Archive for the ‘Reflections: Then and Now’ Category

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 »


How Does the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School Explain its Test Results?

21 Jul

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 21, 2011

There are currently eleven cyber charter schools operating in Pennsylvania.  The functions of these schools, for the most part, are invisible to public scrutiny.

One of the 89 schools whose PSSA test scores are under investigation by the Pennsylvania Department of Education is the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School.  According to a study conducted by Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) on behalf of the state, the test results of multiple grades of this school were flagged for potential irregularities.

I had written a post earlier this year concerning the large sum of funding this school receives from state-mandated charter school payments. This money is drawn from the operational budgets of the local public school districts where its cyber school students live. I noted how this one virtual school receives more funding per school year than the entire budgets of many Pennsylvania school districts serving multiple schools.

In my post, I noted that “how cyber schools spend their hefty share of public education funds” is a question deserving of an in-depth response. I requested that the managers of the cyber charter schools operating in our state, explain to the general public exactly how they expend the funds they receive.

Now would be a good time for the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School’s manager to respond to this request, particularly in light of its suspect PSSA test scores.  In consideration of the large amount of public tax dollars expended on the operation of this cyber charter school, it is a reasonable idea to expect a high degree of accountability from its administrators.

With Pennsylvania’s cyber charter schools receiving a significant proportion of  local taxpayers’ funds statewide, it appears that accountability to the public is long overdue. Read the rest of this entry »


“AYP Anyway I Can Get It”

19 Jul

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 19, 2011

In light of cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles, Houston, and now Philadelphia, it is a good time to reexamine the school reform tactics of one of Paul Vallas’ chief aides during his tenure as CEO of the Philadelphia.  In Confessions of an Urban Principal I refer to this administrator as “Deputy Slide”.  I bestowed this title upon her after listening to the advice she offered regarding how to achieve the AYP goal for my school.

She explained to me that she and Paul wanted to see a significant increase in the number of schools in the District that would make AYP.  In order to do so, she said that she would take AYP any way she could get it.

The conversation I had with Deputy Slide was instructive.  Before meeting with her I had suspected that the test results of some schools in the district had been manipulated.  After our conversation, I was sure that my suspicions were well founded.

I didn’t appreciate this administrator’s attempt to pressure me in to engaging in unethical behavior.   The frank manner in which she expressed her views took me back.  At the time, I thought my encounter with Deputy Slide was an unusual event.

Now I can reasonably speculate that there are many Deputy Slides who are in positions of power in our nation’s school districts. I wonder how many educators they have pressured to deliver AYP in any manner they could? Read the rest of this entry »


How Did They Get Those Test Results?

12 Jul

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy: July 12, 2011

In the school world, July and August are historically slow paced and uneventful months.  During these summer days, taking a break from the regular routines of the work year is the typical thing to do.  This time also offers a good opportunity to catch up on work that has been put off for too long.

After a busy school year of posting book installments and topical themes, I have been looking forward to slowing the pace at  My intention is to spend most of my writing time this summer off-line.  While doing so, I plan to keep the blog active by reposting some of my favorite pieces from the past year. These will be ones I think are worth saying at least one more time.

I choose today’s selection after reading this post on the Notebook.  It relates the results of a 2009 Pennsylvania Department of Education report, which identified dozens of Pennsylvania schools having questionable test score results on the state’s annual assessment test.  Twenty-two schools managed by the Philadelphia School District and seven charter schools located in Philadelphia were included on this list.   One of the schools identified is the same school I had talked about in an early September installment of Confessions of an Urban Principal.  Back then in 2004, I wondered how this school managed to obtain amazing increases in the number of students who scored at the proficient and advanced levels on the PSSA test.  Now it appears the Pennsylvania Department of Education is also wondering how this school achieved these results in 2009. Read the rest of this entry »


The Cradle of Liberty and School Reform

21 Jun

Reflections Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy on, June 21, 2011

The school year I describe in Confessions of an Urban Principal, was a difficult and stressful one for me.  My accounting of the events of that time was personal in nature and primarily recounted my interactions with the people in my school community. Within this context, I described the evolving efforts of the Philadelphia School District’s response to the punitive requirements of No Child Left Behind.

During that time, political rather than instructional concerns seemingly guided the decision-making process of the Vallas administration.  Creating the perception of success by raising student test scores appeared to be the primary objective of an administration that was interested in seeking quick fixes for difficult problems. The pursuit of this goal superseded the importance of creating sound and appropriate instructional programs that would truly increase student achievement throughout the district.   It was a difficult time to be a school principal in Philadelphia.

