Here’s an interesting look at what we mean when we talk about school and schooling, and how school reform has affected the meaning of both. This was written by Anne Pomerantz, senior lecturer in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education.

By Anne Pomerantz

Philadelphia’s NatIhanial Hawthorne Elementary is now a condominium complex for millennials.  This building is no longer a school.  Neither are 23 other buildings across the city, whose doors closed permanently in June after months of raucous protests and heartfelt testimony. And more bad news is on the way.

In early August, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, William Hite, issued an ultimatum to city and state officials, “Without funds to restore crucial staff members, we cannot open functional schools, run them responsibly or provide a quality education to students.” Hite was clear:  in the face of a $304 million dollar deficit, each building would have a principal, some teachers, and not much else. A skeletal staff of itinerant counselors would travel between buildings to manage emergencies, nursing services would be scaled back from their already precariously low levels, there would be no assistant principals to handle disciplinary or instructional issues, the few remaining school libraries would be shuttered, and volunteers would have to take over many secretarial responsibilities. At schools serving more affluent communities, letters went out to parents asking for donations to fund core staff positions, like teachers and guidance counselors.  The mayor started a fund drive to collect supplies. Philadelphia parents kissed their children goodbye on Sept. 9 and prayed. Buildings opened, but were they still schools?

I am an educational linguist, and my research begins from the premise that how we use language shapes not only our understanding of the world but actually constructs the very world in which we live.  Consider for a moment Dr. Hite’s use of the phrase “functional schools” – What does it mean?  It seems to suggest that there are places that we refer to as schools – some of which function properly and some of which do not.  But is a non-functional school — or even a semi-functional school — still a school in the conceptual sense of the word?  Now imagine if Dr. Hite had said, “Without funds to restore crucial staff members, we cannot open buildings that function as schools.” On the surface, these two utterances seem to mean the same thing, but do they?  In Hite’s original phrasing, places can continue to count as schools no matter what kind of educational experience they offer.  In my reformulation, this is not the case.  Here, a place is a school not because of what it is, but rather because of what it does.

Fast forward to mid-November. On Nov. 18, the School Reform Commission held a Strategy, Policy, and Priorities meeting entitled “Options for Increasing Students’ Access to Better Schools.”  Dr. Hite’s question to the over 100 people in attendance was this, “What action should we take to get as many students as possible attending schools where at least 50% [of students] are reading and doing math at grade-level?” Now Hite acknowledged that defining good schools as places where 50% or more of the students meet particular achievement benchmarks was partial and merely a starting point for the ensuing conversation, but in framing the discussion in this way he once again created a context in which school is understood as a place and not an activity.  Hite then presented the audience with four possible scenarios, each of which uses school as a noun:

  • Transform “bad” schools into “good.”
  • Expand “good” schools.
  • Create “good” schools from scratch.
  • Close “bad” schools for good.

The next day, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a statement that Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, had issued. In the statement, Jordan called for a shift in how we talk about education, making reference to a phrase that has entered into the lexicon of school reform across the nation: “increasing access to high performing seats.”  Jordan wrote, “The thing is, words matter. When our discussions are framed around high-performing ‘seats,’ and expanding access to those ‘seats,’ we dehumanize the process and easily lose sight of the true meaning of ensuring Philadelphia’s students a safe, welcoming, and rigorous environment in which to learn.”  Jordan then went on to say, “At the center of any meaningful dialogue on our district should be the neighborhood school.”

And here is where Jordan lost the battle over words.  Despite his recognition of the importance of language, his proposed changes don’t get at the central underlying problem in Philadelphia.  Yes, referring to schools as “seats” is reductionist (language mavens might recognize the literary device at work here as metonymy), but this is only one of the problems.  We need to stop talking — and thinking — about school primarily as a place and start talking about schooling as an activity.

Over the past two years, the elementary school in my neighborhood, like every public school that is still open in Philadelphia, has seen its share of district funding dwindle. Yet, enrollment is up 25% — due, in no small part, to the recent spate of school closings.  Class size has jumped from 22-23 to 30.  There is no money in the budget to hire additional teachers or classroom assistants.  How does this affect schooling?  We all know that lower teacher/student ratios offer more opportunities for individualized instruction, but what we don’t always consider is how the entire activity of schooling changes when class size increases.  The physical differences are what we usually notice first — the room gets more crowded, it’s hotter and noisier, children may have to share books or desks.  The instructional changes are quieter, but more pernicious.  Teachers start moving to assessments that are quicker and easier to grade – bubble tests instead of essays.  Feedback on writing and speaking gets reduced to mechanically reproducible comments. Teaching becomes more about managing behavior than engaging in meaningful activities.

So what if we talked about schools in terms of what they do or, even more importantly, what they should do?  How might this change the conversation?  A class size of 20 in first grade, for example, might be understood as an investment in the activity of schooling and not evidence of Philadelphia’s need to close “underutilized” buildings.  We might stop talking about schools as inherently “bad” or “good” and start asking what our schools need to do in order to support each and every student’s academic and social development.  And, rather than continually focusing on how we are going to “restore” the positions and resources that have been eliminated from our schools (because, really, at this point deprivation has become the norm), we need to engage in conversations about what people, services, and materials are necessary not merely to do school, but to do it in a safe, caring, and academically sound manner.

Two days after the School Reform Commission’s meeting, Philadelphia City Council held an education hearing in which city leaders, school district officials, public school advocates, and university researchers were invited to testify. One by one, speakers painted a vivid portrait of the impact the district’s ongoing financial woes were having on children, teachers, and families. The news was grim.  Philadelphia, they said, has neither adequate nor predictable funding.  Matt Stanski, chief financial officer for the school district, intimated that the coming year might bring even greater financial troubles.  Instantly, rumors began to circulate about whether there would be another round of school closings.  So far, there has been no official word on any plans for more “right-sizing” (that’s management consultant-speak for the process that led to the school closures), but it’s still early in the year.  The question is, come fall 2014, will there be schooling in Philadelphia or just (fewer?) schools?