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    Q&A With Arlene Ackerman

    Arlene Ackerman
    Arlene Ackerman
    (file photo)

    "Levey Live," hosted by Washington Post columnist Bob Levey, appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion that offers washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.

    Bob Levey
    Bob Levey
    Todd Cross/TWP

    Our guest for Tuesday, Sept. 15, was the superintendent of schools in the District of Columbia, Arlene Ackerman. Ms. Ackerman took over the top D.C. schools job earlier this year from Gen. Julius Becton. She has served in public education for 28 years, in both classroom and administrative roles. Most recently, she worked in the Seattle (Wash.) public school system. Your questions and comments for Arlene Ackerman are welcome throughout the hour.

    Read the discussion below.



    Washington, D.C.: Ms. Ackerman, can we expect under your administration that more priority will be placed on teaching our children relevant knowledge as opposed to spending so much class time preparing them for standardized tests? We parents know that you, the principals, and teachers must be rated somehow, but standardized tests don't help our children. How about instituting student and parent evaluations of teachers and principals?

    Arlene Ackerman: Yes, I suppport parent input into the evaluation of teachers and principals. This year, the District instituted the process of surveying our parents and students about their individual schools. The information we received back is now being used not only in the evaluation process, but also in the school planning process.


    Bob Levey: Every candidate for Mayor has urged better schools. But the Mayor doesn't control the D.C. schools. You do. Is this political grandstanding, or do you welcome a new Mayor's ideas on how to make the public schools better?

    Arlene Ackerman: I think it takes an entire community to ensure that we have a quality public school system. I welcome the support of the mayor, as well as other members of the community. While we are holding ourselves within the school system accountable for student results, the success of our students is also directly linked to a community which is involved and committed to the public educational process.


    Washington, D.C.: Will Ms. Ackerman continue to remove poor performing principals and allow for the much more timely and easy removal of poor teachers (by giving principals and parents more power)? Also, can we expect that getting great people in our schools will be a larger priority than in filling administration jobs? My hat is off to Ms. Ackerman for what she has accomplished so far -- you have done much more in the few months than General Becton did in over a year. My thanks also for showing much more respect to our children and to all of the parents.

    Arlene Ackerman: My belief is that a successful school has a successful principal. If you want to change a school, change the principal. I believe also that the victory is in the classroom, but is facilitated by a strong instructional leader. We will continue to focus on building level leadership. Principals are responsible for supporting, developing and hiring strong teachers. We are implementing a new performance-based teacher evaluation process this year that will give principals more latitude in helping teachers improve the teaching and learning process.


    Washington, DC: I recently read about a study conducted in Maryland which found that students' family incomes were very highly (90% or so) correlated with performance on standardized tests.

    Do you believe these factors are as strongly related as this study suggests? If so, how can urban school districts ever hope to achieve better test results as middle-class people who can afford to leave for suburbs do so?

    Arlene Ackerman: I believe that all children are capable of high levels of achievement, regardless of their economic circumstances. Getting results with children who come from homes that can provide them with multiple enrichment experiences and other support systems certainly makes an educator's job easier. However, we are trained to educate all children well and we must believe in our own efficacy and skills to make that happen. There can be no excuses.


    Bob Levey: The Post reported recently that you have a "rock-em sock-em" approach. Do you? Is that a good thing?

    Arlene Ackerman: I don't know how to answer that. I believe that a leader has the responsibility to lead and I try to do that. This is a school system that has many challenges, and tough decisions have to be made. I have high expectations for myself, for those who work with me, and for the community. I plan to hold everyone accountable for ensuring our children get the best education possible.


    Washington, DC: First of all, thanks for helping our children & DCPS. My questions: (1) What are the chances of DCPS students going to school all year long (with school breaks every so often) HOORAH! (2)Mandatory for ALL DCPS Students to wear uniforms? Thanks Again, for everything.

    Arlene Ackerman: If 25,000 children attending our summer school program is an indication of what parents and students think about year-round school, then it's a serious conversation that needs to be addressed in the D.C. community. Children in urban school districts often need extended opportunities to learn. Extending the school year and providing enrichment experiences during the intersessions, I believe would enhance student achievement.

    I support school uniforms. Whether or not it should be mandatory across the District is another community dialogue. I certainly believe that each community should make that decision based on the needs of the students and their families.


    Bob Levey: Your predecessor, Gen. Julius Becton, left with a bitter attitude toward the second-guessers and politicians in the D.C. school system. Why do you think you can do better with these groups than he did?

    Arlene Ackerman: This is a difficult environment to make change, because you're in a fish bowl. The D.C. schools have been problematic for a while, and the public is tired of rhetoric. My plan is to focus our efforts on achievement, and to focus the community on the need to be involved. I have put on blinders and it helps.


    Washington, DC: At a time when national attention is turning to smaller, more nurturing community-based schools and smaller class sizes, you have been quoted as saying you may consider closing DC schools with fewer than 250 students. Yet these very schools have among the highest test scores in the city. Are you in effect choosing the cheapest way to educate children rather than the most effective way to educate them?

    Arlene Ackerman: Where did that quote come from?

