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Stand united: An appeal to commenters

I have been troubled by the negative tone of several comments posted in response to Notebook articles over the last few months. Anonymous posters have increasingly engaged in highly critical and often sharply worded personal attacks on individual Philadelphia School District employees and union personnel. Though I can understand the depth of emotion that motivates people to make such remarks, I do not support this course of action.

Over the last 10 years, school staff in Philadelphia have increasingly felt pressured by District leaders to act in a manner that borders on professional malpractice. Teachers have been forced to spend an inordinate amount of instructional time on test preparation, and they have been expected to use instructional materials that are inappropriate for their students. Even more troubling, in a growing number of schools, teachers have been required to “do whatever it takes” to increase student test scores by principals who confuse intimidation with leadership. 

In the face of such obstacles, it is no wonder that teachers are frustrated and angry. I, too, have felt the wrath of vindictive leaders, and, frankly, it has left me with a bad taste. But ventilating these feelings through scathing and anonymous remarks does us all a disservice. Personal attacks on specific District leaders, personnel, and union staffers can be, and often are, interpreted by the broader public as the rants of disaffected employees who are averse to the concept of being held accountable. 

It is the bad ideas of leaders that we must debunk. Focusing on individuals' hypocrisy and lack of character is a distraction. Doing so contributes to the chaos or “churn” that Eli Broad and other free market reformers like to create in public school systems across the nation. In my view, the main focus of our commentary must be on informing one another and our community about the issues affecting the local democratic control of our school district.

Powerfully connected and well-financed individuals and groups often influence what the mass media choose to focus on. This seems to be particularly true in education, where just a handful of wealthy people -- such as Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Betsy DeVos, and the Koch brothers -- have tremendously influenced governance and policy at the national, state, and local levels. It is far from easy for ordinary people to have their views and concerns heard over the amplified voices of the rich and well-connected.

Our opportunities to communicate our views about the governance of our nation’s schools are limited. Teachers are rarely included on the committees that are appointed to plot the future of public schools. When we have a chance to speak in public forums, our arguments should be measured, tempered, and centered on analyzing the merits of the strategies and ideas offered by school reformers.

In the days and months ahead, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission will act on a number of important issues: Closing schools, resolving a crippling budget crisis, determining whether to continue with the Renaissance School strategy, managing charter school growth, and negotiating a new teacher contract are all items on their to-do list. Teachers, parents, educational activists, and students will seek to have their say. But engaging in personal attacks and making snarky remarks while presenting their positions will be counterproductive, playing into the hands of the those who pursue a divide-and-conquer strategy to force their will on the majority.

Those of us who actually run schools and conduct the day-to-day work of educating children have to present a united front as we strive to preserve and promote a public school system that is well-funded, open to all children, and provides a superior education. It's about time for us to create a discourse that respects individual differences while striving to find common ground. I have great hope that we can speak in one united and reasonable voice concerning the fate of our public school system. I envision that this voice will consistently articulate, with fidelity, the values and principles of our democratic society.

Frank Murphy is the former principal of Gen. George G. Meade Elementary in North Philadelphia and served as an educator for over 35 years. Currently, he is working as a distributed leadership coach for the Penn Leadership Center. He blogs at City School Stories.

The opinions expressed in this post are solely the opinions of the author. 

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Comments (65)

