March 13 — 1:55 pm, 2015

The many components that determine school quality

Education pundits often toss the phrase “high-quality schools” around like footballs. Soon everyone and their sister or brother uses it, from universities to the media. They jump on the bandwagon of “high-quality schools," as if such a term can be defined by numbers on a spreadsheet.

From my 25 years of experience, many things other than numbers determine a school’s quality. And those things must all be fulfilled before that phrase can even be put on the table.

First of all, quality should begin with the superintendent of schools. The superintendent should know the community. For too many years, Philadelphia has brought in swaggering schools chiefs who have taken aim at the programs of previous superintendents, introducing some shiny new plan delivered with the look and feel of a messianic proclamation.

Each administration brought new people to run the District, erasing institutional memory. Due to this lack of institutional memory, many of the so-called new programs, like farming out “struggling” schools to private organizations, have the odor of programs from years past.

With the pie in the sky, they expect all students to learn at a high level without providing the resources needed to counteract poverty’s deep-seated effects. This expectation is patently ridiculous, and we should doubt anyone who makes such a statement. 

The second thing needed for a good school is an effective principal. As the educational leader of the school, a principal can make or break the school — sometimes in a matter of weeks. I have seen this happen at Roxborough High School.

A principal with a sub-par track record at another school was rewarded with a promotion to our school. By October, the students were in charge of the school. Fights, stampedes, fires, and assaults — we had all of them. The incidents were blamed on the teachers, despite the fact that the staff was mostly the same as the previous year, when few to none of these things occurred.

It took a year and a half for the District to remove this principal. Meanwhile, between 2005 and 2008, our enrollment dropped from 1,500 to 600 as parents pulled their students from what had become a persistently violent school and headed for charter schools. This didn’t have to happen. It happened in our school and in other schools.

Sadly, incompetent principals are hardly an anomaly in our District. But complaints about poor leadership are somehow attributed to lazy and uncaring teachers, rather than a dearth of good leadership.

Thirdly, good schools need good teachers. I have seen bad teachers. Behind those bad teachers were bad principals, who did not spend the time it takes to train or discipline these teachers.

There are many myths about successful teachers. One is that young teachers are better than old teachers. In 25 years, I’ve seen few wonderfully talented first-year teachers. Because teaching is a craft, it takes several years for a teacher to bloom. Experience in any field, whether it’s teaching, nursing, or medicine, is something to be valued, not discouraged.

Lastly, the curriculum needs to remain stable. Past superintendents have forced educational programs onto students and teachers, seeking a silver bullet to cure all educational ills in a short time.

Some, like the "language experience" method of teaching, reading, and writing, left many students with great gaps that took years of remediation to fill. Others, like corrective math and reading, worked well with some special education students and failed with other students. Some helpful programs, like Read 180, didn’t seem to work fast enough and were dropped.

There are several realities in education. One is that teaching children is hard and dedicated work requiring the good will of all parties. The second is that there is no silver bullet, no program from on high, no one person or one idea that will quickly lift all children into the stratosphere of excellence. The third is that enough money wisely spent will improve educational outcomes. Suburban public schools and private schools are proof that quality never comes on the cheap.


Eileen M. DiFranco, R.N., is a certified school nurse who has proudly served the schoolchildren of Philadelphia for 23 years. She is a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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