In Philadelphia School Cheating Scandal, Don’t Forget About Arlene Ackerman

As Philly schools cheating scandal progresses, remember who was in charge.

Arelene Ackerman circa Feb. 18, 2010. Photo | Matt Rourke, AP

Arelene Ackerman circa Feb. 18, 2010. Photo | Matt Rourke, AP

There were two words absent from pretty much all of Thursday’s coverage of arrests and charges in the Philadelphia schools cheating scandal — two words that need to be heard again and again every time the story is written.

Those two words? “Arlene Ackerman.

Ackerman, you’ll remember, was the superintendent of Philadelphia schools from 2008 to 2011 — much of the same time period during which the principal and four teachers from Cayuga Elementary Schools were, reportedly, altering the test scores of students and “perpetuating a culture of cheating.”

It’s easy enough to see how that culture might’ve developed at Cayuga: The tests sometimes offered an impossible standard to meet. The Inquirer reported that one group of falsified tests were originally taken by recent immigrants who could not yet read English — the rules would not allow it to be administered in Spanish. What are educators to do when they know the tests will be taken under circumstances that guarantee their failure?

But the problem is that the culture extended far beyond Cayuga. And it was Ackerman who benefitted the most from the illusion of progress at long-suffering Philly schools — a trend that started before her watch (as of 2011, the district had reported nine straight years of rising test scores) but one on which she clearly sought to capitalize: As City Paper’s Dan Denvir reported last year, the rising scores earned Ackerman the praise of then-Gov. Ed Rendell, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and a $65,000 bonus in 2010.

And, oh yeah, all of that came after a secret study in 2009 indicating the likelihood of cheating at 28 city schools — information that didn’t become public until about the time Ackerman was headed out the door, thanks in part to getting crosswise with Mayor Nutter over the district’s suddenly dire finances. (Even then, the official district statement announcing her departure was careful to credit her for years of rising test scores in Philadelphia schools.)

There were a number of high-ranking officials who were in a position to figure something was amiss with the test scores; a lot of folks let the matter slide.

Did Ackerman know something was going on? We don’t know yet — and given her death from pancreatic cancer last year, we’re not going to find out from her. But we do know there were incidents that should’ve caught her attention and made her suspicious: A 50 percent rise in proficiency at Roosevelt Middle School, a school with 85 percent of its students in poverty? That should’ve defied credulity; it certainly helped jump-start the investigative reporting that helped push the cheating scandal into the public eye.

Thursday’s charges were the beginning. The scandal involves multiple schools, multiple educators, and multiple years of shame. The main factor that ties everything together? Much of it happened on Ackerman’s watch.

Ackerman always posed as the only adult who truly cared for Philadelphia schools. “And as long as I’m fighting for these young people, they’re going to be OK,” she once told Newsworks. She took a lot of credit for seemingly good things that happened on her watch; the question is whether she bears responsibility for how it all turned bad. Ignoring the question — in the news pages and elsewhere — won’t make it go away.

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