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Philadelphia Schools Superintendent removes herself from 'Rhee - Klein Manifesto'

By less than one week after the publication of the "Manifesto" of Joel Klein (New York City Schools Chancellor) and Michelle Rhee (lame duck D.C. Schools Chancellor) in the Washington Post, at least one big city school superintendent who originally "signed" the document has distanced herself from it. Philadelphia Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman wrote to the Washington Post stating that the document that was published (over her name, along with 13 others) was not the document she was shown when she was asked to sign on to the purported "Manifesto."

At least one other large city schools superintendent, Buffalo's, refused to sign the document.

Ackerman's statement to the Post appears below:

Supt. Ackerman's critique of 'manifesto'

This was written by Philadelphia Schools Supt. Arlene Ackerman. She was one of 16 big-city school district chiefs who signed onto a reform “manifesto” published in the Washington Post this week that was long on rhetoric and short on substance. It was initiated by New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and signed by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has since resigned, and 14 others.

Yesterday Ackerman told me that she had not seen the final version of the manifesto -- which views charter schools as a big answer to urban school failure, bashes teachers unions and supports market-driven “fixes” to schools -- and though an aide gave permission for her name to be added to it, she does not agree with it. Here is her statement.

By Arlene Ackerman

Some may feverishly await the arrival of Superman to resolve the problems that overwhelm our public education system, while others prefer to enlist with the personality of the day or prescribe to the scripted agenda of the hour. However, my preference, which remains unchanged for the past 42 years, has been to tackle school reform through collaborative efforts, with the start and end goal of providing quality educational opportunities for all children who attend public schools. Period.

This said, I have written this letter in response to the Washington Post piece entitled, “How to Fix Our Schools: A Manifesto{hellip}” after discovering that the original document (from Superintendent Peter Gorman) to which I affixed my name was not what later appeared in print, nor did it fully encompass my core principles. Unfortunately, the views of this career urban educator are not likely to make the big screen because the facts are too complex and there is no kryptonite.

Yes, there are ineffective teachers who shouldn’t be in our schools. However, it is far too simplistic to castigate them or leave the impression that the failure of our children would cease if we eliminated tenure or the entire union. The truth is our public schools havebeen asked not only to educate children but also to solve many of the ills that the larger society either cannot or will not fix. I am speaking of issues directly related to poverty like hunger, violence, homelessness, and unchecked childhood diseases (asthma and diabetes) to name a few. In spite of these challenges, there are thousands of dedicated and committed educators who are working hard to make access to a quality education for all children who attend public schools a reality.

I contend that if our intended goal is to ensure that all parents have viable educational choices in their neighborhoods then we must stop the finger pointing and blame. We must be honest about the myriad of challenges we face in achieving this goal and articulate a strategic and integrated approach to solving a complex set of issues that include effective teaching. We must come together with the same kind of hard hitting, strategic and focused leverage that the President used to inspire and capture the hope of a faithful nation, unwilling to give up on the ills of the economy, world peace, and the environment.

Yes, teachers matter. Thus, it is imperative that we help them or remove those who cannot effectively teach our children. Let us also enlist the entire nation in the pursuit of teacher quality. Let us focus our efforts on the role of the teacher as a pivotal position of new knowledge in a changing society. And in doing so, let us raise the value of teaching as an intellectual and highly prized career, much as it is in other countries.

Lastly, with these perspectives, I also offer some stern, unsolicited advice to all of us who care about fixing our public schools: Be careful in this time of polarity not to get caught up in the scripted political agendas of individuals or organizations who seek to divide rather than bring us together. A collaborative approach to reform may not be easy, glamorous or movie-worthy, but it is a stronger and sustainable solution that is likely to outlast the tenure of individuals or politicized agendas.

Respectfully,

Arlene C. Ackerman, Ed.D.

