Social Research: The Education Reform Movement

April 24, 2017
The education reform movement aims to remodel the United States (US) education system, earning all students equally accessible and sufficient educational opportunities. While the fight for failing educational systems in Philadelphia is an ongoing effort, it appears today the movement is up against factors beyond local control due to the latest educational budget proposals set forth by Betsy DeVoss, US Secretary of Education. This budget proposal would funnel federal funds into charter schools and harm financially suffering public schools. Philadelphia high school math teacher Sarah Munson remarked to me she was looking for a new school to teach at because hers is closing this year. She continued to say that more schools were going up too; charter schools. The fight today is not only about bringing under-served public schools equal funding, but about keeping those schools open.
Philadelphia schools suffer from unequal funding, unclean water and inadequate staffing, especially when it comes to nurses and bilingual counseling assistants. These, among other issues were grievances shared at the budget hearing on April 20, 2017. These schools may not have the capabilities to run as other schools that receive more funding, but they value their right to education as observed at the hearing. Communities, teachers, students and activist groups involved in reforming education all understand that reforming the system will create a better future and that giving up on their own communities and school system is not an option.
My research highlights tactics used by organizations in Philadelphia, primarily organizations whose members are directly affected by the Philadelphia School District (PSD) system. Tactics are at the forefront of placing pressure on authoritative bodies and are the means of promoting one’s cause and creating change. Common tactics include marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations. The tactics, executed by organizations, communities, and individuals, are designed to have a positive outcome for the movement. Due to the nature of this movement, tactics are not only used to put pressure directly on authority, but include utilizing media as means of promoting one’s message and connecting with other organizations and community members. In doing so, the education reform movement in Philadelphia maintains a strong base for a continual fight, which creates strong means of tactic use in the face of an unpredictable political system.
How the Movement Appears in Philadelphia
The movement in Philadelphia for education reform can be observed in a variety of ways due to the multitude of people, communities, and organizations involved. A snapshot view of the movement includes people of almost all ages and races, with different grievances all at the fault of the same school system. Whether protesting, volunteering, hosting a teachers conference, or speaking to the School Reform Commission (SRC), the message of the movement is clear: Philadelphians are ready for equal systematic opportunities offering all students the potential to have flourishing futures.
There is a diverse range of organizations who aim to establish a better public education system in Philadelphia. The following lists include organizations whose primary tactical actions resonate in the movement differently. Our first organization group includes Our City Our Schools, the Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), the Caucus of Working Educators (CWE), and the Philadelphia Youth United for Change (YUC). These organizations and unions directly act against the system by participating  in rallies and protests and all, expect PSU were recognized speaking to the SRC at the hearing.  Organizations that focus more on building community include the Philly SUN (Schools Unifying Neighborhoods) and the Parents for Public Education. In addition to groups whose goals primarily center around Philadelphia public education reform, there are additional organizations I’d like to mentioned as the school reform movement in Philadelphia overlaps into the goals and values of other social justice organizations. Power Interfaith and 215pa are two organizations I found online who advocate for education reform and also target social justice issues such as workers rights, racial justice and economic inequality. In searching for these organizations online, it was obvious that the use of media in Philadelphia social movements, particularly in the education reform movement, is a critical aspect of mobilizing and deserves a review in the role it plays.
Utilizing media by creating a website or a FaceBook page are free ways for organizations to have an independent voice on an endless platform. With strategic media use, organizations can publish their own news and stories, promote events, and connect with other organizations and communities. While some organizations such as YUC and Parents for Public Education don’t appear to be regularly active on social media, FaceBook is heavily used by other organizations noted. By using FaceBook, organizations can make relevant in real time and reach out to the greater public. The movement also uses the events feature to establish upcoming events which help organizations reach larger audiences and make organizing easier. In regarding their total activity, the use of media and the action on the ground are two powerful tools movement organizations are utilizing in Philadelphia.
This movement takes into consideration of all of those affected by the system and views education as a right to our children. The view that organizations take on these issues comes down to a simple message: give our teachers a fair contact and our students fair opportunities. In having values such as these, the strategies of the movement tend to reflect this. As noted in A Primer on Social Movements, organizations that use less violent strategies in order to create change are often seen as more legitimate. Due to the use of strategy by this movement in Philadelphia, there is more opportunity to face authority directly as with what I experienced in attending the hearing. In mentioning this, we will next review the tactics used that reflect the values of the movement.
Movement Aspect: Tactics
Tactics used by social movement organizations are actions implemented to accomplish the movement’s goals. With the goal of creating a school system that benefits teachers and students equally, it’s important for organizations to come together on their use of tactics as means of creating a more unified and legitimate fight. In observing the tactics used by organizations in Philadelphia, marches, rallies, protests, speaking, and media use, are popular means of challenging the system and bringing greater awareness to the movement while establishing supportive networks.  As we cover tactics used as part of the education reform movement in conjunction with Philadelphia organizations, we will observe tactics that use direct action against the system, tactics that utilize media, and tactics that keep communities connected and informed.
In regards to tactics that involve direct action, marching, rallying, protesting, and speaking are the common forms of tactics used by organizations in Philadelphia. The budget hearing I attended utilized the tactic of speaking to the SRC and protesting with signs; the speakers represented multiple organizations. The upcoming budget hearing on April 27th, 2017, has a rally planned by the CWE, as they continue to fight for their organization’s goal: a teacher’s contract. Marches are also a tactic used in the streets, although are not as popular in the Philadelphia movement due to the size of the movement. When it comes to marching, in observing organizations’ FaceBook pages, it appears that the tactic of marching is typically done as part of larger movement activity.
