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Teachers, not robots, create safe schools

By Frank Murphy on Jul 15, 2010 12:19 PM
Robots do not make effective teachers.

During my career as an elementary school principal, I have met with many parents. By far the most frequent topic of discussion during these meetings has been the parents' concern for the safety of their children during the course of the school day. I have always made it a point to quickly address the concerns of these parents. I understand that it is their right to expect that their children will be well taken care of when they are entrusted to our care.

As a principal, it was my responsibility to ensure that the overall environment of the school was calm and secure. To accomplish this, I established expectations, routines, and procedures for school safety including how children should:

  • enter and exit the school building,
  • move through the hallways,
  • use the restrooms,
  • eat in the lunchroom, and
  • play in the schoolyard.

I learned early on that doing this was only the beginning step in creating an excellent school climate. A much more important factor in creating a safe school was the establishment of a developmentally appropriate, purposeful, and engaging instructional environment for all students.

In the world of school, the real work of keeping students safe is the responsibility of the classroom teacher.

When every child is in a great classroom where his/her intellectual and emotional needs are met, the likelihood increases that all of the students in a school will feel productive and emotionally secure. Good teachers listen to what students communicate regarding their academic strengths and needs. Teachers then plan and implement a variety of diverse instructional activities that will serve every child in the classroom. In doing so, they create a safe learning environment, which reduces the likelihood that students will act out to mask possible feelings of embarrassment and frustration. It is the principal’s job to guide, mentor, and support teachers as they do this work.

One basic resource essential to this task is a well-thought-out and appropriately paced curriculum supported by a wide variety of high-quality instructional materials. 

A good curriculum guide provides a road map for teachers regarding developmentally appropriate skills and concepts on which to focus throughout the school year. The School District of Philadelphia currently has in place a core curriculum and pacing guide that has proven to be a valuable resource. It has certainly contributed to the District’s continuing success at improving test scores over the last eight years.

For the upcoming 2010-2011 school year, the Empowerment Schools will not be able to use this proven resource. Superintendent Ackerman intends to change the core literacy instructional program in these schools.

McGraw Hill recently announced through a press release that the School District of Philadelphia has adopted two of its core literacy programs, Imagine It! and Glencoe Literature, “for use by thousands of K-8 students in the city’s Empowerment Schools.” My understanding is that teachers who will be implementing these new programs will be required to read word-for-word everything they say to their students from a scripted teacher’s manual. They will not be expected to deviate from the program even when they see it is not addressing the needs of their students.

During this past school year, more than half of the literacy instructional block in Empowerment Schools was slated for the mandated use of the SRA Corrective Reading Program. Like Imagine It! and Glencoe Literature, Corrective Reading is a scripted and managed reading program. Now in addition to using the Corrective Reading program, the Empowerment Schools will be required to use these new core literacy programs. Ackerman was quoted in the press release, issued by McGraw-Hill as saying:

“We've found that our students in these (empowerment) schools respond best to a highly structured curriculum that provides explicit direction and sets clear expectations. By introducing McGraw-Hill's core literacy programs, we will build on our recent success and continue to enhance student achievement."

Ackerman offers no proof to support her assertion that rising test scores are evidence that the children in Empowerment Schools best respond to the types of scripted programs that she proposes for them. In fact, the data available concerning the performance of students in Empowerment Schools indicates that there is a wide range of differing needs and strengths among the students who attend these schools.

Perhaps a more prudent course of action would be to continue using programs and materials that enhance our teachers’ ability to effectively and strategically implement our current core instructional programs

A tremendous amount of professional development time has been devoted to supporting teachers in the use of these materials to differentiate instruction. Their utilization is heavily woven into the School District’s curriculum planning and pacing guidelines. The extensive investment of money on these materials and the large amount of teacher time spent on learning how to use them should not be so quickly disregarded. Considering the consistent and steady rise in District test scores over the last eight years, it only makes sense to continue to use those programs that are apparently working well, particularly in Empowerment Schools.

When you disempower teachers by taking away their ability to make strategic instructional decisions, you disregard the needs of children they are charged to teach.

