Power and Pedagogy in the Chester-Upland School District: A Conversation with Tommy Bothwell ’20

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The Chester-Upland School District (CUSD) is an urban public school district located in our very own Delaware County, chiefly serving the eponymous city of Chester. And anyone who has taken ‘Introduction to Education’ here would at least be vaguely aware of the vast inequality that plagues Chester, and how that inequality manifests and perpetuates itself through the operation  of public and private education systems. I recently talked to Tommy Bothwell ‘20, who is currently taking a directed reading course with Professor Jennifer Bradley concerning the roles pedagogy and teacher-student dynamics have played in shaping education in Chester, and indeed across the nation. Bothwell is currently conducting field observation at Toby Farms Middle School, placing him in a unique position to talk about the issue. Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

First, very briefly — what has your research in Chester entailed?

The main focus right now is the student-teacher dynamic within “underperforming school districts,” which are generally synonymous with “inner city” districts. Jen [Bradley] and I want to eventually take this and go into broader topics such as the school-to-prison pipeline, federal policies that impact schooling, and local policy within Chester-Upland School District itself. But so far, the research question we’ve developed is: how do students perceive their education within lower-tier school districts?

And what have been your main findings?

I would say that there isn’t much “emancipatory pedagogy” in practice right now. Moreover, the curriculum is very rote, technical, and mechanical. This is problematic, especially for impoverished communities like Chester. The findings so far show that these schools are having some trouble engaging and motivating students. But there are so many systemic issues in education that influence the way teachers can teach within schools like that, such as standardized testing emphasis, or the way school funds and resources are allocated.

The CUSD is one of the “lowest-performing” school districts in Pennsylvania –– “lowest-performing” being a problematic term in itself. How do the problems with pedagogy that you’ve previously described fit into this larger picture?

Well, the city of Chester and the CUSD itself, because of these statistics, are facing a lot of pressure to raise test scores. This is something I’ve seen just through community events I’ve attended in Chester. This speaks directly to this pedagogy that focuses on mechanical and technical aspects and that are catered toward the PSSAs [Pennsylvania System of School Assessment]. Now, if you don’t do well on the test, your school is at risk of being shut down. Teachers are so constrained in what they can teach and what they want to teach, so even if teachers want to be progressive and want to influence students and create meaning in their lives –– they can’t.

I want to talk about the issue of charter schools. It is a complex one, and we certainly have passionate supporters and detractors in the United States. Regardless, it seems to be an important piece of the puzzle that is public education. Firstly, what is your position on them?

I think school privatization in practice is bad. It has created systems of privilege within school districts. Looking at Chester, for example, there’s a waiting list to get into these kinds of charter schools and private schools. There’s an absurd amount of people waiting, and that forces many students to go into these lower-tier schools without any option to enhance their educational experience.

Charter schools and voucher programs are fundamentally sound. The problem is that in practice there’s almost this sense of “forced school choice.” It’s privileged nowadays, and the charter schools themselves are bureaucracies.

But we all know a few good charter schools. The Chester Charter School for the Arts (CCSA), for example, is known for being a high-quality, accessible school. So, in the specific case of Chester, what do you think is the rightful place of charter schools?

Well, even the CCSA is hard to get into. But besides this, charter schools within Chester take up over half of the funds that are allocated to the CUSD. The charter schools are part of the CUSD, and the implications are that public schools get less funding. And expenditures per student at charter schools are supposedly much higher than those at public schools [thus taking up a disproportionate share of funding]. Traditional public schools like Toby Farms Middle School and Chester High get less resources, and as a result, the students at those schools could potentially see themselves as less valued by the district.

There seems to be something fundamentally wrong with how funding is allocated in school districts, to allow for this corruption.

Yeah exactly, there are systemic issues here. The emphasis on standardized testing in the United States, particularly within districts like Chester-Upland, is related. A lot of school funding directly comes from success on PSSA, or its equivalents around the United States.

And this starts an endless cycle of funding issues for places like Chester.

Yeah, the schools get funding based on how well they do, and they generally do well based on how much funding they get.

Finally, what should our next steps be? And why should the general public care?

Teachers can try their best –– and I know it’s hard when you’re facing systemic pressure to teach in a specific way –– to go their own way and do what they think is meaningful to students. The implications are that students create purpose and meaning in education, but at the same time, that may mean test scores go down, and that can result in serious repercussions for the schools and the students attending them, obviously.

At an even more fundamental level, teachers can just express a genuine sense of care for their students, going beyond just seeing them in class and having a connection there. It means truly caring for the community in which they reside, and trying to make an impact on them. It means trying to transform  the lives of students that attend the school and help them achieve various things in life.

The general public generally doesn’t care. I guess it’s hard to persuade them, because their kids most likely aren’t the ones attending these school districts. It’s hard to connect personally there. People should care, and until that happens, not a lot is going to get done.

1 Comment

  1. I appreciate the attention being paid to the conditions of public education, particularly, like those being endured in nearby Chester. I do want to point out that charter schools like the Chester Charter School for the Arts are indeed public schools, not private and that CCSA and the others are serving students of the Chester Upland School District. The difference in funding is in part based on the ability of the school to raise private funds to enhance the program. An example is the need to hire more than a standard number of literacy/reading teachers to intensify the support the children need. It is also the case that if you offer programs that the district doesn’t fund, Dance for example, you must fund them with non-district dollars. Over time schools like CCSA may be able to share some of its successes with the district to help enhance its programs and offer models of success that might benefit other schools. It is unfortunate that charter legislation defined the offer of choice as a competitive system rather than one that sought collaborative work that would allow the progress made through the independence to experiment and program creatively to be shared readily for the sake of the fact that these schools are all serving the families of their host school district. As to why people should care, one would hope that caring would arise from a concern for the fate of the nation, from a sense of civic duty, from empathy for ones fellow human beings and the quality of their lives. Our nation’s aspirations are far from achieved and we all share a duty to continue working to reach those values. Our interdependence leaves none of us free from the consequences of failure. With love and respect, Maurice

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