Off the Cuff: January 2011

Is Arlene Ackerman race-baiting?

I’VE BEEN CONCERNED lately about just how far American students have fallen behind the rest of the world in academic achievement. But there’s a companion problem, one that has been growing worse here for the past half-century. Almost half of the students in Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods won’t even graduate from high school. And many who do manage to graduate are barely literate. No one seems willing to deal with the underlying reason — the dysfunctional lifestyle in the inner city. Instead, our local leaders are much more comfortable pointing fingers elsewhere and raising the specter of racism. That’s a game that’s been played now for two generations, and it popped up again just last month.

This latest controversy is centered on the Inquirer’s critical coverage of the city’s school head, Arlene Ackerman. She recently won an award as the top city schools chief in the country; she also received a $65,000 bonus, on top of a $338,000 salary, after raising student test scores ever so slightly. That really tells you something about how success is measured in our school systems.

Philadelphia schools have long been, and remain, abysmal. There are exceptions, but the norm, especially in the inner city, is this: The schools are dangerous, violent holding tanks; teachers are wardens more than teachers; and students, when they bother to show up, learn very little. Of course, Arlene Ackerman didn’t create this state of affairs, given that our schools have been heading downhill since the mid-’60s. Yet you might think that her focus would be solely on those problems, as deep as they go. Ackerman, however, seems to have other things on her mind.

The Inquirer recently reported that a few months ago, Ackerman was worried about an impending state report on safety in Philadelphia’s schools. To combat the negative publicity, an “emergency” plan was enacted to put security cameras in 19 of the city’s worst schools. According to the Inquirer, a company had been designated for the project and instructed to begin work, but Ackerman decreed that a particular minority firm should get the job instead, even though that firm had egregiously overcharged on a previous project. (Don’t you just love affirmative action?)