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Fifty Glorious Years

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Thumbnail image for Arlene Ackerman.jpgArlene Ackerman's recent essay in the Inquirer reminds me of the old adage about what is news. When a dog bites a man that is not news, but when a man bites a dog...

In Ackerman's case what we had was a person who worked in public education for 43 years saying that public education doesn't work.  She came out in favor of vouchers and charters as an alternative. You can read her full essay here, but here is the salient paragraph:

"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."

In Ackerman's case, the impact of her words were blunted by the nature of her departure.  She was fired. So anything she says about the district and the people she worked with can be construed as sour grapes.

I never liked Ackerman's bull-in-the-china shop style and her "It's all about me," persona. 

But, the surprising thing is that I have heard nearly identical laments from former superintendents and school board members: How hard it is to make change in the district. How so much of what goes on is about politics -- internal and external. How the system is broken and impossible to fix. An one former official put it: "Everyone talks about the kids, but it's not about the kids.  It's about the jobs."

Everyone has their favorite culprits when it comes to the cause: the recalcitrance of the teachers union, the meddling pols, the smothering central bureaucracy, the obstinacy of the principals union. Ackerman sidesteps this circular argument by blaming them all.

She has a point. Who cares what party is the prime mover in the district's failure to educate? The pols, The bureaucrats? The unions? Could it be all of the above?

We should take is as a given that the system, as currently constructed, lacks the will or the way to heal itself. As the saying goes: it is what it is.

We shouldn't expect it to change, not in any substantive way. It never has.

By my reckoning, all but one superintendent since Mark Shedd in the 60's came to the district with the mandate of delivering reform. For the most part, they failed. Or, if they did succeed in instituting some changes (as Connie Clayton and David Hornbeck did), the rubber band snapped back at the first convenient moment. The district went back to its old ways.

My suggested Soviet-style motto for the district is: Philadelphia Public Schools: Now Celebrating 50 Glorious Years of Reform. Anyone have an idea for a poster? The winner will get $100 for the winning entry. Send it to www.phlmetropolis.com.

Only two things have brought change to the district and both of them are external.

First, the enactment by the state of charter school law in 1997, which led to creation of a parent-friendly alternative that had not previously existed. For the first time, parents were able to vote on the quality of the public schools with their feet. The result was a stampede. This competition remains and it will increase if vouchers become law.

Second, the insistence -- emanating from the federal level with No Child Left Behind -- on results: measurable improvement in students ability to read and write.

That insistence really screwed the pooch when it came to the status quo. Before, there was little talk about results and more of a focus on process.

In Soviet Russia the cynical motto was: "We pretend to pay you and you pretend to work." In the schools it was: "We pretend to teach you and you pretend to learn."

Once it was exposed that there wasn't much actual learning going on -- and once that fact was broadcast to the world -- the powers in the educational establishment were reduced to blaming the kids and their parents. It's impossible to teach these kids because of their poverty and the dysfunctional nature of their home lives. As one teacher put it to me, in a moment of excessive candor: Garbage in, garbage out.

The fact that this is not true makes it all the more odious.

This is all prelude to applauding Mayor Nutter and Gov. Corbett on their recent appointees to the School Reform Commission -- as smart and savvy a group as you will see, all of them deeply committed to the children.

Now, it's their turn to make reform within the district. And may God have mercy on their souls.

-- Tom Ferrick

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