Public school stakeholders to Watlington: "Maslow before Bloom"

Public school stakeholders to Watlington:

Teachers have long been familiar with Bloom's taxonomy, a strategy based on the use of categories of increasingly complex action verbs to help plan lessons and assess student understanding. They've also lately come to hear variations on the phrase "Maslow before Bloom," underlining the importance of meeting basic human needs of safety and belonging before effective participation in the learning process. The summer of 2022 suggests to me that students, staff, and the public at large all need more of Maslow from the School District of Philadelphia.



On Tuesday, October 4, 2022, new SDP Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington closed out the first of three phases of his long-term transition plan, releasing findings from listening sessions hosted through the summer as part of his first 100 days in the post. Watlington and his transition team heard an estimated* 2,700 written and in-person responses from members of affinity groups across Philadelphia's public education landscape: students, school staff, central office staff, families, and other community members.

In messaging to the public and to staff, he announced that "[i]n addition to staffing and school climate being top priority areas where I should focus, what I heard the most from you" covered District communication and customer service, inadequate facilities for learning, and academic achievement. To those ends, Watlington announced immediate appointments to his executive leadership team meant to address those latter issues.

My concern about these priorities—above and beyond the qualifications of some of his new executive team members—is that the data pulled from this District outreach don't fully support the stated directions in which Watlington wants to head. When taken in sum it's true that, for example, school climate and staffing received the most comments of the nine topics narrowed down by SDP's Office of Evaluation, Research, and Accountability. However, some of the qualitative and quantitative results seemed to work at cross purposes. (I'm particularly puzzled by survey data where school staff voted the topic of staffing #1 both for "what is going really well" and "what needs the most improvement.")

I'm more interested in the subtopics, the more granular ideas and concepts that people kept coming back to under the bigger topical umbrellas. Across the SDP's nine topics there were 27 subtopics,** organized from the lowest significant number of comments to the highest in the attached graph.

Here are the top five, in ascending order of frequency (if not importance):

  • Physical Safety & Discipline (n=359, under the School Climate & Safety topic): not feeling safe going to and from school in neighborhoods where gun violence and addiction are prevalent; understaffing undermining maintenance of order and security; issues with doors, keys, locks, and cameras; a lack of alternatives to suspensions to ensure consequences for student behaviors
  • School-Family Relationships & Communication (n=368, under the Communication & Engagement topic): unclear if 440 actually considers the feedback it requests; important communications are last-minute and unclear; lack of family trust in the District based on past experiences; calls and emails to District are not answered; many comments specifically about proposed changes to school start times
  • Leadership and Decision-Making (n=386, under the Central Office topic): a lack of trust in 440 and a sense of “us versus them"; decisions feel arbitrary, neither strategic nor informed by school-based perspectives; sought feedback feels like only “lip service” or performative; 440 lacks clear accountability structures, with only some departments working well
  • Retention & Morale (n=421, under the Staffing topic): teachers and support staff do not feel respected as professionals; more positive recognition and interactions would increase morale; school leadership can have both positive and negative impacts; compensation, remote work options, and parental leave were highlighted as important; many other themes/sub-themes contribute to how employees feel about their job and whether they choose to stay
  • Mental Health & Socioemotional Support (n=483, under School Climate & Safety): strong relationships between students and adults at school are critical for students to feel supported; insufficient staff to meet these needs for students; COVID and gun violence traumas have increased these needs

Of Dr. Watlington's targets and paths to get there, he seems most accurate on school climate and District communication. Staffing is clearly important on the macro level, but his constituents are most consistently telling him to build and maintain better relationships with the workers he already has here. However, we seem to constantly wonder how fixing ailing school buildings could address so many other issues, yet no Facilities subtopic cracked the top ten. And while Watlington may repeat the wish for students and schools to make academic improvements, there's no topic or subtopic specific to teaching or learning in respondents' top five here.

These important issues collected from Watlington's listening sessions and survey research overlap with District processes and resources we've regularly thought of as the biggest, most pressing problems in our schools. It remains to be seen if solving these five first will prime the city for more and better success in public education, or if first addressing other topics considered through the summer will eventually break these big vote-getters down or ease the pain they cause. Following a decade under William Hite, with multiple years affected by public health crises, Watlington has a low bar to clear in order to appear to be a caring educational steward. Philadelphia's educators and educated (and the citizens who support them) appear to be telling him that right now, their protection and consideration are paramount. 


* District FAQs about the results indicate that there was some overlap among respondents who identified with multiple affinity groups, respondents who commented on multiple topics/subtopics, and no official counts made of participant numbers in privately-hosted listening sessions.

** The topics of Funding & Resource Distribution and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion were not divided into subtopics, and are therefore included in this graph by themselves.


Header photo by It's Our City (CC BY 2.0)