Submitted by SOS 60 on November 27, 2012 5:36 pm
Thank you, Frank, for your reasoned and fair call to clear and thoughtful discourse.
Submitted by Jonathon S. (not verified) on November 27, 2012 6:07 pm
I have been troubled by the negative tone of most people here with regard to charter schools. As a parent of two students in a wonderful school, I am shocked that most of the commenters fail to see the reason that I and the parents of over 50,000 students have CHOSEN to send our kids to a charter. It's a better choice for us and many others.
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on November 27, 2012 6:58 pm
I would like to know why you chose charters for your children. Are you children K-8 or high school? What about the charter do you find more appealing than District public schools? What do District schools need to do to be more attractive to parents? I'm honesty curious. There are good charters and good District schools. There are also lousy charters and lousy District schools. I realize your neighborhood District school may not meet your needs but charters are up the lucky of a lottery. Some Philadelphia charters also have a history of nepotism and corruption. Granted, this is Phila. a city known for nepotism and corruption. (Yes, there are many District administrators who have their position because of nepotism.) I'm also concerned that Charter teachers lack due process protection and are often paid less than District teachers. If District teachers salaries/benefits decrease, Charter teachers will have it worse. So, I'd appreciate honest answers to my questions.
Submitted by Glad I live in Philadelphia! (not verified) on November 28, 2012 8:04 am
I have three children currently attending Mast 1st, 2nd and 4th grades, they all started in grade K and will go to12th, (One more will start K in two years).... I have worked for the district since 1992 and am still currently employed. I chose the charter school route because of its High graduation rate and collage entry, also the fact that my children would grow up in the same environment until they went to collage was very appealing. As a former student and graduate of the Philadelphia School system I moved from K-5 elmentary then off to Middle school 6-8 then to High school 9-12 these changes can be very difficult for some students. Parents may live in a great Elementary school catchment area then the Middle school they are forced to attend may not be as good and vice versa! So far my children have scored way above average on the pssa exams. They have a big buddy program where the older kids mentor the little ones. I am very pleased that I was a lucky winner in Mast's lottery in 2006. If it were up to me I would start over with the entire Public system make all area schools K-12, but I guess that's not feasible, and also not up to me.
Submitted by Annonym. (not verified) on November 28, 2012 1:46 pm
MAST is a predominantly (over 80%) white school in a city that is much more ethnically diverse.
Submitted by Glad I live in Philadelphia! (not verified) on November 28, 2012 2:18 pm
My neighborhood school is 64.6% white, but I still chose MAST because it went from K-12 not because the children were of a certain race! Twenty students from my sons class were invited to his 7th birthday party, ten of my sons classmates who attended his birthday party were either African American or Latino. All children have the ability to do well in any school if given the opportunity. I feel Mast has a great structure for their students to succeed. .
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 8:04 pm
Legitimate question: are you at all concerned with a lack of diversity compared to when your children go to college? I obviously don't know what ther lives are like outside of school but I would be worried about the transition to college being far more difficult bc of never having had a different setting or mixture of beliefs.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 10:05 pm
She just said that 10 of his friends from school at his party were black or Hispanic. You people like to imagine your own reality. Seriously, "...transition to college?" How about his chances of getting into a good college? WAY better going to that school!!
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 11:46 pm
Transition to college is a big deal. I don't know why you seem to think it is such an outrageous question, but being in the same school for 13 years, then suddenly having immense freedom in a totally new environment strikes me as being a possible concern. It doesn't matter what college you get in to if you can't handle the transition and flunk out. I'm not sure what you mean by "you people," so I am just going to assume you mean freakin' awesome people, so thank you for the compliment.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 29, 2012 7:14 pm
Glad I live in Philadelphia!, I agree that the transition from elementary to middle school can be difficult. I really like K-8 schools. I attended a Catholic K-8 school as a child. However, high school is very different. Some children benefit from vocational programs. Other children are in special education. (How many special education student are at MaST?) A transition from elementary school to high school to college is a logical transition. (In terms of making schools K-12, this would be a logistical nightmare. Most school buildings could not accommodate that may students and/or grades.) What about having more schools like MaST available for more students? A problem is that MaST is located in the Far Northeast, putting it out of reach for many students because the Far Northeast does not have very good SEPTA service. Many of the top notch charter schools are in Center City, South Philly, NW, and NE Philadelphia, all more affluent areas of the city. What about putting a school like MaST in the inner city? It's great that you are happy with MaST, but how about making a school like that available to more kids in more areas of the city? It's not just about who wins the lottery. It's also about who can access a school. Without school buses, charters like MaST are out of reach for many students and for younger kids, parents may not be comfortable having them spend an hour or more on SEPTA. EGS
