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Despite Obstacles, Phila. Seen Making Headway on Reforms

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Despite serious shortcomings, Superintendent David W. Hornbeck's crusade to reinvent the Philadelphia public schools made genuine headway in its first year, a report says.

Researchers looked at 67 schools where Mr. Hornbeck's education-reform plan was piloted last year and found that, in general, changes were taking hold and were viewed favorably by those involved.

The superintendent's 10-point plan includes full-day kindergarten, high academic standards, more professional development for teachers, and local school-governance councils. ("Hornbeck To Push Ahead With Phila. Reforms," Feb. 15, 1995.)

But the researchers also identified wide-ranging problems that could undermine the restructuring of the city's schools if not resolved.

"They get a B-plus," said Thomas Corcoran, the principal researcher in an ongoing, five-year study of the Children Achieving reforms by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of university researchers. "Given the scale of the enterprise, there was in fact a lot accomplished."

But the extent of that progress varied widely among schools, the researchers found, in part because of skepticism, uneven implementation, and a lack of understanding of the reform plan among school staff members and parents.

The researchers also concluded that Children Achieving faces potentially lethal obstacles, including the district's fiscal crunch, opposition from Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, hostility from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and intervention by the courts.

Progress Praised

In its report issued last week, the team credited the district for, among other steps:

  • Reorganizing schools into clusters, starting with 67 schools last year and expanding to the entire 215,000-student system this fall. The 22 clusters typically include a single high school and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it.
  • Introducing a new standardized-testing system, completing curriculum standards for reading, math, science, and the arts, and starting work on standards for the remaining subject areas.
  • Mobilizing master teachers to help upgrade instructional skills in the six pilot clusters.
  • Deploying staff members in each cluster to improve families' access to social services.

But the team from CPRE--an association of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison--saw none of these initiatives as an unqualified success.

Among the deficiencies cited were the uneven use of professional-development resources, slow progress in establishing teacher-dominated school councils, and little classroom application of the district's new curriculum standards.

Clearer Message Needed?

Mr. Hornbeck, who brought the blueprint for Children Achieving with him when he joined the district two years ago, said the report underscored the need to do "a better job of communicating--to principals and teachers--how we operationalize change at the school level."

A teachers' union spokesman, however, questioned whether communication was the problem.

"He's had a big PR thing going from the day he got here," said Jack Steinberg, the director of educational affairs for the Philadelphia teachers' union. "People aren't buying what he's saying, so they call that a failure to communicate."

Mr. Steinberg also criticized the report for glossing over what he said were numerous fundamental flaws in the Children Achieving plan.

The study was commissioned by the Children Achieving Challenge, a Philadelphia-based group formed to manage a $50 million Annenberg Foundation grant to the reform effort. The group has raised nearly $100 million in additional funding to implement Mr. Hornbeck's plan.

Last week's report came just a week after the school district issued its own assessment of the reforms' initial year.

The district report showed that, on the whole, standardized-test scores in the six initial clusters remained flat from 1995 to 1996, and in some cases declined, a fact that Mr. Hornbeck greeted with disappointment.

"No one wanted to see the test scores go up more than I," he said. "But the fact is, too little changed in classrooms last year."

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