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

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

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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