School & District Management

Taking the High Road

By Robert C. Johnston — November 03, 1999 13 min read
Despite an enthusiastic start followed by frequent criticism, Hornbeck has endured.

Not long after David W. Hornbeck became the superintendent of the nation’s sixth-largest school system in 1994, the Philadelphia Inquirer bluntly laid out his challenge.

The newspaper’s scathing special report on the city’s schools, “District in Distress,” painted a bleak picture: Just 25 percent of elementary students were reading at or above the national average. One-third of middle school students had been suspended at least once in the past school year. And Philadelphia spent $1,160 less on the education of each of its 214,000 students than the average in the surrounding suburbs.

But the moral imperative to get something done for underprivileged children resonated with Hornbeck, a longtime children’s advocate and a minister. He could also draw on his experience as a leading consultant in Kentucky’s far- reaching effort to overhaul its school system in the late 1980s, and as the reform-minded state chief in Maryland from 1976-1988.

“I wanted to be the superintendent in a district that exhibited the sort of normal urban education problems,” Hornbeck recalls. “In my view, there was not a single district in the United States, with diversity, that successfully educated most of its children to high standards.”

Determining how far he has gotten in five years toward that academic Shangri-La, however, isn’t easy.

Test scores are up, several of the innovative ideas in his Children Achieving program have taken root, and a new focus on academic achievement pervades the district.

But some teachers and administrators, who feel he used them as scapegoats for past problems, are hard- pressed to compliment his reforms. And state lawmakers put off by Hornbeck’s frequent demands for more money--and his characterization of those requests as a moral obligation--also feel embittered.

“There has been a lot of improvement as measured by tests kids take, but it’s not fully appreciated because of the political difficulties he’s experienced,” says Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Thomas Ferrick Jr., who worked on the paper’s 1994 report. “He has a Jesus complex that doesn’t stand him in good stead, especially with the legislature.”

Yet, despite an enthusiastic start followed by frequent criticism, Hornbeck has endured. He has remained well beyond the two or three years many people expect of big-city superintendents, bringing the beginning of stability that many people say is necessary if urban schools are to make progress.

Today, however, Hornbeck’s future hangs in the balance. The outgoing mayor Edward G. Rendell, has long supported the superintendent. “Has David Hornbeck sometimes caused me to pull my remaining hair out? Sure he has,” the Inquirer quoted the Democratic mayor as saying in a speech in January, “because he’s devoted to the idea of making things better for kids, and he sees things as good and evil. And we love that passion.”

But Rendell’s term ends Jan. 3. And the new mayor elected this week, whether Democrat John F. Street or Republican Sam Katz, may have his own views about who should run the city’s schools. The election, Ferrick says, “is the moment of truth for David Hornbeck.”

Within a year of coming to his new post, the hard- driving chief, with input from the business community, unveiled his 10-point Children Achieving plan as a road map that would lead the district into a new era.

The plan called for new standards and tests. It sought to make the system “feel smaller” by breaking it into 22 administrative units, or clusters. There was to be more teacher training, full-day kindergarten, safer schools, and expanded social services. Students were to get better facilities, more books, new technology, and they were to benefit from increased funds to support the new program.

It was boldly ambitious, especially when progress in any one of the areas would be a victory in most city school systems. The blueprint helped the district win a $50 million urban school reform grant from the Annenberg Foundation. Philadelphia businesses and nonprofit organizations kicked in another $100 million.

“It is a fact that we have been comprehensive in what we’ve done,” the 57-year-old superintendent says in his slow, deliberate monotone. “If we had only done standards without tests, it wouldn’t work. If we had standards without accountability, it wouldn’t work.”

But was it too much?

“A critic could argue that you could have stages, and some of this would work better,” says Thomas Corcoran, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. His organization is under contract to evaluate Children Achieving by Greater Philadelphia First, a group of business leaders which oversees the Annenberg grant and the other contributions.

With the future of tens of thousands of children at stake, however, there wasn’t much time to waste.

In 1996, two years after Hornbeck took the job, the district’s first Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition was administered. Learning standards and curriculum guidelines followed.

