vital that our children are able to learn in a healthy environment,” Bass said. “The SRC voting process has historically lacked transparency. I look forward to ushering in a new era of Philadelphia’s school board.”