Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Education in Philadelphia
Taxes are too high, but the tax base is too small, so public education is underfunded. Drug use and lack of classroom discipline are also problems. Business and employed persons have fled the city, must be induced to return. Deteriorating education, rising taxes and crime are the immediate problems, but the underlying issue is lack of vigor and engagement by the urban population itself.

Right Angle Club 2011
As long as there is anything to say about Philadelphia, the Right Angle Club will search it out, and say it.

Children's Scholarship Fund of Philadelphia (2)

Because the Right Angle Club makes donations to the Children's Scholarship Fund, representatives are asked to come discuss it with us from time to time. We recently had such a visit, resulting in a growing understanding of what the fund accomplishes. Briefly stated, their scholarship winners have a 95% record of graduating from high school and a 90% record of going to college. That compares very favorably with the average Philadelphia public school enrollee, who only achieves a 50% record of graduation.

That's got to be a good record, achieved by selecting the scholarship winners by random lottery; obviously, that's better still. It's not quite random, however, because the siblings from a winner's family are also awarded a scholarship. Let's repeat: the winners are not selected because of talent, IQ or achievement test. Nor are they followed, to see if they actually go to school or do their homework. Therefore, these children are definitely not selected because of either merit or diligence. They are just poor kids from Philadelphia, randomly selected by lottery. So what accounts for their markedly superior record of graduation and admission to college? It just about has to be related to either the parents or the school, and mostly it seems to be the quality of the school.

The parents have to be sufficiently motivated to contribute up to $500 yearly co-payment because that accounts for about 20% of the extra cost. A variety of other community sources account for 40%, and 40% is matched by the generous donor and originator of the idea. When the alternative for a poor family is free public school, a $500 cost really is an incentive to get something back for the money.

But most likely the main difference in outcome is due to the excellence and effort of the school. About two hundred private schools in Philadelphia are carefully selected as eligible participants, and of course, there is the invisible threat of withdrawing schools from the list if things don't work out. It's thus pretty hard to escape giving sole credit to the excellence of the teachers and schools when the contribution of the parents is mostly to demand that the students submit to it. So, like it or lump it, this scholarship fund is a social experiment in whether inner-city academic performance will improve if you improve the schools, and essentially do nothing else. And raising the performance from 50% failure to nearly 100% success certainly emerges almost totally as an achievement of a better school system. When the failing public school system compares so poorly while spending more money, the point is proven to most people. Note to politicians: fix the $#@&^# schools, and promptly.

With this point so definitively made, it is indeed possible that some of the ideas of the originator were a little off the mark. It is commonly argued by opponents of school vouchers that merit promotion of the students, or merit-based scholarships, or the creation of centers of excellence all have the potential for siphoning off the best students, thus worsening the remaining academic environment, the incentives for the teachers, and the discipline -- for everybody else. This experimental program dramatically proves that any such effects are overwhelmed by improving the schools in inexpensive ways. Most ambitious parents are already determined to move their children to better schools if they can find them, no matter what is done -- or not done -- to help substandard pupils; the day of bewildered immigrant rural peasants arriving on our shores is over.

Fixing the elementary schools is thus exposed as a purely political problem; kick out the politicians with the unions they are protecting, and the job is nearly done. After all, children below the fourth grade are mostly sweet little confections, ready to flower if you remove impediments. The inner-city schools from fourth to twelfth are a somewhat more difficult issue, mostly because of their hormone content. The home environment is probably more important at that age, and changing whole cultures is very difficult. But the Philadelphia School System was once a source of great pride, and the Philadelphia Catholic School System was once the best in America. Somehow, the suburban secondary school system is falling down on its job as an unchallenged exemplar, coasting on invidious comparisons with the inner city. It's high time the suburban schools stopped preening themselves and stopped coddling the outrageous behavior and low academic standards the situation promotes in both students and teachers. Let each one of these places adopt a sister school in the inner city and help it out. The college admissions committees could help this happen a little by shifting their preferences to suburban private schools, unless or until the suburban high schools pull up their socks.

From time to time, someone angry about education expresses the wish for a deep economic depression or a massive world war or both. Please. What's needed here is competition.

Originally published: Friday, February 25, 2011; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019