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Ackerman: 'This has got to be radical.'

  • arlene ackerman4 0
    Photo: Harvey Finkle

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District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman had a series of meetings with newspaper editorial boards earlier this summer focusing on issues surrounding the ongoing teachers' contract talks. The Notebook had an hour-long interview with her on July 8, in which she made clear her desire for nothing less than a radical transformation of the teachers' contract – a wholesale change in how teachers are paid and assigned to schools.

Ackerman fielded questions from Paul Socolar, Notebook editor; Wendy Harris, managing editor; Dale Mezzacappa, contributing editor; and interns Rose Howse and Anders Hulleberg. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Notebook: What were you hoping to accomplish by going to newspaper editorial boards and explaining your goals for the teachers' contract negotiations?

Ackerman: I wanted to give them a big picture, if not the details, of our proposals that we either have put on the table or will put on the table. I wanted them to have some examples of why these things needed to be changed.

I didn't want anyone guessing, and I didn't want the PFT or CASA articulating a message that may not be aligned with what I know as the District leader we are trying to do.

Notebook: Did anything happen in the negotiations to convince you to go public?

Ackerman: This is the second negotiations that I've been in with the PFT. I was pretty sure that it's important for the District to clearly articulate our position. This is a district full of tradition and things that are done because it's been the culture to do it. In the first round of negotiations [last year], I was willing to play by those rules [and negotiate in secret]. At some point I decided that if we couldn't get further with the negotiations and accelerate them, it was important that the larger public understood what we were trying to do.

Notebook: The campaign for "Effective Teaching for all Children" is advocating for certain changes.

Ackerman: Yeah. I'm looking at all the things that are in [the campaign's platform], and I'm thinking, "We're trying to negotiate this, but nobody knows it." And, I felt like we were sort of being hammered [by the campaign] for something we're trying to do. So I wanted to say, here are the issues that the District is trying to address in the broadest sense: teacher flexibility and assignment of teachers, teacher compensation – and in this we want differentiated pay: what this looks like, we're willing to talk about – [a longer] day. So if we could just pick four or five big areas, then the larger community would know we are working on these issues and not being driven by a report [the campaign's platform] that came to light in March, when we've been negotiating for months with these things on the table.

Notebook: What do you think about the argument that there should be more robust incentives to get teachers into the hard-to-staff schools?

Ackerman: Money is not the only thing that is going to get them there. [Teachers] ask for several things: a great principal—they will not go if you don't have a great principal. They ask that we address some of the larger societal issues that impact children's learning—health issues, emotional, social kinds of issues, psychological—which is why we put in place the social service liaisons, the student advisors, the parent liaisons.

The other thing that [experienced teachers] have said to me is that they want to be in the lowest-performing schools in cohorts or groups of five or six, because if you're there as a singleton or a doubleton, it's too hard. Those teachers get overwhelmed not only with the issues that they're dealing with in their classroom, but then they're trying to support and mentor new teachers.

And I think on top of that, we just have to look at paying teachers differently. Teachers are in this 19th century model: we all get paid the same thing, and you earn more money by the number of years you put in. That doesn't make sense, and that doesn't happen in any other business but education now.

Notebook: Are you going to try to measure teacher effectiveness and try to use that in compensation? There is a reference to this in the consent decree in the desegregation case.

Ackerman: I do think that that's important. We have started that work. We took a look at a random sample of fourth grade classrooms across the District, because one of the things that PFT will say to us is, "We have to have more resources" – whatever those resources are – "before you can hold us accountable." We were looking for teachers who made two or more years' growth [per year] with kids, regardless of where they were teaching. Some were in magnet schools, some were in regular schools, and then some were in our lowest-performing schools. We found 40. They were consistently – over three, four, five years – getting two or more years' growth. And my question to my staff and to the PFT would be, "Don't these teachers deserve to be rewarded differently? Year after year they do it, regardless of what the circumstances are."

I like the tiered compensation strategy, where we raise the base for everybody, so we start everybody at $50,000—I'm just making this number up—which would be great, and then you start tiering the compensation based on the use of expertise and where you use it, and then finally, results.

[Reform] starts actually at the colleges of education; they perpetuate this "Let's all stay the same." You can specialize in elementary, and middle, and high school. You can specialize in the content area. I want to push them to go even further.

You can help teachers make the decision to specialize, not just in reading, but specialize in urban schools, specialize in urban under-performing schools. I want people to come into our lowest-performing [schools], and I'm actually in conversations with Temple [about this], like emergency room doctors and nurses. You've got to do triage in these schools. It's very difficult and challenging, but as far as I'm concerned, the most rewarding kind of job you can have.

Notebook: Are you planning to expand the study you did with the fourth grade teachers?

Ackerman: Yes. We're working on it by grade level.

Notebook: Some advocacy groups have said they are nervous about forcing teachers to work in schools where they're needed the most. They are all for "carrots," but don't think "sticks" will be productive, that you can't beat people into going into certain schools.

Ackerman: You didn't hear me say that I want to beat anybody to do anything. I'm not saying, just put them there. But if we make the environment such….

You know what I say, though? Anybody who's nervous about that, your kids aren't in those schools. Anybody who wants me to cajole, wait, negotiate with the union, I know their kids aren't in those schools, because if they were, they wouldn't tell me to do that. They wouldn't be nervous, they would be standing shoulder to shoulder with me.

It's always interesting to me, the advocacy groups that say, "We want change" [are] the first ones to say, 'You're going too fast.'" Their children are not in those schools. Parents [whose children are in the schools] have a very different conversation with me.

