I have been troubled by the negative tone of several comments posted in response to Notebook articles over the last few months. Anonymous posters have increasingly engaged in highly critical and often sharply worded personal attacks on individual Philadelphia School District employees and union personnel. Though I can understand the depth of emotion that motivates people to make such remarks, I do not support this course of action.
Over the last 10 years, school staff in Philadelphia have increasingly felt pressured by District leaders to act in a manner that borders on professional malpractice. Teachers have been forced to spend an inordinate amount of instructional time on test preparation, and they have been expected to use instructional materials that are inappropriate for their students. Even more troubling, in a growing number of schools, teachers have been required to “do whatever it takes” to increase student test scores by principals who confuse intimidation with leadership.
In the face of such obstacles, it is no wonder that teachers are frustrated and angry. I, too, have felt the wrath of vindictive leaders, and, frankly, it has left me with a bad taste. But ventilating these feelings through scathing and anonymous remarks does us all a disservice. Personal attacks on specific District leaders, personnel, and union staffers can be, and often are, interpreted by the broader public as the rants of disaffected employees who are averse to the concept of being held accountable.
It is the bad ideas of leaders that we must debunk. Focusing on individuals’ hypocrisy and lack of character is a distraction. Doing so contributes to the chaos or “churn” that Eli Broad and other free market reformers like to create in public school systems across the nation. In my view, the main focus of our commentary must be on informing one another and our community about the issues affecting the local democratic control of our school district.
Powerfully connected and well-financed individuals and groups often influence what the mass media choose to focus on. This seems to be particularly true in education, where just a handful of wealthy people — such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Betsy DeVos, and the Koch brothers — have tremendously influenced governance and policy at the national, state, and local levels. It is far from easy for ordinary people to have their views and concerns heard over the amplified voices of the rich and well-connected.
Our opportunities to communicate our views about the governance of our nation’s schools are limited. Teachers are rarely included on the committees that are appointed to plot the future of public schools. When we have a chance to speak in public forums, our arguments should be measured, tempered, and centered on analyzing the merits of the strategies and ideas offered by school reformers.
In the days and months ahead, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission will act on a number of important issues: Closing schools, resolving a crippling budget crisis, determining whether to continue with the Renaissance School strategy, managing charter school growth, and negotiating a new teacher contract are all items on their to-do list. Teachers, parents, educational activists, and students will seek to have their say. But engaging in personal attacks and making snarky remarks while presenting their positions will be counterproductive, playing into the hands of the those who pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy to force their will on the majority.
Those of us who actually run schools and conduct the day-to-day work of educating children have to present a united front as we strive to preserve and promote a public school system that is well-funded, open to all children, and provides a superior education. It’s about time for us to create a discourse that respects individual differences while striving to find common ground. I have great hope that we can speak in one united and reasonable voice concerning the fate of our public school system. I envision that this voice will consistently articulate, with fidelity, the values and principles of our democratic society.
Frank Murphy is the former principal of Gen. George G. Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia and served as an educator for over 35 years. Currently, he is working as a distributed leadership coach for the Penn Leadership Center. He blogs at City School Stories.
The opinions expressed in this post are solely the opinions of the author.