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Ackerman and Rhee: 'Cultural competence' and the national urban education agenda

By Helen Gym on Nov 29, 2010 03:10 PM

Recently, Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sat down for an interview with Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall. Ackerman, who had been avoiding local media for months, emerged none-too-shy about her opinions. Her target? Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee:

"I don't think she was culturally competent for the community she was trying to help," Ackerman says, though she does support some of Rhee's reform. "And I don't think she took time to listen." Ackerman adds that Rhee's mistake was that she thought she could "tell somebody she knew what was good for them when she hadn't walked in their shoes."

Failure of “cultural competence” as applied to Rhee, who is Korean American, is thinly veiled code for perceived race/racism. While it might be easy for some to jump to Rhee’s defense or decry Ackerman for her own insensitivity, one has to wonder: What big city superintendent these days is culturally competent?

Recently, 15 of the nation’s urban superintendents signed onto a Joel Klein/Michelle Rhee-fronted Washington Post op-ed dubbed a “manifesto” on how to fix schools. Among the prescriptions: a blanket endorsement of charters, merit pay, and a focus on removing incompetent teachers. Most of the signers came through the Eli Broad Foundation, an elite grooming program for urban school superintendents. Arlene Ackerman, who later removed her name from the op-ed, has strong ties to the program.

For more than a decade, think tanks and wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Broad Foundation have been working to re-frame public education in America. Embracing controversial strategies like high-stakes testing, school choice, and high turnover teaching stints like Teach for America, they have won political support from both sides of the aisle.

A convenient vehicle has become revolving-door superintendents with big salaries, big entourages, and even bigger egos, who helicopter into urban districts armed with increasingly similar agendas. They shuttle from city to city (Paul Vallas went from Chicago to Philadelphia to New Orleans, Ackerman from DC to San Francisco to Philadelphia) with their mandates and slogans – often disregarding reform efforts that preceded them.

I’m not much of a fan of Michelle Rhee. I think anyone who introduces themselves to the world on the cover of a magazine holding a broom to “sweep” folks out is asking for a lot of pushback. There was no question her tenure in DC was fractious.

Yet Ackerman’s racialized potshot conveniently sidesteps the reality that Rhee was fully backed by DC Mayor Adrian Fenty who is African American – is he culturally incompetent as well in Ackerman's eyes? It also places blame in a person rather than questions the practices Rhee embraced, practices which have found everyone from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Oprah to U.S. Sec. of Education Arne Duncan cheering Rhee on. Practices which are part and parcel of a national education agenda in which Ackerman herself plays a role.

As Rethinking Schools writer Leigh Dingerson described it just before Rhee’s resignation from DC schools last month:

”Chancellor Rhee is the army of one at the top of the district’s lurching reform. An articulate and supremely confident 39-year-old, Rhee is, for now, the movement’s national poster child. Pundits debate her occasionally tactless comments in the media, but there has been little analysis of the reform model itself and how its “my way or the highway” culture affects students, parents, and teachers.”

Although Ackerman has clearly distanced herself from Rhee, the two are far more similar in style than the superintendent may want to admit. Here in Philadelphia, Ackerman has pushed a Broad-friendly agenda through a largely unproven “turnaround” model that’s accompanied by major upheavals in schools and soon by school closings. It’s also an agenda that’s been remarkably unfriendly to communities and parents who disagree with the School District’s plans.

The superintendent may feel that time she has invested in meeting with parents across the city gives her a level of cultural competence. She certainly deserves credit for these efforts. But how often have these conversations actually resulted in a change in her approach?

One might question whether Ackerman felt she had "walked in the shoes" of families at West Philadelphia High School when she yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz, ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents who challenged her Renaissance plan, and watched the school revert to chaos.

It's not too hard to find irony in Ackerman’s allegation of racial insensitivity when she herself has come under fire for such. In San Francisco she allegedly called Chinese American parents “racists” for challenging their school assignments. At South Philadelphia High School, the U.S. Dept. of Justice issued a “finding of merit” in its investigation of the School District’s civil rights violations of Asian students who had been racially harassed and attacked at that school.

