Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpArlington schools chief Patrick Murphy is ending the 2013-14 year with a bang.

Last month, he was named superintendent of the year by statewide authorities (making him eligible for the national contest). Weeks later, Arlington Public Schools won the Medallion for Performance Excellence from the U.S. Senate Productivity and Quality Awards.

But not everyone in Arlington educationland is thrilled. Around the time of Dr. Murphy’s good news, I began hearing grumblings from more than a few teachers, active and retired. None agreed to be identified in print, which means I cannot, in fairness, publish their quotes.

But in a nutshell, these teachers said Murphy has not shown quantifiable improvements; that he pushes middle-schoolers to take algebra before they’re ready; that he shouldn’t be lauded for halving the dropout rate when he targeted special programs at Arlington Mill and Langston; that he funds new initiatives at the expense of teacher salary step increases promised recruits; that he is more a data guy than a people person.

To Murphy’s credit, he agreed to address the complaints.

“I don’t know any superintendent who doesn’t use data,” he said from his office, pointing to a wall of colored charts he calls his “bulletin board.” The “charts get people’s attention, but you still have to use what’s between your ears.”

Arlington’s challenge is a convergence of issues, Murphy says. “We’re growing like crazy, and are fortunate in the county’s funding” – next year’s $539.4 million budget is an increase of 3.1 percent. “But we’re not immune to budget challenges, our diversity of students is changing, and there’s a broader marketplace for professionals competing in the region.”

People disagree on issues, Murphy notes, so he’s not surprised the school board nixed some of his proposals. He says it’s unfair to say he would cut Langston and Arlington Mill – he would “consolidate them and change the delivery model to achieve economies of scale.” His canceled plan to defund adult education was motivated by his view that his main “responsibilities are to students pre-K through 12.”

Murphy had sought, unsuccessfully, to “redirect $200,000” to buy laptops for all students in grades 2, 6 and 9 as a way of “extending learning opportunities” to help them learn at differentiated paces.

“Devices are how it’s happening now, to make sure students are competitive, but it got lost in translation,” he says.

Encouraging kids to try algebra early even if their grades end up all over the charts, Murphy hopes, will “open the door to opportunity at a higher level of math.” Average eighth-graders “can’t see the horizon but by going through the door,” he says, which leads to discussions with students and parents about the standard versus advanced diploma.

“Yes, you can go to college with the standard diploma, but your odds increase with the advanced one,” he says. “I’m trying to let them know earlier about the choices. I’ve had heartbreaking conversations with 12th-graders who said, `I wish someone had pushed me harder in middle school.’ ”

Murphy considers it “apples and oranges” to compare his laptop proposal against raises for Arlington’s 2,000 teachers. Pay and benefits is 80 percent of the budget; a step increase could cost $7 million.

“We typically hire teachers with years of experience,” he says. I wish we could pay teachers more. It’s a tough job that requires tremendous hours I can only imagine.”