Children need to be surrounded by strong, intelligent, and courageous adults in order to feel safe. A teacher who is reduced to being a robotic script reader will not fulfill this need. This is not an approach to school reform that will support student learning, nor will it help to create safe school environments.

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Comments (19)

Submitted by Betsy Wice (not verified) on July 19, 2010 10:11 am

Frank Murphy's article "Teachers, Not Robots, Create Safe Schools" gives us important new information as well as a strong warning about the harm in scripted curriculum.. Let's hope this news about the Empowerment Schools reaches the mainstream media.

Submitted by Anonymous on July 19, 2010 10:07 am

This is more evidence in how little confidence Ackerman has in teachers. She doesn't include them any discussion and isn't interested in feedback or comments. Anyone can read materials to the children. Once the district shifts to using scripted, word for word "instruction" (not to be confused with teaching) Ackerman can get rid of the teachers altogether. Maybe that's her plan.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on July 19, 2010 10:26 am

You are so right. She has little confidence in what we do. But, that is appropriate... to have confidence in what we do, she would have to see what we do in reality. visit our schools and meet our parents and students. How can she feel confident in what we do when she has not idea what we do?
Confidence in what we do would come hand in hand with respect for who we are. Another thing that is not htere.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 19, 2010 10:30 am

Here's more proof of how little Ackerman respects the knowledge and ability of her teachers. She doesn't include them in important discussions nor is she interested in their feedback or comments. Now she wants to eliminate them from teaching entirely.

Anyone can "instruct" children by reading scripted word-for-word material. Don't confuse that with teaching.

Once the district adopts this new system they can do away with teachers altogether. Maybe that's Ackerman's plan.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on July 19, 2010 10:30 am

This article shows that time on task is one major issue in keeping all our children safe. The more engaged they on in their own education, the less likely they are to be engaged in misbehaviors of any kind. Teachers who truly know their students and can alter the pace of a lesson and vary the activity levels in the room keep the children on task much more. This is vital in all classroom settings. The human brain needs difference, not rote repetition and I fear that is what these plans mean for my children. Thanks, Frank, for as usual hitting the nail on the head. Rote is not the way to go.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 19, 2010 4:43 pm

Here's another tidbit to munch on. Ackerman is saying that we must "teach from the script" and and not deviate from it, YET teachers are evaluated and rated (through classroom obsevrations) according to how well we "mx it up" and teach using various strategies. Teachers are evaluated on NOT teaching to the script and NOT using rote learning, yet . . .

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on July 20, 2010 9:02 am

The district and regions really do not know what they want--during a walkthrough of my empowerment school, I was observed by a district official deviating from the corrective reading script. In a meeting later, she said that it was good I did and that I was "extending the students' thinking"--SO, Ackerman says stick to it, but others (who may have more sense or actual teaching experience) say it is great when we do not. I say, do what you know in your mind and heart (and from experience) is best for your students.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on July 20, 2010 10:38 am

I guess, too that it matters who sees what. Deviation is a good thing educationally, but it does not help the programs' producers look good. So, when being observed, I think it pays to know who is doing the observation and why. If it is by an educator, then deviate away, because we all know that is what our children need. They need us to be assessing their understanding as we teach and moving forward with the supports.

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on July 20, 2010 3:01 pm

I think you are right, Meg. The person who was on the walkthrough team that observed me was a longtime educator BEFORE she went to 440. Unlike some others who were in the classroom for a very few years, she remembered what TEACHING really is. Other people downtown truly have NO conception..... So, it wise to know your observers.

Submitted by teacher in the trenches (not verified) on July 20, 2010 11:00 am

This is another great confusion. Differentiated instruction is key to growth and learning, yet, "Here you go. Teach from this script." Those new observation forms include input on our use of technology, yet none is possible with the scripted programs coming in now. Instruction is to be based on data and differentiated to meet the needs of the children through small group instruction, yet the program is whole group triggered by a snap. We all know that teaching includes minute by minute observations by the teacher and shifts in the lessons, dictated by the needs of the group, yet here's your clicker.
I have always said proudly that I am a teacher. Now it seems I need to start saying, "I am a trained monkey." Does not give me the same proud feeling.

