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Applause for Ackerman nationally, but locally rhetoric doesn't match reality

by Helen Gym on Oct 18 2010

I want to be the first to applaud Superintendent Arlene Ackerman for her recent letter to the editor in the Washington Post, which distanced herself from a controversial op-ed fronted by NYC Chancellor Joel Klein and D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Ackerman’s letter was not only a thoughtful critique of the Klein/Rhee op-ed, but the first step on the national stage by a major superintendent to challenge the bad teacher/good charter stereotype now making the national media rounds.

The drawback? I guess I’m disappointed how Ackerman’s rhetoric has not quite made it to reality here in Philadelphia.

The controversial op-ed, dubbed a “manifesto” on “how to fix our schools," was signed by the heads of 16 major urban school districts, including Ackerman, former Philadelphia school head and current New Orleans school chief Paul Vallas, Klein, Rhee, and a host of others. The editorial reiterated much of the national dialogue about placing the blame for failure of our schools on the inability to remove ineffective teachers and the need to institute individual merit pay based on classroom performance. In addition, the editorial made a push about closing and restructuring low-performing neighborhood schools and promoting charter schools as a viable option.

"The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher -- and our discomfort as a society with criticizing anyone who chooses this noble and difficult profession -- has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future. There isn’t a business in America that would survive if it couldn’t make personnel decisions based on performance.”

It wasn’t hard to see how an editorial like this raised the hackles of plenty of educators in the field. It overlooked and oversimplified critical issues and research in this area, including the fact that:

There are a host of other issues from tracking to school violence to the merry-go-round of urban school superintendents to lack of leadership from school principals to a testing-focused culture and lack of investment in professional development and growth models for teachers, and so on, that made the manifesto less like a call to arms than, well, a “manifesto.” A number of groups, including the national teaching journal Rethinking Schools, have come out with significant critique and analysis of such flaws.

One criticism, however, came from an unlikely source. Ackerman's letter to the editor to the Post openly critiqued the op-ed and in effect many of the premises promoted by it and the “Waiting for Superman” national bandwagon.

Ackerman said she had never seen the final version of the op-ed and, in fact, disagreed with it enough to remove her name from it.

“Yes, there are ineffective teachers who shouldn’t be in our schools. However, it is far too simplistic to castigate them or leave the impression that the failure of our children would cease if we eliminated tenure or the entire union. The truth is our public schools have been asked not only to educate children but also to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix.”

Instead of bashing "bad teachers," she focused on developing teacher efficacy. Moreover, she said her efforts have focused on how to “tackle reform through collaborative efforts.” And she sent a stern message around the polarizing effects of manifestos and otherwise:

“Be careful in this time of polarity not to get caught up in the scripted political agendas of individuals or organizations who seek to divide rather than bring us together. A collaborative approach to reform may not be easy, glamorous or movie-worthy, but it is a stronger and sustainable solution that is likely to outlast the tenure of individuals or politicized agendas.”

Amen to that.

On the national stage where you’ve got NBC’s Education Nation, Oprah Winfrey, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million gift to Newark public schools to develop public school options, and the hype around the documentary “Waiting For Superman,” Arlene Ackerman lends an important alternative to the current definition of school reform. Her emphasis on a collaborative approach to reform, parent engagement, moving beyond personalities, and developing effective teachers is a radically different model than the one promoted by her co-signers on the manifesto – and a reform model backed by research and supported by community and education activists who are looking for sustainable reform rather than dramatic headlines.

So why doesn’t it feel better to me as a public school parent and public education supporter? Maybe because her words about collaboration and public engagement haven’t translated well on the ground.

South Philly High’s racial violence, the turnaround disaster at West Philadelphia High School – and those are the schools where the superintendent gets involved. There are plenty of other schools struggling from neglect and disinvestment. There's Ackerman's frequent "Peter and Paul" references around individual school funding, which contradicts a lift-all-schools approach to supporting schools, and her dsimissal of "organized parents" with an "agenda" as opposed to individual parent concerns. There's also the high salaries and musical chairs administration that earns her that autocratic and mercurial reputation.

On the national stage I’ll cheer for Ackerman’s words of insight. But locally, we’re still waiting for Ackerman’s promise of collaboration to translate to all her schools and communities.

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Comments (17)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 17:18.

Amen to that.

Submitted by radical educator (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 18:55.

I am not a fan of Ackerman but she deserves credit for her courageousness.

Submitted by Philly HS Teacher (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 19:41.

I don't see Ackerman as courageous - she is hiding behind an "underling" rather than taking responsibility for signing it. She also is mere words - her actions in Philadelphia contradict her words. Yes, "actions speak louder than words."

