Philadelphia Metropolis


Mr. Nice Guy

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William Hite.jpg

In baseball, it is axiomatic that a tough-guy manager will be followed by a nice-guy manager and vice versus. For proof, just look at the last four Phillies managers: fiery Jim Fregosi was replaced by nice guy Terry "Tito" Francona, who was replaced by Alpha-Male Larry Bowa, who was succeeded by good ole' boy Charlie Manuel.

The theory is that players eventually grow weary of being yelled at and hectored, so bring in someone who is likeable and will whisper in one-on-one sessions what he wants done or what needs to be improved.  It's not a question of managerial skills - anyone who makes it to bigs has a deep knowledge of the game.  It is a question of disposition.

Now you can understand the decision by the School Reform Commission to hire who it did as new superintendent of Philadelphia public schools.

Exit tough-as-nails (and slightly daft) Arlene Ackerman.  Enter William Hite, 51, a level-headed guy described as "very caring" with a "great emotion IQ" a man who modestly describes himself as a "servant leader.'  For more details, see Kristen Graham's profile.

In the world of big city schools, where big egos hold sway, Hite appears to have checked his megalomania at the door.

Hite is also a career educator, who has spent time in the trenches as a classroom teacher, a school principal and as an administrator in the Prince Georges, Md. school district, where he currently serves as superintendent.

In short, he has creds as an educator - with a capital "E."

He is going to need it.  Because a central part of Hite's new job will be to dismantle the teachers union contract as we know it.

The real drama won't begin until next year - the union's current contract expires in August 2013.  But, the run up could be interesting with each side trying to win public support.

Building public support was not an Ackerman strength, to put it kindly.  In fairness to her, she was impaired.  Her emotional IQ was in the less-than-zero range .

But, Hite has the capacity and the personal skills to do something Ackerman never did.  He can embody hope.  He has the opportunity to convince a skeptical public that the best way to serve the children is to make fundamental changes in the way we run schools.  And, if we do that, the reward will be children who learn -really learn - in a caring, safe environment.

It's going to be a tough sell because that is basically the pitch every new superintendent has made ever since Mark Shedd took the job in the late 1960's.  The result?  Despite constant injections of reform, the district remains a place where progress, when it comes, is incremental and where students often emerge from 12 years of schooling without a grasp of the fundamentals of reading, writing and math. 

For too many students, the district is a killing fields where their futures go to die.

It sounds grim because it is grim.

With the departure of Ackerman, with the appointment of a new School Reform Commission, with the onset of a financial meltdown, there is hope the trajectory of repeated failure can change. The SRC has a crisis and intends to make the most of it.

I hesitate to call the SRC's school plan radical, but it is - certainly in the context of previous ones.  It calls for harsh cuts to tame the deficit, the closing of dozens of underutilized schools and a dismantling of the district's central bureaucracy - blamed for years for stifling creative change. 

In the field, it wants to give more power to principals to actually run their schools - while insisting on results: academic achievement.  It should give principals and teachers more freedom to do what they do best - teach - rather than adopt the flavor-of-the-moment in educational theory.

But, if the plan is to work, it will require teachers to give up long-cherished prerogatives  built up by accretion over the years in contract negotiations.

They will be asked to work a longer school day and perhaps a longer school year.  They will be asked to give up assignment by seniority. They will be asked to meet performance standards and will be relieved of duty if they do not. 

In the world of private business, the ability to hire and fire, set standards of performance and make assignments is standard practice.  In the district, among many teachers, these ideas are anathema.

And they are not in the mood to change.  Jerry Jordon, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, believes he was betrayed  (maybe hoodwinked is a better word) by Ackerman by agreeing to work-rule concessions when it came to the Renaissance Schools, the poorest performing schools slated for take over by the district. He did it so these Promise Academies would be staffed by his members.

Instead, Ackerman decided to turn many of these troubled schools over to charter operators - whose employees are not union covered.

Ackerman is gone, but the SRC's embrace of charters remains. It is partly philosophical, but also partly tactical.  It sends a message to the PFT: if you will not give us the changes we want, we will turn more and more schools over to charter operators.  Your union will wither until it has just a fraction of what it is today.  (Already, because of the financial crisis, the number of teachers has declined from nearly 11,000 in 2010 to 9,700 today - mostly due to layoffs.

Teachers feel battered.  They feel the disrespected. They see their jobs threatened and are indulging in paranoia, seeing the move towards charters and a decentralized district as a right-wing conspiracy. That is nonsense, but it is useful nonsense because it offers up a bogyman to fight.

Hite's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to talk the PFT off the ledge, get them out of their paranoid state, and convince them to make the changes needed. 

Who he will be asking?  He will be dealing with a majority white (67%), majority female (73%) teaching corps that makes an average salary of $72,994 a year and - here is the most important part - has worked at the district for an average of about 10 years. These are not hidebound old timers.  These are folks not yet at mid-career.

According to school district data, only 19 percent of teachers working today were hired before 1990.  A majority - 54% - have been hired in the last 10 years.

That means most of them are in their 30s. Teaching is their chosen career and most will want to make it their life's work. 

If they see Hite as someone who is simpatico, he might be able to convince them to go along with the changes they district needs.  If he does that, he might be giving them something they may otherwise not have: a future in Philadelphia schools.

On the other hand, it may be useful to recall tough-guy manager Leo Durocher's observation about where nice guys finish.

-- Tom Ferrrick







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