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[Susan notes: Here is a strong letter that, written about the situation in San Francisco, rings true for the corporate management style in effect in urban districts across the nation.]

Submitted to San Francisco Chronicle but not published

To the editor

I would like to take issue with your characterization of Superintendent Ackerman in your editorial today. You say that the superintendent’s “decisive leadership” and her priorities of “stabilizing the district’s finances” and implementation of “fresh and independent ideas” will “improve public education” and “address vast disparities among schools”. This sounds wonderful, if we knew if any of this were true. But let’s, for the moment, pretend that reconstitution, direct instruction, scripted curriculum, parental contracts, and “just say no” truancy campaigns are new and original; and that, contrary to the most recent Consent Decree and Civil Grand Jury reports, they will keep students in school, raise graduation rates and close the achievement gap; and that stonewalling and intimidating parents will successfully thwart all the financially destabilizing lawsuits-in-waiting because the district is out of compliance with dozens of state and federal laws. Let’s pretend that the superintendent’s ideas are good ideas. That leaves the issue of leadership. It is one thing to lead a charge, but quite another to get people to follow you. Ackerman’s top-down, authoritarian leadership, which you label as “decisive,” has successfully alienated the very people who are supposed to put into practice her “fresh and independent” ideas. How do you think her ideas are going to be effectively implemented when they are accompanied by demoralizing threats and retaliation against school staff, parents and students who have legitimate questions and concerns about her ideas?

Ackerman’s “you-are-either-with-me-or-against-me” leadership style has sowed dissension within and among the very groups that need to cooperate with one another if any ideas, whether “fresh” or not, are going to be successfully implemented. This is why top-down reform never reaps the ostensible benefits its supporters claim for it—it imposes a policy that is not informed by reality, a reality only gained from including input from the people on the front lines. The Chronicle may be attracted to top-down models of reform because it promises to be inexpensive and efficient. But real reform that is more than window dressing and band aids takes a different kind of leadership from that exhibited so far by Ackerman. You characterize Commissioners Mar’s and Sanchez’s attempts to hold the superintendent accountable as being ideologically driven. So it is, and their ideology seems to be based upon a principled stand against policy as coercion. Instead they advocate for authentic community input as the basis of sound policy development. So far, the majority on the school board have been masquerading as supporters of Ackerman when, if fact, they have been irresponsible—they have not demanded the data necessary to truly determine if the district is financially stable and whether or not claims of rising test scores actually indicate system-wide improvements or is merely a successful shell game being played at the expense of the neediest and least served students in the district. I don’t object to holding teachers accountable. But when and who is going to hold the superintendent accountable?

Kathy Emery

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