PHILADELPHIA -- Pennsylvania's public schools have been waiting for three years to find out whether the state will move ahead with new national education standards intended to make students more globally competitive.
Without official direction, many went ahead and began teaching the Pennsylvania Core Standards, which go deeper in fewer topics than prior guidelines and emphasize nonfiction more than novels.
Now, it seems, the state is giving the green light -- not only to the standards but also to related Keystone Exams that students will have to pass to graduate from high school.
But it is not providing additional funding to implement the new mandates, and educators in cash-strapped districts say their students are being set up for failure.
"There isn't enough money in Philadelphia to provide for basic instruction," said Rosalind Jones-Johnson, education director for Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, predicting that the new exams will lead to an increased high school dropout rate and, consequently, increased poverty.
"To mandate this and not provide the funding, the human resources and the intervention is unconscionable."
State officials contend schools should not need additional resources to comply with the new requirements, since districts train teachers and revise curriculum routinely anyway.
Assuming that policy adopted by the state Board of Education isn't halted in Pennsylvania's regulatory review process, students beginning with the current high school freshmen will be required to pass Keystone Exams in literature, Algebra 1 and biology to graduate.
The exams, which were given statewide for the first time in 2012-13, are aligned with the Pennsylvania Core Standards, the state's version of national standards called Common Core State Standards that are being adopted in most of the rest of the country. The Common Core standards, written by governors and state education officials in both parties, were designed to create consistent math and reading standards from kindergarten through 12th grade. Pennsylvania officials initially decided in 2010 to adopt the national Common Core but changed course largely in response to conservative concerns over states' rights.
Students who fail a Keystone Exam repeatedly will be permitted to do a project on the same subject instead, and district superintendents will have the authority to grant a small number of waivers
Philadelphia, mired in a crippling budget crisis that nearly stopped schools from opening on time this fall, offers perhaps the starkest example of financial needs. But it is far from alone.
"Philadelphia is simply the tip of the iceberg," state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, said at last month's state Board of Education meeting where the standards and exams were approved 13-4 over his objections. "School after school is on the brink of bankruptcy without the resources to do remediation."
A 2007 state-commissioned study found that 471 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts had less than adequate funding. The estimated cost at the time to level the playing field would have been $4.38 billion a year.
No comparable study has been done since. However, in 2010, the Pennsylvania State Education Association researched the cost of remediation for every high school junior to pass the state Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests that preceded the Keystones. That price tag was $300 million per year for tests considered to be easier than the Keystones.
Meanwhile, even wealthy suburban districts are reporting financial challenges to train their teachers and modify curriculum to align with the Pennsylvania Core Standards.
"There was a lot of financial cost that was unexpected, and I only can imagine school districts that don't have the resources of Lower Merion," said Wagner Marseille, assistant superintendent of the Lower Merion School District.
Darren Spielman, president of the Philadelphia Education Fund, is calling upon the philanthropic community to step up to the plate if the state doesn't provide the funding needed for the new mandates.
A principal's challenge
In north Philadelphia, the plight of Charles Baltimore, principal of Thomas Alva Edison High School and John C. Fareira Skills Center, a high-poverty, predominantly Latino school known for its vocational programs, illustrates the challenges.
This year, as part of a turnaround initiative for low-performing city schools, Mr. Baltimore was granted the power to select his own staff and replaced half of the teachers. He is excited about the potential of his new team and eager to implement the new standards.
But he has a problem in numbers: He has only 82 teachers this year, compared with 110 last year, the result of two major federal grants expiring at the same time as the city's budget crisis. Fifteen support staff positions are now 10.
Meanwhile, student enrollment has grown from 1,130 to 1,310. Class sizes in some cases exceed 40.
"What I need are smaller class sizes, more teachers," said Mr. Baltimore, who was his school's third principal in a year when he took over last year.
He supports the idea of graduation exams in theory but says he needs classes of manageable sizes staffed by excellent teachers if his students are going to be prepared, and he needs time to phase in the requirement, as he is making up for years of inadequate instruction and assessments.
State leaders have been quick to point out that the Pennsylvania Core Standards are not curriculum. They are guidelines for what students need to know.
For example, fourth-graders should be able to "determine the main idea of a text and explain how it is supported by key details."
Individual school districts are free to deliver lessons on the standards in the way they think best. There are no mandated textbooks or reading lists.
That point has helped to appease some conservative opponents of the standards, who want to maintain local control of schools. But in Philadelphia, where budget cuts have resulted in far fewer content specialists to develop curriculum for the district, it poses a problem.
"For large numbers of new teachers in overcrowded classrooms, there is little or no time ... to turn around and be experts in curriculum development," said Ms. Jones-Johnson.
State Board of Education members argued heatedly over fairness and equity before voting to approve the new standards and exams last month.
Mr. Dinniman said the state would be "putting a stamp of failure on increasing numbers of young people."
But board member Kirk Hallett countered the state must put an end to students being able to collect high school diplomas and "think they have really achieved something," only to find out that they aren't prepared for entry-level community college classes. "That to me is criminal."
The Hechinger Report, an independently funded unit of Columbia University's Teachers College, is a nonprofit news organization focused on education journalism. First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM