New Superintendent Arlene Ackerman is a lifelong educator who has brought the school system a welcome emphasis on what goes on in classrooms.
She’s clear that children’s needs must come first, and honest about how far Philadelphia’s schools still must go before we can be satisfied. She is not afraid to talk about shameful graduation rates. She reminds us that we must shed the business-as-usual mentality to dramatically improve those numbers.
Ackerman has said she will need a lot of allies and partners to make sweeping improvements. But this summer, in her eagerness to bring change, she may have burned, or at least seared, some important bridges.
One instance was her decision to get rid of all the “teacher coaches.” She offered compelling reasons: job descriptions were inadequate, funds may have been used inappropriately, and there was little evaluation of effectiveness.
But there were also some talented coaches who knew their content areas, had strong relationships, and were effective change agents. Some, if asked, might have provided valuable insight on the strengths and weaknesses of the coaching system. The District can ill afford to lose strong leaders.
But instead of enlisting their support in developing a better approach, Ackerman did a total house-cleaning, forcing coaches to choose new jobs. In the city’s arts community, this caused an uproar when two people pivotal in the resurrection of the District’s art and music program appeared to be among the casualties. Key players from major cultural institutions spoke out against their demotions.
Ackerman’s response – that she’s focused on the kids and not adults – misses the point that to serve children effectively, leaders must tap the knowledge and relationships that others bring to the table.
Ultimately, the two displaced “coaches” were offered new jobs working to expand art and music in schools. That is welcome, but doesn’t negate the concern. If the goal is a more effective and equitable overall program to support instruction, a collaborative planning process can help to sort out the problems and build on existing strengths.
We urgently need to get beyond re-arranging the deckchairs of the ship. A more inclusive approach would serve Dr. Ackerman well in figuring out how to tackle the problems going on underneath.