Reflections Then and Now
Submitted by Frank Murphy on, June 21, 2011
The school year I describe in Confessions of an Urban Principal, was a difficult and stressful one for me. My accounting of the events of that time was personal in nature and primarily recounted my interactions with the people in my school community. Within this context, I described the evolving efforts of the Philadelphia School District’s response to the punitive requirements of No Child Left Behind.
During that time, political rather than instructional concerns seemingly guided the decision-making process of the Vallas administration. Creating the perception of success by raising student test scores appeared to be the primary objective of an administration that was interested in seeking quick fixes for difficult problems. The pursuit of this goal superseded the importance of creating sound and appropriate instructional programs that would truly increase student achievement throughout the district. It was a difficult time to be a school principal in Philadelphia.
For schools that consistently failed to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, alternative governance models were created. At the start of the Vallas administration, a select group of schools with low test scores were parceled out to Educational Management Organizations (EMOs). Later a smaller group of schools were organized into the Corrective Action Region (CAR). These early NCLB-inspired school reform strategies marked the beginning of a tumultuous era for public education in Philadelphia.
There was a tremendous amount of pressure placed on school principals during this period to improve their schools’ test scores in any way they could. At the time I felt that I was dealing with the misguided plans and actions of a school chief who had little understanding of the realities of leading an educational institution. I believed that eventually the school district would refocus its efforts on pursuing appropriate instructional practices. I was wrong.
The efforts of the Vallas administration to create a diverse provider model of school management in our city was just the precursor to the even more radically disruptive Renaissance School reform model of the Ackerman administration. The actions Vallas took during his tenure in Philadelphia weren’t of his unique creation. Vallas and Ackerman are both agents of the corporate school reformers who are determined to dismantle our nation’s public schools and to remake them into a free market system of private and charter schools.
Back in 2005 during the initial wave of school takeovers, principals were the primary targets of these school reformers. Now in 2011, teachers have become their favorite punching bags. The frustration, anger and anxieties that I experienced then, are the feelings that many educators in Philadelphia are coping with now as they deal with the fallout from Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 plan.
Both the creation of Promise Academies and the handing off of district schools to charter managers have played havoc with teacher assignments. The budget deficit has grown to $629 million. Vital programs have been eliminated. Class sizes are growing once more. Massive staff layoffs are proposed. And the School Reform Commission has granted Ackerman the authority to suspend the union’s contract if they do not agree to the concessions she is demanding.
We don’t have to be on this path. It is possible to change the direction of school reform in our city. But in order to do so, we the professional educators who live the school life, must speak up for our right to be involved in deciding the future of our school district. Then we need to insist on the creation of a locally elected school board that will carry out the will of the people.
It is long past due that we return democratic governance to our schools.
Philadelphia is after all, the cradle of liberty for our nation. It is time to honor its tradition and declare our independence.