John A. Murphy Dies, Superintendent and School Reformer

By Alexandra Rice — August 25, 2011 1 min read
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John A. Murphy, a long-time superintendent best known for his bold efforts to improve test scores and desegregation practices in Prince George’s County, Md., and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools, died Aug. 9 in his sleep. He was 76.

Murphy began his seven-year tenure in Prince George’s County after heading districts in Raleigh, N.C., and Park Ridge, Ill. Upon taking over the troubled district in Maryland, he became one of the first big proponents of test-based accountability, well before the assessment and growth of students’ test scores became the hot-button topic it is today.

Through his emphasis of test-score improvement, he also shed light on another issue plaguing the district: racial achievement gaps. Murphy, in what was a controversial move at the time, released test-score data by race, exposing achievement disparities in the mostly black school district.

“We want to prove public education works for minority kids,” Murphy was quoted as saying in a 1989 Education Week article. “If it can happen in Prince George’s County, it can happen anywhere.”

He set up magnet schools in the district instead of busing more students to keep schools racially integrated. The initiative received much praise before it was discontinued several years after Murphy left Prince George’s County to head the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. There, he also instituted his controversial plan to use magnet schools rather than forced busing as a tool for integration.

In March 1989 Murphy received the “Leadership for Learning” award. The American Association of School Administrators honored him with this title for his “outstanding contribution to student achievement”.

Murphy was born in North Adams, Mass. on June 13, 1935. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in education administration from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.