I have attended several of the community forums where the public has weighed in on the Philadelphia School District’s facilities master plan. The comments and counterproposals regarding the closing of 37 schools and relocation of others have been passionate, provocative, and persuasive.
The District, on the other hand, needs to study up on the art of persuasion.
There’s a language problem with the way the District discusses underutilized school buildings. The language of “empty seats” is just that — empty.
Seats are inanimate objects, which mean nothing to affected parents and students. As this tweet from the Philadelphia Student Union noted, “Students aren’t good seats or bad seats. They are people who have the right to a quality education.”
The language of empty seats is not persuading the public that the District’s closings and relocation plan will improve the fiscal or educational outcomes for the District.
I teach my middle school students to read, write, and think critically. One of my favorite lessons is modeling for my students the effective use of their natural rhetorical skills to win arguments in both academic settings and in real life. At first they struggle, as I teach to them the Aristotelian vocabulary of logos, pathos, ethos. But once they learn to use these persuasive tools, I regret it. Now, I rarely win arguments with my students.
District officials should themselves revisit these rhetorical tools if they want to win public support for the plan to retool where and how students are taught.
Logos: Arguments by logic
As Helen Gym noted in her blog post “The numbers don’t seem to add up,” the District has not persuaded the public that closing schools will save money. According to Gym, and many others who have spoken at the community meetings, the $28 million in savings from closing schools does not account for the transition costs and other hidden expenses associated with restructuring the District.
The District has tried to invoke the logic that there is no other choice. Officials repeat that the economies achieved by closing and combining schools with excess capacity will allow the District to fund more programs that improve the quality of education for a greater number of students.
Instead of using the argument, We want to improve the quality of education for all students, but we can’t because there is no money, District leaders and officials should say, We will improve the quality of education, and we can do it by finding the additional resources from stakeholders who have the money — namely the state government, foundations, and the organizations that generate substantial revenues but don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
There is no money but we can close schools is an argument that denotes subtractions. Rather, the District needs to envision a way to communicate, Yes, we can keep schools open AND we can find alternative sources of funds to make it happen.
Pathos: Argument by emotional appeal
Members of the community have passionately offered reasoned and emotional appeals to keep schools in their neighborhoods open. Often the most effective use of pathos has been waged not by the loudest or most seasoned activists, but by students.
Sharee Miller, a student at Beeber Middle School, where I teach, has prepared a statement for the upcoming community meeting at Overbook High School on Jan. 22. Sharee plans to ask Superintendent William Hite, “If you had a kid living in this neighborhood, would you want your child to attend a school that is not set up for younger students?”
Some students have talked about how closing schools would be akin to separating them from their family. Others say that the District’s decision to shutter schools will result in “post-school closure trauma” for many young people.
The District needs to find a way to win its argument by demonstrating that it empathizes with the affected communities, which are disproportionately in communities of lower social economic status; i.e., the wrong zip codes.
At the community forums, Hite and his leadership team have not been able to change the mood of the crowd. In part, this is because they have not registered the concerns of students, parents and teachers and the crowds have been unwieldy. A lesson I have learned from my students is that if I let mob psychology take over, forget it. I am not going to win any argument that day.
Ethos: Argument by character
I tell my students that ethos is often the most effective tool of persuasion. Young people understand that actions speak louder than words, and if you don’t have “cred,” no one is going to be easily swayed by your argument.
Hite comes with considerable “cred” from running the school district in Prince George’s County, Md. But he needs to garner substantial goodwill in Philadelphia to be successful in this town. (Andy Reid knows a lot about how tough this town can be.)
Because Hite is new in the city, he has an advantage and could win public trust by taking more risks — veering the train that was already moving when he arrived. And instead of shuttering schools, he could work with PCAPS and other stakeholders to find alternatives. This bold move would shift the ethos of the maligned District and persuade the public to focus on Hite’s vision and his “Action Plan v1.0” to meet the needs of 21st-century learners.
To retool its art of persuasion, the District should agree with the one-year moratorium on school closures that PCAPS has proposed. And come, watch and learn from some the best rhetorical experts sitting in classrooms across the city.
Samuel Reed III, a teacher consultant with the Philadelphia Writing Project, is an active member of the Teacher Action Group (TAG Philly) and has been teaching middle school literacy for 15 years.