Educating Children Is an Essential Public Enterprise

10 Mar

Notes from the Field

Submitted by Frank Murphy

In the olden times of the Twentieth Century, education tales made for boring stories. Those were the days when children still played in sandboxes and had recess every day. Back then what went on in schools was mainly of interest to the parents, teachers and children who were part of a school’s community. Occasionally, a newspaper article or TV news clip would report to the broader society about some particularly cute event on the schoolhouse stage or at a schoolyard fair. But other than these special human interest stories, schools received little media attention.

Of course there has always been a national interest in the overall success of our schools in preparing its students for their roles as future citizens in a democratic society. Local school districts have traditionally assumed the responsibility for providing those educational experiences that would ensure that success.What has never before been part of that equation is the federal government’s role in dictating how individual schools are to do this.

So when the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957, and our leaders had questions concerning how well our children were being prepared to become the future scientists of America, it was left to individual school districts throughout the states to determine how to address this concern. But for the most part during these years, schools continued to be the place where parents and teachers worked together to help their children prepare for their futures as American citizens.

Schooling in those days was perceived as being a basic public service. Americans willingly and equally shared the responsibility for helping our young to master the skills that were necessary for leading productive and fulfilling adult lives. They recognized that it was their civic duty to support the cost of educating all children to become full participants in our democratic society. All of this was viewed as necessary to the success of this essential public enterprise.

In the last few decades, there has been a steady erosion of individual commitment to this ethic of shared responsibility for public education. This drop in support has coincided with an increase in corporate involvement in the management of schools.

Over this period of time, educational news stories started to take on a different slant. The dusty narratives that constituted the “feel good,” reporting of bygone decades were brushed clean. As politicians and corporate leaders increasingly blamed our schools for putting our nation at risk,educational issues started to dominate the headlines of the 24/7 news cycle. The media provided a regular platform for corporate school reformers to broadcast their message, a message that that essentially linked our country’s slipping economic standing in the world with American education’s perceived failure. The measuring stick for our public schools’ inability to educate our children well became the standardized test score.

In recent years, pioneering young entrepreneurs have launched a number of charter schools that are marketed as solutions to fixing failing public schools. In doing so they have tapped into the $500 billion spent annually on public education in our country. Gradually these efforts are moving significant sums of public funding away from public schools that provide direct services to children, and instead are generating revenue for private enterprise.

These educational business ventures have been primarily both supported and funded by a handful of billionaire philanthropists. These sponsors promote a vision of an efficient national corporate educational system. They claim that by making these investments they will break what they refer to as the “public monopoly on education”. They have been successful at the federal level and in many states in promoting their point of view.

There are many among us who still believe that that educating children must remain an essential public enterprise rather than a business opportunity. This belief is not a quaint relic of a bygone time. It is a reflection of a basic principle of our democracy, that our government institutions exist to serve the needs of all of our people. They are not intended to enrich a few at the sake of the many.

It is long past time that we make this point clear to those corporate school reformers and elected officials who are hard at work dismantling our current system of public education.


The Wealth of 85 Billionaires Equals That of the 3.5 Billion Poorest People in the World

03 Feb

When 85 Equals 3.5 Billion,  You Have a Horrendous Inequality

Good Reads

Submitted by Frank Murphy

It is a strongly held belief in our country that people should be appropriately rewarded for their contributions to building and advancing the economic strength of our society.

 “In doing so, some economic inequality is essential to drive growth and progress, rewarding those with talent, hard earned skills, and the ambition to innovate and take entrepreneurial risks.”

But when the wealth of the 85 richest billionaires in the world equals the combined wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people in the world, you are looking at a serious inequality.

“The extreme levels of wealth concentration occurring today threaten to exclude hundreds of millions of people from realizing the benefits of their talents and hard work.” 

This is the main point of this news story that I recently read.  A PDF of the Oxform briefing paper from which I extracted the above quotes can be found here.   It is an interesting read.

After reading this article, my curiosity was aroused regarding who these few people are who posses so much of the world’s wealth.  Here is a link to an article that identifies the 100 wealthiest people in the world.  Note that several of the individuals who occupy the 20 top spots on this list are actively involved in influencing public policy and advancing legislation that can and do profoundly affect the governance of public schools, labor practices, health care and the economic well being of working poor and middle class families.

Finally I have linked below Infographics on the distribution of wealth in America, highlighting both the inequality and the difference between our perception of inequality and the actual numbers. The reality is often not what we think it is.




Three Philadelphia Principals Fired. Today We Are Shocked ;Yesterday We Celebrated.

16 Jan

shocked-200The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted to fire three principals at its meeting on January 16, 2014. These individuals have been implicated in a test cheating scandal.   School district officials after a two-year investigation have accused 138 Philadelphia educators of misconduct in the administering and handling of students’ Pennsylvania State Assessment Tests.