Submitted by Glad I live in Philadelphia! (not verified) on November 30, 2012 7:16 am
Mast is available to any child in Philadelphia the students are yellow bused from 1st to 8th grade and Septa comes directly to the school for the high school students. When my oldest son was in Kindergarten I was working at D and Allegheny I dropped my three children at 5:30am to the sitter by my work and she in turn drove him to Mast by 8:20am I then paid the school for after care (they also offer before care) and picked him up when I finished work, I did the same for my second son then I moved my position and was able to pick my daughter up on time without having to pay for after care. When we want to do the best for our children we sometimes have to make it happen anyway we can. The State does not consider Kindergarten mandatory so no buses are provided. As far as special ed goes I'm not sure what the ratio is but I had my daughter tested last year for an IEP because she is on the younger side and I and her teacher noticed that she wasn't making as good of progress as we has expected. She tested well so doesn't require an IEP however she does go with a special teacher for an hour a day for extra help with her reading. Mast wanted to open another school in Philadelphia and was denied approval. They are now seeking approval for a new location in Bensalem.
Submitted by Glad I live in Philadelphia! (not verified) on November 30, 2012 8:41 am
Also as parents we must take responsibility for our childrens education. You can't blame a students achievement on their school alone. I sit at the table everyday going over their homework with them reading and helping them study, I cart them to piano lessons, karate classes and dance all at my local playground. My husband works late so it's left to me most of the time to take care of my four young children (9,8,6,3) until bed time. My youngest goes to a pre-k program in public school (I am very happy with this public school also) which is available to parents of Lower income which as a school district employee for 20yrs I quailfy for. (I am not a teacher not PFT) At the small elementary school I work at about 22 teachers in all, three teachers send their own children to charter schools, so what does that tell you about how PFT members think of their own.
Submitted by Glad I live in Philadelphia! (not verified) on November 30, 2012 8:21 am
When I went to my local High School I took Septa and was on the bus for 45min to an hour and that was our catchment area my parents didn't have a choice they couldn't afford catholic or private school so that was my only option.
Submitted by Mister Tibbs (not verified) on November 27, 2012 5:32 pm
Well said, Frank. Thank you for reminding us that together we stand, but divided we fall. Even when we disagree we must engage as professionals in sensible and respectful discourse.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 5:45 pm
If Frank had to undergo the abuse that the school administration dumps on its teaching staff he might understand why we are so angry. We have seen those in charge continually get caught in the act only to be let go by others who are afraid they will be snitched upon if they punish the guilty. As a result nothing changes. All teachers have gotten is more and more work from a clueless administration that refuses to EVER listen to us. Look at how they dump their attendance work back onto the teachers with the RTII scam. Not to mention that special ed. students are being dumped into main stream classrooms with no extra support because the district refuses to spend the money it should on them. Hanging over this is the prospect of wage reduction in one of the poorest paying school districts in the state. Meanwhile we watch 25 of the higher ups being given a pay raise while we are paying out of our own pockets for things that district pretends they are buying the students. Only a fool would NOT be angry at this point.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 6:48 pm
Everyone should be angry. The question is: what do you do with your anger? Do you make personal attacks against individuals or do you join with those who are fighting against union-busting, school closings, and corporate takeovers? There are a number of parent and community organizations who are working to stop the dismantling of the public school system. PCAPS is a coalition of community groups fighting school closures. Parents United for Public Education, Helen Gym's organization, has been out there for years on all of these issues. Get in touch with one of these organizations. Help to organize those you work with to go to the SRC meetings and speak out. We have to work together. Don't let them divide and conquer us. Lisa Haver
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 9:35 pm
Lisa--The elephant in the room is the PFT which has done very little to support the real schools. Any PFT Member who can't see it, isn't looking.
