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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 02/11/2012

Academic ‘walkthrough’ teams: Surreally real

This was written by Andrew Ganim, a Philadelphia resident who shared a version of this story as testimony to the School Reform Commission last month. This first appeared on the The Philadelphia Public School Notebook blog.

By Andrew Ganim

Talk to teachers in Philadelphia, and you’ll hear more than a few complaints about walkthrough teams. These are the groups of educators sent each month to struggling schools to see how well teachers are following the details of the mandated curriculum, down to such items as how desks are arranged and what’s on classroom walls.

One of these walkthrough teams came into my wife’s 3rd grade classroom in Lea Elementary School, took one look at a lovingly assembled reading corner, and determined it was “clutter.” As if that were not enough, the District then paid someone to come in over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend to remove it.

Does the headline “Walkthrough team deems reading area ‘clutter,’ removes it,” sound more like something you would expect to read in the Notebook, or in The Onion?

Unfortunately, it actually happened.

I live in West Philadelphia, across the street from Lea. This school educates impoverished students and is in the so-called “empowerment” category due to its relatively low proficiency scores on tests. As such, it is required to use a very specific scripted curriculum and it gets additional resources. Among these “resources” are the monthly walkthroughs.

Lea sits in a neighborhood near the University of Pennsylvania and has a vibrant and active community of parents and neighbors interested in helping it improve. In 2008, I joined with a number of others to contribute to a DonorsChoose.org proposal for a reading area in a Lea classroom. The reading area was designed to create a fun and comfortable place that would encourage students to read. (Despite what happened in this case, contributing to proposals on DonorsChoose.org is a great way to help improve our schools!)

The reading area has been a hit. As I write this, I am looking at photos of kids enjoying this space and the grateful letters they sent me.

For over three years I have heard from students who used this resource. I can assure you that these kids were excited when they got to use that space, which really translated to them being excited to read.

Then a month or two ago, one of the District walkthrough teams described the area as “clutter.” Other comments from the team included quite a few strange things like “too many words [!] on the word wall,” and “13 class rules.” There was no comment as to why these were problems.

After that visit, my wife implemented the changes that were essentially neutral, and resisted those that she considered damaging to the learning environment. In the case of the reading area, she chose to ignore the comment since she knew it was much more valuable than “clutter.”

Then, on Tuesday morning, January 17, before the kids got in, she sent me a picture message. It was the corner of her room with the reading area, except all the furniture was gone.

The last thing this walkthrough team was interested in was whether the students used and enjoyed this area, or what removing it would mean. When asked afterwards, they declined to explain their reasoning.

Now, these 8- and 9-year-olds do not understand why their special spot is gone and why they have to read at their desks. They think they are being punished, and they have no idea why. Moreover, relationships among the staff at Lea have been seriously damaged.

Of course, since Lea is an Empowerment School, skilled teachers like my wife are effectively handcuffed to the scripted curriculum. They are not free to use their knowledge and expertise, because the District says that it is better for them to act like automatons and follow the script. The walkthrough process only adds insult to injury. Besides denying them the freedom to apply their teaching skills, they are also taking away teachers’ classroom resources.

How exactly is this supposed to help the students learn? Instead of investing in walkthroughs, the District should be investing in opportunities for teacher peer review, knowledge sharing, and high-quality professional development. There are more than 100 of these Empowerment Schools now. How much do these walkthroughs cost?

I want to be clear that these are my words and not my wife’s. I am speaking out because it shocks me to see the District blindly undoing the efforts of the Lea community, and I want to see something positive come out of this. I am still optimistic that something will: Since I spoke at the SRC, I’ve been engaged in ongoing discussions with the staff of several commissioners. But their plates are full and they have lots to keep track of.

When I spoke to the SRC members, I suggested that as they look for ways to cut $61 million from the budget before the end of the year, they might take a look at the walkthrough teams. Apparently, they did. According to District spokesperson Fernando Gallard, the positions of six instructional support officers, the persons in each region who did the walkthroughs, have been cut. It is still unclear, however, whether District leaders still believe in the concept and whether the walkthroughs will continue.

In my comments to the SRC I also mentioned that my wife and I are young professionals who have options. We’ll be buying a house soon; should we buy one here? We have friends in San Francisco and New York and family in Houston. Mayor Nutter wants people like us to stay in the city, and he is right to want that, but why should we?

Philadelphia has to do much better than this if it wants to keep us, and others like us, in the city.

Postscript: On Thursday, January 24, there was another walkthrough. Let me point out that while the reading area was taken away, the desks weren’t moved and the classroom layout stayed the same. This time, however, the walkthrough team decided things are “much better because the kids are spread out more.”

Never mind that the kids were not actually “spread out more.” I still don’t see how more space between desks would encourage young readers more effectively than a comfortable and inviting reading area.

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