For schools that consistently failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, alternative governance models were created.   At the start of the Vallas administration, a select group of schools with low test scores were parceled out to Educational Management Organizations (EMOs).  Later a smaller group of schools were organized into the Corrective Action Region (CAR).  These early NCLB-inspired school reform strategies marked the beginning of a tumultuous era for public education in Philadelphia. Read the rest of this entry »


The Question Not Asked In Charter School Controversy

28 Apr

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, April 28, 2011

The current controversy that surrounds the School District’s plan to convert Martin Luther King High School into a charter school is raising questions about the ethics of school reform.  For many years, the media message has been that our public schools are failing us and they need to be overhauled.  The solution most often offered for this stated problem is to privatize public schools and services.  In so doing, the advocates of this strategy claim, the competitive nature of free market forces will compel schools to either improve or close.

What the corporate reformers don’t mention as they pitch their school makeover plans, is the profits they stand to make. Read the rest of this entry »


School Violence: A Symptom of a More Serious Illness

29 Mar

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by, Frank Murphy, March 29, 2011

It was about this time of year in the spring of 2005 that the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an investigative report titled, “The Meanest Streets.”  I referenced this report in Installment Eight of the March chapter of Confessions of an Urban Principal.


It was an interesting series that detailed the extent to which murder and mayhem impacted some of our city’s most distressed neighborhoods.  The community that surrounded Meade Elementary School located in North Philadelphia was one of the three most violent neighborhoods described in this account.

Back then the rising murder rate in Philadelphia was big news.  Detailed accounts of neighborhood gun violence regularly occupied prime space in both of the city’s newspapers.  Dealing with this public safety issue was the number one priority of the media and the local elected officials.  In their extensive report, Inquirer reporters detailed the magnitude of the problem.  They discussed the complex variables that contributed to this public health hazard and examined programs that were designed to address this social ill. Read the rest of this entry »


Budget Cuts Shortchange Our Children

17 Mar

Reflections: Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, March 17, 2011

In the face of drastic funding reductions in Philadelphia, constructing a basic school budget for next year will be difficult.  Designing one that ensures a high quality instructional program for every public school child will be nearly impossible. Cuts to the central office staff will come nowhere close to reducing a budget shortfall of more than a half billion dollars.  The school district’s 2011-2012 budget will eventually be balanced on the back of every individual public school’s allocation.  Critical services such as reduced class size, after school programs, summer school, music and art programs and sports activities will be either eliminated or drastically reduced.

The most serious reductions will be in the number of teaching staff assigned to each school.  It will be up to school principals to make the most difficult decisions concerning how their remaining teachers will be deployed and how greatly reduced funding will be utilized.  These school-based leaders will anguish over the decisions they will be forced to make. Read the rest of this entry »



11 Nov

Reflections:Then and Now

Submitted by Frank Murphy, Nov.11, 2010

“Hearing that a student has hit a teacher is terrible news.  Yet hearing Arthur’s name as the alleged attacker was worse news.  Of all the eighth graders, Arthur was one of the least likely to get into trouble….  I couldn’t comprehend the idea of Arthur intentionally hitting a teacher.  It had to be an accident.”

(Frank Murphy, in Confessions of an Urban Principal)

There was never a doubt in my mind as a school principal that it was my responsibility to ensure a safe school climate for all members of my school community.  When children disrupted the school environment I reacted immediately to their misbehavior.  I used my judgment as a professional educator when I responded to the inappropriate actions of a student.  It was also my expectation that my staff would do the same.  I considered the age of the child, my knowledge of the individual, and the seriousness of the infraction in determining an appropriate consequence.  The sanctions I imposed on students who misbehaved were based on common sense and were tailored to the need of each individual.

Zero tolerance policies for weapons offenses and serious assaults, established by states and district across the country, have made it difficult for school principals to use their professional judgment in responding to student discipline issues.  The belief behind these policies is that the consequences for these kinds of issues should be the same regardless of a student’s age or individual circumstances.  School administrators who use their own discretion in applying these zero tolerance policies do so at the risk of facing possible sanctions.

Like most school districts, the Philadelphia School District has created a code of student conduct. This code lists a variety of inappropriate behaviors that will not be tolerated in the school setting.  The offenses described range from minor infractions (e.g. failure to follow classroom rules/disruption/disrespect for authority) to major infractions (e.g. aggravated assault).  It also lists possible consequences for each of the listed violations of the code.  This code was a guide that I regularly consulted when handling student disciplinary issues.

In this code, the expectation was stated that school administrators would implement the student code of conduct and disciplinary procedures in a fair and consistent manner.  This I did do. But this did not mean that I considered equitable treatment to be the same thing as equal treatment in enforcing this code.  When I was faced with the situation that a seventh grade student had brought a knife to school with the intention of causing harm to another student, I pursued all of the actions that were prescribed in my district’s zero tolerance policy.  The police would be called.  The student would be arrested.  An immediate suspension would be issued.  I would recommend that the student be expelled from the district.

In the case of a first grader who brought a Swiss army knife to school in order to show it to other children in the classroom, I would pursue a different course of action.  Although bringing a weapon into the school is considered to be a zero tolerance offence, this does not mean that the consequence for this offense must be the same in every case.  There is a difference between being treated equally and being treated fairly.