Submitted by Angel Cruz and Elaine Goetz (not verified) on November 27, 2012 6:29 pm
What say you all about teachers and principals of Vanguard schools altering grades to cover up their wrong-doing and meet criteria for Title I funding and Imagine 2014 Plan- which requires improvement among student grades? What say you all about Vanguard status Principal's violating civil and parental rights to achieve these goals? My son and I are victims to both the above-mentioned problems - from Valedictiorian student to an F student in 30 days in a Vanguard school -parental exclusion by administration and staff alike brought my son to his failings. What say I? - saddened and sickened -absolutely disgraceful - our society is collapsing around us and the SDP is supporting all the above. Please contact me via email if you have any interest in discussing these issues or if you can help me to find resolution.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 8:51 pm
Well said. I have also been troubled by the tone of many of the posters on here. It seems we have lost sight of the goal; Namely, to educate the children as best we can given the resources we have available. The constant attacks against charter schools are getting tiresome. We need to have an open discourse, with respect, as to how to move forward. As far as I see we all agree on this: 1: The system is broken. 2: The system needs to be fixed. To that end, I offer this: One poster on here recently suggested that charters be runned and owned by teachers. I think that is a great idea. They could be set up as ESOPS, where each teacher has an ownership interest in the school. The teachers could elect their principals and other leadership as they see fit. They could also participate in rating each other for purposes of bonuses. Instead of a union ranting about how unfair the business is, why not just own it yourselves? I don't think you guys would have any trouble getting the financing to start this type of operation. Personally, I work for an ESOP in private industry. My company is owned by the employees. We have it set up so that none of the "leadership" gets their bonuses until after we get ours. If we don't makea profit, we don't get bonuses, and neither does the leadership. We elect our leadership. We fire incompetent employees and bonus the ones who work their tail off and contribute. It's not as hard as you might think in figuring that out. I don't see any turning back with these charter schools, so why don't you guys go and own them? Thoughts?
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 10:33 pm
LOVE IT! I'm in!
Submitted by HS teach (not verified) on November 28, 2012 6:33 am
I had the same idea when I drove around my neighborhood covered in "Support SB1" signs. I thought to myself: Why fight them, when we could join them, but do it our own way. Then I listened to Gar Alperovitz "America beyond capitalism" on youtube. He argues that workers' coops is the only way to have a true democracy in this country. I love the idea, and I looked into charter process. It's not easy. Also I am not a leader. We need teachers-leaders to pull this out. If there are any out there, I would love to join.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2012 11:37 am
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. You guys are 10,000 strong. You have leverage. You go to the union and tell them you are tired of them looking out for themselves, and not for you. Then you go to the banks and you tell them you want financing for a few charter schools as ESOPS owned by the teachers and in return you will consider them for your retirement, investment and bank accounts. Then you go to the court of public opinion. Tell the parents what you are trying to accomplish for the kids.You want to wipe out all this administration and beuracracy that takes away money to educate the children. Then you go back to the banks and say you want financing for a few more charters or you'll pulling your money (the existing financing is already in place and agreed by contract). Then you go to the politicians. I would love to see any of them get in the way of this. They won't. You guys should go for it. You can do it. I think you would feel so much more empowered. You would probably make twice as much in take home pay as well, which doesn't hurt. But the kids would have a much better, more efficient system to learn. Those are my thoughts.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 28, 2012 8:59 am
I read your comment with a smile. Interestingly, the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a Gates funded think tank, put out a book in 2007 called Tough Choices Tough Times. They proposed that schools of the future be limited liability corporations (LLC's) run by teachers who are the stockholders and who have complete control over every aspect of the school. They foresaw teachers averaging $110,000.00 per year in salary. That model would make the teachers the owners of the schools. I would of course, prefer a model where the parents of a school also have actual power in the governance structure of the school along with the teachers. That would keep the schools as public schools and be more based on ideals of democracy. There are governance models which allow for any governance structure we can imagine. But presently in Philadelphia the only model being supported by the SRC is the "charter operator model" which is the least democratic model and the most privatized model of them all. The charter operator model is the "schools as a privately owned business" model. No matter how you twist it, the essential question of school governance is and always will be, Whose School Is it?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 8:23 am
