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A surprising grade for Arlene Ackerman: C

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s not a poll, but it is a surprise to hear about lukewarm enthusiasm for Philadelphia Schools Chief Arlene Ackerman’s one year anniversary.

The Daily News surveyed a diverse crew of a dozen "education watchers" on Dr. Ackerman’s first year at the helm of our schools – whose anniversary is officially today. Participants were asked to grade Dr. Ackerman in each of six areas: school safety, government relations, community relations, vision, finances, and school improvement.

The overall result? Five C’s and one B (for finances).

For the record, I was one of the education watchers who graded Dr. Ackerman. When I took the survey, I thought I’d be more critical than most because I had such high expections. But it turns out that reactions to Dr. Ackerman’s tenure seem pretty evenly spread out.

That’s particularly surprising since, unlike the City, Dr. Ackerman hasn’t had to face hard choices in budgeting. This year’s $3.2 billion budget is the largest in the District’s history, protected mostly because of federal stimulus money and a (hopeful) state commitment to an equitable education formula. There are no cuts in services, and it establishes reduced class size and more counselors for schools.

The grades are also a bit troubling since there’s still budget uncertainty at the state level. Should that state money not come through, the District’s budget – and many of its reforms – unravels dramatically.

To her credit, Dr. Ackerman has certainly been visible as a superintendent, hosting parent roundtables and a strategic plan outreach that drew thousands into a dialogue about the future of our schools. She’s been responsive to individual and school-based concerns.

But there is a growing sense that Dr. Ackerman has perhaps taken the reins of leadership and budgeting a little too firmly . Though countless education advocates have worked for years to see the District reach $3 billion, few, if any, had any say in prioritizing how that money was spent this year. Though responsive in particular situations, Dr. Ackerman has seemed less inclined to share a place at the decision-making table when it comes to larger systemic reforms like teacher efficacy, community budgeting, high school reform, and the expansion of privatization. She’s been resistant, and sometimes downright testy, when questioned. Other administrative offices – not all, but enough – reflect a more stand-offish approach as well.

It’s important to understand why this tendency within the administration is more problematic than one might think. The average tenure of a superintendent of a major school system lasts between 3-5 years. The story of school reform for too many urban school districts is a story of change that happens in fits and starts, dominated on the national landscape by big egos and bigger salaries. In the words of scholar Charles Payne: “So much reform, so little change.”

The business of making schools work doesn’t happen from the top down, especially when the top is a revolving door. It happens in partnership with communities and advocates and with the respect and inclusion of long-term efforts by communities for change in their schools.

Moving ahead, I would hope that this administration appreciates the history of the District it has inherited. The previous administration left us in a tailspin. The public, parents particularly, worked hard to put this District back together to hand off to them. There is still tremendous good will toward our public schools.

But given the brief service of urban superintendents, every administration should recognize that leadership is not an entitlement, and that oversight, a transparent process, and an engaged and empowered public are critical elements now more than ever.