    I support smaller learning communities and I support being fiscally responsible. The question for the D.C. community is how can we do both? Again, this is a discussion that we must have, and follow with hard decisions related to what we give up. There are multiple ways to support small learning communities within larger schools. We need some creative problem-solving. I think it's doable.


    Bob Levey: You recently read the riot act to employees of the school system--show up on time, be courteous, finish what you start. But why weren't school employees already doing all those? Is there a "culture" of poor performance among the administrative staff?

    Arlene Ackerman: The issue for me was accountability. There appears to have been a culture within the school district which failed to hold the adults accountable for results. The purpose of central office staff is to provide support to schools. When we in central see our schools as customers, and when we are held accountable for results, we change the attitudes and we change the culture.


    Bob Levey: Half an hour remaining with our guest, D.C. schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman.


    Washington DC: Ms. Ackerman, we recognize and applaud your interest in raising the performance of students who are at risk of passing through the system with minimal skills--but, can you tell us your plans for the students at the opposite end of the spectrum (e.g., the bright, motivated students who need to be challenged and stimulated)?

    Arlene Ackerman: The goal of an exemplary school system is to ensure that all children achieve at high levels. The purpose of implementing performance standards is to clearly articulate to students and parents not only what we want our children to know and be able to do, but also what quality looks like. Our renewed focus on professional development for teachers will emphasize the importance of varied instructional strategies which accelerate as well as remediate.


    Bob Levey: Today is the deadline for parents to prove that they and their children really live in Washington. If they can't, you have said that their children will get the boot. How many non-resident students do you expect to remove?

    Arlene Ackerman: We are expecting to show some decrease in enrollment due to the new verification process. It appears that we initially are showing a decrease in our numbers at the pre-school and kindergarten grades. We believe this is due to the fact that D.C. is one of the few school districts nationwide which has a universal early childhood program. I expect to see less than a five percent decrease in enrollment.


    brooklyn,ny: it was reported that d.c and
    newark spend the most in the
    nation for school instruction
    but get the least back for results. how will you address
    this problem.

    Arlene Ackerman: The issue of D.C. having one the highest per pupil cost in the nation is simply not true. In this area, we rank close to the bottom. Our average cost per student is about $7,000. Regardless, improved student achievement will come with a focus on results, accountability, and the implementation of standards. Last spring, we saw improvement in our SAT 9 test scores in all grades measured from spring '97 to spring '98. We had almost 25,000 children attend summer school and we started school on time for the first time in four years. I attribute our initial successes to a focus on results and accountability. It was a community effort.


    Bob Levey: I'm sure you saw a study out of Chicago. It showed that students who are held back for poor performance do not improve much (if at all), even when they spend more years in school. In light of that, will you emphasize holding students back here in Washington?

    Arlene Ackerman: Holding children back without changing instruction and without providing them with extended opportunities to learn and then accelerate will yield limited results in performance. If we intervene early and make sure that our children leave the third grade able to read and compute basic math skills, we will see this issue of non-promotion become a non-issue. A student who graduates without basic skills has limited options in life. Our goal must be to change the outcomes for these students by raising the standards and providing with the support they need to be successful.


    WASHINGTON, DC: WHY IS IT SO DIFFICULT TO GET RID OF A D.C. PUBLIC SCHOOL TEACHER THAT HAS BEEN INFERIOR FOR YEARS?

    Arlene Ackerman: It's about leadership. Remember my earlier comments about the important role of principals. It can be done, I know because I did it.


    Bob Levey: Until a few months ago, you had never lived or worked in Washington, D.C. Is this an advantage in doing your present job? A disadvantage? Neither?

    Arlene Ackerman: Yes, it's an advantage. What I bring is twenty-nine years of successful experiences that can be transferred anywhere.


    Silver Spring, MD: Why has Washington, DC seemingly had such a difficult time coming up to speed in the area of public school education? Many people have tried to make a difference that was long-lasting. What do you plan to do differently? Also, what freedom/flexibility will you have to implement your ideas?

    Arlene Ackerman: Focus, focus, focus. Focus on student achievement, accountability, standards, and public engagement. It's already working.


    Bob Levey: What's with all these charter schools? Students and teachers are leaving "regular" public schools in droves to go to charter schools. Isn't this a longterm threat to the public school system?

    Arlene Ackerman: It doesn't have to be. If we are successful in improving our public school system, which I believe we will be, then parents will feel that they can find alternatives within the public school system. That's my singular goal.


    Washington, D.C.: As a young DCPS teacher in 1993, I attended a Georgetown University hands-on math series with other teachers. Most of the teachers had forgotten basic math principles. Would you support mandatory testing for teachers in math and English as part of recertification?

    Arlene Ackerman: Yes. In 1968, I took a test called the National Teachers Exam. It ensured my placement that fall in the classroom.
    Competent teachers who know their content areas, and about teaching and learning are the keys to improving our public schools. Remember that victory is in the classroom.


    Bob Levey: That's it for today. Thanks to our guest, Arlene Ackerman. Be sure to join us next week when "Levey Live" takes a look at what Capitol Hill is likely to do with The Starr Report. Our guest will be Washington Post congressional correspondent Juliet Eilperin.


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