Why All of Your Friends Live “Right Outside of Philly”

School children raising their hands in class

So where are you from?

“Just outside of Philly.”

This is a snippet of awkward small talk that you’ve had countless times at Penn State.  It has even become a little bit of a running joke on campus.  Students often claim to be outside of Philadelphia “just like everyone else.”

But what about the students that live inside Philadelphia?  The 131,000 students that attend Philadelphia Public Schools every year?  Why aren’t they more represented at Penn State?

The story is in the statistics.

The most recent data shows that only 10% of students in Philadelphia Public Schools go on to graduate from college.  Even worse is that only 64% of the cities students are graduating high school on time.

Some of the Philadelphia Public School’s I’ve been in look more like prisons than schools.  Kids have gym and lunch in the same room.  First grade teachers don’t have any books.

However, this daunting inequality is not just a Philadelphia problem.  Educational inequity is a problem that haunts the entire United States.  Furthermore, students attending failing schools tend to be disproportionately black and Latino.  It’s been written about thousands of times, including here, here, or here.

Ask anybody who has worked in education long enough to tell you that the number one predictor of a child’s academic success is not ability or work ethic, it’s their zip code.

While these stories and statistics may sound dismal, graduation rates are actually a lot higher from years past.  Rising from 52% to 64% in Philadelphia in just eight years.

Rising graduation rates are certainly no accident.  They can be attributed to pure deliberate effort from students, teachers and community members alike.  But in order to continue to reduce inequality and give all children the education they deserve it’s going to take even more intentional effort from all of us.

What you can do

As we all slowly come to grips with the fact that our education system is actually perpetuating inequality instead of reducing it, many of us will  get angry enough to want to do something about it.  And quite frankly, as a college educated student there is a lot you can do to to be a part of the change.  Below are just a few possible ways you can join the fight against educational inequity.

Teach For America

Teach For America, or TFA, is a program that recruits the best and the brightest college students of all majors to commit two years of their lives to teaching in low-income schools.  If you apply and are accepted you will be trained in a rigorous six week program where you are essentially taught how to teach.  From there you will be placed in one of the 50+ low-income communities Teach For America works in.  (You get to rank locations during the application process)  While in your community you are a full-time teacher, with full-time salary and benefits.  You are just as real of an educator as the teacher in the classroom next to you.

While TFA certainly has its critics, research tends to show that it works.  You can read about some of the findings here, here and here.

If you wish to learn more about Teach For America you can visit their website.  The next deadline to apply is  March 4  and is open to both juniors and seniors.

City Year

City Year is a program that shares many similar goals with TFA.  Both work in low-income communities with the goal of decreasing the achievement gap and sending more kids to college.  However, where they differ is in their approach.  City Year corps members do not run their own classroom, instead they work in schools  as tutors, mentors, and role models.

Furthermore, City Year is a little less controversial and a one year commitment instead of two.  It’s a great program for people who want to be a part of the solution but do not feel equipped to run their own classroom.


While TFA and City Year are two of the most well known programs there are tons of other ways to get involved.  For a complete list of programs that are similar to TFA and City Year you can go here.

While all these programs are worthy and noble I do recognize that not everyone is going to be able to fight educational inequity head on.  But at the very least you should be informed on current reforms.  Below is a quick list of things you should know about current education policy.

School Choice: Voucher’s

The school choice movement is founded in the belief that giving students more options of where they attend school will increase competition and reduce inequality.  While school choice movement is typically supported by republicans, more democrats are catching on.  The Obama administration have been stark supporters of school choice and Hilary Clinton supported them until she recently retracted past statements after receiving political donations from teachers unions.

Vouchers are one type of school choice in which government funded money is given to  a student who can use it in order to attend a different school other than his or her own public school.  The student could take the voucher to neighboring districts or private schools.

Some of the pros of school vouchers are that it can increase competition among schools and allow students attending failing schools to go to higher performing districts or private institutions.  Recent studies have Florida’s voucher program have shown a positive effect on the increase of competition in public schools.

Consequently opponents will argue that vouchers diminish resources of already  failing schools thus worsening inequality.

School Choice: Charter Schools

Another, and possibly more divisive, type of school choice are charter schools.  Charter schools are privately owned but publicly funded.  This means that charter schools can operate like private schools but do not charge a tuition, allowing students of all backgrounds to attend.  Charter schools are also free of typical government regulations and often have longer school days or years.

The Charter School situation is certainly tricky.  Some Charters, such as KIPP and Harlem Success Academy, are boosting test scores and sending a tremendous amount of kids off to college.  However, as a whole charter schools have been less extraordinary.  A 2009 Stanford study found that 17% of charters out performed neighboring public schools, 37% did worse and 46% did about the same.

Some charters do wonders for kids and it would be hard to look parents in the eye and say their child’s school is being closed and he is being sent back to a failing school.  But for school choice movement to continue to take stride more charters are going to have to replicate the excellence of the top performers.


George W. Bush took office and immediately passed a comprehensive education bill that he called No Child Left Behind.  NCLB promised to hold schools accountable for student achievement and that all students would be proficient in reading by 2014.

NCLB failed in meetings and its lofty goals became a mockery in education policy circles.

Under the Obama administration accountability continued to grow.  Race To The Top offered grant money to schools that bolstered accountability and choice.

Today, many parents and teachers despise the accountability movement.  But it raises questions as to who should be held accountable for under-performing students and schools.  Should teachers be held accountable for the student gains in his or her classroom?  Should districts that meet certain goals receive more funding?  These are all questions that educators and citizens must ask themselves today.


I’m sure it’s easy to read through all of this and conclude that education is just a hot sticky mess in America and want to run as far away from it as possible.  But you can run all the way to the middle of Pennsylvania and it’s still going to pop up in your petty day to day small talk.

Whether we like it or not, the educational inequality problem is a problem for all of us.  But if we attack the problem head on, some day a Penn State student might roll her eyes and say…”I’m from inside of Philadelphia, just like everybody else.”



Photo Credit: Huffington Post


About Nathan Golden (9 Articles)
Nathan is a junior at Penn State studying economics and education policy and not in that order. In his spare time he enjoys having his heart broken by all his favorite sports teams, especially every Buctober. When he's not weeping because of a bad sports loss, he can be found ranting to somebody who doesn't care at a party about contemporary issues in education. He will be heading to Hong Kong this summer to teach low-income high school students economics and hopes to teach math full time when he graduates.

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