04 Nov


Submitted by Frank Murphy, Nov.4, 2010

“The result of a single high stakes test is how the federal and state government determine our success. Yet there isn’t one measure that can describe a school’s strengths or weaknesses.”

(Frank Murphy, in Confessions of an Urban Principal)

In order to support and empower schools that have been historically neglected and under resourced you need to provide supports that will help to strengthen a school’s community. The Department of Education proposes using one of the following controversial strategies to serve these schools: close the school; convert it to a charter school; make it a “turn-around” school ( i.e. remove the principal and at least half of the teaching staff); or remove the principal and provide intensive professional development to the teaching staff.  Except for the professional development model, these school reform options completely tear apart a school community.

In Philadelphia, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has passionately embraced both the charter school and turn-around models as her preferred reform strategies.  At the start of this school year, 13 schools that were deemed as failures by her administration were converted into either charter schools or turn-around schools that have been titled, Promise Academies.  This process of deconstructing public schools in order to create experimental models of school reform is the centerpiece of the Imagine 2014 plan that was created by Ackerman shortly after she assumed leadership of the school district.  More schools that are characterized as being failures will receive the same treatment in the 2011-2012 school year.

What does it mean to be a failing school?  In Philadelphia it is almost all about test scores.  The School Performance Index (SPI) was created by Ackerman in order to place district schools on a ranking continuum ranging from “failing” to “exemplary”.  This system relies heavily on PSSA test scores as it main criterion for grading individual schools.  Ackerman claims that a variety of factors are included in deciding a school’s status.  However, this is hardly the case.

In Philadelphia, school failure is defined almost totally on the results of a yearly-standardized test result. Minimum consideration (10% of the total score) is given to factors such as student attendance, parent, teacher and student satisfaction, and parent survey response rate.  The greatest weight (90% of the total score) is based on comparisons of either the increases or decreases of a school’s test scores from the prior to the current year.

This is a narrow perspective upon on which to judge the success or failure of a school.  It ignores the strengths of a school community that impact on student achievement and future success, such as the presence of a strong and effective principal, intelligent and diligent teachers, community partnerships, and the connectedness that student and parents feel towards their school.

West Philadelphia High School is a prime example of a school that possessed a great degree of social capital but was harmed rather than helped by the school reform efforts directed towards it.   Its staff was committed to and focused on the needs of its students.  Students were connected to their teachers and engaged in the activities of the school.  Only a few years ago arsons were common and assaults of teachers and students were rampant at this school.  Yet in a short period of only three years, seemingly intractable climate problems were resolved and the school staff was able to concentrate on strengthening the instructional program.

Despite these accomplishments, West Philadelphia High was identified for inclusion in the School District’s “Renaissance” reform initiative in February of 2010.  During the course of several months after being identified as a Renaissance-eligible school, the inept handling of this school reform process devastated West Philadelphia High School.   Many teachers opted to transfer to other schools when it became clear that a final decision on the fate of the school would not be determined before the deadline for submitting teacher transfer applications.  The recommendation of the School Advisory Counsel regarding which provider should manage the school was delayed.  Ultimately the decision regarding the fate of the school was postponed till the next year.  Then abruptly during the summer break, the principal was assigned to another school.  The reason given was that the test scores of West Philadelphia High School student’s were unacceptable and urgent changes were required.

Other schools that will be subjected to the same reform experiment that West Philadelphia was subjected to are primarily located in the most under resourced and disempowered communities of our society.  The poor test results of the students served by these schools can be attributed to a wide variety of factors.  Some of these variables are ones that a school can positively affect.  Many are not.

To fairly measure how well a school community is doing, calls for a much more comprehensive evaluation tool than the one being used now.  The information provided by the results of one annual standardized test is not sufficient to fairly determine the success or failure of any school.

  1. Otto

    December 25, 2010 at 1:19 pm

    Great blog it’s not often that I comment but I felt you deserve it.