Submitted by Bobbie Cratchit (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 20:00.

Sorry I don't buy it... I can't buy it... I know what I see happening to our schools and collaboration is NOT what happens. Ackerman is top down and autocratic. What I have been trying to figure out since reading her letter is what is she up to? There's some agenda here. I'm missing it...the manifestio was published a week ago! Since then Rhee and chicago's superintendant resign ( both signets) now ackerman denies AND disagrees with it? There's something more to this. Any ideas?

Submitted by Teacher (K.R. Luebbert) (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 20:29.

Great column. I agree on many points, There seems to be an amazing disconnect between these words Ackerman wrote and her continued actions here in Philly. Has she finally seen the light? Is she having a Diane Ravitch-like conversion?? I guess we will have to stay tuned to find out!

Submitted by Jonathan (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 21:07.

As a teacher not in Philly, I appreciate that a major city school superintendent broke with Rhee and Klein. That's news. It reflects the beginning of some movement away from the reformers and their hedge funds and supermen.

But that I appreciate that one act in no way implies that I endorse anything else she says or does.

I'm not "waiting for superman" -- one educational hero to be always right and soar ascendant. I'll take a shift in reality -- and this sort of hemming and hawing shows just a bit of that shift.

Submitted by CarolineSF (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 22:18.

I'm watching from afar in San Francisco, where Ackerman previously ran our schools. Other issues aside, I don't think anyone who's well informed can dispute that it took guts for Ackerman to withdraw her name from the manifesto. One of her detractors here in SF was on our local schools listserve trying to imply that it was some kind of cover-your-a** measure to withdraw her name from the manifesto, and here's my rather sarcastic response:

" I'm not sure what it is you're trying to say about Ackerman's withdrawing her name from the manifesto ... You seem to be trying to portray her as somehow backing out to save her butt. Since the full array of our nation's powerful and moneyed forces is lined up in favor of all the points in the manifesto, why would Ackerman be motivated to remove her name if she weren't sincere? "Oh, I
think I'll just piss off everyone from Bill Gates to Barack Obama to the entire mainstream media to all the major think tanks to powerful mayors like Michael Bloomberg who could potentially have major influence over my future career."
That would be a brilliant self-promotional move, wouldn't it?"

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 22:51.

I think you're wrong. Ackerman saw the writing on the wall when Superwoman Rhee suddenly jumped ship. Without their political handlers to protect these teachingbashing CEO are beginning to worry. Rhee lost her mayorial buddy and resigned soon after. These CEOs are starting to worry about the elections in the next couple of weeks which will put some of their former pals out of office. Covering her butt is exactly what Ackerman is doing. Firing her would be a plum in any up and coming politician's reform program because of her knack of making so many enemies in so little time. Her attempts to suck up to the teachers at this late date is fooling no one. Philly teachers haven't forgotten the repeated insults she has aimed at them. Or how she took credit for rising test scores even though those score had been going up for five years before she arrived. It took absolutely no guts to remove her name at this late date. Merely a desperate attempt to jump in one of the remaining lifeboats before the whole ship goes down.

Submitted by Helen Gym on Mon, 10/18/2010 - 23:22.

Thanks for reading Caroline! Motives aside (and there could be many), Dr. Ackerman is nevertheless the first major superintendent to break with a clear national call - whether or not that call has failed the test politically. She also did so in a very public way.

Don't get me wrong. I think she was thoughtful and calculated about what she said and how she was going to go about saying it. But wouldn't it be better to hold her accountable to her words locally rather than undermine her on the national stage where such a voice is needed?

Of course there is tremendous frustration here on the ground, but on the national level - especially in this climate, its pretty important to have a major urban superintendent talking about parent engagement, a positive relationship with a teachers union, and a collaborative turnaround process.  I say that because I think the stakes and "reality" at the national level are less about substance and achievement than in directing thinking and offering a different perspective on the issue. A lock-step mentality was what the "manifesto" tried to promote, and it's one that this superintendent broke with.

Submitted by CarolineSF (not verified) on Tue, 10/19/2010 - 00:42.

Yes, I wish that Anonymous was right that the forces of wealth and power were starting to disapprove of teacher-bashing, and I hope his or her view comes to pass soon, but currently it's not what's happening. Good piece, Helen!

Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 10/19/2010 - 05:47.

Stupid is as stupid does and its opposite is also true. So if Ackerman believes what she wrote, lets see her put it into practice.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 10/19/2010 - 09:53.