That's why I really have gone after the parents. When it comes to making courageous, bold, unadulterated, by-any-means-necessary [decisions], it's not going to come from those groups. It's going to come from the people who are most impacted.

Notebook: Why do you think the percentage of teachers of color has declined from 28 to 24 percent from September to June?

Ackerman: I'm not sure why we lost 4 percent. That's almost a hemorrhage. The number of African American males is in the single digits in a school district that is [62] percent African American, which is why we aggressively went after them using a placement firm.

I think there are a lot of reasons why we see fewer and fewer. That's why we have to be more creative in differentiating pay—using pay differently. When I graduated and started working in education, some 40 years ago, there were very few options. I grew up in a segregated society, and if you got to college, you were either a teacher or a nurse if you were African American. I think as more opportunities have opened for African American students in particular, then you tend not to pick teaching, because the starting pay is so low.

My youngest son is a mathematician, and he taught for three years, and he's a great teacher—a tall African American guy, the kind of guy you want in front of the kids. He didn't say [he left] because he couldn't make enough money, [but] he saw his brother take his mathematical background and go into computers, and make three times what he was making. And so at some point, he said, I've got to make money for my family. I think he would have stayed if he had been able to get some of the resources that I was talking about, because he was in really tough schools. But also, had we been able to differentiate that pay…because he was in math, he was an African American male. I think we should look at the areas [where] we really need teachers, and that's where you start differentiating the pay. That way, as far as I'm concerned, a teacher could make $100,000.

We have got to get out of this old way of thinking about teacher compensation, where it's about longevity. It takes radical reform to make some of the changes that are needed here and in our other urban school systems. We've been tinkering around the edges, and we approach the negotiations in the same way we've always done it: "Let's not talk about it;" "Let's keep our proposals secret;" and "Don't let anybody in."

Notebook: One of the Obama administration priorities is to change teacher evaluation to make it more meaningful. What do you think of peer review, in which teachers participate in helping struggling colleagues?

Ackerman: I've been a strong proponent and in every place I've gone, I've put it in place. It's one strategy to be used for helping new teachers and [tenured] teachers who are experiencing difficulty. I found it was helpful, [but] I don't think it can be the only thing [we do]. We're putting in teaching standards next year. Three hundred new principals went through the training to become familiar with the new teaching standards.

A good evaluation system has clear standards, a clear rubric for what good teaching looks like, and you can explain to teachers where they fall on a continuum of good teaching to unsatisfactory, and then you marry the professional development needs of that teacher with the evaluation and supervision process. Nothing can take the place of that, and that happens with the principal. What peer assistance and review will do is supplement it.

Notebook: When you talk about site selection, are you thinking that's a collaborative model? A leadership team in the school that does hiring?

Ackerman: Absolutely.

Notebook: Some teachers fear site selection will give the principal more authority.

Ackerman: Absolutely not. Where do these fears come from? Where do these rumors start?

Notebook: Some of it is actual practice…

Ackerman: It's teachers' lives. Believe me. I met with about 15 retired teachers a couple weeks ago. They came in wanting to hate me—I knew they did, I could feel it—but after two hours, one of them said, "You're nothing like the teacher blogs [say you are]. I wanted to hate you when I came in here, but, you know, we actually agree."

Notebook: It's a lot of work to be on the site selection committee.

Ackerman: It's not that much work.

Notebook: You've done it?

Ackerman: Yeah. My teachers [wanted] to be on it. I have never thought that you shouldn't have site-based teams with the principal as the leader.

Notebook: Does the final decision rest with the team or the principal?

Ackerman: I think the final decision has to rest with the principal. That's who I'm going to hold accountable.

Near the end of my tenure as principal, I didn't even have to go to be on the team, because the parents and the teachers—they made better choices than I made. The teachers, because they wanted people who were going to come in with the same mindset and the same work ethic—they didn't want somebody walking out at 3:15 pm, because they were probably there until 7 or 8. And the parents wanted the same kinds of teachers.

Notebook: Schools may not be in the habit of having principals and staff really put their heads together.

Ackerman: They're not in the habit of having site selection, period. I don't see it as that difficult. You put together a leadership team that will help with hiring. We just hired 30 new principals, and it was the first time, again, that we got everybody together—because every region used to have their own way of interviewing. Every school had a team [to hire the principal]. Every school. And it wasn't a problem getting them there on a Saturday. It wasn't a problem keeping them all day, and when they didn't find who they wanted, it wasn't a problem with them coming back to say, "Okay, we want to be on the next round until we find who we want." And everyone said to me, "Oh, it'll never work. People won't come out on a Saturday." It was not a big deal, and we hired 30 principals. We did it over three weekends.

Notebook: I've heard the union say that having site selection at low-performing schools doesn't necessarily lead to teachers going to them—nobody applies, and good younger teachers leave low-performing schools because site selection gives them the opportunity. I'm wondering whether site selection is actually getting you where you want to be.

Ackerman: Everybody is trying to compartmentalize this, [but] it's a system that we're trying to put together. So if you just do site selection without putting all those other resources there—without getting a great principal, without involving parents whose children are at stake here—if you don't do that, then maybe it won't work.

So you've got to do all of those things: differentiated pay, taking care of the whole child, putting in place those supports for young people, [having] a great principal, a team of teachers.

But if you just do one piece of it, no, it won't work. That's why with negotiations, I didn't want to just look at this as tinkering around the edges.

This has got to be radical. And Philadelphia can be radical. But it's going to take the entire community not being afraid, not second-guessing me and saying, "Well, what is she doing? Is she moving too fast? Should she give them a few more carrots?" No. Not at the expense of somebody else's child, no.

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