When tensions between an employee and an employer get so heated that the former dares the latter to fire them, you pretty much know where the story is going to end.
In Philadelphia, Arlene Ackerman essentially dared the Philadelphia School Reform Commission to fire her as public schools superintendent. And, in essence, that’s what they did Monday, just a few weeks before the start of the new school year. (How’s that for good planning?) She is being bought out of her contract, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, for more than $900,000 after a highly controversial three-year tenure.
Ackerman, who had led several school districts, including Washington’s, before arriving in Philadelphia in 2008, fought repeatedly with the teachers union, the city’s leaders and parents over issues including an autocratic leadership style that got her into trouble when she ran the District schools. She earned about twice as much in salary as the city’s mayor.
During a speech last week to the school district’s principals, Ackerman said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Sentence me, I dare you," a reference to a rhythm & blues song.
Under Ackerman, standardized test scores continued to rise. It was just announced that only 42 percent of the city’s public schools met federal No Child Left Behind requirements for Adequate Yearly Progress, but that is a problem being faced by school districts across the country.
Philadelphia was the third school system that Ackerman ran as superintendent. She was the chief of D.C. Public Schools from 1998 to 2000, also clashing with her take-no-prisoners style. When she left, exhausted and angry, she ran San Francisco’s public schools for five years.
The D.C. schools chief remembered most recently for her tough leadership style is Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor who ran the schools from 2007 through last October. But Ackerman got to that place first.
In August 1998, I wrote a profile of Ackerman as the city’s new superintendent, and it included this:
" ‘I really hope this works for her,’ said Leona Mackler, Ackerman's eighth-grade teach er and the woman she considers her greatest career influence. ‘She's high-octane energy. In terms of goals and ambitions, she is pure gold. I love her. . . . But she is one impatient cookie if you don't buy in" to her program.
" ‘I have a strong hunch she is going to get into more damn trouble than she needs to.’ ”
That, in fact, is the story of school reform today: We’re in a lot of trouble we don’t really need to be in.
The “I know best” style of Ackerman, Rhee, former New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and many other school leaders means that the community is left out of important debates and that decisions are often made without enough input and information.
Clearly those education reformers and legislators who are pushing reforms, such as evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores, have no interest in listening to critics who point out the unfairness of the enterprise and the lack of data to support its effectiveness.
The reformers’ mantra is “data,” but they often act without it, or, while accusing opponents of “cherry picking” data, they do it themselves.
Ackerman is hardly the only guilty party.
Ackerman’s deputy, Leroy Nunery, will serve as Philadelphia’s interim schools superintendent.
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