That sequence--with the test coming before the standards it is intended to measure--still draws criticism. “The system was put in backwards here,” says Mike Axelrod, the president of the Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, Teamsters Local 502, a local group representing principals and other school officials in Philadelphia. “It created a phony baseline because kids were being tested on something different from how they had been prepared.”

It is hard to dismiss, though, that scores on the exam have risen annually, from 29.9 percent scoring at the proficient level at all grades in 1996 to 41.9 percent last year. Meanwhile, 4th graders went from 39.2 percent at the basic level to 54 percent in that time.

The four-year graduation rate from grades 9-12 has improved from about 49 percent to 55 percent, though everyone acknowledges that figure is still too low.

But Hornbeck and other observers point out that simply making schools test thousands students who had been excluded in the past is an achievement in itself. The superintendent prides himself on avoiding some of the statistical legerdemain--such as exempting special education or low-achieving students from testing--that school districts have long been accused of.

“When you consider that, the achievement has gone up relatively well,” Corcoran adds.

The test scores are used in combination with student and staff attendance rates, and student promotion and graduation rates, to rate schools on a widely publicized performance index.

Axelrod and others say that the index, which is also used to determine principals’ salaries, is not clearly understood by the public, and that it blurs improvements in specific areas, such as tests or attendance.

Others, however, say the index is a public barometer that has forced a fundamental change in how Philadelphians think about education. “There’s a different conversation in Philadelphia about kids and what they are capable of learning,” says Jolley Christman, the principal researcher for Research for Action, a local nonprofit research group that is also under a contract to evaluate Children Achieving.

She notes that many high schools have added more higher-level courses, and that pre-algebra is now taught in schools. “That has been a shift that has occurred in his tenure.”

While Hornbeck has put the index in place to hold schools accountable, he failed in his efforts to launch a teacher- accountability system during contract negotiations four years ago. It would have tinkered with teachers’ seniority status and would have linked pay and job status to student achievement--something the union fiercely opposed.

“This is an issue of a level playing field,” says Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. “You can’t just hold teachers accountable where there are no textbooks, where there’s overcrowding, and you can’t get certified teachers.”

Nonetheless, Christman credits the Hornbeck era for making more information on achievement available to the public: “It creates a context in the city that says, look, the school district is not going to throw up barriers to knowing what our system is doing,” she says.

North of downtown, the Olney cluster of 14 schools draws its 14,000 students mostly from middle-class and low-income families.

The neighborhoods here change by block, from neatly manicured, red-brick townhouses to the notorious Logan District, where houses are slowly sinking into the landfills on which they were built. Abandoned, stripped-out shells of cars are so common they are known as “car art.”

Amid this urban mix is one of the school district’s success stories, Clara Barton Elementary School. In the 1995-96 school year, 47.2 percent of the school’s 4th graders who took the Stanford-9 scored at basic or above, while 22 percent failed to score high enough on the test to be counted.

Last year, 68 percent of the school’s 3rd and 4th graders scored at that mark, while just 7.4 percent were listed as “not tested.”

The three- story, brown-brick building joined a three-school partnership with ibm that included a $2 million grant which it is using to help teachers integrate technology into the classroom.

But for veteran kindergarten teacher Ella Staff, the biggest improvement has been the addition of all-day kindergarten.

“I send children to 1st grade not only ready to read, but reading,” she says. “People have such a poor perception of what goes on in Philadelphia schools. If they were in a room ... they’d be shocked by what’s going on.”

Elsewhere in the cluster, JoAnn Caplan, the principal of Jay Cooke Middle School, praises Children Achieving’s focus on achievement. She says her school received mandatory technical assistance last year as a result of its low rating on the performance index two years ago.

She has problems, though, with the quantitative nature of the index. For example, she says, it fails to acknowledge that the gang wars that rocked the school’s neighborhood three years ago have been curbed, or that many of her teachers’ absences were due to serious illness or maternity leave.

It also ignores more recent problems, such as students’ being accosted by prostitutes who entice them into “rings” and then perform for the students, Caplan says. Last year, Caplan adds, three female students were raped on their way to school.

Nevertheless, the veteran principal says Cooke Middle School has embraced the district’s mandate to create “small learning communities” of a few to several teachers and up to 350 students. Each group works separately around a theme, such as the arts, to develop curriculum, coordinate instruction, and compare notes on student progress.

