Reflections of an Author
Submitted by Frank Murphy on October 25, 2011
My recollection of the exact moment when I decided that I would not be the principal of an empowerment school is a vivid one. I was attending a bi-weekly regional principals’ meeting at a school located not far from my own. We met in the school’s library.
The library had been recently renovated. The room’s windows had been replaced with new ones that had the appearance of translucent rice paper. I looked at them with admiration while appreciating the beauty of the filtered sunlight that passed through them. They framed a serene place intended for study and contemplation.
Later as I left this meeting I couldn’t help but note the irony of how this beautiful room had provided the backdrop for the irrational and ridiculous conversations that had taken place in this space during the course of our principals’ meeting.
During the first hour we slogged through the usual mire of administrative trivia. Regional personnel who were responsible for special education, Title One and finances discussed issues relevant to their areas of concern. Requests for information were made, deadlines were announced and relevant data pertaining to individual schools was distributed. I struggled to stay alert and keep my eyes open as I listened to the torrent of tedious details that poured forth during this opening segment.
The regional superintendent led the next portion of the meeting. She invited the principals to share with the group any plans they had for preparing their students to take the PSSA test. This was a topic that snapped me out of the groggy daze that I fallen into during the preceding hour.
My blood pressure instantly began to rise as I listen to the ideas offered by the usual vocal and opinionated principals. They detailed plans for the pep rallies they intended to conduct. One principal was preparing to raffle off a bicycle to the students who had perfect attendance during the testing period. In order to create excitement among her students for this contest, she planned on riding the prize bike through the school’s hallways.
There was discussion regarding test prep Saturday classes and other ways to drill students before and after school and during lunch periods. All of the plans detailed activities that engaged students in endless hours of skill drills and simplistic writing exercises. In the weeks and even months before the administration of the state test, these activities, according to their promoters, would supplant all regular classroom instruction.
The silliest schemes of the bunch involved giving treats to students such as candy or pretzels. One principal proudly described her ingenious idea for increasing student concentration. She was going to provide all of her children with spearmint chewing gum during the PSSA test. According to her, scientists had proven that chewing gum while taking a test improved student concentration. Later I privately pressed her for proof of this claim. She said that she had read about it in a study conducted by a major chewing gum manufacturer.
It was just a handful of principals who offered these instructionally irrelevant bromides. Most of the other gathered school administrators sat quietly during this segment of the meeting. They listened politely and made no comments as their more outspoken colleagues offered their remedies for improving student achievement.
The regional superintendent thanked the principals who had spoken for sharing their marvelous ideas. She then introduced an employee of McGraw Hill Publishing Company. This woman was responsible for supervising the textbook company’s consultants who worked with teachers in empowerment schools.
This book company representative spoke for more than an hour. She offered an overview of the corrective reading and math programs that were being used in the empowerment schools as mandated by the central administration. Though this woman was actually a sales representative for McGraw Hill, she presented herself as though she was a central office administrator. She didn’t so much explain how these instructional materials could be used as she told the principals how they would implement and supervise their use. Frequently she punctuated her remarks with the refrain, “Dr. Ackerman expects that you will do this in this manner”.
I listened closely to her entire spiel. The underlying premises of the programs she described totally contradicted my own understandings of how students learn and of how teachers should teach.
The corrective reading program emphasized skill instruction that was isolated from reading comprehension. This book company representative argued that having students read for comprehension actually distracted them from learning appropriate phonic skills.
The math program she described emphasized the memorization of basic computation facts while virtually ignoring problem-solving skills. Neither of these programs were ones that I would choose to use in my school. I thought that I would really have a hard time being a principal in an empowerment school if I was expected to implement these programs.
But what really convinced me that I couldn’t be the principal of a school that used these programs was the startling proclamation that this book company representative made about teacher supervision. She stated that she had observed teachers who were not correctly reading the instructional script to their students. Even more problematic to her was the fact that many teachers were not properly using their program’s signaling “clickers” or appropriately tapping their pencils. In her opinion, principals should write these teachers up for performing in an unsatisfactory manner.
Clickers, pencil tapping, script reading: what did any of this have to do with literacy instruction, I thought? Surely this woman had to be kidding if she expected a principal to deem a teacher as being an unsatisfactory instructor because s/he inappropriately used a clicker! Why would teachers even be expected to use a clicker while instructing students? Such a device might be useful for cuing a dog to sit down but to educate a child?
The regional superintendent showed her support for the McGraw Hill representative by stating that she would expect all principals of empowerment schools to send memos to teachers who didn’t correctly use their clickers. When my supervisor made this statement, that was the moment, the exact moment when I realized that I could never be the principal of an empowerment school. I knew that in good conscience I could never write up a teacher for improperly click clacking. This was just too absurd. I pitied the empowerment school principals in the room who would be expected to comply with this directive.
When I finally left this meeting, I had such a headache. It has always been difficult for me to remain silent when confronted by an injustice. And the expectations that I heard expressed during this staff meeting regarding the education of children represented a major injustice to me. But like most of my fellow principals, I kept my thoughts to myself. I did not want to draw unwanted attention to myself or to my school. My first duty was to protect my children and staff from bad ideas such as the ones discussed at this meeting.
Little did I know then that this type of irrelevant instructional nit picking was rapidly becoming the administrative norm within the district. The focus of the school walkthroughs currently being conducted by teams from the academic regions is reflective of the click clack nonsense advocated by this McGraw Hill representative.
In this type of supervisory climate, teachers who attempt to maintain their professional integrity and standards are finding themselves in a difficult situation. They are increasingly becoming the targets of school administrators who are more interested in half-baked schemes to increase student test scores than in promoting student learning opportunities.
Is it any wonder why so many talented people have left the school district in the last few years?