Q&A with James H. Lytle

With the recent rise of magnet schools, charter schools, online learning and home schooling, coupled with a heated national debate about the funding of public schools and public school teachers, Practice Professor James “Torch” Lytle of Penn’s Graduate School of Education believes America’s education system is at a tipping point.

Conventional schooling, he says, is on the verge of disappearing. Kids no longer have to sit in a traditional classroom to learn, and old-fashioned teaching methods no longer hold their attention. Many parents, particularly those who send their children to ailing urban schools, are unhappy with the quality and safety of neighborhood schools. And, Lytle contends, with the prevailing political winds blowing toward the creation of more charter schools and voucher programs, change is in the air.

As a practice professor, Lytle focuses on helping his students bridge education theory with the real world of public schooling, and in April he was awarded the 2011 GSE Excellence in Teaching Award for doing it exceptionally well. A significant part of his job is to coordinate the University’s education management relationship with the School District of Philadelphia.

Before joining the faculty at Penn in 2006, Lytle, known to most by his nickname “Torch” (a reference to the shock of red hair atop his head), worked for eight years as superintendent for the Trenton Public Schools in New Jersey. Before that, he held positions within the School District of Philadelphia, ranging from elementary, middle and high school principal to executive director for planning, research and evaluation, as well as regional superintendent and assistant superintendent.

The Current caught up with Lytle to discuss what he calls “the swirl of change” facing public education, why many of his students aren’t interested in entering conventional education careers and the ongoing importance of establishing partnerships between schools and the community.

Q. Your title is that of practice professor. Can you explain what that is?
A. The idea is that after a rather lengthy period of real world experience in one role or another, one is perceived as having the knowledge to bridge theory and practice. GSE has four practice professors.

Q. In that theory-to-practice vein, you teach in the executive doctoral program for mid-career educators.
A. Yes, it’s a wonderful program and very successful. The people in it are principals, charter school heads, heads of independent schools, central office administrators, superintendents and entrepreneurs in interesting private sector jobs. The program attracts students from across the country—Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Florida, Atlanta, and all over New England—who fly in on the weekends [to attend classes]. We intentionally create a very diverse cohort and hope the diversity strengthens the experience for everybody in the program.
 They learn a lot about how to use research methodology as a way to think about what is happening in the organization they lead. Because the education universe is changing so rapidly, this experience helps them think about how they want to move forward over the next 10 or 15 years. 

Q. You also coordinate GSE’s involvement with several West Philadelphia schools such as Lea Elementary and Wilson Elementary. Can you tell me a bit about how that works?
A. Penn serves as an external support for these schools. We work like a consulting company, with 10 to 15 people working in a variety of roles—coaching teachers, helping with curriculum and budget planning, working with the principals. Through the Netter Center, Penn operates after-school programs in these schools, as well as a number of others.

Q. Several principals from West Philadelphia schools are in the mid-career executive doctoral program. What do you think they want to get out of it? 
A. Being a principal is a lonely job, and being a principal in Philadelphia when you are dealing with a budget crisis and accountability pressures is an especially lonely and challenging job. So being part of a program where you are talking to administrators from across the country helps people feel a lot less alone. They get a better perspective on what they are facing, and get a sense of how they can address some of the challenges they have.

Q. You also teach more conventional doctoral candidates who have not yet entered the education field as professionals. What kinds of jobs are they preparing for?
A. What’s interesting is that most of them are not interested in conventional K-12 public education, or private school careers. They are very aware that the education universe is changing shape, that there are all sorts of entrepreneurial activities going on. They see their experience at Penn as an opportunity to gain research and analytic skills that they believe will help them wherever they go.

Q. You mentioned that the education universe is changing rapidly. Can you expand on that?
A. I think we’re in the early stages of the dissolution of conventional schooling. Primarily through the web, but through lots of other mechanisms too, the locus of schooling is shifting. You don’t have to go to school anymore to be educated. One example of the possibilities is embedded in recent voucher and charter school legislation. Imagine that a group of parents decide that they are going to have their own little charter school funded through their vouchers. They agree that it will meet at your house on Monday, and at my house on Tuesday, and among the parents they have somebody who can teach a little of this and a little of that. But when they combine their vouchers, they have enough money to hire a teacher and lease a van, pay for memberships at the art museum, the zoo, go to the theater and take field trips. If you add online physics courses and Rosetta Stone and on and on, you can run a pretty highly resourced school without kicking the kids out the door in the morning. … Increasingly, colleges are admitting kids with home schooling or other unconventional backgrounds.