School Superintendent William Hite expressed great disappointment regarding the alleged behavior of the accused principals and teachers.  This is such a turn of events since the early days of school reform in Philadelphia when the astronomical test score increases of a Philadelphia elementary school were celebrated on the opening day of the 2004-2005 school year.

This was originally posted on September 13, 2010.  Back then it seems that politicians, school district leaders, and the press were all willing to believe that impossible test score gains were possible.

Incidentally the school referred to in this post was closed at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (3 of 8)/The Bell Ringing


Yesterday was the first day of school. School District CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor John Street, School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels and other dignitaries participated in an opening day ceremony at a nearby elementary school in North Philadelphia.  This school was chosen as the site for the official “bell ringing” ceremony because of the significant increase in the percentage of its students scoring at the advanced and proficient levels of on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA).In a Philadelphia Daily News article, Mayor Street was quoted as saying, “The schools, students, parents, teachers and staff are proving that with the right attitude and resources, Philadelphia’s schools will excel.”

According to the Daily News, the latest round of state standardized test scores showed that the number of students at this North Philadelphia school scoring at the advanced or proficient level increased in reading from 13.1 % to 70.7 %.  In math, the numbers rose from 18.7 % to 46.7 %.

The officials at the ceremony were quite proud of this accomplishment.  They pointed out that although the school is in a very poor community, this achievement demonstrates how the dedication of teachers and the effectiveness of school district reforms are making a difference.  Only two years ago, the test scores were so low in this school that it was one of the sixty schools targeted for dramatic reform in the district. It was designated as a “restructured school” and began to receive extra support.

I take careful note of the success of this school, whose demographics are so similar to my own.   I want to celebrate their success but I am somewhat skeptical of the validity of their achievement.  Increasing the percentage of students at the advanced or proficient level in reading by over fifty-seven points in one year is nothing short of a miracle.

Perhaps these percentages were a misprint, I thought.  I went to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website to check the numbers.  What was reported in the newspaper was the same as the information provided by the Department of Education.

The author of Daily News report didn’t reference any of the actions taken at this school in order to achieve these spectacular results.  I was interested in knowing what they had done differently than the teachers in my school.  It seems that this poor, urban, historically low-achieving school has discovered a reform strategy that we should try to replicate.

If I were the CEO of our district, I surely would want to know how such an accomplishment was made in such a short time.  I would want all of my schools to know how to create such growth in student achievement. This is the kind of success the state was looking for when it took control of our district.  What is the secret?   I wonder why isn’t it being shared with the principals of all of the schools who aren’t making this kind of dramatic test score improvement.


A Teacher’s Christmas Wish

17 Dec

Teacher Stories

This post was originally submitted by Joy of Teaching on December 15,2011.   

Given the current state of the Philadelphia School District there must be a ton of coal in the stockings of those who are abusing our schools.

The holiday season is upon us.  I know because the local radio station jolted me into it with the round-the-clock Christmas music a week before Thanksgiving.  The other day, I heard a song by Amy Grant titled “My Grown Up Christmas List”.  The lyrics express an adult’s wish for a peaceful world, long lasting friendships and healing.  This song has me thinking of what a Teacher’s Christmas List would look like.  So here is my version.

Dear Santa,

I am a teacher with the School district of Philadelphia.  I don’t know if you have paid attention to the many changes that our students, teachers and staff have endured this past year, but let me say they have been painful, shocking and at times disheartening.  So, this year I am writing to you with my teacher’s wish for this school year.

Could you please see to it that all of our students have a healthy breakfast, a warm bed and a supportive family?  This will make learning much easier and more enjoyable.

Could the students be blessed with an energetic, thoughtful and collaborative faculty?  The students will become engaged, participate more and most importantly feel respected and loved.

Can every student have books to read; Lots and lots of books to read, with many different topics and interests?  They will become lifelong readers.

Could you hide all of the ineffective programs and standardized tests?  They are a distraction from the art of educating children.  Maybe the elves could recycle them into more books!

Could you enlighten the administrative staff so that when they walkthrough our schools they can appreciate them for their diversity, dedicated staff and ingenuity.  It would help retain good teachers.

And if at all possible, could you put coal in the stockings of those who are abusing our schools; those who take many much needed dollars to enhance their own interests.  It’s for the children, please!

And for each teacher, I wish a stocking full of hugs, warm wishes and encouragement which is the real merit pay that they deserve.

Thank you,



Seeing the Light

30 Oct

P1060551“You have no idea what you would do if you were poor until you are poor. And not intermittently poor or formerly not-poor, but born poor, expected to be poor and treated by bureaucracies, gatekeepers and well-meaning respectability authorities as inherently poor.”

