In defense of Ackerman

Posted: August 23, 2011

By Anthony

Hardy Williams

Arlene Ackerman came to Philadelphia with one charge: to improve the academic trajectory of our public schools. And by objective measures, she did just that, perhaps to a greater extent than her recent predecessors.

Yet Ackerman's effectiveness and, finally, her tenure were undercut by petty politics and cowardice on the part of people who put their egos and popularity ahead of the needs of the city's schoolchildren. The public demurring and innuendo that preceded the superintendent's ouster may have scored political points and curried favor with certain constituencies, but they constituted poor, shortsighted leadership on the part of those charged with the oversight of our schools.

The Philadelphia School District had been crying out for a leader, someone with the ability and vision to deliver and sustain progress. And Ackerman clearly delivered that. For some reason, though, the fact that students are passing standardized tests in greater numbers district-wide has been dismissed. Since 2006, the share of the city's schoolchildren who are proficient in reading has risen from 38.1 percent to 52.3 percent. In math, that figure has increased from 42 percent to 59 percent. Guiding such improvements is monumental work.

Ackerman also made progress beyond traditional classroom learning. Her Parent University has provided GED classes, parental training, and a path toward engagement for parents whose past experiences or current circumstances kept them from being involved. Her Promise Academies, modeled on the widely lauded Harlem Children's Zone - which provides education and social services for poor children and their families in New York City - offered Philadelphia a breakthrough, 21st-century brand of education.

Better than Reid

These are but a few of many examples of Ackerman's vision and action. That's why the Council of Great City Schools named her urban superintendent of the year in 2010 - and why she had earned a contract extension.

Andy Reid hasn't had the same kind of impact or success as coach of the Eagles - nor does his work affect the livelihoods and futures of nearly as many people in this city. But he enjoys more job security than Ackerman ever did.

Despite Ackerman's impressive record, the district's students, parents, teachers, and other employees were held hostage in recent weeks as a political food fight unfolded. Her efforts have been belittled and diminished with sexist mockery such as the nickname "Queen Arlene." Funny, I don't remember former schools Superintendents Paul Vallas or David Hornbeck being anointed as kings, even though they enjoyed many of the same perks of office as Ackerman - though without achieving the same results.

Poor timing

While the critics focus on personality, in the real world we're about two weeks from starting a new school year. It comes on the heels of a summer of random mayhem fueled by idle minds, minute mobs, and questionable responses. We have spent plenty of time castigating these roving rampages of a handful of teens. But Ackerman's treatment at the hands of adults - whether they were School Reform Commission members, local politicians, or union bosses - wasn't much better. They've incited a different kind of anxiety.

As the son of a public-school educator, I know the most anxious time of year is the one leading up to the first day of class. It was inherently unprofessional to hurl the district into tumult at such a time. Now we're trying to figure out who's in charge or who will be in charge just as a new year is about to begin. The district's employees deserve better, as do the parents and children who are the district's clients and, ultimately, its backbone.

The SRC will need a lot of luck to recruit someone else of merit to succeed Ackerman. After this spectacle, we will be hard-pressed to find a high-quality professional who is willing to step into this morass and face such abuse. And the district's rocky relationship with its funders in Harrisburg, by the way, is not going to get any better as a result of this ill-timed upheaval.

It's time for everyone to put down the forks, pull out the mops, and start cleaning up the mess of the pointless back-and-forth about Ackerman's leadership of the School District. Everyone should focus on what matters: guiding our children toward academic success. Failure to do so will land us in familiar territory: a district adrift, and with it, the futures of countless students and families who are depending on us to do our jobs and act like grown-ups.

Anthony Hardy Williams is a Democratic state senator representing Philadelphia. He

can be reached via www.senator

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