Monday, August 25, 2008


4LAKids subscriber/Parent troublemaker Bill Ring (we know who we are) asks: "Deja vu?"

By Kristen A. Graham - Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted on Fri, Aug. 22, 2008 -- Building small high schools was a costly exercise in inequality. Teacher pay should be revamped, with financial rewards for special skills, not just longevity.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman gave her to-do list for schools. Superintendent Arlene Ackerman gave her to-do list for schools.

After sizing up the Philadelphia School District for nine weeks, new superintendent Arlene Ackerman has plenty of areas she'd like to change.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Inquirer's editorial board, Ackerman discussed the district she found when she arrived in June and how she hopes to ratchet up results over the next five years. "We cannot continue to make incremental gains," Ackerman, who previously led the San Francisco and Washington, D.C., school systems, said yesterday. "We have to have dramatic gains."

Though there are some positives - she praised Philadelphia's curriculum as "one of the best I've seen" - Ackerman said the 167,000-student system she inherited lacked cohesion and follow-through.

"There's no strategic decisions in this district about how to bring everything together," she said. "We're causing our own problems by not thinking about things in a systemic way."

Reports would be commissioned and received, then tucked away in a drawer and not acted upon, she said.

Ackerman has begun an overhaul of the central office, eliminating more than 300 jobs so far. When she began asking questions about people's job functions, she said, the answers weren't clear and she found that services were duplicated.

She said she intended to continue fixing that.

One of the hallmarks of the district she inherited from Paul Vallas, the maverick schools chief who left in 2007, was small schools. Under Vallas' watch, 27 of the district's 33 new small high schools were opened. Just 17 large, comprehensive high schools remain in the city.

Ackerman - who did not suggest schools should be closed - said the small schools were "fiscal drains" that come with big price tags for staff and facilities and serve a limited number of students.

"For the young people who attend those schools, it's great," Ackerman said. "But could we have a situation where we didn't have to rob Peter to pay Paul?"

As a result of building schools with "criteria to keep some kids out, you leave the large comprehensive high schools with a serious lack of resources," she said.

That sentiment is unlikely to go over well among the parents and students attracted to specialized schools such as High School of the Future and Constitution High. As a group, the small high schools have outperformed larger schools, with high er test scores, greater attendance, and fewer discipline problems.

"Innovation for the sake of innovation is not something I'm interested in," Ackerman said.

Vallas did get results, she acknowledged. "But not fast enough," she said, pointing to the high dropout rates for black and Latino males as one area where the district has failed. "I certainly celebrate what Paul did, but it's certainly not going to be good enough for me."

Reached yesterday, Vallas declined to address Ackerman's criticism.

"New superintendents have the prerogative to bring whatever changes and best practices to the district they serve. I did that. I'm sure she's going to bring her own ideas to try to take the district to the next level, and I wish her the very best," said Vallas, now chief of the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Ackerman has been clear that one of her core beliefs is ensuring the pie is divided fairly.

Now, 43 percent of the district's serious violent assaults are concentrated in just 14 schools, she said. That means 1,926 of the 4,480 violent incidents last year happened in those schools.

Those 14 are all on the list of the district's 23 lowest-performing schools, which will receive $12 million in extra support beginning this year, the superintendent said.

But the disparities stretch across the district.

She was stunned, Ackerman said, when she found out that the district's instr umental music programs are concentrated in the Northeast and Northwest, and that some schools in other parts of the city have none.

"Those inequalities to me are inexcusable," she said. "My job is to make sure we level this playing field so all children have equal resources."

One way she hopes to do that is by considering differentiated pay for teachers.

Traditionally, teachers are paid based on longevity and credentials. Ackerman wants to build rewards into the pay scale for those who work in challenging schools and those who are specialists in tough-to-staff subject areas such as science and math.

Some teachers already get bonuses for filling hard-to-staff jobs, but Ackerman is proposing an overhaul of the way teachers are paid, not a one-time cash infusion.

The district's neediest schools are now staffed by its most inexperienced teachers, often Teach for America recruits who commit to staying for just two years.

Given real incentives, "you'd see many more teachers who are experienced going into more challenging schools," Ackerman said.

With the teachers contract expiring Aug. 31, Ackerman said, she plans to advance her idea after she has had time to flesh it out.

Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said he'd like to hear more about the plan.

"It is something that we would be willing to talk about," Jordan said.

There is no money buil t into the district's $2.3 billion budget for teacher raises, so any salary hikes would mean belt-tightening elsewhere.

"We may indeed have to go back and make deeper cuts," Ackerman said.

Also on her horizon for the fall is starting a discussion of weighted student funding - where schools get more money for educating children with more educational needs, such as special-education students, or impoverished children. She wants a committee that includes parents to decide how the funding change can occur.

A weighted student funding pilot could be rolled out by next fall, with citywide adoption in September 2010.

She believes she has only a five-year window to effect change, Ackerman said, and she expects the district to make "major progress" every year. While scores have improved over last six years, more than half of all students are scoring below grade level in math and reading.

Ackerman said she would ask the School Reform Commission to make tough choices for the children of Philadelphia.

"People will need courage," she said. "I have no problem with courage."

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