Q. Are you saying neighborhood schools will no longer exist in the near future?
A. Well, Lower Merion High School [in suburban Philadelphia] is not going to go away tomorrow. But if you live in the city, parents are very concerned about safety and often they are terrified to even let their kids walk to school. So, if the church down the street organizes a small charter school, or makes the facilities available to a small group of parents, it doesn’t take too much to put a school together. People could say, ‘We are going to reach out and hire a group of Teach For America Corps members, provide very supportive conditions for them, and run our own school.’

I think we’re in the early stages of the dissolution of conventional schooling."

Q. So you think the education landscape is soon going to look very different than it does now?
A. I do, and parts of this worry me. David Hargreaves, a sociologist who used to teach at Cambridge, makes the argument that education is increasingly a commodity. That parents are doing everything they can to access or purchase this commodity on behalf of their kids, and what we are experiencing now is the segmentation of the education market. He identifies four segments: independent schools, magnet schools, home schooling and custodial schools. In the American context, independent schools are private schools. Magnet schools would include Bronx Science or Stuyvesant in New York, or highly resourced suburban schools, and we’ve talked about home schooling. Custodial schools exist to provide childcare and the pretense of appropriate schooling, which would apply to a majority of the schools in Philadelphia.

Q. You mean traditional neighborhood schools?
A. No, you are being kind. Custodial means, literally, childcare. And if you look at the test scores for the high schools in Philadelphia—including all the charter schools and all of the public high schools—there are only two where the mean SAT scores are above the national average—Masterman and Central High School. Every other high school is below the mean. So let’s go back to the commodity question. If you don’t get your kids into Central or Masterman, they are going to get below-the-mean experiences. … Parents are desperate to get their kids into good charter schools right now, and with the state uncapping the charter school enrollment in Philadelphia, I think you are going to see an explosion in charter schools in the next few years.

Q. Does this create an educational/economic hierarchy?
A. That’s a rhetorical question, but the answer is ‘yes.’ And it really is problematic when you think that, historically, providing equal opportunity has been the role of public schools in America. 

Q. What connection does this have to the current school funding debate?
A. In my mind, a lot. I think what you are seeing, and not just in Pennsylvania, is a reduction in the commitment to urban and rural public schooling. … I have yet to meet anybody who thinks there will be a major reinvestment in urban public schools anytime soon.
Of course, there will always be some Horatio Alger and his cousins, kids who will make it one way or another. But learning in these schools is going to get a lot more difficult, and teaching in these schools is going to get even harder. I think as a nation we are heading in the wrong direction.

Q. Isn’t the voucher system supposed to help equalize things? 
A. In my mind, the voucher system is clearly intended to subsidize middle class families. What good is an $8,000 voucher when an independent day school costs $25,000? You could send your kids to parochial schools, if they still existed. But a lot of the ones in the city are gone. … I see this as a sort of medium-term policy shift, where the first stage is to legitimize vouchers and the second phase is to gradually increase access to vouchers. Pennsylvania is engaged in this debate right now, and ironically the support for introducing markets and competition in public education comes from both sides of the political spectrum.

Q. What is going to happen to the democratic principle of public education?
A. I don’t know. The thinking behind the market approach is that you reward success and you punish failure. So if schools aren’t performing, you close them, which is ostensibly how markets work. But commentators remind us that when auto companies and Wall Street collapsed, not a lot of people got punished. Yet in public education low-performing schools are getting hammered, and the schools that are most affected are schools that serve poor and minority kids. And lurking in the shadows are the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and other high-influence individuals and organizations that have no public accountability, but are supporting market-driven solutions as the way to improve education in the U.S.—despite the fact that there is no research evidence that supports this ‘solution.’

Q. You said many of your students are responding by staying clear of the system and trying to find other ways to improve education. 
A. Very much so. … They have to figure out how to put innovation together with providing for kids in inner-city schools. That is a really demanding intellectual challenge. My job is to help them figure out the work they have to do, because I don’t know the answers either.

James H. Lytle