School Change Must Come from Outside by Arlene Ackerman

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Access to a quality education is the civil rights battle of our generation…Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children…

Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school.

After 43 years served as a teacher, principal, and school district superintendent of Philadelphia, Arlene Ackerman has come to a sad realization – school change must come from parents, outside the system, not from the “powers that be” within. She never met a parent who did not want what she wanted for her own children and grandchildren – a quality public school education.

For the last 43 years, I’ve served as a teacher, principal, and school district superintendent with the sole goal of helping all children receive a quality education. Much of my career has been spent working in urban districts where generations of low-income, minority children have been forced to attend violent, chronically failing schools. In many communities, our public-education system has returned to separate and unequal. Access to a quality education is the civil rights battle of our generation.

Before my tenure as superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, I had always believed the best way to improve access to quality education for low-income families was to implement needed reforms from within the education system. Recently, I’ve come to a sad realization. Real reform will never come from within the system because too many powers that be (the teachers’ union, politicians, consultants, vendors, etc.) have a vested interested in maintaining the status quo that is failing our children.

Investment in Quality Education for All Students

Meaningful education reform must be forced upon the system from outside by giving parents of all income levels real choices about where their children go to school. That requires giving parents comprehensive school choice that includes an expanded charter-school system and a voucher program for low-income parents with children trapped in a failing school.

The debate about improving failing urban schools has raged for decades, but solutions have been unacceptably slow in coming. Unless progress in student achievement accelerates, it will be 2123 before all children are at grade level in reading and math. During that time, we will continue to lose an increasing percentage of African American and Latino males to the criminal-justice system and an increasing percentage of Philadelphians will be sentenced to a permanent underclass requiring increased social services. The lack of quality education harms the community as a whole. We can do better.

Investment in a quality education for all students is an investment in the economic future of this great city, and it will provide our country with the educated workforce necessary to compete in a global market. We know how to educate children. Julia R. Masterman High School, Science Leadership Academy, and Central High School are just a few examples of Philadelphia magnet schools that provide an outstanding education. Similarly, many of Philadelphia’s outstanding charter schools have saved thousands of students who left the traditional public school system several grade levels behind but who ultimately excelled and matriculated to college.

But those magnet schools and charter schools operate under different rules from the city’s other public schools. Most important, they select their teachers based on merit. The ability to hire and retain the best teachers is the most important element of a good school. Every study shows and every parent knows that the key to a good education is a good teacher.

Key to a Good Education is a Good Teacher

If Philadelphia’s best schools select teachers based on merit, shouldn’t all city schools?

I came to Philadelphia with the goal of changing an antiquated education system that is failing most of its children by implementing the Imagine 2014 strategic plan, which has as its centerpiece improving the district’s lowest-performing schools. Following the model of the city’s successful public schools, the Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools were, among other things, allowed to hire and retain their teachers based on merit and have longer school days and a longer school year.

In their first year under these new rules, the Promise Academies and Renaissance Schools showed significant gains in the percentage of their students scoring proficient on the PSSA state tests. Additionally, daily attendance increased and dropouts, suspensions, and violent incidents decreased.

With such significant improvements, the city should be expanding these programs. Instead, I fear many of these improvements will be lost. With the focus more on teacher work rules than classroom performance, many of the newly hired teachers have been removed and many of the previously removed teachers have been reinstated. Results will certainly suffer, and the neighborhood families will be left without quality educational options for their children. Thus the need for school choice to give low-income families educational options.

Improving the Public-Education System – Expanding School Choice Options

During my career, I met with thousands of parents. I have never met a parent who did not want for his or her child what I wanted for my own sons and now my grandchildren, a quality public school education. In fact, I have met far too many parents in neighborhoods with failing schools who lacked the financial resources for private school, the political connections for magnet schools, or the luck of winning the lottery for a charter school. (Philadelphia has more than 30,000 children on charter-school waiting lists.) Providing these captive parents with broad school-choice options is the only chance to improve public schools as a whole. Expanding charter schools and passing school-voucher legislation, as being voted on right now in Harrisburg, will end the public school monopoly that has failed low-income neighborhoods. Allowing parents to vote with their feet and letting some education funding to follow children to new schools is the drastic measure necessary for improving the public-education system. The more choices parents have, the better education their children will receive. I urge you to contact your state senators and representatives today to vote for this critical legislation.

My sad realization that accelerated change must come from outside the school system is a shift in my direction, but not a change in my ultimate destination – which is to advocate and fight for all children to have access to a quality public school education. It is their right, and they deserve nothing less. As much as ever, I believe the public-education system can be great. After 43 years within the system, however, I believe that expanded school-choice options are the way to make it happen.

Originally posted, School Change Must Come from Outside by Arlene Ackerman,October 17, 2011 at

  1. Hi Courtney,
    Re: non profit organization. I am not sure what documents you need. Are you referring to 504s and IEPs.? You do have such a mixed group of students that servicing those groups in an efficient way would take the sharing of resources and information from schools, parents, guardians, etc.

