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The many components that determine school quality

By Eileen DiFranco on Mar 13, 2015 01:55 PM

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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Comments (21)

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on March 13, 2015 3:54 pm

Well stated, Eileen.

Thank you for adding clarity, again.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 13, 2015 4:29 pm

A professionally sound and appropriate evaluation of a school requires that all factors of successful schooling be evaluated and added into the rubric. No school can be properly evaluated on test scores alone.

What we need most of all is a "comprehensive school evaluation process." That should include multiple visits to the school and confidential conversations with teachers, parents, students (when appropriate) and the leadership team of the school. That process should cover all of the elements of successful schools.

Then, a "needs assessment" should be done.

Finally, those needs should be met and fulfilled.

Since we foresee having some new found money for our astudents, the first priority should be restoring staffing and supplies to all schools to professional standards.

The problem is, I do not think that the district has such a process. Why not?

Submitted by anon (not verified) on March 13, 2015 8:11 pm

"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.

beautifully stated.  it is to their discredit that the people who make policy cannot see the simple truth behind these words, but would instead prefer to throw money at whatever shyster comes down the path spouting their empty promises.

Submitted by Diane Payne (not verified) on March 13, 2015 10:30 pm

Great article.  It has been such a frustrating and futile process to bring in a new superintendent (from somewhere else) and start all over again with the renaming, reorganizing, relabling, and restructring of everything all over again.  Time, money, and resources all spent to add to meaningless change and confusion.  Not to mention that at the end of the day schools can really only do so much to overcome the affects of poverty...our city, state and national policies on quality of life issues like jobs, housing, health care, nutriition, crime, etc. all have to dovetail with our educational efforts to really make a difference.


Submitted by Lisa Haver on March 13, 2015 10:46 pm


Can I ask you a favor--as a friend?  Please do not ever mention Corrective Math again.  Pertty sure it was the worst thing I have ever had to inflict on my students.  

Submitted by Exposing the Lie (not verified) on March 14, 2015 4:03 pm

There is a deliberate campaign to drive public schools into the charters' arms. This starts by putting inexperienced principals into the public schools and driving out the staff that has held these schools together. Without supplies, key personnel, security until the numbers drop then blame the problem on the teachers. The graduates of Broad Academy are doing this as we speak. Parents need to realize that teachers have little say in what is going on in our schools. 

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 14, 2015 7:22 pm

That is the purpose of the "rhetoric of failure" -- to justify the turning over of more schools to private entities known as charter operators. Read closely Action Plan 3.0. There is no plan to restore services and staff to the regular pubic schools or to support their success. Nor is there any talk about how to support the "stand alone charter schools." The "networks" being talked about are the "renaissance charter schools." While it was clear that the district cannot afford new charter schools, "The Plan" is still to create more charter schools through the renaissance charter process. The term "achievement networks" was part and parcel of the Boston Consulting Group's plan to privatize public schools. It is part and parcel of the playbook of Eli broad, ALEC, Students First, the Commonwealth Foundation, and of course, PSP, etc.

If you notice no one in the district or the SRC is answering the question, "How are we going to make every school a Great place for all children to learn and grow?

There is no talk of, "A Great public school in every neighborhood."

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 15, 2015 7:09 am

The same thing is happening in the charter school world.  Community charters are being turned over to larger corporations.  In York, were any community groups in York tapped to develop charters?  

The Broads of the world have hijacked the charter school program to hide privatization and take over.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 15, 2015 10:22 am

Ain't that the truth. Who owns Charter Schools USA? Jeb Bush and his buddies? Who gave them that deal in York to takeover all of York's schools before he left office? Corbett and his cronies. It will be interesting to see how Governor Wolf and Pedro Rivera deal with York. 

Corbett gave the schools away to his buddies over the protests of the elected school board.

What does that say about the state of Democracy in America?

