Confessions of an Urban Principal
by Frank Murphy
Installment (3 of 8)/The Bell Ringing
Yesterday was the first day of school. School District CEO Paul Vallas, Mayor John Street, School Reform Commission Chairman James Nevels and other dignitaries participated in an opening day ceremony at a nearby elementary school in North Philadelphia. This school was chosen as the site for the official “bell ringing” ceremony because of the significant increase in the percentage of its students scoring at the advanced and proficient levels of on the Pennsylvania System of State Assessment (PSSA). In a Philadelphia Daily News article, Mayor Street was quoted as saying, “The schools, students, parents, teachers and staff are proving that with the right attitude and resources, Philadelphia’s schools will excel.”
According to the Daily News, the latest round of state standardized test scores showed that the number of students at this North Philadelphia school scoring at the advanced or proficient level increased in reading from 13.1 % to 70.7 %. In math, the numbers rose from 18.7 % to 46.7 %.
The officials at the ceremony were quite proud of this accomplishment. They pointed out that although the school is in a very poor community, this achievement demonstrates how the dedication of teachers and the effectiveness of school district reforms are making a difference. Only two years ago, the test scores were so low in this school that it was one of the sixty schools targeted for dramatic reform in the district. It was designated as a “restructured school” and began to receive extra support.
I take careful note of the success of this school, whose demographics are so similar to my own. I want to celebrate their success but I am somewhat skeptical of the validity of their achievement. Increasing the percentage of students at the advanced or proficient level in reading by over fifty-seven points in one year is nothing short of a miracle.
Perhaps these percentages were a misprint, I thought. I went to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s website to check the numbers. What was reported in the newspaper was the same as the information provided by the Department of Education.
The author of Daily News report didn’t reference any of the actions taken at this school in order to achieve these spectacular results. I was interested in knowing what they had done differently than the teachers in my school. It seems that this poor, urban, historically low-achieving school has discovered a reform strategy that we should try to replicate.
If I were the CEO of our district, I surely would want to know how such an accomplishment was made in such a short time. I would want all of my schools to know how to create such growth in student achievement. This is the kind of success the state was looking for when it took control of our district. What is the secret? I wonder why isn’t it being shared with the principals of all of the schools who aren’t making this kind of dramatic test score improvement.