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The Mirror Interview: Tom Murphy's education map

Tom Murphy announced his retirement Oct. 13. - File photo
Tom Murphy announced his retirement Oct. 13.
— image credit: File photo

In October, Tom Murphy announced his retirement as superintendent of the Federal Way School District.

As one of Federal Way’s most influential leaders, Murphy is halfway through the final year of a 42-year education career. A top retirement priority for Murphy and his wife, Rosemary, is to spend as much time as possible with their grandchildren. Earlier this month, he sat down with The Mirror to reflect on where he’s been, where he’s at and where he’s going.

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Is the school district in better shape than when you found it?

I think so. That’s our jobs, no matter where we are and what we do. Our job is to leave it better than we found it, no matter what it is. I think our school district was in really good shape when I became superintendent. I think we’ve become better.

I have a lot of admiration for the work that Tom Vander Ark did when he was here, and I learned a lot from Tom. Some of the things we’ve been able to do, we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish if he hadn’t laid that foundation and groundwork. But he left it better than he found it, and I think I’m doing the same.

What’s Tom Murphy’s thumbprint or footprint?

I think that I’ve helped us believe that we can really impact all kids. I’ve been really proud of the conversations that our leaders have had, the administrators have had, our teacher leaders have had, and how that’s developed over time.

I think that the system now really believes that we can and we must reach all kids. That’s what I’m probably most proud of.

Speaking of the system, with the ruling on that fair funding lawsuit, is there a silver lining? That fight was three years long, and your name was all over it.

I don’t see a silver lining to it. It was a unanimous defeat, a unanimous verdict. I don’t understand it. On the surface of it, it appears to be illogical. It’s baffling, disappointing, discouraging.

With the correct ruling, the Legislature would have had the impetus to improve the lot of kids across the state. And now with the ruling, there is no reason for them to make any changes at all.

The court’s ruling pointed to how Federal Way had higher test scores. What do you think when some say you can’t just throw money at a problem?

That’s very interesting. I think that the people who work here are proud of what they do, given what they have. I think that we’ve established somewhat of an esprit de corps of ‘we can do anything regardless of the funding.’ What happens is over time, our students end up losing out on opportunities because we have to use money that was supposed to be designed to provide extra opportunities for them to fulfill basic education.

For example, we were the first district in the state to have serious fees to play athletics. Other school districts may have had $10 or $15. We were the first school district, six years ago I think, to institute some really hefty fees to play sports. We transferred all of the responsibility for transportation of athletic teams over to the Associated Student Body, and other school districts don’t have to do that. It’s those kinds of things. Some of the cuts we’ve made this year, we’ve lost some elective classes because of that. If we had $7 million more, we might not lose those elective classes.

Would education improve if there were more money? I don’t know the answer to that. But I know that with less funding, less money, our kids miss out on some things, and they miss out on some things other kids around the state are getting a chance to experience. On the surface of it, that’s not fair.

So those are the things that concern me about the ruling. I think that we get from the state about $6,600 in basic education funding per kid. And the tuition for the private academies in Seattle is upwards of $18,000. So if throwing money at it means giving me the amount of money they’re paying for private school tuition, then I’d like to try that. But giving me another $200 a year per kid, or $300 a year, or $1,000 a year per kid, is certainly not throwing money at the problem. It’s not even coming close to what private school tuition is. In many cases, that’s a ‘straw man argument.’

I don’t know if there’s a direct connection between money and achievement. But I do know there’s a direct connection between resources and opportunity. For me, there’s a huge difference there. I’m really proud of the work our teachers and administrators and kids have accomplished, given our funding. We outperform a lot of school districts that have more money than we have. It just goes to show you what can happen when you’ve got dedicated and focused teachers and principals.

Is that a mindset that was already there that you nurtured? Do you think it comes from the administration?

I think the job of the administration is to help everybody in the system connect with what they really believe to work. I think everybody in public education really believes that our job is to help every kid achieve. Over time, we’ve let a lot of stuff get in the way of that. And I think our job has been, the last 11 years, to try to help remove all those things that are in the way so that the folks really can enact their beliefs.

Let’s go back to when you were fresh out of college. What do you wish you knew then that you know now?

I started teaching in a different era. Knowing what I know now about instruction, I think I would be a 1,000 percent better teacher than I was back then. I would pay much more attention to how important it was to get to know the students, to understand their particular learning needs. Then I would have spent a lot more time trying to figure out how to meet those needs. I would have understood at that time that my job was to work with each student, not simply a classroom of kids.

Why didn’t you see that then?

It wasn’t how we were trained. That wasn’t part of any of the conversations at any of the teacher schools at all. It was simply all about, ‘you’ll have a class and you’ll teach a class, and some kids will make it and some kids won’t, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.’

I think we’ve gotten to the point where that’s not good enough. I’m not sure it was good enough then. That’s just the way it was. It’s certainly not good enough now. You can’t envision a student having any kind of successful life now if they aren’t successful in school. Where will that end? What options do you have? That wasn’t that apparent 42 years ago. The job 42 years ago was still sorting, still, ‘I’m going to give a test and grade on the curve so that there will be so many As, Bs, Cs, Ds and Fs, doesn’t matter where you’re going.’ That’s what I would do differently. I’d know a lot more about what the job really is, and a lot more about what kids need.

Does that correlate to how some say we’re too soft on students? Like you said, it was a different time.

