Murray blasts mandates

Retiring Altoona Area Superintendent Dennis Murray delivered a speech Thursday that education leaders and business people alike said was inspiring.

Murray was animated and may not have needed a microphone as he gave his speech Thursday morning to the Blair County Chamber of Commerce’s Breakfast Club at The Casino at Lakemont Park. He included jokes that drew much more sincere laughter from the crowd than others who interjected or spoke prior to him. At one point, Murray even adopted a bit of a South Carolina drawl to imitate a U.S. Marine who once spoke to him about the importance of leading by example.

The chamber selected Murray to speak at its monthly gathering “because of him retiring and his message is so poignant about the relationship between education and business,” chamber President and CEO Joe Hurd said.

“There isn’t anybody better that I can think of to speak with such knowledge and passion about the challenges schools face on a daily basis,” Hurd said of Murray.

At the center of its message, what Murray’s speech expressed was a very different view of government’s role in education than what state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis’ described in May.

“I knew there would be contrast [between speeches of Murray and Tomalis],” Hurd said. “The secretary spoke more to what state government can do to help education, to help schools meet standards,” he said. “I knew Dr. Murray would not be quite as positive.”

Murray, retiring this month after 29 years as Altoona Area superintendent, harshly criticized state and federal mandates as obstacles to producing quality education.

Since public education was instituted in the 1900s, Murray said, federal and state governments have piled mandates onto schools that take time away from teaching core subjects.

“The system is trying to be all things to all students. We can’t do it,” he said.

“We are doing as much social work as education.”

Driver’s education and sex education became required in the 1950s and peace and leisure education in the 1960s. School breakfast was required in the 1970s, so two-thirds of students’ meals are provided by schools. HIV and AIDS lessons and death education became required in the 1990s. More recently, the No Child Left Behind Act and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) resulted in testing mandates for districts.

And a single minute

hasn’t been added to the school year, Murray said. There are also Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and 97 other codes that schools must abide by, Murray said.

“How can we change and be competitive if we continue like this?”

“How do we downsize these mandates so we can teach reading, writing, arithmetic and core American values?”

“He [Murray] was very inspirational, and certainly on target,” retiring Tyrone Area School Superintendent William Miller said.

Miller said Murray’s speech encapsulated the current state of public education and emphasized leadership, professionalism and teaming to change from the industrialized form education.

Murray said America’s schools are stuck in the industrialized age with a “one size fits all education system.”

“There’s hope we can break out of that industrial model,” he said. An example he gave was Knewton, a worldwide adaptive learning company that partners with publishers and educational institutions to enable personalized learning.

America has led the world throughout the ages – from the agricultural age to the information age, but America has more competition, from Asia especially, to remain a world leader through current technological digital age, Murray said.

“How can we let this happen?”

Murray noted a pervasive opinion that America is entering an age marked by inflating test scores and watering down curriculum, that America is ceding its world leadership roles to other countries that may be exporting more goods or producing more educated workers including engineers.

“You have to decide whether you believe that,” Murray said to the educators and business people in the room. “If so, what are you going to do about it?”

There was no reference at Thursday’s event to the salary raise accusations the Altoona Area school board has levied against Murray, except by Hurd, who briefly mentioned after the meeting that Murray’s speech was almost a rebuttal to state Secretary of Education Ron Tomalis, who spoke to the Breakfast Club in May.

Hurd said Murray was the only area superintendent absent for Tomalis’ visit, “maybe because of the situation he was in with his district.”