A school superintendent with a steel backbone, hundreds of firings, controversy over school reform methods, contentious political maelstrom, abrupt resignation — sound familiar? In this month when Michelle Rhee is burnishing her fame and once again grabbing headlines, I was so sorry to note the passing of Arlene Ackerman, former D.C. Public Schools Superintendent who really had so many of the right ideas about how to fix our schools. Dr. Ackerman died on February 2 of pancreatic cancer in Albuquerque. Reading her obituary reminded me of the heady days at the end of the 1990’s when so many of us in education in D.C. thought that she could achieve real reform in DCPS. She received a Trinity honorary degree when she spoke at commencement in the Year 2000, so we mourn her loss not only as friends but as an honorary alumna.
Dr. Ackerman was the D.C. Superintendent for only two years, but in that time she tackled many of the issues that today’s school leaders still confront. Unlike Michelle Rhee, whose short tenure as chancellor alienated so many people who could have helped her, Dr. Ackerman invited and welcomed university presidents and business leaders to her planning table at school headquarters. She spent time with us at Trinity and we welcomed the opportunity to work with her on school reform. When the politics caught up with her and she was forced out, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post expressing my real concern then — and still my concern— that the schools cannot improve if high quality educational leadership is compromised by political interests.
Dr. Ackerman went on to increasingly controversial tenures in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and in her latter days in Philadelphia it seemed that her once-cheerful and zesty approach to school leadership had devolved into the kind of pitched battle that you just knew would end badly, and it did. Long years of political fights made her seem completely obtuse and self-interested. That’s too bad, because the Arlene I knew was a much different person — more open, interested and interesting, eager to think through sensible changes. A study of her career is illustrative of the forces that shape the personality and policies of urban superintendents under considerable political pressure from both the reformers and the unions.
Dr. Paul Vance, an experienced superintendent, succeeded Dr. Ackerman, and he, too, left abruptly after a short time. Dr. Clifford Janey then took over and was on the pathway to strong reforms when the Rhee Revolution came to town in the wake of Adrian Fenty’s election as mayor. Rhee now admits she was a poor communicator, but that’s small comfort to the people she alienated and even harmed needlessly during her short tenure.
Chancellor Kaya Henderson has all of the characteristics of a truly successful leader, and I have high hopes that she will be able to stick with the arduous work of school reform for a good long time. Remembering Arlene Ackerman and the history of school reform efforts before and after her has been a real refresher course in how hard the work of school leadership truly is. Regardless of our agreements or disagreements with specific actions, we should be grateful that some educators have the courage and sheer grit to take on these thankless jobs on behalf of the children of our cities.
Trinity remembers our honorary alumna Arlene Ackerman fondly, and we extend our condolences and best wishes to her family.
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See my Huffington Post blog “Skeet Shooting Past the Graveyards”