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If I Had a Hammer

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SD HQ.jpgThree years ago, the School Reform Commission hired Arlene Ackerman to serve as the answer to this question: How can we improve the Philadelphia public schools? Instead, Ackerman ended up being the answer to another question: Can you name the worst superintendent in the last 40 years?

I am serious.  I can name (and sometimes covered) every superintendent since Mark Shedd in the 1960s. For the record, not including interims, they are Shedd, Matt Costanzo, Michael Marcase, Constance Clayton, David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas and Ackerman.

And Ackerman was the worst.  Coming in second is Marcase, who was a Frank Rizzo hack, but harmless when it came to the day-to-day operation of the district.

I mention this because with Ackerman gone the conversation will naturally turn to her successor. A lot of that chatter will focus on personality. Everyone will be looking for a person with a style that is different than Ackerman's, which I would describe as arrogant authoritarianism, seasoned with narcissism.

But, it would be wrong to focus on her successor's leadership style or personality before we answer a more salient question: What kind of school district do we want?

Despite the variety of personalities that have held the job over the last 40-plus years, the nature of the district itself has not changed:  It is a highly centralized, hierarchical organization where power and policy flow from the top down.

Some superintendents have paid lip-service to school-based decision-making, to empowering parent councils with power, to giving principals more say over their budgets. But, these efforts have been sporadic, often insincere, and never sustained.

People like to point to the power of the teachers union, which remains substantial, but forget that many of the restrictive clauses in the contract -- those dealing with assignments, length of work day, etc -- were born out of a desire for teachers to insulate themselves from the intruding power of "The Parkway", as district headquarters was then called. (Since it has moved from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to 440 North Broad St., district headquarters has come to be called simply "Broad Street" by the troops in the field.)

While the district has not changed much, the world around it has. Ten years ago, it was safe to divide the pie that is basic education in this city into three segments -- public, Catholic and private -- with the public slice by far the biggest.

No more. Today, we have five providers of basic ed (ranked in order of enrollment): public, charter, Catholic, private, and home-schooled. That last is a surprise. Ten years ago, only a handful of dedicated souls home schooled their children. Now, thanks to cyber charters, there are more than 5,000 in Philadelphia alone. (For the record, charter schools are nominally public schools because they are paid out of public funds. But, they are independently operated.)

More diversity of options is on the horizon. If vouchers pass the state legislature, their availability will revivify the Catholic schools and open up avenues for private schools to expand their base to include more low-income students.

Viewed from the bottom up -- from the eyes of parents -- these are encouraging developments because they now have an array -- albeit often a confusing array -- of options for their children. And they have embraced them.

In fact, the successful models in the city share common traits: they are independently run, absent restrictive union work rules or dictums from Broad Street, and they enjoy a high degree of parent satisfaction.

It raises a question: Why can't district schools be more like that? Why don't they try to meet the growing competition from other types of schools by becoming...well, more competitive?

One way to do that would be to give more power to principals to shape their schools. That was once the concept behind Ackerman's Promise Academies, which were the lowest-of-low performance schools designated for special consideration and extra money.

But, the freedom part, as near as I can tell, never came to pass. Ackerman imposed a rigid set of rules, such as scripted teaching, that sent the message that teachers could not be trusted to teach on their own. It was Soviet-style management disguised as freedom.

Since so many performance measures are in place (the PSSA's, No Child Left Behind, etc.) why not let a thousand flowers bloom? Remove the strictures, throw out the rule books, and instead of telling schools what to do and how to do it, why not let them just do it -- educate children -- and have their success or failure measured and made public.

I know this is not a popular idea with the teachers union or Broad Street, two power centers that are protective of their interests. The new superintendent is likely to be tasked with "fixing" the district within the existing strictures. If that person comes from the educational establishment that will be their instinct.

But, let me offer this alternative to anyone crazy enough to apply for the job. Look beyond the public school system. Look at the models in this city that do work. What is it that makes parents line up to enroll in charters? Why are there so many non-Catholic students in Catholic schools? Why does the number of children in cyber-charters keep rising?

Why are people willing to pay $25,000 a year for tuition at private schools?

Answer those questions honestly and the next superintendent will know what he or she must do: Take a hammer to the machine.

                                                                                                    -- Tom Ferrick

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