It’s really not an issue of being soft or hard. It’s an issue of having really high expectations for student performance, and holding kids to those high expectations, but not abandoning them, not simply saying, ‘we’ve got these really high expectations and you’re on your own, I’m not going to help you.’

So when you ramp up the expectations, you have to ramp up the support for kids because not everybody’s going to get that. In every class of 25 kids, you’re going to have kids that get it instantly and kids that really struggle. In the old days, the kids that struggled were just left behind. That was part of the job.

The way it should be is that the teacher should be able to recognize the students that are struggling, and figure out a way to help them not get lost, and also figure out how to help the kids that are doing well do better. It’s a different picture than it was years ago. It’s not a matter of being soft. It’s a matter of understanding. It’s a matter of trying to figure out, ‘how can I help you reach that very high standard?’ It’s not about lowering the standard. It’s about trying to get everybody up to a higher standard.

The understanding of that has certainly become clear over 42 years. That’s why I think we struggle with, and it doesn’t matter who has them, but anybody who has a simple solution to that challenge is just wrong. There is no simple solution to that. You’ve got 25 kids in a room, and each of them are coming with their different stuff. And there’s really high standards for performance, you’ve got to figure out a way. How are you going to approach 25 individual kids, and help them, relate to them, in a way that they’re going to believe that they need to follow you and do what you need to have them do in order to get better? And there’s no simple way to do that. It’s not putting kids in rows. It’s not dressing them in uniforms. There isn’t any simple way to do that.

In your time in education, how did No Child Left Behind impact education?

It’s been good and it’s been bad. It’s been good because it really clearly made everybody declare and recognize, who are the kids who are not being successful? I think for a long time, education was happy to hide those kids and just pretend that everybody was fine and everybody was doing OK. What No Child Left Behind did was said, you have to look at everybody — how’s everybody doing? When the system looked at that across the country, it was clear black kids and Hispanic kids aren’t doing well, and neither are poor kids. So from that standpoint, it was very helpful because it brought that issue to the forefront.

That was never in the dialogue?

Never in the dialogue. And it made it part of the dialogue. Where it didn’t help was that it spawned a whole bunch of simple solutions to that problem, and there are no simple solutions to that problem. People have said ‘charter schools and competition, that’s what you have to do.’

The recent most comprehensive study on charter schools has just been completed by Stanford University. It says on the whole, charter schools aren’t any better than the regular public schools. Some are doing better, some are doing worse, and some, there’s no difference. Probably the places where it’s working in public education are places where you’ve got dedicated adults who have a single focus, and are working together on that focus with the understanding they can help make all kids successful. In addition to that, you have the support of the parent community.

When you have that, you’re going to have a successful school. I don’t care if it’s a charter school, a public school or a private school — doesn’t matter. Those are the keys to it.

The quick fixes or the simple solutions never work. We’ve seen that in education and we’ve seen it in all elements of our society. You know, we thought one of the best ways to help the poor was to build ghettos for them, right? Now we’re tearing those down because they didn’t work. All it did was create a cycle of poverty that was worse than if they had been left on their own. Simple solutions to complex problems are doomed to failure.

Have you been approached about continuing to serve in public life?

Yes, I have. It’s been interesting, I’ve had a number of people talk to me about that in a variety of areas. I haven’t closed the door on any of that. But I want to be really, really cautious about what my wife and I are going to plan on doing from now on. I was a high school principal for 10 years, assistant superintendent for 11, then superintendent for 11. So for 32 of the 42 years, I’ve probably worked anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. And I missed a lot. I missed a lot of our kids growing up, I missed a lot of their things.

Fortunately, I was married to a wonderful woman who was great at raising kids and did a good job of almost being a single mom. So I want to make sure that if I decide to do anything from this point forward, that it doesn’t get in the way of what we want to do: Spending time together and spending time with our kids and grandkids. I’m not going to close the door on anything, but I’m going to be reluctant to open it very far to much of anything, at least for a while.

Are you looking forward to just having a private life?

That would be nice, wouldn’t it? (laughs)

That’s crazy though — this success, it had a cost.

It does, but you know, I think that’s the job. I was asked a couple years ago, when was I going to retire? When you’re superintendent of schools, I think that there’s an obligation that you’re visible in the community, that you participate in the community, so that you know your community and your community can know you, and then through you, your community gets to know your schools.

I said at the time that when I got to the point that I either got tired of it, or I simply was physically tired of it and couldn’t do it anymore, then I’d know it was time to go do something else. For years, I’ve never had any trouble being out at 9 or 10 o’clock every night, getting up at 5 in the morning and just going to a 7 o’clock meeting. That’s just kind of what life’s been like. Last spring, I noticed it was getting harder to do that. I was just starting to wind down. And I thought, this is a sign. I didn’t want to do the job differently. I couldn’t just blow off all of the community things that I think a superintendent is supposed to do. And I didn’t want to cheat the other part of the job, either.

I got to the point where I was getting physically tired, and emotionally tired, of 24/7 of being a public figure. Not that I didn’t love it, because I do — I love this community. There are so many wonderful people in this community. My God, I’ve had 22 years here. I’ve met incredible people and supportive people who support all kids. I’ve noticed our community gets a bad rap and a bad reputation, and it’s only because other people don’t know our community, don’t know the people that are here. It’s been a tremendous learning experience for me. •

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