In the case of the first grader, contacting the child’s parents might be all that is necessary to maintain a safe school environment.  This should be a decision that is left in the hands of school personnel.  Zero tolerance policies that require that the same consequence be imposed on all students regardless of the circumstances, treat children in ways that mimic the adult criminal justice system.

School disciplinary procedures that result in criminalizing student  misbehavior greatly increase the likely that these individuals will not graduate from high school.  Ninety percent of students who are involved in a crime drop out of school.  African American and Latin boys who already represent a disproportionately high percentage of all Philadelphia dropouts are further put at risk by these policies.  In consideration of these statistic, school administrators should think long and hard before reaching a decision that will place a child in this high risk category. Advocates who recently called for a review of the districts expulsion policy have expressed this same concern.

In some states, zero tolerance laws have been eased but in many schools a hard line is still pursued in dealing with the poor choices of some children. The inherent lack of fairness that is at the heart of zero tolerance policies is an issue that has long been a concern to me.  It is the main reason why I felt such a sense of apprehension when I heard that Arthur might have assaulted a teacher.  But before I took an action, which could have resulted in serious life altering consequences for Arthur, I sought the facts concerning this alleged assault.

I think it is always best to look before one leaps.



04 Nov


Submitted by Frank Murphy, Nov.4, 2010

“The result of a single high stakes test is how the federal and state government determine our success. Yet there isn’t one measure that can describe a school’s strengths or weaknesses.”

(Frank Murphy, in Confessions of an Urban Principal)

In order to support and empower schools that have been historically neglected and under resourced you need to provide supports that will help to strengthen a school’s community. The Department of Education proposes using one of the following controversial strategies to serve these schools: close the school; convert it to a charter school; make it a “turn-around” school ( i.e. remove the principal and at least half of the teaching staff); or remove the principal and provide intensive professional development to the teaching staff.  Except for the professional development model, these school reform options completely tear apart a school community.

In Philadelphia, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has passionately embraced both the charter school and turn-around models as her preferred reform strategies.  At the start of this school year, 13 schools that were deemed as failures by her administration were converted into either charter schools or turn-around schools that have been titled, Promise Academies.  This process of deconstructing public schools in order to create experimental models of school reform is the centerpiece of the Imagine 2014 plan that was created by Ackerman shortly after she assumed leadership of the school district.  More schools that are characterized as being failures will receive the same treatment in the 2011-2012 school year.

What does it mean to be a failing school?  In Philadelphia it is almost all about test scores.  The School Performance Index (SPI) was created by Ackerman in order to place district schools on a ranking continuum ranging from “failing” to “exemplary”.  This system relies heavily on PSSA test scores as it main criterion for grading individual schools.  Ackerman claims that a variety of factors are included in deciding a school’s status.  However, this is hardly the case.

In Philadelphia, school failure is defined almost totally on the results of a yearly-standardized test result. Minimum consideration (10% of the total score) is given to factors such as student attendance, parent, teacher and student satisfaction, and parent survey response rate.  The greatest weight (90% of the total score) is based on comparisons of either the increases or decreases of a school’s test scores from the prior to the current year.

This is a narrow perspective upon on which to judge the success or failure of a school.  It ignores the strengths of a school community that impact on student achievement and future success, such as the presence of a strong and effective principal, intelligent and diligent teachers, community partnerships, and the connectedness that student and parents feel towards their school.

West Philadelphia High School is a prime example of a school that possessed a great degree of social capital but was harmed rather than helped by the school reform efforts directed towards it.   Its staff was committed to and focused on the needs of its students.  Students were connected to their teachers and engaged in the activities of the school.  Only a few years ago arsons were common and assaults of teachers and students were rampant at this school.  Yet in a short period of only three years, seemingly intractable climate problems were resolved and the school staff was able to concentrate on strengthening the instructional program.

Despite these accomplishments, West Philadelphia High was identified for inclusion in the School District’s “Renaissance” reform initiative in February of 2010.  During the course of several months after being identified as a Renaissance-eligible school, the inept handling of this school reform process devastated West Philadelphia High School.   Many teachers opted to transfer to other schools when it became clear that a final decision on the fate of the school would not be determined before the deadline for submitting teacher transfer applications.  The recommendation of the School Advisory Counsel regarding which provider should manage the school was delayed.  Ultimately the decision regarding the fate of the school was postponed till the next year.  Then abruptly during the summer break, the principal was assigned to another school.  The reason given was that the test scores of West Philadelphia High School student’s were unacceptable and urgent changes were required.

Other schools that will be subjected to the same reform experiment that West Philadelphia was subjected to are primarily located in the most under resourced and disempowered communities of our society.  The poor test results of the students served by these schools can be attributed to a wide variety of factors.  Some of these variables are ones that a school can positively affect.  Many are not.

To fairly measure how well a school community is doing, calls for a much more comprehensive evaluation tool than the one being used now.  The information provided by the results of one annual standardized test is not sufficient to fairly determine the success or failure of any school.