So when we look at the tenure of big-city superintendents, maybe it’s less about the obvious cultural blind spots both Rhee and Ackerman exhibit, but whether short-term leaders who are determined to implement top-down mandates can effectively represent any school community. Both superintendents have demonstrated that they are willing to ride roughshod over communities if it advances their agenda.

Whether it's Seattle, Chicago, DC, or here in Philly, the real lesson to be learned is that education is complicated and complex, school communities are fragile and need nurturing, and bad decisions – even ones made by charismatic and bold leaders – still count as bad decisions.

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Comments (15)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 29, 2010 7:54 pm

"One might question whether Ackerman felt she had "walked in the shoes" of families at West Philadelphia High School when she yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz, ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents who challenged her Renaissance plan, and watched the school revert to chaos."

Thank you.

Submitted by Sam (not verified) on November 29, 2010 11:10 pm


This is provocative post. The notion of cultural competence is a loaded concept. I believe we need to have wider conversations about how issues of race and class impact our local and national education policies.

Thank you for adding your voice to this conversation.

I am hoping others will chime in their perspectives.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on November 30, 2010 7:20 am

It is a loaded concept, I have to agree with that, but it is a real issue. I am a great teacher, in the school I have called home for over twenty years, but that does not mean I would be as effective in a suburban school with a different culture. As professionals, we need to examine our strengths and be aware of all weaknesses. We should also be aware of our own, personal comfort zones. Not every teacher can teach everyone - our own teaching styles have to come through. That is the nature of being human.

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on November 30, 2010 7:14 am

Bad decisions seem to be multiplying in Philadelphia right now.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on November 30, 2010 1:48 pm

Administrators come and go. They come, hire a bunch of people, fire a bunch of people, spend a lot, promise a lot, and then they're gone. Hornbeck 6 years. Vallas 5 years. Ackerman, 2 (3?) and counting. For all the kudos Michelle Rhee got, she shook up a lot, promised a lot, and then gone (3 years?). She'll go somewhere else, hire a bunch of people, fire a bunch of people, spend a lot, promise a lot, and then be gone again. Superintendents, Principals come and go. Teaching manifestos come and go. Oh, they promise the world, "No Child Left Behind", "Race to the top", "Promise Academy". Teachers are the only ones left holding the bag, year after year after year, and now we are in this climate of beat down the teacher's union. The union is the baddy failing our schools. Does anybody care anymore?

Submitted by Meg (not verified) on November 30, 2010 1:58 pm

I think everyone posting here cares, but it is getting harder and harder to care.
I have the pleasure of working with practicum teachers training at Temple, also. These young people are coming in ready to take on these issues and still do more than most believe possible for our kids.It is such a thin line to make sure their eyes are open, but their drive is intact... but that is what we have done this year.
There is hope - like you said... things all come and go - but they do come back, too - with new names, but the real teaching theories do come back.
You need to go back further - Constance Clayton? remember her??

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2010 12:31 am

Relative to the comment about the revolving door of district leaders -- this is all the more reason why the citizens/ long term residents of this city have to step up somehow and take back the schools from the politicians and private interests. I don't know how, exactly, but we have to get the courage to do it. Bill Marimow -- now there's a courageous guy. Oh yes, and thank you Helen for pointing out how what happened to West reflects this same insensitivity to the local efforts that had been making a difference.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2010 5:02 pm

OMG. THAT's funny coming from the "Queen" When has THIS woman ever listened to anyone other than the own voices in her head telling her how great "the Queen" she is.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2010 12:38 pm

I am deeply ambivalent about this blog post, although I agree with some of Ms. Gym's specific points. Simply quoting Annette John-Hall's comment that it sound's like Ackerman is describing herself would have sufficed. John-Hall, correctly in my view, captures some of what has been troubling about Ackerman's style of leadership.

