The Toxic Tornado

30 Jun

Reflections of an Author

Submitted by Frank Murphy on June 30,2011

When I decided to create City School Stories this past year, I set a personal writing goal for myself.  My objective was to post an installment of Confessions of an Urban Principal on Mondays and Wednesdays from the beginning of September 2010 to the end of June 2011.  This past Wednesday I achieved this objective when I posted the final segment of the last chapter of this book.

During this same time span, I also decided to publish a new topical post on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week.  Producing two new posts a week while revising and editing my book has been a demanding task.  On more than a few occasions, I worried over whether I would make my publishing deadlines.  At these times when I struggled, it wasn’t a matter of dealing with writer’s block.  On the contrary, finding interesting topics for these posts has been relatively easy to do during this year.  Unfortunately, this was in large part due to the endless number of issues that have surfaced during Arlene Ackerman’s tenure as Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.

In the past when I have been challenged to produce a post, it was always a matter of finding the time to write while trying to juggle a number of other responsibilities.   That is until now.  Today I am having a really hard time putting my ideas on paper.  On the last Thursday of the month of June, I am struggling to identify a post topic.  I am in this state of mind not because I am lacking an idea.  The problem actually is quite the opposite.  There are too many things I could write about concerning the current affairs of the School District of Philadelphia.

I could expand upon the budget crisis that has yet to be resolved.  There appears to be at least a $100 million shortfall still existing.  I could talk about the Superintendent’s intention to take a month long European vacation. This is an extravagance that appears to be rather insensitive after one has presided over the termination of the jobs of thousands of employees. Either one of these topics would make a good post.

But in the late hours of this Thursday evening, I realize that I have become weary thinking about the mess that Ackerman has created for our schools.   Her mismanagement of our district has sickened me.  And I find it painful to continue to observe and think about the havoc that has been unleashed upon the children and adults of our district by the person who is supposed to be the steward of this important public institution.

For the last four days, I have had the pleasure of participating in a professional development institute that has focused on how to go about the process of creating   distributive leadership teams in a school community.   It has been intellectually engaging as well as enjoyable.   As I have participated in this work with small teams of teachers and administrators from different schools, I have been reminded of all the reasons why I am proud to be an educator.  My thoughts have been refocused on important ideas such as promoting teacher collaboration and fostering appropriate instructional practices that support student learning and achievement.  I have spent most of my time during the last four days reflecting on and studying concepts and constructs that are in direct opposition to the agenda that has been put forth by Arlene Ackerman for the School District of Philadelphia.

I feel depressed when I consider Ackerman’s expectations for how teachers and principals should act.  Her actions and managerial style contrast starkly with the ideas of teacher collaboration and distributive leadership.  She behaves as though she believes that teachers should be robots who read instructional scripts and follow directions without question.

This is why I have been reluctant to write a post today.  I am weary of dealing with the toxic tornado this superintendent has unleashed on the good teachers, students and parents of this city.

I look forward to the day when a new leader will guide our school communitiy away from the destructive path in which we are now headed.




  1. K. R. Luebbert

    July 1, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Frank, I have been privileged to read your posts and commentary all year. I wish that more principals–and more importantly–administrative leadership were willing to work collaboratively with teachers and all members of the school community.

  2. fmurphy

    July 1, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Thank you.

    In the current environment of the school district principals are not encouraged to collaborate. They are expected instead to enforce the orders they have been given by the central administration. Failure to do so will result in their demotion or reassignment.

    As a result many talented principals who are capable of building and supporting a collaborative school community have left the district. Making matter worst is the reluctances of talented teacher leaders to move into the role of the principal.

    I can understand their hesitance. Why should they put their future at risk by making themselves a target?

    Rebuilding the schools that have been shattered during Ackerman’s tenure will be difficult work. It will require the collaborative effort of all the members of the impacted school communities. Finding the right individuals to lead this effort will be a challenge.

  3. Angela Chan

    July 2, 2011 at 11:25 am

    Frank, thanks for sharing the story of Meade and posting your commentary this year. I appreciate how you let your vision (and not somebody else’s) guide the direction of Meade. That is so difficult to do in today’s context of public education.

    Your story helped me get through many discouraging moments. Reading about your relationships with your students reminded me why being an educator is important. As you watched the eighth grade class graduate, and as you watched Arthur walk away in the end, it was obvious that your students had touched your life in a special way. I imagine that is why we CAN keep doing what we’re doing. We do this work despite a dysfunctional system that undermines our efforts because of our investment in the lives of our students.

    Please keep writing. Maybe we don’t have all the answers or solutions right now, but making our stories and voices heard helps keep our efforts strong.

  4. Doc

    August 19, 2011 at 7:47 am

    It appears clear to me that the opposition to Ackerman, whatever her flaws and I’m sure there are a few, and primarily fueled by racial animosity of having a black superintendant of schools in today’s corporate-minded, charter school for high profit world we are now in as a supposed solution to public schools. Some say the Koch brothers are behind this. Perhaps, but I doubt their influence is key. Rather, it is local opposition fighting to regain control of the huge patronage and employment and economic power that the district generates. It would appear that most of the politicians support her, most of the principals and teachers support her, and in fact many of the students and parents are pleased with her tenure overall. For the opposition that doesn’t, what do they know?And what’s their real agenda or motivation? The are using their economic power to influence the media, which clearly isn’t free nowadays, to influence false public opinion, or a semblance of it at least. Try you may, but citizens can and will see that your opposition, like the Tea Party movement, is little more than tepid toxic water that will do more harm than good to the students of Philly and elsewhere.