Reflections of an Author
Submitted by Frank Murphy, Nov.18, 2010
“The regional superintendent wanted to talk AYP numbers. I joined him in this conversation. It was more comfortable than provoking a confrontation. It was safer.”
(Frank Murphy, in Confessions of an Urban Principal)
In retrospect, I have to admit that I didn’t understand the full scope and weight of the duties that I had assumed when I accepted the principal position at Meade School. I thought that I had committed myself to a heightened level of responsibility within a high-needs school community. In fact, I took on the greatest challenge of my career.
Every aspect of the school’s organizational structure needed attention. The instructional program consisted of a hodgepodge of outdated instructional materials. The lessons that I observed in many of the classrooms lacked quality. They focused on low-level comprehension skills and barely challenged the students intellectually. The physical facility was dingy and run down. The staff was demoralized and frustrated. Teachers closed their doors and worked in isolation.
Small groups of students and parents consumed major amounts of my time and attention. These squeaky wheels of my school community were not well schooled in the finer arts of assertive persuasion. They made their presence known in an aggressive and bruising manner. For them, getting their way often was a matter of engaging in a confrontation that was akin to a street brawl.
Serving this school community was intellectually taxing, time consuming, physically exhausting and emotionally draining. It was a tough environment in which to survive and an even more difficult one in which to make progress. But we did. After several years of determined and purposeful improvement efforts in partnership with my staff, life got better for everyone at Meade.
During these turbulent years, I reported to a supportive supervisor. He was a strong and child-centered instructional leader, who was able to put himself into the shoes of the people with whom he worked. Whenever I needed support I knew that I could count on his help. He was a great asset for a building principal who often felt as though he was walking through a minefield.
This all changed when Paul Vallas took charge of the Philadelphia School District. Vallas reorganized the regions and shifted leaders into different positions. As a result of this change, I found myself working with a different regional superintendent. Vallas had instructed him to identify schools within his region who would adopt Voyager, a new scripted reading program. The new regional wanted Meade School to participate in the implementation of this pilot program.
Participation meant that the Meade teachers would have to abandon the balanced literacy program that they had developed together over several years. The students were experiencing a good degree of academic success, as their teachers became more effective reading instructors. Reading scores were steadily improving in every grade. It didn’t make sense to give up what was working in order to implement this new untested reading program. I declined the invitation only to discover that my regional superintendent considered participation in this project to be mandatory.
After several unsuccessful attempts to explain my reason for declining, I decided to recruit the help of friends within the district. These friends showed Meade’s test scores to Vallas’ chief literacy advisor. She was impressed by our results and recommended that we not be included in the pilot program. Mr. Vallas accepted her recommendation. The regional superintendent was unhappy with being overruled. He wouldn’t talk to me after this decision was made. I realized then that I wasn’t safe as long as he was my supervisor, but I wasn’t sorry for the actions that I had taken. The future success of my students was far more important to me than appeasing my boss.
Not long after we won our reprieve, this regional superintendent was reassigned. Though I didn’t have to worry about retribution from him, my problems were far from over. His replacement was an even more prescriptive, top down manager. So was the next regional superintendent and the one after that.
School reform efforts that were generated as a result of No Child Left Behind created a whole new world in the Philadelphia School District. All that mattered was making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). It was a world where it was best for principals to do as they were told. Being safe rather than sorry was the path that many principals took as they responded to the pressure of making AYP.
In this new school world, I tried to take the safest route whenever possible. But I never allowed caution to interfere with my efforts to make meaningful and enduring changes at my school.
When I made the decision to become the principal of Meade School, I was determined to be an effective rather a cautious leader. I believed then that I should do the right thing for my students.
I still do.