Gym's racialization of the "cultural competence" remark, and the linking of Ackerman's use of the term with what she says happened in San Francisco, is a cheap shot and a disturbing one at that. I note that Ackerman also said that folks at South Philly High (it sounds like she was talking about the then Black principal) were perhaps not "culturally competent." I doubt she was calling them racist. Could it be that she was suggesting that some administrators don't understand the life experiences of the populations they serve, as the teacher (Meg) has suggested in her response to Ms. Gym's blog post?

I am trying to follow the logic of Gym's remarks. So is Ackerman's cultural incompetence in her dealing with African American parents at West Philly a reflection of her racism against African Americans? Of course this is not what Gym is suggesting.

I am also troubled by the tendency to turn every post into an attack on Ackerman on so many levels. This one feels really over the top. While there are no doubt connections between some of the issues Gym raises - strong ones in certain instances - there are some significant flaws in how Gym ties them all together.

Is Ackerman arrogant? Yes
Has she failed to take responsibility for her own shortcomings in handling S. Philly and other district situations? Yes.
Would I rather see someone else in the job? Yes.
Are her reforms plans flawed in some ways (I would add schizophrenic)? Yes.

This post feels like a snide attack on Ackerman. I think our discussion of these important issues should rise above this level.

Gym has posted some excellent blogs over time. This one is wrong-headed and inflammatory in a way that doesn't advance the discussion. It feels snide, which is not a good tone. Simply quoting Annette John-Hall's comment that it sound's like Ackerman is describing herself would have sufficed.

Submitted by Helen Gym on December 3, 2010 1:00 pm

Thanks for the comment though it's my feeling that you missed the larger point. The point is that the issue may not be 'cultural competence' - after all Ackerman is at least as guilty for her cultural blind spots as she accuses Rhee of  - but rather the unique governance of urban superintendents who shuttle from city to city for short stints and enact a top-down agenda that runs over communities of all races.

So rather than choose to focus on cultural competence - and the easy and (I thought) more snide thing which was to say 'gee Arlene sounds like you're talking about yourself' - I was trying to focus on a larger national issue of this homogenization of a corporate friendly, non-locally responsive urban superintendency replicated across the country which has been unfriendly to a number of communities.

It's my opinion that communities no matter what background we come from might be able to find alliances and strategies around that issue rather than become potentially polarized because of the insensitivities exhibited by the leaders at the top.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2010 3:28 pm

Ackerman's racist views were noticed long before San Francisco and Philadelphia. They got her fired in Britany Woods when she was a principal out in St,.Louis and spouted off about her "black agenda". Why blame Helen Gym for Ackerman's bigotry. Your post smacks of the excusemaking we heard too often when black bigotry arises. There is no excuse for it anymore than there is for white Asian or Hispanic bigotry.

Ackerman is incompetent with black parents, not "culturally incompetent". She just doesn't think she has to listen to anyone. Part of her remarks from Rhee (who I dispise) stem from the fact that Rhee followed Ackerman and got all the good press. Ackerman knows it makes her look bad.

How come there has been no articles on how Ackerman pushed the WePac (mainly white volunteers) from the classrooms. The libraries they have been doing are nice, but we could use their help in the classroom even more so. We recently lost a fine administrator because she didn't want to do talks about White Boards (as per Ackerman's wishes) when she could be working with the kids. Smart move, Arlene, let alienate everyone that might want to help in the classroom.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2010 5:43 pm

Wow, this has certainly been a vigorous and bizarre exchange. I have no idea whether Ackerman is a racist. In this conversation she is spoken about as if she were the one who beat the kids at S. Philly High. What is clear is that she as an administrator failed to handle the situation properly, especially in the beginning. It is also clear that she has some wrong-headed ideas about what it means to engage and be responsive to school communities, especially to ALL parts of those communities. These are major problems for the head of a public institution.

Ackerman raised the issue of cultural competence in relation to the former DC schools leader and the former leadership of S. Philly High. We can debate whether this is an accurate or complete characterization of the situation. But one need not descend to the level of making personal attacks on Ackerman (on so many levels) to address both what has gone wrong in the past few years and to articulate the qualities we need in a school system leader at this point.

