Haverford Conversation: Paul Soccolar '77
In 1990, Paul Socolar '77 became involved with his kindergarten-age daughter's Philadelphia public school, and saw first-hand the devastating effects of inadequate funding on both the school and district levels. After a few years of involvement with parent groups, he floated an idea with some other parent activists, teachers and concerned members of the community, all of whom were committed to improving public education in the city.
The result was the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a newspaper focused on issues related to the Philadelphia School District. First published in 1994, the paper, which Socolar now heads as editor-in-chief, has a print circulation of 57,000 copies and a website that draws more than 11,000 visitors monthly. A previous school superintendent has called the Notebook“the unofficial watchdog of the school district.” In January, the paper received a $200,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to revamp and expand its online presence. Socolar also offers internship opportunities for current Haverford students through the Center for Peace and Global Citizenship.
Recently, Socolar spoke with Haverford on such topics as the underlying problems of urban public schools, the Obama administration's approach to education, and the legacy of No Child Left Behind.
Haverford College: How has your Haverford education informed your thinking on education issues?
Paul Socolar: My years at Haverford reinforced my strong concern for issues of social justice, and helped me understand the historic importance of social movements in creating a more just society. Education is one important piece of that. Unfortunately, Haverford in the 1970s was not a very diverse place, and that played a role in my own deepening awareness of inequalities in education. I went to a selective public high school in New York City (Bronx Science) and the lack of diversity there was justified by the idea of meritocracy:“We only let in the best kids.” At Haverford, while studying sociology, I got to think about what are the forces really at play in this meritocracy. Who comes out ahead and who doesn't in the education system? It's definitely a system in which there are winners and losers, and it's clearly more complicated than who has the most smarts.
At Haverford, there was substantial concern about the lack of diversity on campus, and people were grappling with the question,“Can't we do better?” In some ways I feel like my work at the Notebook is a continuation of that.
HC: What do you see as the legacy of the federal government's 2001 No Child Left Behind Act in urban public schools?
PS: NCLB has demanded accountability in schools that have been substandard for generations, but has also asked for better results from schools with essentially the same resources that they had before. Some schools here and there have responded to the pressure and shown improved results. I think that more often the pressure has been counterproductive; students in low-performing schools who most need creative, interesting approaches to education are getting test-driven curricula. The testing regime we've created is NCLB's most significant legacy right now. I don't know that there's anybody who's terribly happy with what we've created.
HC: What's your take on Arne Duncan, President Obama's pick for Secretary of Education?
PS: I think he and Obama understand the problem of demanding better results from schools that are most strapped for resources. They're trying to do something about that, and I suspect that, particularly with early childhood funding, there may be a lot of room for them to have an impact. I don't see Duncan as someone who will tackle the fundamentally unfair way in which education is funded nearly everywhere in the country; it's heavily based on local property tax revenues, so the wealthier the community, the greater the resources available. I also have the sense that Duncan is interested in figuring out more nuanced ways of assessing kids and schools than just standardized state tests in reading and math, but I think it will take more than tinkering to figure out how to undo some of the damage that the NCLB testing system has put in place.
HC: Do you think“pay for performance,” which Duncan championed as CEO of Chicago Public Schools, holds promise?
PS: I think that it's off-target. The real issue we should be talking about is how we can get our most talented teachers into the schools with the greatest need, and I'm not sure“pay for performance” quite gets at that. We do need some kind of differentiated pay scales, and the neediest schools must get the most resources, not the fewest. These schools need the best principals, the best leadership. We also need teachers in those schools to be rewarded, but I'm not clear that the“pay for performance” proposals that are out there right now are aimed at getting the best teachers into the schools with the greatest need.
HC: President Obama also advocates support for more charter schools. What's your opinion?
PS: Charters, like regular public schools, have been a mixed bag. We have 70 in Philadelphia; some are really exciting places, some have been havens for creativity, which there isn't generally a lot of space for in public schools, and some have really excelled academically, but as a group, they don't seem to be outperforming regular public schools. Charters do seem to be more popular with parents. We need to figure out more about why that is so. People talk about safety and parent-friendliness as things they like, and those are both important, but too often charters are seen as the answer to the problems of underperforming school systems. From what we've seen to date, that argument doesn't really hold up.
HC: What do you think are the top problems of underperforming urban public schools like so many in Philadelphia right now? What are some possible solutions?
PS: The two biggest underlying problems are, first, the way we fund public schools in general and the fact that schools in communities with the greatest need tend to get the fewest dollars per student; and second, the fact that students in schools with the greatest need tend to get teachers who are the least experienced and least equipped. There are layers upon layers of problems on top of thatâ€”bureaucracy, violence, crumbling facilities, poor managementâ€”but until we tackle those two underlying problems, we're not going to make a lot of headway in dealing with any other issues.
Regarding solutions, redirecting resources to the neediest schools would be at the top of my list. I also don't think we pay anywhere near enough attention to understanding the stories of the schools that are beating the odds; when you look at those schools, there are consistent elements, like really strong collaborative staff teams and a positive relationship between the school and the community it's serving. Figuring out ways to hold up and learn from those positive examples is very important. I would tie the Notebook into all of this because political will is a crucial piece, and there's a lot of pessimism and cynicism about the possibility of turning around urban public education. We have to overcome that in order to make the kind of significant investment that needs to happen in transforming schools. It definitely calls for a social movement to address the continuing failure of our education system, and deliver a quality product to millions of students whose lives depend on it.
For more information: https://www.thenotebook.org
Interview conducted by Brenna McBride, with additional reporting by Sarah H. Morris '08.