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Ackerman and Rhee: ‘Cultural competence’ and the national urban education agenda

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

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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