  2. I am looking to talk to someone about the non-profit organization I’m involved in. We help at-risk students who have reading and math difficulties, ADD, ADHD, and even ODD. I am a senior in college and am trying to figure out what the law says about my rights as an after school director. I want to see what documents I can obtain that will help me help these kids in a more efficient way. My professor introduced me to the IDEA and Wright law and I just need to speak with someone regarding my questions if at all possible.

  3. She is a special advisor with this guy

    who did this: (at his only ed job as he came straight from the overhead crane company) both get into hot water it seems.

    Seems to prefer Thomas B Fordham and American Enterprise Institute.

  4. In my ten-years+ experience with her, I do not think that she is capable of self-reflection or changing.

    Now that the state of Pennsylvania is refusing to approve her for Unemployment Insurance, she is saying that she is no longer fighting. And that she is leaving public education. This is good for public education and good for special education.

  5. Pamela, I hear what you are saying. I wonder if Ackerman is being reflective in her thinking and actually providing strategies. Is it possible that now, through her own missteps, that she can look back and say, “we need to change?”. Is this possible for her????? Her past actions have caused so much harm to student that one must wonder. We need to hear me from Ackerman.

  6. I was a special educator while Arlene Ackerman was in the SFUSD and in those years she reduced services for students with special needs, lost OCR and California Department of Education complaints on behalf of both special educators and students with special needs and over-saw a flood of middle-school and high-school students, especially those with special needs, leaving the SFUSD before getting a diploma. This student “push-out” disaster was so large that the SF Labor Council and law enforcement groups got involved to stem the tied of students fleeing failing NCLB programs that she supported. And helped get rid of her. Wake up! She is not a supporter of students with special needs.

  7. I agree completely with Pamela that change comes from the inside with teachers and parents.

    I taught special education (SXI and MoCI) for 34 years. I was the union president for special education personnel for 19 years. I taught School Law at a local university. I have a good understanding of how change takes place.

    When I saw true, positive change, it came from a coalition of parents and teachers; it did not come from the state department
    nor, for the most part, administration. And it certainly does not come from the current Sec. of Education. I would like to add that in that coalition, unions were a major force in advocating for children.

    Professionally, I take exception to any hint that parents along with teachers and their unions, do not make the best team or that they may be the wall that prevents positive change.

  8. I did a google search and indeed she did have a lot of issues. Wow!! Most administrators have major issues in large urban districts. She is not the only one. I do not know her motives for this blog. I hope she is following this blog for the following reasons:

    Despite the controversy surrounding her, she is speaking her heart and the truth–from her experience level. I have seen so many administrators create programs that fail. Mrs. Ackerman speaks out from experience and now she can speak to a wider audience.
    For parents like me, it is good to hear an administrator speak such truth—–very few are willing to do such. I would like to hear more from her on Wright’s Law. I cannot discount the controversy, I can only say that her blog article is “on point.”

  9. Arlene Ackerman was a disaster in the San Francisco Unified School District, where she was removed in 2006, protesting all the way and threatening to sue the SFUSD.

    She followed the same, albeit briefer, course in Philly and was removed this past year. Philly had learned from the SFUSD’s experience.

    Change comes from the real change agents…. the teachers and other professionals and parents WITHIN the districts and in the academic environments. Even Arne Duncan acknowledged just recently that pencil pushers in the civil service and political sectors do not have the answers and should be in a supportive role with the public education districts and the parents.

    I am amazed that Wrightslaw is even giving her a forum.

  10. Regardless of the buyout–which is contractual–she does make some good points. She is brave to speak out now as many retired administrators do not. I have been told by many teachers and administrators that nt advocacy for my child led to some major changes in remedation of children in the school district. Teachers cheered me as their concerns get silenced with heavy caseloads, too many assessments and burn out. We put our kids in schools to learn. Expanded school choice is her point in the article. But, that comes with a caution. Expanded school choice comes with pros and cons. Still, school districts must deal with failing schools and address the issues. Some parents do not want to send their kids to alternative schools–they want sucessful schools in their districts.

  11. I agree with both of you,I know that is what I would do if I ever came in to some money,and I also agree with Morning @ I have found some wonderful resources,as my ADHD daughter is in ninth grade at the 4th grade level.have started doing my homework,it isn’t easy,along with a career,most parents don’t have the time to do it,my girls give me the strength to keep studying,and learning all I can so I can do my part in my community to make a difference.

  12. Arlene, I agree. But, change must come from the inside also. A paradigm shift must occur or students will continue to fail. As a parent, I went through extraordinary measures to insure that my child’s reading deficits were addressed. Those measures included taking workshops on special educations, AT, IDEA, etc. I had to learn to walk the walk and talk the talk. Yet, most parents do not have the time for such. Thus, we send our kids to school expecting the best from the “experts.” Instead, we realize too late that our kids are 2-5 years behind in reading levels only to be told they cannot learn to read. I got involved from a legislative perspective to make a difference. As I talk to parents across the state, they are tired and expect the experts to do their jobs. We all know it is very complicated. The children will suffer.

  13. Mrs Ackerman left the Philadelphia School District on a $900,000 buyout. If she really cared about these low income children she would give that money back to those families in need so that they would be able to choose where there children go to school.

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