Here is a good read.


The Philadelphia School Crush Saga

28 Aug

A Teacher’s Point of View

Notes from the Field

Submitted by Joy of Teaching

P1010101_2Over the summer I spent time in doctor’s waiting rooms  and began playing the online game sensation “Candy Crush Saga” to whittle away the time.  The game is based upon matching three similar colored candy pieces to reach certain goals and advance to higher levels.  Although the game is a time consuming distraction, it can also be maddening.

As one advances through the levels the goals become more difficult to reach.  Impending obstacles, like growing chocolate, race to swallow up a candy combination that you are carefully planning to make.  Well placed time bombs explode if you don’t get to them first by wasting precious moves.  It was at some point while playing the Candy Crush Saga game that I realized that the game changes the rules as it moves along.  A stripped candy mix that once cleared two columns now only clears one.  A wrapped candy that would zap those bombs now misses them by a mile.  At times, I have seen the game actually cheat!  Candy that should move one way in a well planned move suddenly disappears! I came to the realization that the game will let you win, if and when it is ready to.

Alas, if you do not reach the set goal after five attempts, your game is over for 30 minutes.  However, you can pay to play!  This is how Candy Crush Saga earns revenue of $633,000 per day.  The other day, while making the 76th attempt at level 139, and mulling over all of the ongoing Philadelphia School District drama, I realized the teachers of the Philadelphia School District are all just playing one big game of Philadelphia School Crush Saga. Read the rest of this entry »


Let’s Build a Lemonade Stand, Kids!

15 May

Students’ Response to School Budget Cuts

Notes from the Field

Submitted by Angela Chan

When I decided to teach, I believed that the betterment of our nation depends on growing compassionate and caring citizens, and on creating an engaged citizenry that must include even those who live in the poorest communities.  As a public and as a nation, we have determined education to be so important to the common good that we would collectively fund it for all children.  I thought, what better way to invest my life and energy than to be a public servant, to do the important work of educating our young, and not just to do this work anywhere, but to commit to those communities and schools with the least resources.

The last few years of budget cuts to public education has shaken my belief that our country and political leaders value the well being of every single child, rich or poor.  Across school buildings in Philadelphia, staff will hear their principals say, “We have a limited budget for next year.  We only have enough money for a principal and enough teachers for every class.  We don’t have any funds for books or supplies.”

Many who do not work in schools have only minimal understanding of the implications of the reality of those words.  For the last two years, my students have lost some of their favorite teachers: our school police officer, a full-time technology teacher, and bilingual counseling assistants who have worked with us for years.  Now we must tell our students that they might lose everyone else who is not a teacher.  Next year, we, along with all public schools in Philadelphia, might not have a Dean of Students, an office staff, a counselor, an instrumental music program, noon time aides who supervise lunch and recess, extracurricular activities including sports, and books and supplies.

I struggled to help my students understand this senseless predicament.  Our children come to school everyday expecting to be in a place of learning.  How do we explain that we lack even the basics to sustain our schools?  My students are smart, and they understand fairness.  Sooner or later, they will make the connection between what is happening to their schools and how this can come to happen.  They will come to understand marginalization and know that some groups do not matter in the grand scheme of our nation’s operation. Read the rest of this entry »


A Moratorium on School Closings Makes Sense

27 Feb

A School’s Value Cannot Be So Easily Calculated

Originally posted on the Notebook Blog by Frank Murphy on Feb 26 2013

Posted in Commentary

Superintendent William Hite has changed a flawed school-closings plan, and the revision was an encouraging sign. Hearing the concerns and suggestions of individual school communities was exactly what Dr. Hite needed to do in order to demonstrate that he is pursuing a school reform agenda responsive to the best interests and needs of city neighborhoods. It is time that the members of the School Reform Commission do the same.

To fully grasp the impact that a school has on the children it serves, one must first understand the neighborhood where those children live. A school is not an island. It is part of the social web of a community. With schools operating in economically distressed areas, they can, and often do, serve as beacons of hope. They are lighthouses, so they shouldn’t be judged in the same way as other institutions.

Meade Elementary at 18th Street near Cecil B. Moore Avenue in North Philadelphia, a school where I was once principal, acts as a vital part of the community. That did not stop District officials from putting it on the original closure list. Although it was subsequently taken off the list, we still aren’t sure how officials calculated its value in reversing their decision. So let me do that for you.

At present, Meade provides good instruction, offers a wide array of other services like parent outreach programs and a health clinic, and partners with many area organizations. But this was not always the case. Read the rest of this entry »


Walk In Our Shoes

17 Feb

meade rally and walk


Save Meade School

08 Feb

Save Meade School