On January 19, 2017, an education march called the “Fight Against the Trump Education Plan” took place, in which I observed some organizations on FaceBook attended. This is the most recent school reform specific march that appeared in Philadelphia. Overlapping into other social justice values, the CWE specifically shared their activity at other marches including the “Tax March” and the “Martin Luther King Remembrance Day March” that happened in the past two months. When it comes to direct tactical action, school reform organizations often take part in larger social movement activities because there are more events in larger movements than solely in Philadelphia public education reform. In review of the hearing, it appeared that school reform organizations values were more present and targeted than in the streets, as at the hearing there is opportunity to speak directly to the SRC.
As observed at the hearing, the use of media played a role in the mission in the APPS, as they brought a camera to film the hearing for their online segments called “Eyes on the SRC” and “Ears on the SRC”. At times they streamed live on social media which I found  interesting due to the fact they appeared to be in their 50’s, while students who attended were not as active in recording the event. This leads us to our next important tactic in mobilization: media use.
Karel Kilimnik, a member of the APPS told me the use of social media has changed the terrain of the education reform movement due to the increased efficiency of getting a message out there or planning an event. Online, organizations and individuals can access, share, and invite at the click of a button. Before, sending mail, going door to door, and making phone calls were the methods of mobilizing and garnering support, according to Kilimnik. In observing the movement today, the use of social media is a strong tool to engage as a tactic in developing movement activity.
Due to the intense use of media as means of spreading information and increasing communication, the ability to build community ties and organization relationships can be done with a google search and an email (or an instant message). The use of social media has allowed organizations to publish their own content and tell their own stories from the perspectives of those who have fallen victim to the PSD system. By using media, multiple organizations who are fighting for different justices in the school system can see what others are doing and in a sense, create a greater presence for the entire movement as organizations can coordinate their tactics and goals among each other when needed. In addition to connecting with one’s own communities and organizations, publishing stories and creating events online allows organizations to reach the greater public as an audience, potentially bringing support from outside the movement and at the very least, sparking awareness in individuals.
An example of effective media use is by the APPS, as they record, transcribe and publish every SRC meeting on their website. This strategic use of media gives the organization the right to own the content and publish it to their audiences who can review it as often as they wish. This media tactic is important as it presents the SRC meetings publicly and directly to other organizations online who may be able to utilize this information.
Beyond social media being used to promote action such as marches or protests, it promotes bringing communities together. The gathering of communities is important to the overall movement because the involvement of communities, including parents and students, helps build a stronger base for tactical action. Our next tactical topic highlights organizations who primarily focus is on mobilizing and strengthening communities and families.
An organization that mobilizes neighborhoods is Philly SUN. This organization primarily functioning in Southwest Philadelphia has a few currents events happening that are all designed to support communities navigating the PSD. Recently, on April 9, 2017, they held a community viewing of a documentary about Philadelphia schools at the location of the Media Mobilizing Project in West Philadelphia. Another event, held on April 11, was directed towards parents, discussing with them how to help their children with special education needs and how to understand the system in place to support those students. Although a tactic like this does not seem to be an action placing direct pressure on authorities, I argue that community building and spreading education, is a key in unifying neighborhoods and motivating stronger, more coordinated movement activity.
In reviewing the tactics discussed earlier, the use of those tactics shared a common outcome, a fair school system that serves both teachers and students. In maintaining these goals, people from different backgrounds are coming together despite socially constructed differences. We see this a lot in the social media presences of organizations, as organizations promote each others’ content or events that will help their movement grow and create stronger bonds. Not only are there bonds between teachers, students, and community members, but those bonds cross into each other and across other social justice organizations. At the hearing, there was a diverse group of speakers all facing different implications of the school system and although many groups and grievances were represented, there was a sense of unity.
The consist use of tactics in this movement creates an ongoing appearance of social movement activity in public education reform in Philadelphia. In review, speaking, protesting, utilizing media, and supporting communities appear the be the most commonly used tactics by these organizations whose activity at times overlaps into other movement’s tactics.
As we look at social movements such as Black Lives Matter, the women’s’ movement, or the environmental justice movement, the opposition and arguments within these movements can cause tension, yet in observing this sole movement in Philadelphia, I found there to be a lot of unity in the movement, and that may be due to the nature of what is being fought for: our children and our future. I am amazed at the involvement from people experiencing all the inefficiencies of the PSD, from the educators, students, to the community members. While all of these people face different challenges within the system, they have an overall objective of creating fairness in the school system and that moved me while listening the speakers at the hearing.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult for me to say I have hope for this movement. While at the budget meeting, it appeared that the SRC was just taking it and with good reason. In introducing the new budget, it was seen that more money would be going to privatization of the school system. The issues I find with this and the local movement, is that no matter how much they preach at the SRC, it may not be enough because of the pressure to privatize school systems is coming from federal influence.
I do believe the movement will remain strong and will continue fighting, but in looking at the political opportunity aspect of the system, I don’t see progress being made anytime soon. In relating this movement to the larger nation wide fight for education, I’m not confident in the larger movements trajectory as the privatization of school systems in the US is aimed to disband underfunded public schools. We already hear and know about public education suffering in particularly urban locations in the US, and in observing this in relation to the movement here, I don’t have many prospects for those public schools either. With the idea of privatization being pushed nationwide and schools in Philadelphia closing or under the threat of closing, I believe it’s going to take tactics that directly harm the interests of privatization companies before the SRC does anything about it.
Appendix A: Fieldnotes:
Activity: School Reform Commission’s Board Hearing
Location: 440 North Broad Street, 2nd floor auditorium
Date and time: 20 April 2017, 4:30 p.m.
Present organizations and groups