Submitted by emmiles on July 20, 2010 1:35 pm

Speaking of tremendous amounts of money and time being invested in soon to be discarded curriculum/ assessment resources, does anyone know what happened to all of those palm pilots that teachers were given a few years back for administering Dibels. They were very costly and a lot of prof. development time was spent on them. I actually liked those, but my understanding is that they're not being used anymore - they weren't used in my child's class last year. Are they sitting in a closet somewhere?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2010 3:11 pm

The SRC and this District have spent so much money on administrators that those palm pilots were probably returned and sold back for $$$. By the way, the $850 million Rendell was expecting is not coming-----he is quoted as saying 20,000 layoffs in this state. Teachers look out!! I hope your union will fight till the bitter end to keep you from losing your jobs!!

Submitted by Alex (not verified) on July 20, 2010 5:30 pm

Well said Frank. I personally do not look forward to the idea of reading from a script or being tightly held to a rigid curriculum. One of the elements of teaching that I value the most is the freedom to move around within curriculum guidelines. A strong outline allows the teacher to find unique ways to reach individual and small groups of students. This has been the model that I have worked under for the past two years with much success. To replace this model of teaching which has worked in not only my school but in many other schools in our district with scripted whole class programs is very dangerous. Moving down this path may increase test scores in the short-term, but as we all know those test scores do not mean that children are actually learning important skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the ability to work both independently and cooperatively. What kinds of students are we creating though this use of scripted programs? What will happen when talented, smart, energetic, and dedicated educators become completely fed up with the lack of confidence our superintendent has in our abilities and leave the district like rats fleeing a sinking ship? I implore all teachers who work in the Philly public schools to become more vocal in demanding explanations for the use of scripted programs supported by actual data. Demand that Ackerman comes to visit your school to see the good that is happening first hand. I for one will be doing everything I can do continue using the good teaching practices I was shown in my first two years in the district. I hope all of you will do the same.

Submitted by OMG (not verified) on July 20, 2010 6:45 pm

The core curriculum for high school English is relatively new as it stands. Since 2002, each year of high school has gotten a new core curriculum. It takes years for a teacher to work the required materials into something interesting, to develop images, vocabulary, allusions that students will understand, to read and break down ALL those stories and poems and plays for effective delivery. Non-teachers maybe don't understand what it takes to plan good lessons, but it can be hours and hours of work! I don't begrudge it when legitimate - I teach English because I love it - , but why keep changing for no good reason? Carefully prepared lesson plans just keep getting richer as a teacher uses them year after year; if they don't work, you rethink them, try something else. You don't throw out the baby....

The current materials are not really the problem. Now the Empowerment school teachers must spend more of their own time trying to spin dross into gold. I do not believe these scripted programs deliver themselves. Teachers will have to work to bring them alive. Dumbing down the work for the Empowerment schools is not the answer; the children ARE NOT dumb. They know when they are being condescended to. Challenge them with difficult work and let them know you believe in their abilities! If they get 50% of it, it'll be more than they learn with these idiotic scripted messes that do nothing but put money in the hands of corrupt 'educational' publishing companies.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on July 21, 2010 11:40 am

You are so right. Our children are not dumb. They will find ways to challenge their own minds if we are not doing it. A program that is totally scripted with no room for teacher modifications is not going to hold their interests. Shoving these programs into any schools will increase the frustration levels and that has to increase behavior issues.
This is a mistake we are going to pay for physically. Read Frank's blog... he's right. If we do not keep the children challenged, engaged and learning, they will find ways to do this on their own.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on July 20, 2010 8:10 pm

Ok, everyone, when I snap say "duh"

Submitted by Renaissanced (not verified) on July 20, 2010 8:52 pm


Submitted by Phillyteachertalks (not verified) on July 21, 2010 5:33 pm

I have used scripted material in the extended day program. It was poorly made and riddled with errors. Scripting lesson plans will keep highly effective teachers away from the schools that need them the most. The last thing a creative, energetic, and engaging teacher wants to do is read a script. I have not seen this new curriculum, but if it is scripted I feel that this is another injustice that students in "failing" schools must suffer through.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on July 22, 2010 5:33 am

You are right. Reading a scripted program is insulting and goes against the grain. I am sure lots of powerful and engaging teachers are running from the sites where this is being pushed. It is sad for our students.

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