01 Sep

Confessions of an Urban Principal

by Frank Murphy

Installment (4 of 4)

If we want all children to be proficient learners, we must provide the advantages that will help them learn. We should hold schools accountable for teaching reading, writing and math.  We must also hold our society accountable. Every citizen should have access to good jobs, homes, and affordable health care. Children who are protected will learn well. Providing them with this support and protection is the job of the whole community, including the national community. This cannot remain the sole responsibility of individual schools.

No matter what gains Meade has made in the past several years, I do not hold any illusions that our school can be the sole force to transform the community in which our children live. The poverty that dominates their world is a problem too big for our school to solve alone.

In the intense debate about our public schools, hardly anyone addresses the multiple social needs of children. Instead, the discussion centers on how to reorganize and manage public schools.  Nationally, government and business leaders have initiated wide ranging reform experiments on our most disadvantaged students.  In a relatively short period of time, state takeovers of local schools, aggressive creation of charter schools, using for-profit management companies, and vouchers have become more common occurrences.  The Philadelphia School District is engaged in one of the largest of these national experiments.  Since 2002, forty-five schools were turned over to outside managers, and sixty-three charter schools have been created.  There are plans to turn another thirty schools over to outside management by 2010. There is little scientific evidence supporting the effectiveness of these reform strategies.  Yet they continue to expand.  It seems that feelings, rather than facts, dominate our school reform arguments.

The cost of these experiments reduces the funds available to Meade and other public schools in our city.  This reduction comes as other costs associated with the expansive testing program and the myriad of time-consuming administrative compliance tasks mount.  Interestingly, by forcing school districts to divert funds from classrooms to pay for its mandates, NCLB further aggravates the problem of inequitable funding in our poorest schools.

The American public school system has been credited with supporting the nation’s cultural and social melting pot.  Public schools provide common ground where citizens meet the challenge of preparing children to be full participants in a democratic society.  They are places where people of different backgrounds can learn to understand one another better as they work together to pursue a common social good.

American schools have been (and still remain) the means through which all children are provided the equal opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge to live well and to pursue a better future.   Our public schools are the keepers of a sacred public trust.

If the public school system is broken, as current reformers insist, then let’s fix it in a manner that preserves our national belief that we are one nation of the people, by the people and for the people.  Fragmenting our public school system by turning over pieces of it to corporate management and special interest groups does not serve our democracy.


Becoming a school reformer is not an easy task.  I have learned this the hard way. As Samuel said to me so many years ago, I now say to those reformers who seem intent on dismantling the American public school system, “You don’t know me.”

To this statement, I add the following:   “You don’t know my students or their families.  You don’t know the communities that we live in every day.  Your measurements of our progress and success don’t truly measure us.  Try to see us through our own eyes and hear our voices.”

In this book I offer my own story of school reform.  This is a first hand account of the life of an urban elementary school principal in the era of No Child Left Behind.

These writings will share my interactions and experiences with students, parents and teachers during one full school year.  Each of the ten chapters represent a month of the school year.

Remember that the observations I share were not made from a distance.  They are derived from hard lessons, which I have learned from my daily encounters as an American educator.  These challenges cannot be described or measured by standardized test score data charts or political sound bites.

  1. Angela Chan

    September 2, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    I’m moved by your belief in our public schools and, at the same time, agree with you that schools alone cannot fulfill all the needs of children in urban America. I also respect the fact that you were able to let your students become your teachers and hope that policy makers will do the same and pay attention to your story.