Superintendent

The School District of Philadelphia

After the Boston Teachers Union criticized its schools superintendent for signing on to the document, she seemed to back off. The Boston Globe reported the following on October 14, 2010:

Union says superintendent bashed teachers, By James Vaznis, Globe Staff / October 14, 2010

The Boston Teachers Union accused Superintendent Carol R. Johnson yesterday of teacher bashing after she joined other superintendents nationwide in signing an opinion piece in Sunday’s Washington Post that railed against unions for protecting ineffective teachers.

One passage the union found particularly offensive: “The glacial process for removing an incompetent teacher . . . has left our school districts impotent and, worse, has robbed millions of children of a real future.’’

Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president, fired back yesterday morning in a newsletter e-mailed to the union’s more than 5,000 members.

“Let us be very clear: The [union] and its members do not support the retention of an incompetent teacher,’’ Stutman wrote. “Having an incompetent teacher in a classroom is neither good for our students nor our schools.’’

Later he said, “We are tired of being blamed for the department’s shortcomings.’’

In an interview yesterday, Johnson defended her decision to sign the piece, which aimed to highlight the urgency in overhauling public education, but she stressed it was not about blaming teachers.

“I have enormous respect for the hard work teachers do every day,’’ she said.

In signing the letter, Johnson aligned herself with some big names in education, including one polarizing figure: Michelle Rhee, the hard-charging schools chancellor in Washington, D.C., who has angered teacher unions nationwide for her blunt criticisms of teachers. Rhee resigned yesterday, as the city makes a transition to a new mayor.

By contrast, Johnson has been characterized by Boston union leadership as more collaborative, although Johnson and the union have clashed at times, such as earlier this year when she asked teachers at some underperforming schools to reapply for their jobs.

The dispute emerged as the city and the union negotiate a new contract, which would replace the one that expired in August. The closed-door talks have been cordial and productive, both sides have said.

In an interview yesterday, Stutman said that even though the piece and Johnson’s alignment with Rhee upset many teachers, he did not expect the issue to create any obstacles in contract negotiations or disrupt teacher cooperation in overhauling schools.

“It was an unnecessary and unfortunate step on [Johnson’s] part, but it won’t jeopardize anything,’’ Stutman said. “It’s like writing a bad flier. She has to repair some of the damage.’’

Johnson said she primarily communicated with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein of New York City in making changes to the piece for the past month or so. In all, 16 school leaders — from Baltimore, Chicago, New Orleans, and other places — signed the piece, which was headlined, “How to fix our schools: A manifesto by Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, and other education leaders.’’

Much of the piece centered on revamping the recruiting, hiring, evaluation, and training of teachers, pointing out that President Obama has said the most important factor in determining students’ success in the classroom is the effectiveness of their teacher.

The piece bemoaned archaic rules outlined in teacher contracts that the authors said impede student learning, such as provisions that require administrators to base layoff decisions on years of experience, rather than performance.

On the issue of firing ineffective teachers, the piece appeared to address a frequent call by unions for more training of those targeted teachers.

“Of course, we must also do a better job of providing meaningful training for teachers who seek to improve, but let’s stop pretending that everyone who goes into the classroom has the ability and temperament to lift our children to excellence,’’ it said.

Stutman faulted Johnson for agreeing to these passages, pointing out that a report by an outside organization earlier this year faulted Boston schools for not regularly evaluating teachers.

He also took issue with another section of the piece that advocated for the opening of more charter schools, which he found financially irresponsible. This year Boston expects to pay out about $55 million for students to attend charter schools.

“I don’t think that approach, blame-the-teacher, is helpful,’’ Stutman said. . “I don’t think it’s a recipe for success. It hasn’t been with Michelle Rhee.’’

Johnson acknowledged that the school district needs to do a better job of evaluating teachers and is about to embark on developing a new evaluation system. She also defended her support for offering families choice of charter schools, saying that she is confident that changes underway in the system will retain families and attract new ones.

“It is true that if we are not able to persuade parents to choose us . . . the district will lose resources,’’ Johnson said. “That makes it all the more imperative that we work hard to offer families strong schools.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.



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