Annette John-Hall: A teachable moment from Ackerman's tenure in Philadelphia

Posted: August 23, 2011

"I'm not here to make the adults who have benefited from the system not working happy. I'm here to make them uncomfortable . . . I'm here to hold the hands of the parents to reassure them I'm going to fight for a great education for their children."

  - Arlene C. Ackerman, November 2010

 Like any relentless boxer, Arlene Ackerman dared them to hit her - even when she knew they would.

Well, the fight is over. On Monday, the School Reform Commission delivered the knockout punch. Ackerman, the reformer known for taking on urban districts in Washington and San Francisco, and brought to Philadelphia to much acclaim in 2008, will have a nice $905,000 severance to help take the sting away.

She's gone, and the residue from yet another superstar schools-chief flameout is on everybody's hands - from the politicians who continue to use schoolchildren as political pawns, to the ineffective appointees of the School Reform Commission; from the media who unnecessarily piled on, and, to, yes, Ackerman herself, who time and again refused to reform her own imperious style.

Teachable moment

If anything, Ackerman's truncated tenure should serve as a three-year teachable moment to anyone crazy enough, I mean, capable enough to want to be the next superintendent.

Lesson No. 1: Don't Ignore Politics. In Philadelphia, the state, not the superintendent, runs the school district, along with a five-member SRC appointed by the governor and the mayor. If the superintendent is going to have any success, she'd better know how to appease the powers in Harrisburg - or make sure that her SRC team members handle that part of the job so she can concentrate on the educational part.

Yet when the economy went sour, we barely heard a peep from Ackerman's "team." Chair Robert Archie is the subject of a probe by the Nutter administration for possible backroom dealings over a charter provider. That should tell you something about the SRC's effectiveness.

Lesson No. 2: Don't Ignore Public Perception. To say that Ackerman's personality is prickly is like saying a bed of nails is slightly uncomfortable. Her heavy-handed style was bad enough, but when she was slow to explain a series of public relations blunders that made her appear aloof and dismissive, especially during the school-violence fiasco, she attracted negative publicity from which she never recovered.

Lesson No. 3: Don't Ignore Your Allies. Any time you come in determined to make sweeping changes, you're going to get your share of haters. Lord knows Ackerman did.

And while she deserves credit for staying focused on her initiatives, she gets the No-You-Didn't award for alienating her biggest ally: Mayor Nutter.

Here's a guy who was prepared to go to bat for her in Harrisburg to demand more money for full-day kindergarten - until Ackerman undermined him by announcing she had mysteriously come up with the funds herself. So it makes sense that Nutter helped pass the collection plate for her buyout.

Advanced the ball

There's no question that Ackerman advanced the ball for Philadelphia schoolchildren. She oversaw yearly gains in reading and math proficiency and the graduation rate. She successfully integrated traditional public schools with charters and her own Promise Academies - no easy feat. And she helped negotiate one of the most progressive teachers' contracts in years.

Still, it's clear Ackerman couldn't care less how she'll be remembered.

"I don't hold back," the 63-year-old educator told me with unapologetic candor last November. "But then again, when you get my age, what do I have to lose? I'm not trying to build a career.

"I'm trying to leave public schools better than when I came, and that people will know I was here."

Love her or hate her, I don't think anybody will ever forget she was here.


Contact me at 215-854-4986, ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or @Annettejh on Twitter.

 

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