  • Alliance for Philadelphia Public Education
  • Caucus for Philadelphia Educators
  • Youth United for Change
  • Parent Power – Philadelphia School District organization, North Philadelphia community

Speaker grievances

  • Teacher Contract
  • Charter Schools under cutting current public education investment
  • ESOLV program


  • Protest signs
  • Speaking directly to SRC
  • Collecting records for media use
  • Filming

Coming to the Philadelphia School District (PSD) building I started out in a small waiting room with about ten other people. I noticed pins for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS) and decided to ask if I could speak with them. Their names were Karel, Linda, and Tom and I ended up walking to the meeting with them, asking a few questions to Karel as we walked into the auditorium. I sat down and they began to set up their camera to record for their current projects Ears of the SRC and Eyes on the SRC. In addition to this, they were holding their protest signs for when the time was right to use them.
The room began to fill up with students, parents, teachers, with some groups sharing representative t-shirts from multiple schools and organizations. Another group also brought a set of protest signs and edited their messages, primarily towards the end of the event. Just before the meeting started, other organizations for education reform showed up: the Caucus for Working Educators, the Youth United for Change, and Parent Power (a PSD parent organization).
Other notes:

  • The room was a tall and large with a long table in the front for the SRC Two wide rows of chairs facing them and a speaker’s chair facing the SRC at the front of the aisle between the rows of chairs.
  • I sat up the upper right hand side of the room a couple rows back near the APPS

The Hearing
The budget review was presented by a man that went by Mr. Munson and during the presentation the SRC asked questions about the budget. In listening to the session I began to see why even the SRC is in a difficult place because the school system is being pushed towards privatization.
The speaking time was a time for students, parents, citizens, and teachers to all speak directly to the SRC. This supports the idea of the connection of community ties making tactics like this stronger. The first three speakers were students from immigrant families, speaking on behalf of the students who suffer quality education due to a failing ESOLVE, english learner program. The back left hand quarter of the room stood the entire time, all fellow students. It was powerful and they all left when their peers after they had all finished speaking. The group called Parent Power all stood together and spoke on behalf of the North Philadelphia community and the difficulty of getting involved with volunteering at their children’s schools. Another speaker from the Caucus of Working Educators (CWE) proposed a future tactic that the movement may implement on Thursday, April 27th, saying that they would replace the giant NFL banner on City Hall with one saying saying City Hall loves sports but not its teachers. This use of this tactic is to be based on the decision of the SRC on the teacher’s contract that week. There were speakers who also targeted calling out the SRC, mentioning the privatization, closed door meetings, and limiting types of speech. One speaker directly mentioned the speakers chosen had to pick topics aimed towards the budget and teacher contracts. She decided that she was going to change subjects while up there because she wouldn’t have been able to speak on it had she registered her original topic. Every speaker got cheered for and covered topics valuing the rights of all that struggle in the school system.  People appeared separated by group identity, but the room as a whole brought a very strong energy as a collective to be honest and rightfully angry with our authorities and shared eachothers different grievances all due to one system.
The meeting was adjourned and I left. I intended to stick around for some questions but was honestly exhausted and everyone was speaking to other people. I left and walked to City Hall to catch the train. When I got there, the West side of the building had a huge NFL sign on it for the draft. I really enjoyed making the connection and see why, if implemented, replacing the banner will be a useful and strong tactic to use.
Extra notes:
All ages (practically), 20+ stayed longer
Diverse room, some groups and organizations carried more separate racial identities
Female/Male ratio close to equal?
Speakers male, female, young, older (older were all women) (men under 30), white, black, asian, latino
Some journalists/students/media presence
SRC diverse group
A Primer on Social Movements by David A. Snow and Sarah A. Soule
Organization Sites
Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools

Parents United Philadelphia

Philly SUN

Our City Our Schools

Youth United for Change

Caucus for working Educators

Philadelphia Student Union


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