Reflections: Then and Now
Submitted by Frank Murphy on July 19, 2011
In light of cheating scandals in Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles, Houston, and now Philadelphia, it is a good time to reexamine the school reform tactics of one of Paul Vallas’ chief aides during his tenure as CEO of the Philadelphia. In Confessions of an Urban Principal I refer to this administrator as “Deputy Slide”. I bestowed this title upon her after listening to the advice she offered regarding how to achieve the AYP goal for my school.
She explained to me that she and Paul wanted to see a significant increase in the number of schools in the District that would make AYP. In order to do so, she said that she would take AYP any way she could get it.
The conversation I had with Deputy Slide was instructive. Before meeting with her I had suspected that the test results of some schools in the district had been manipulated. After our conversation, I was sure that my suspicions were well founded.
I didn’t appreciate this administrator’s attempt to pressure me in to engaging in unethical behavior. The frank manner in which she expressed her views took me back. At the time, I thought my encounter with Deputy Slide was an unusual event.
Now I can reasonably speculate that there are many Deputy Slides who are in positions of power in our nation’s school districts. I wonder how many educators they have pressured to deliver AYP in any manner they could?
Confessions of an Urban Principal: The AYP Electric Slide
by Frank Murphy
Installment (6 of 9)
One of Mr.Vallas’s chief deputies visited our school today. John had invited her. When he first told me of this invitation, John said, “We will ask her for suggestions on how to succeed at meeting our AYP goal. I’m sure she can offer us some good suggestions. Besides it wouldn’t hurt, if she decides to take a personal interest in Meade.”
This central office bureaucrat planned on being at the school for a total of two hours. Ellen, Pat and I carefully prepared an itinerary for her visit. Our plan was to provide her with an opportunity to experience a comprehensive overview of our school community. We wanted her to recognize the strengths of our instructional program. Additionally we thought it was vital for her to witness our challenges. The first hour and a half of the schedule was designated for classroom visits. The last half hour was reserved for a debriefing session.
She was late arriving at the school. When she finally did appear we engaged in hasty introductions before we prepared to start the walk-through of the classrooms. Just as we were about to leave my office, several parents appeared at the front counter. They demanded to speak to the principal. The team went on without me. Their first stop was in a first grade classroom.
The teacher in this room is a highly effective and experienced instructor. Teachers from other schools in the district regularly observe in her room. We thought that by starting on a high note we would set a positive tone for the entire visit.
Pat told me later in the day that the Deputy Superintendent had exhibited the signs of suffering an attention deficit disorder during this classroom visit. Her first impression of the Deputy was quickly confirmed. In the hallway the group briefly discussed what they had seen in this teacher’s room. The Deputy Superintendent was the first to make a comment.
“ It looked like she was doing a good job but I didn’t understand what her lesson objective was.”
Pat related to me that the teacher had clearly stated the objective of the lesson.
“The Deputy probably missed what was said because she was too distracted by the conversation she was having with her aides.”
Next the team visited with one of our second grade teachers. By this time I had caught back up with the group. This was a new teacher. She was working out well. The Deputy again engaged in a conversation with a member of our team during this observation. Though she was distracted during this classroom visit, she still had a comment.
“All of the children weren’t involved in the lesson.”
Next she saw a fourth grade classroom. This teacher did an excellent job of instructing her students. We went on to visit a fifth grade teacher and then an eighth grade teacher. These two teachers though experienced were new to their current grade level. They were still figuring out the best way to engage their students in instructional activities that they too were working to master.
The classrooms she visited were well organized. They were filled with books, children’s work, and many other instructionally interesting and relevant materials. The teachers she saw were all working well with small groups of students. The other children in the classroom were productively engaged in independent learning activities. The students with few exceptions were focused and on task.
She didn’t indicate that she had noticed the many effective instructional practices that were taking place in our school. Instead our visitor made a stream of negative comments after each observation.
“I saw a child playing with a piece of paper in the back of the room. There were children talking in that room.”