Researchers say these small school groups are one of the strongest parts of Hornbeck’s agenda. But Caplan notes that Children Achieving’s goal of involving local school councils in major decisions has been inconsistent. “It’s functional or it’s nonfunctional, depending on the parents,” she says of the council system. One of her first groups was so involved that it lobbied the central office to repair two gyms that had been closed. “They knew how to push the right buttons,” she adds. “I don’t have that now.”

And the cluster format has not improved the interaction of elementary, middle, and high school as much as Caplan had hoped. “We have excellent articulation with the elementary school,” she says, “but haven’t been able to make the transition to the high school.”

That would be Olney High School--the headline-grabbing site that Hornbeck calls “the bane of my existence.” In 1995, Olney was one of two schools that Hornbeck singled out based on low performance for “reconstitution,” or the reassignment of most of its staff members. But the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers challenged the effort to reassign teachers on technical grounds, and won in arbitration--one of the most public defeats for Hornbeck.

Today, only a fourth of the school’s teachers remain from that year, however. Olney has gone through four principals in four years and is currently trying to hire its fifth.

Still, Hornbeck says he considers Olney a success story. “I wouldn’t want to go through this every day, but it’s a classic example of losing the battle but winning the war,” he says. “It would have taken us an extra year or two to make as clear as that episode did how clear and how serious we were about standards and accountability.”

Ill-feelings over the move still fester at the cavernous, six-story structure, where 2,700 students often work under ceilings scarred and rotted by leaky roofs. “We thought our achievements were going to go up in a puff of smoke because no one knew the full scope of reconstitution,” says Bill Cohen, who teaches business and law at Olney High.

And though the worst fears of teachers and students weren’t realized, the battle remains a sore spot. “It will not be forgotten until every student who cried graduates and every teacher who was labeled has retired,” Cohen says.

A group of local parent leaders, however, saw the effort as a long-overdue recognition that things needed shaking up at Olney.

“In the long run, I felt it would be good because the school had problems,” says Wendell A. Harris, the president of the Home and School Council at Olney High. “If more kids get a better education, maybe that’s what we needed.”

Hornbeck’s’ relations with Gov. Tom Ridge and lawmakers in Harrisburg have been equally contentious. The district has filed two lawsuits challenging the way Pennsylvania allocates money for schools, and joined a third filed several years ago by a group of small and rural districts. Two of the cases failed in state courts, where judges ruled that the issues presented by the plaintiffs should be solved in the legislature and not in the courts.

Hornbeck doesn’t pull his punches when he talks about the court action. He remains perplexed that the state judges who ruled in the cases couldn’t rule on a state funding system that he says leaves him with a hefty $1.5 billion budget, but only $7,000 per student compared with more than $9,000 per pupil in nearby suburbs. “It absolutely blows my mind that the judiciary system of Pennsylvania is not available to the children of the state to have their most fundamental issues decided,’' Hornbeck says angrily.

He is also taking Philadelphia into new legal waters in a federal lawsuit that argues that the state’s current system of school funding discriminates against minority students.

Some observers in Philadelphia, who requested anonymity, say that the discrimination argument particularly angered Republicans both in the legislature and the governor’s office, who see it as a veiled accusation of racism.

Such critics decry what they see as Hornbeck’s inflated moral tone, and argue that giving more money to a big school district where serious problems remain is sending good money after bad. Hornbeck’s budgets have repeatedly exceeded the district’s identified revenue. His 2001 budget calls for $342 million more than the district expects to have. The superintendent argues that to cut services would undermine school improvement efforts.

“It’s patently clear that to propose a formula year after year of cutting our way to a balanced budget is a sure formula for failure in lots of ways, including achievement,” he says.

Despite his efforts, Hornbeck has failed to get the legislature to design a new school spending system. And no court-ordered relief is in sight. But the defeat goes beyond funding and gets back to how other policymakers responded to him.

“He particularly infuriated people because he insisted that this is a moral as well as a legal issue,” says Michael Churchill, the chief counsel of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which joined the city in one of the funding lawsuits. “No likes to be called to account on that score. But in truth, that’s what it is.”

Coverage of urban education is supported in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 1999 edition of Education Week as Taking the High Road


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