Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (3 of 4)
I have forged strong partnerships with and among my staff, parents and students. Together, we have come a long way. While initially a Kindergarten through grade four school, we transformed Meade into a K-8 facility. Through collective efforts, our school is now a safe and orderly place. Our teachers and students enjoy small classes, ample supplies and materials, and a strong support system. Fifty percent of our students now read at grade level or above, three times the rate when I first arrived. The obstacles abundant in a poor, urban community are still present in the neighborhood, but the teachers, students and families have moved forward anyway.
It has taken many years to change the climate of Meade School. In spite of our considerable achievements, none of these will determine our school’s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) under No Child Left Behind. In this age of school reform, making AYP is the one and only measure that will determine our success or failure to the public.
Many elected officials have seized the issue of “school reform” as their number one legislative agenda item. The No Child left Behind Legislation (NCLB) enacted in 2002 is their premier school reform accomplishment. The goal of this legislation is to fix the schools and school districts with high numbers of students with very low scores on standardized tests. Most of these lowest performing schools are located in poor, urban or rural communities like the one Meade serves.
Under the current definition of school reform, our performance on the Pennsylvania State System of Accountability (PSSA) test is all that matters. The pressure to excel on this one test has created a new force pressing against our schoolhouse walls.
Our society has a strong, collective belief that a single standardized test can tell the truth regarding student and school progress. The current government school reform policy taps into this collective belief to spin the story that every child will have equal access to the benefits of our democratic society under No Child Left Behind. It is a story that needs closer scrutiny.
Gaining equal access to standards of living enjoyed by the middle class in our country involves much more than passing a test. To provide every child with the experiences and opportunities they need to be proficient readers, writers, and problem solvers requires a financial investment in the necessary resources. The NCLB legislation doesn’t provide additional resources to schools that serve children with additional needs. It proposes change in “failing” schools with low-test scores by holding adults more accountable.
This premise assumes that the adults who work in these failing schools are people with low expectations for the children they serve. Working with and teaching children is challenging work. The adults who choose to do this work are usually hard working people dedicated to their profession and to the children they serve.
When I am on the job at Meade, I see the commitment and determination of my staff as they attempt to fulfill the promise that all kids will be equally valued participants in our democratic society every day. I, too, strive to actualize this vision for our children, despite their difficult economic circumstances. The assertion that these children do poorly on standardized tests because the adults in their schools are not “accountable” is offensive.
When we talk about no child being “left behind,” we imply that all children start at the same place. Children in our society do not start at the same place. The majority of children who enter the kindergarten classrooms at Meade are already far behind other children who live in well-resourced communities.
They have a smaller active vocabulary, twelve thousand words to a middle class child’s eighteen thousand words. They have been read to less and less often, and have had limited exposure to books and other print materials. Our children have spent less time with their parents, who are often working long hours at minimum wage jobs and commuting great distances in order to reach these service jobs.
Less is mostly what they have. Less is mostly what their parents have. Many single mothers, surving in poverty and struggling to raise their children safely, live the community surrounding my school. These families deal with inferior housing, poor access to health care, low-wage jobs, and unsafe streets. These already stressed parents also have to compete with a street culture that tries to seduce their children, a culture that too often leads promising young lives to jail or death. All of these factors stunt a child’s learning and success in school. These important considerations are beyond any educators’ ability to control, but remain part of the equation.