Gym jumps around, quite eloquently I might add, from "cultural competence," to accusing her of racism, to saying we shouldn't be talking about cultural competence but about larger school reform trends, to telling us that Ackerman and Rhee and the corporations are all bedfellows, to the revolving door of "reform" superintendents (Joel Klein stuck around a long time, BTW), to telling us that education is complex and messy and that the people need to rally against the corporate-education interests. Hmm... While there are elements of truth to some of the specifics of this sweeping critique, I maintain that this bundle is conveniently wrapped too tightly.

I am also troubled by the side comments which racialize the discourse in ways that are not helpful. We learn that Rhee is Korean American, but was fronting for a Black man. Gym's response would be, hey, all I was really saying is that she had the support of the elected political establishment. True enough, but that's not how it was said.

The big picture reads like this.
- Ackerman inherited a mess overall. (BTW, S. Philly High was a mess before she came to town.)
- Ackerman came up with some plans that have both bad and good elements in them, and contradictory ones too I would add.
- Her style of leadership tends to be one that does not readily facilitate the building of school communities.
- Several particular situations have been handled very badly by her and some other administrators.
- She has a habit of throwing other administrators under the bus in response to criticisms of her.
- She has done some good - don't beat me for saying this - but it is pretty hard to see behind all of the other problems and her arrogance.
- Philly is not DC, whatever similarities may exist in the respective reform agendas.

So please, can we stop it with this blitzkrieg attack on Ackerman and focus on struggling around the "messy" details of educational reform in Philadelphia. And yes, we must hold our leaders accountable.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 3, 2010 10:12 pm

Ackerman was telling teachers to keep the importance of working through Obama's inauguration only to then skip off for two days down in DC to watch the events. The day before Obama was sworn in she was meeting Rhee, Klein, and other socalled reformers so Gym's allegations are not off the mark.

You mention that South Philly High was a mess, but neglect to say that Ackerman was the one who appointed LaGreta to be its principal despite no longer being certified and having been run out of New Jersey for her own bigotry and incompetence. Many have pointed out that Ackerman hires black women, overwhelmingly, for many of the district's administration positions. However, she did remove one black principal, Cruz, from West Philly High even though Cruz had gotten the school back on track after years or violence and fires. Ackerman is quick to snatch defeat from the jaws of success if she can insert one of her own minions. To hell with whether or not the previous principal was a success. The sure sign of a control freak.

She didn't beat up any kids at South Philly, but waiting a week to make a statement and failing to comdemn the black bigots who attacked them if unforgivable. So was the failure to support the white teacher who had warned LaGreta of the impending attacks only to have La Greta publically condemn him in from of his colleagues. How about the smear campaign that the Asian victims had to endure until the truth came out. Not to mention $99,000 spend on a quack investigation into the incident. For that alone she should have been fired. Too bad the boys down at City Hall didn't have the cajones that they have out in San Francisco to do the right thing.

What exactly has Ackerman done good? You say she has, but don't mention anything in support of your opinion. I can state plenty of things like the insipid Corrective Reading and Math charade, the absences letters and quack contracts sent to the teachers, her deluge of busywork disguised as reform, and the lunkhead attempt at changing admission policies for magnet schools as just some of the bad Ackerman has done. She has got to go.

I suspect you'll be out of a job once she's gone and that is why you've been posting so vigorously in her defense. She has been a disaster everywhere she goes and her time in Philadelphia is no different. As one teacher from San Francisco told me two summers back, "Thank God she's left our town, she's your problem now!" How right she was about that!

Submitted by why (not verified) on December 3, 2010 8:47 pm

We can stop with the blitzkrieg on Ackerman when she is removed from her post. She has lost the faith of everyone in the city. It's over.

Submitted by madalina (not verified) on June 6, 2014 6:13 am
I think we are still a long time away from having a handle on these problems. We don't like admitting it, but race is still a big issue and if you take the time tolook around you will see many things pointing to this. barbie

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