The inappropriate behaviors that she observed were the acts of a few random children. This off task behavior occurred mainly when the teachers were giving information or directions to the whole class. As the teachers observed a child misbehaving they immediately redirected the student.
The deputy made it clear to me through her behavior that she was a nitpicker. I quickly regretted that we had invited her to our school.
During the debriefing session that followed this walk-through, I described to the Deputy the problems our team had identified in our action plan. I presented a detailed review of our students’ achievement data. She appeared to listen to my presentation.
“One hundred and seven students were in our second grade class in 2001-2002. Three years later, only thirty-two of them are still enrolled in our fifth grade class. In fourth grade only thirty of the eighty-two students who started with us in first grade are still here. In eighth grade twenty-two out of the ninety-eight kids who attended Meade in first grade remain. The student turnover we experience is extreme. It is a wonder that we have been able to make the progress that we have.”
When I finished she acknowledged that our high student turnover is a problem. She also recognized that it is hard for teachers to provide rigorous and proficient instruction when they have been in a grade level for only one or two years. The Deputy went on to identify other roadblocks that our teachers face as they work to create an effective and consistent instructional program.
“I know what a high poverty community Meade is. You have lots of problems: high student discipline referrals, very difficult parents, and neighborhood problems. We all know that these things make it hard for a school.”
When I heard her make these remarks, I felt good. I started to think that inviting her to visit wasn’t a bad idea after all. She quickly proved me wrong.
Her next remark stunned me.
“People are wondering, Frank, why you haven’t made AYP yet. With all the support you received from the district, it should have happened by now.”
I had to take a second to compose myself.
“I don’t understand what you mean. What are the additional supports that the district gives to us? The extra services that we do receive come from the Temple Partnership Office. This association provides us with a full time coach who works with our teachers. There are more books and literacy materials available as a result of this relationship. These certainly are added advantages. The Temple Partnership is a great help. We are grateful.
But we don’t benefit from the resources that district managed schools receive. An assistant principal or a climate coordinator hasn’t been assigned to our school.”
“Well, you get the Title I money.”
“The Title I money we have received for the last five years has gone towards hiring additional teachers in order to reduce class size. This is why we have class sizes of twenty students or less. This year there was only eight thousand dollars available for books and supplies after the salaries of these supplemental teachers were deducted from our budget.”
She ignored my remarks. Instead she stated her expectation.
“ During the summer, Vallas asked me to tell him how many schools I expected would make AYP this year. He wants more than last year. I told him that we would have more. We will. I will take AYP anyway I can get it.
So Frank, are you going to make AYP this year?”
I stared at her. Her message was clear: I don’t want to hear about problems, just give me AYP.
After a few seconds of awkward silence Pat responded for me.
“Of course we will.”
Pat’s reply cut through the tension that hung in the air. I was grateful. If I had responded there would have been a scene.
John addressed the Deputy Superintendent.
“What suggestions do you have for us?”
She replied. “Well here is what I did when I was a principal. People said I was nuts, but it worked. I made up a PSSA chant and we would sing it to the music from the Electric Slide. Every morning in the yard, we would do the Electric Slide and sing our chant. It helped the children to understand how important the test was. On rainy days, I would do the cheer over the PA system. It really works.”
I was silent. What could I say after listening to her little pearl of wisdom? To myself I thought yeah, this is the secret to success. We will Electric Slide our way to higher PSSA test scores.
Later after dismissal, I tried to relax by reading the latest edition of Education Week. The headline of the lead article caught my eye, “Texas Takes Aim at Tainted Testing Program.”
The story reported a potential cheating scandal in Texas. The Dallas Morning News had done an analysis of the test scores results for of all Texas’ schools. The results of this study indicated that the scores of as many as four hundred schools in the state were suspect. This study identified unlikely leaps in school scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge from one year to the next. It also looked at schools where students were unable to maintain high levels of achievement as they advanced in school.
Were these schools making AYP anyway they could? Perhaps they had created their own Electric Slide chant. According to the Deputy, when you have a good Electric Slide, you can do anything.