Bad Education

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

In a Philadelphia elementary school, teachers are putting a premium on radicalism, not reading.


A Philadelphia elementary school recently forced fifth-grade students to celebrate “black communism” and simulate a Black Power rally in honor of political radical Angela Davis.

According to whistleblower documents and a source within the school, a fifth-grade teacher at the inner-city William D. Kelley School designed a social studies curriculum to celebrate Davis, praising the “black communist” for her fight against “injustice and inequality.” As part of the lesson, the teacher asked students to “describe Davis’ early life,” reflect on her vision of social change, and “define communist”—presumably in favorable terms.

At the conclusion of the unit, the teacher led the ten- and eleven-year-old students into the school auditorium to “simulate” a Black Power rally to “free Angela Davis” from prison, where she had once been held while awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, and murder. The students marched on the stage, holding signs that read “Black Power,” “Jail Trump,” “Free Angela,” and “Black Power Matters.” They chanted about Africa and ancestral power, then shouted “Free Angela! Free Angela!” as they stood at the front of the stage.

The William D. Kelley School has long been one of the most troubled in the district. The school’s student population is 94 percent black and 100 percent “economically disadvantaged.” Academically, it is one of the worst-performing schools in Pennsylvania. By sixth grade, only 3 percent of students are proficient in math, and 9 percent are proficient in reading. By graduation, only 13 percent of Kelley students will have achieved basic literacy.

Despite this abysmal academic performance, teachers and administrators at William Kelley have gradually abandoned traditional pedagogy in favor of political radicalism. Even the school’s newest public artworks illustrate this politicization. Administrators recently commissioned a mural of Davis and Huey P. Newton, who represent the Communist and Black Panther revolutionary movements of the 1960s; both figures stood trial for various crimes, including the murder of a police officer.

Unfortunately, the programs at William Kelley are no aberration. In recent years, the entire Philadelphia public school system has embraced the philosophy of “antiracism.” Last summer, the superintendent released an Antiracism Declaration promising to “[dismantle] systems of racial inequity” and circulated a memo recommending racially segregated training programs for white and black educators. The local teachers’ union produced a video denouncing the United States as a “settler colony built on white supremacy and capitalism” that has created a “system that lifts up white people over everyone else.” The solution, according to the union, is to overthrow the “racist structure of capitalism,” provide “reparations for Black and Indigenous people,” and “uproot white supremacy and plant the seeds for a new world.”

In practical terms, it is unclear how these “antiracist” programs will translate into academic outcomes. The gap between rhetoric and reality at schools such as William Kelley is almost beyond comprehension: the vast majority of the ten- and eleven-year-olds marching for the utopia of “black communism” can barely read and write. Rather than come to terms with the pedagogical failure of Philadelphia public schools, however, educators have shifted the blame to “systemic racism” and promises of “revolution.”

That students at schools such as William Kelley could depart virtually bereft of basic literacy is a tragedy for them and a shame for the teachers and adults promising to “plant the seeds for a new world.” They have condemned their students to join the ranks of the more than half of all adult Philadelphians who are “functionally illiterate.”

One teacher at William Kelley, who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisals, expressed deep pessimism about the future of public education: “I’ve come to realize that no policy hurts African-Americans more than the public school system and the teachers’ union.” The teacher is right. In absolute terms, the numbers are demoralizing. The School District of Philadelphia has 18,000 employees and a $3.4 billion annual budget—and fails, year after year, to teach the basics of “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” As it turns out, education is hard; political fantasy is a useful diversion.

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