Submitted by Nancy Markey (not verified) on March 15, 2015 5:14 pm

Thank you Eileen and thank you Rich for you well spoken comments. I have been at Taggart School for 17 years and have also seen the changes that the school district put in place over the years. I never understood why changes were made without actually asking the people that do the jobs every day the following questions:

What is working for you and your students? What isn't working? What resources do you need or not need? 

And what changes are needed to to make your students successful and I'm not talking about just being proficient in the test. It's about what can help a child come to school and do the work, learn and feel good about themselves, when someone at home is incarcerated, a drug addict, abusive, or there is no heat or food in the home. Or maybe where they live no-one really cares at all and the only stability they have in their life is the hours spent in school. 

Every kid is not meant to be a college graduate, but every kid can be a success. We need resources to tap into what kids like, what they are good at and how we can make them want to come to school every day. It's never going to happen by bringing in outside agencies who do not know our kids, our school cultures or our families/neighborhoods. 

We used to have a tech teacher, a librarian, school police person, assistant principal, classroom assistants in grades K-2, and more noon time aids, We used to have a parent ombudsman, and community relations person, we used to have a lot more adult bodies in the school to monitor and watch over our kids.

There is a larger population of ESOL students and a lot of kids with emotional issues. But guess what SRC and Dr, Hite, our kids are still learning and growing and the reason is the great staff and principal that are there every day watching, teaching and helping them. And these are the individuals you should ask before you make any changes to anything that is going to affect them and our students.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on March 16, 2015 8:15 am

Thank you. Taggart has always been widely viewed as a school which does address its students' needs. May I add that prior to your 17 years at Taggart, for almost twenty years, the school had a Title I Reading program and Math program where reading specialists and math specialists actually taught students for most of the day, and also facilitated comprehensive reading and math programs.

As to asking individuals you should ask before making any changes, it was the good old fashioned -- comprehensive school evaluation and needs assessment process.

But unfortunately for students, the mantra of the day is to test-punish-and privatize, and that is the insidious purpose of the "rhetoric of failure" which infects our schools and school system today. It is time for a "sea change" in what we are doing.

What we should be doing is answering the question --

"How are we going to make every public school a Great place for children to learn and grow?"

That should be the focus of our conversation.

The first step should be "restoration of services to children" in every public school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 16, 2015 10:35 am

But then how would the consultants, prisons and members of the criminal justic system make money?  Money and politics are always held above parents and children.  That is the problem, or at least one of the top three.

Submitted by Lynn Karasik (not verified) on March 16, 2015 5:34 pm


This blog is so beautifully written and says the things that I have seen and have been concerned about in my 25 years as a school nurse in Philadelphia public schools.  With each new program or district/region/network, etc., signs must be changed, new business cards must be printed and distributed and new letterhead must be drawn up.  The money spent on consulting firms is another waste.  None of the recommendations that are made ever stick--with the exception of recommending more charters and more consulting groups.  If the money spent on this wasteful endeavor was put towards student supports, imagine how good the student support services would be.  With their support needs met, students would be in a much better position to learn.

Lynn Karasik, RN

Certified School Nurse

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 29, 2015 6:35 pm

Here's a novel idea: stop force transferring teachers around here there and everywhere, especially partway through the school year.  Maybe if they afforded some teachers stability and consistency (and no, sorry, spending 0.825 school years in a given school does not count as stability and consistency in my opinion, especially when this means the students are without a teacher for the first nearly 2 months of the year before said teacher gets transferred in), then those teachers would be able to actually grow, develop, and thrive as teachers, as opposed to having every newly changed school year feel like Groundhogs Day, repeating the first year of teaching year after year after year.  It is like swimming upstream when one tries to develop rapport and reputation with both students and staff after spending only 0.5-1.175 years in a given school.  The teacher has to basically build a rapport from scratch again with each new place he or she is force transferred to, and has to take time and effort away from what would be creative and innovative lesson planning, to completing the rote tasks associated with moving schools every year (or every <1 yr in some cases).  This is creating an uphill battle because it stunts the teacher's growth as a teacher, which then makes it harder for the teacher to compete for retention.

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