I am curious why a group of teachers couldn't get together and propose a charter under the current rules. Is it a lack of funding available? Aren't there any groups to help with the start-up funding (Don't Gates and the other pro-charter foundations help?) Is it the bureaucracy/ state requirements (they don't seem too tight based on how many schools there are)? Another reason. Teachers as owners would find it in their interest to involve parents in governance and decision making.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 8:46 am
They can, although in Philadelphia there is a moratorium on brick and mortar charter school applications. That is why four blended cyber/charters opened up this year. They can bypass the SRC and apply directly to the state while targeting and marketing to Philadelphia. The PA Coalition of Public Charter Schools offers workshops on how to apply for a charter in PA. The secretary of education suggested the Philadelphia moratorium may be lifted in the near future.
Submitted by Education Grad Student (not verified) on November 29, 2012 10:24 pm
Since when is there a moratorium on brick and mortar charters in Philadelphia? I have never heard about this and I keep close tabs on school issues.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2012 11:31 pm
There has been a moratorium for new brick and mortar charters for over two years now. Only expansions and conversions of public to already operating charters. But as I stated, at the PA Charter School Convention in October, the Secretary of Education suggested that may be lifted in the near future. Any new applications for next year would have had to be submitted by Nov. 15 according to Charter Law, October 1 for cyber. Just a reminder any application with a cyber component goes directly to the state for approval.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 30, 2012 7:34 am
Hi EGS: There have been no new true charter schools opened in years in Philadelphia. The SRC has only used the "charter operator model" which turns schools over to "charter operators." They are not really charter schools because they are operated by separate privately organized non-profits. For a school to be a true charter school it must have its own board of trustees. Mastery can claim their schools are true charter schools because Mastery was originally opened as a charter school and has expanded into a network of schools. I had that conversation with Scott when I visited Mastery Smedley. He said to me that Mastery schools all have their own separate boards of trustees. String Theory, which was given another school to operate, was originally started as a true charter school, but I would suspect that they have only one board of trustees. There was a court decision I believe which allowed Chester Community Charter School to have more than one campus so that would apply to all charter schools. The charter operator model is really a "contract out" model. But it is really a different legal animal than a charter school under the Charter School Law. Great stuff for lawyers to argue over! And great stuff to cloud the privatization of the American schoolhouse. But no, the SRC has not started new charter schools at all. They have just allowed the chosen few to expand.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2012 9:55 am
I'd love to see the Board of Trustee for EACH Mastery, Universal, Aspira, String Theory, First Phila. Charter School for Literacy, KIPP, etc. Who do they represent? Who has the REAL power?
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 30, 2012 9:21 am
Yes, you are correct. How the board of trustees, as stated in the Charter School Law, is "appointed or elected" is a crucial factor which has eluded our public conversation.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2012 10:22 am
The process for appointment or election of Charter School Board members has to be included within the original charter school application. While each one may vary as to procedure, they all must follow the components of the sunshine laws. This crucial area of governance and compliance is rarely given more then cursory oversight. In one of the last SRC meetings parents from a charter school up for renewal and undergoing criminal investigation begged the SRC to provide oversight and intervene. Dr. Prichett told them the SRC responsibilities did not extend to Charter School governance. Many charter schools have a parent representative on the board but they may or may not be voting members.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 30, 2012 11:02 am
I reviewed the charter school documents of all of the charter schools when I researched for my book. None of the charter schools have the majority of their boards elected. None of the charter school boards of trustees had a majority of their trustees parents. The question then is who appoints them? There are only two ways possible. (1) the founder (usually the CEO) or, (2) The board of trustees selects new members. Eiither way, the essential question always comes down to, "Whose School Is It?" Answer me this question? Who owns charter schools?
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 27, 2012 10:07 pm
