Philadelphia Metropolis


Cultural Incompetence?

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Does Arlene Ackerman lack the cultural competency to be superintendent of public schools in Philadelphia?  Is the fact that she is black hamper her in leading a district that, while majority African American, has many white, Asian and Latino employees, parents and children?

Here is another set of questions:

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Ackerman Use This.jpgIs it fair for me - as a middle-aged white guy - to even raise this issue? Is it retrograde and bigoted for me to ask such insensitive questions?

Before we get to the answers, let me note that the phrase "cultural competency" is not my own.  It is Ackerman's.

The superintendent last week gave an interview to Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall that consisted mostly of Ackerman saying how pleased she is with herself and her performance.  In the course of their conversation, John-Hall asked the superintendent about Washington, D.C. School Chancellor Michelle Rhee - recently deposed from that job, a post which Ackerman once held.

Here's the relevant excerpt, which begins with John-Hall's question:

Did Rhee get a bum rap? After all, she shook things up in the failing district, shutting down under-enrolled schools, removing hundreds of underperforming teachers, offering others cash incentives in exchange for tenure.  Nothing wrong with that.

"I don't think she was culturally competent for the community she was trying to help," Ackerman says..."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."

If it were me, I would have asked a follow up question, as in: What exactly do you mean by saying she was not 'culturally competent.' Does it mean that because Rhee is Asian - with both parents immigrants from South Korea - that she could not do a good job of leading a majority black district?

I don't know if John-Hall asked those questions. In the absence of answers, let's go straight to the post-play analysis.

That kind of statement is typical of Arlene Ackerman.

Anyone who had worked for or who has had dealings with the superintendent had to read that statement and laugh because what Ackerman was doing - in her desire to dis Rhee - is what psychologists call projection.

Here is a short and useful definition of projection from "Attributing one's own undesirable traits to other people or agencies; for example, an aggressive man accuses other people of being hostile."

Here's another  example: a big-city school leader who is authoritarian, utterly convinced of her rightness, and always lecturing people on what is good for them projects those traits onto a rival superintendent.

But, let's go back to the original question: Does Arlene Ackerman lack the cultural competence to lead the Philly schools? Does her blackness inherently act as a barrier to her being am effective leader of all the diverse groups within the district?  In the same way, apparently, that's Rhee's Asianness (if that's a word) acted as a barrier in D.C.?

The short answer is no.  Arlene Ackerman does not lack cultural competency.  She lacks competency.  She's a smart woman with lots of experience in education and lots of firmly held ideas on how to help Philadelphia schools.  I have no problem with her background or her vision.

What she lacks is an emotional IQ and basic political skills.

In my experience, these are not shortcomings that are racially specific. There are white boneheads when it comes to these traits and there are black boneheads.  And, just to offend everyone, there are Latino, Asian and Pacific Islander boneheads as well.

Despite all her years of experience, Ackerman has a myopic worldview that allows for only simple dichotomies. For instance, there is her way - and the wrong way. There are those who support her - and there are enemies.  And woe betide those who put her on the defensive because she is at her worst when she is under attack.

Witness her performance last year after stories about violence against Asian students at South Philly High first broke.  She did everything to blame the victims, short of actually coming out and saying: "Hey, I've got an idea, let's blame the victims."

In her interview, Ackerman concedes her response was, as John-Hall writes, "flat-footed, saying her staff did not inform her of the seriousness of the situation until it was too late."  So, who's fault was it? It was her staff's fault. Talk about lessons not learned. 

So, what's the big deal? So what if the superintendent is the equivalent of anti-matter when it comes to these leadership traits.  She got hired to run a school district not a charm school.

But, it does matter. Ackerman's liabilities haven't done her too much damage in good times.  But hard times are coming to the district. It will lose a big chunk of federal money after this year and the odds are there will be a decrease in support for the state. My estimate is that the district could be facing a deficit going into the next school year of $300 million or so - equal to 10 percent of its total budget.

How will the superintendent rally the district and the public to defend against these cuts and then deal with them when the come? My guess is: not well at all.

But let us watch and pray.


-- TF 

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