School change must come from outside

Arlene C. Ackerman
Arlene C. Ackerman
Posted: October 17, 2011

For the last 43 years, I've served as a teacher, principal, and school district superintendent with the sole goal of helping all children receive a quality education. Much of my career has been spent working in urban districts where generations of low-income, minority children have been forced to attend violent, chronically failing schools. In many communities, our public-education system has returned to separate and unequal. Access to a quality education is the civil rights battle of our generation.

Before my tenure as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, I had always believed the best way to improve access to quality education for low-income families was to implement needed reforms from within the education system. Recently, I've come to a sad realization. Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers' union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children.

Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school. That requires giving parents comprehensive school choice that includes an expanded charter-school system and a voucher program for low-income parents with children trapped in a failing school.

The debate about improving failing urban schools has raged for decades, but solutions have been unacceptably slow in coming. Unless progress in student achievement accelerates, it will be 2123 before all children are at grade level in reading and math. During that time, we will continue to lose an increasing percentage of African American and Latino males to the criminal-justice system and an increasing percentage of Philadelphians will be sentenced to a permanent underclass requiring increased social services. The lack of quality education harms the community as a whole. We can do better.

Investment in a quality education for all students is an investment in the economic future of this great city, and it will provide our country with the educated workforce necessary to compete in a global market. We know how to educate children. Julia R. Masterman High School, Science Leadership Academy, and Central High School are just a few examples of Philadelphia magnet schools that provide an outstanding education. Similarly, many of Philadelphia's outstanding charter schools have saved thousands of students who left the traditional public school system several grade levels behind but who ultimately excelled and matriculated to college.

But those magnet schools and charter schools operate under different rules from the city's other public schools. Most important, they select their teachers based on merit. The ability to hire and retain the best teachers is the most important element of a good school. Every study shows and every parent knows that the key to a good education is a good teacher.

If Philadelphia's best schools select teachers based on merit, shouldn't all city schools?

I came to Philadelphia with the goal of changing an antiquated education system that is failing most of its children by implementing the Imagine 2014 strategic plan, which has as its centerpiece improving the district's lowest-performing schools. Following the model of the city's successful public schools, the Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools were, among other things, allowed to hire and retain their teachers based on merit and have longer school days and a longer school year.

In their first year under these new rules, the Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools showed significant gains in the percentage of their students scoring proficient on the PSSA state tests. Additionally, daily attendance increased and dropouts, suspensions, and violent incidents decreased.

With such significant improvements, the city should be expanding these programs. Instead, I fear many of these improvements will be lost. With the focus more on teacher work rules than classroom performance, many of the newly hired teachers have been removed and many of the previously removed teachers have been reinstated. Results will certainly suffer, and the neighborhood families will be left without quality educational options for their children. Thus the need for school choice to give low-income families educational options.

During my career, I met with thousands of parents. I have never met a parent who did not want for his or her child what I wanted for my own sons and now my grandchildren, a quality public school education. In fact, I have met far too many parents in neighborhoods with failing schools who lacked the financial resources for private school, the political connections for magnet schools, or the luck of winning the lottery for a charter school. (Philadelphia has more than 30,000 children on charter-school waiting lists.) Providing these captive parents with broad school-choice options is the only chance to improve public schools as a whole. Expanding charter schools and passing school-voucher legislation, as being voted on right now in Harrisburg, will end the public school monopoly that has failed low-income neighborhoods. Allowing parents to vote with their feet and letting some education funding to follow children to new schools is the drastic measure necessary for improving the public-education system. The more choices parents have, the better education their children will receive. I urge you to contact your state senators and representatives today to vote for this critical legislation.

My sad realization that accelerated change must come from outside the school system is a shift in my direction, but not a change in my ultimate destination - which is to advocate and fight for all children to have access to a quality public school education. It is their right, and they deserve nothing less. As much as ever, I believe the public-education system can be great. After 43 years within the system, however, I believe that expanded school-choice options are the way to make it happen.


Arlene C. Ackerman is a former superintendent of the Philadelphia School District.

 

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