I am not surprised that Ackerman, realizing what she was signing on to, decided she wasn't in lockstep with the formula being perpetuated by NCLB/Race to the Top/Duncan and their conservative business person/foundation backers. What's fascinating about Ackerman is that she is not ideological. In fact, she is not even that consistent. In our experience of her in Philadelphia, what is fairly predictable is that she doesn't welcome debate or challenge, isn't a particularly good manager (in fact seems to be a micro-manager), and that she is taking her lead here from a narrow set of actors. I think she truly does have kids' best interests in mind and also has channeled a lot of resources to addressing needs of parents and families. But, I find it incredible that she sees herself as a collaborator. She operates out of a service mentality not a collaboration mentality. Unfortunately, that -- along with the other attributes of her leadership style I mentioned -- does not contribute to or build community or civic capacity. When she is gone, as a city, we'll have a long way to go to construct and in some cases reconstruct the community infrastructure that can make for sustainable school improvement. If there are any public schools left by then.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on Tue, 10/19/2010 - 11:29.

 Very perceptive comment.   It helps explain the disconnect most of us see between Ackerman's rhetoric in her critique and her practice on the ground.  Makes more sense than the idea she is somehow shrewdly positioning herself to reap some political gain (from where?) or she is merely a hypocrite

Whatever her motives I agree with Helen that we should welcome her statement as a weapon in the fight against the Waiting for Superman crowd and in the local context use it to push her in a more collaborative way.   

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/21/2010 - 19:44.

I think this rhetoric is 100% a product of what happened in DC. Rhee's downfall is a setback for the Eli Broad spear-headed movement to gut schools in favor of the Charter School Industry. Due to it's size and the centralized nature of the top administration (the SRC), the PSD is a crown jewel in the public education universe for purposes of furthering the charter school movement.

We've seen what happened to Mrs. Rhee. No doubt Broad & company have too. It serves their purposes to have the superintendent of one of their most prized possessions distance herself from the rhetoric that proved politically toxic in DC. Philly has very similar political dynamics, and a set back here would be awful for them.

Note also, that Rendell and Nutter felt compelled to co-author a letter in Ackerman's defense. The mayor co-owns responsibility for the SRC and 2011 is a mayoral election year. Democratic political candidates can only stick their neck out so far in support of the teacher bashing that Rhee engaged in. It's not like they're going to keep or attain office on the same path as Governor Christie.

Here is what I expect: renewed focus on garnering more revenue via a state sales tax and/or redistributing resources that currently go to magnet schools. Ackerman is on record as calling the magnets "Gucci Schools". Imagine 2014 is coming in over budget. Bother gubernatorial candidates say they support providing resources from state sales tax and they both are in favor of charter schools. One of their first debate like exercises basically amounted to a private audience for a charter school oriented PAC.

The Broad crowd is going to back burner the teacher bashing routine and go after more revenue from the state and a shuffling of internal resources. That will put more dollars at stake for the charter industry to pull into the effort. Locally it will provide bigger opportunities to politicians set to enrichen themselves via Charter School contracts, etc In the meantime, politicians won't have to worry about the political fallout like that which took down Rhee and Klein.

I don't believe that Ackerman didn't know what she was signing. I do believe failing to distance herself from those statements is too politically risky for her not to make a public retraction. Remember, this is the same woman who is known for a micromanaging style and who also claims that some rogue administration types dreamed up the idea to centralize magnet school admissions and make them based on geography. Do you believe that? I sure don't.

The notion that Broad and company would be upset at Ackerman for these statements is hard for me to take very seriously. Losing the PSD due to a repeat of the DC experience, now that would cause an upset. An open letter from a superintendent that is read and forgotten by most people in about 5 minutes? Thats not even a hiccup in the grand scheme of things.

Submitted by Bobbie Cratchitt (not verified) on Fri, 10/22/2010 - 09:55.

Now this is I believe! If you work in PSD you know who Ackerman is...her leadership straight down to the principals reflect her disdain for teachers, leaves no room for collaboration and is shrouded in fear. The explanation here makes sense...there is no way it is coincidental that she retracts after Rhee's departure, it has to be a direct result of it! And that's what I kept asking myself why? What's in it for HER? Now I get it! Thanks Anonymous!

Her Award announcement today from the Council of Great City Schools reflects this thinking as well..I googled the "Council" and it took a minute to directly connect the "Council" to the Gates Foundation...another money-motivated attempt by the Charter Carpetbaggers to keep her in the public eye as a Great Educator...please, what would the kids at West and Southern say....

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 10/22/2010 - 00:24.

Me again. This Best Educator in the Nation Award sure smells like a full court press PR campaign run by very powerful people. I guess Rhee's downfall has really energized the charter school crowd. I suppose its a great distraction from the mess at West Philly High too. I haven't been this disgusted since Lagreta Brown was presented with a Lucien Blackwell Award, but this is far worse.

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