Thanks for this very sensible article, Frank. As someone who believes teachers are unfairly scapegoated for the problems of an unfunded and dysfunctional school system, it's that much harder to defend teachers when some show such poor judgement on this blog. Sometimes I shudder to think what real enemies of public education would think if they read the the comments posted by some teachers here.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 3:52 am
i believe i suggested the idea of district teachers starting their own charters. you would immediately relieved of oppressive management and ineffective union representation. if you're truly "in it for the kids" that's the way to go.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 9:40 am
If you are not politically connected or promising the SRC or someone who grants charters, you will not get one. Unless you are ready to hire who they want you to hire for granting you a charter, you will not be approved. What needs to be fixed is who grants charters. What needs to be fixed is who gets promoted in SDOP. If your position is slated to be eliminated and then all of a sudden they create a position for you at 50% more than you were making prior, something is wrong. When custodial is giving back sick days, personal days and taking a pay cut JUST TO HAVE A JOB and then 28 people get raises ranging from 17% to 49%, something is wrong. People have a right to be angry. If they are singeling someone out because of what they go away with, good for them. The comment about the PFT is correct. They do nothing. I feel like I should just open a window and throw my dues out of it. Until the district is fixed anger is going to fester and someday it is going to explode. Then it will be truly ugly.
Submitted by Poogie (not verified) on November 28, 2012 6:42 am
The tone of messages is the result of an organization which throws teachers and anyone else working for children under the bus the minute it suits it. While at the same time promoting people who disrespect teachers and are not that competent. If the school district administrators spent less time protecting their fiefs and some time solving problems there might be constructive comments. But since the administrators do not allow the kind of comments that successful organizations encourage; the only thing that comes out in forums like this is venom. Most of it very very true.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 7:27 am
Which is why it is a dead, failing bureaucracy. Stop trying to ask for reasonable solutions. It's broke and dysfunctional. It bugs me when people say "Just give us the same resources as charters." It can't, won't, and never will.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 28, 2012 1:36 pm
Most dysfunctional organization I have ever seen. Educational administrators are only interested in protecting their power and prestige from perceived threats and slights. They would not last 10 minutes in a real for profit company. Yet they get to lord over teachers.
Submitted by Dina (not verified) on November 28, 2012 10:57 am
I spent years being "abused" by the District in ways that writers have enumerated here. But let's be the grown-ups and the professionals here. Personal attacks are completely inappropriate, and I thank you, Frank, for pointing this out. I heartily agree.
Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on November 29, 2012 9:41 am
I certainly agree with Frank and Dina above. Most of us who have held ourselves out as collaborative leaders in the School District of Philadelphia have faced adversity and injustice at some point in our career. It is how we handle it that is the test of our character. I, as you all know by now, choose to take the path of positivity and collegiality and work for a better school system and better school community through the due processes of democracy which include the right of us all to speak up and participate in the governance of our public schools. I do so because what I have learned over my 37 years experience as a teacher and school leader is that the vast majority of colleagues, parents and students I have had the Great fortune to work with elbow to elbow over the years are "really great people" and I believe in the community of us all. The common denominator of all Great schools is in the community of those who work and live within those communities. If we are ever to have a Great school system for our children and for all of us who choose to make teaching and learning our profession and our lives, we need to rebuild our sense of community. The rebuilding of our sense of community is the Great Challenge for Dr. Hite and the SRC commissioners. At the same time, I must point out that the vitriol which emerges on this site, is a symptom of the "unhealthy organization" that the School District has become and the "toxic climate" which has been caused by the negative leadership we have had to endure over the last decade. Yes, the district has become dysfunctional, that is what happens when a school district is run by a test and punish mentality and management by threat and intimidation. The reform which is most needed within the district is a return to professionalism, credibility and collegiality. I, too, am disgusted with what I have witnessed our school district become, but understand that the only way to change it is through positive leadership and the emergence of a new generation of outstanding and dedicated school leaders. Those leaders are emerging. But at the same time we do have to speak the truth in all of this and sometimes that must be passionate and biting. I can't help but often agree with Joe and certainly Poogie above.
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