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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 12/ 2/2010

Rhee, Ackerman and 'cultural competence' in urban reform

By Valerie Strauss

This post was written by Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools. She is also a board member at Asian Americans United, a community organization active in education and other issues. She was named the Philadelphia Inquirer's "Citizen of the Year" in December 2007 for her work in education, immigration and community activism. This post appeared on The Notebook blog.

Gym discusses cultural sensitivities in urban educational leadership, an issue faced by former Washington D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a Korean American, as she led the public schools in the predominantly African-American city.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Arlene Ackerman was a graduate of the Broad Academy. She is a faculty advisor of the academy and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems.

By Helen Gym
Recently, Schools Superintendent Arlene Ackerman sat down for an interview with Inquirer columnist Annette John-Hall. Ackerman, who had been avoiding local media for months, emerged none-too-shy about her opinions. Her target? Former DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee:

"I don't think she was culturally competent for the community she was trying to help," Ackerman says, though she does support some of Rhee's reform. "And I don't think she took time to listen." Ackerman adds that Rhee's mistake was that she thought she could "tell somebody she knew what was good for them when she hadn't walked in their shoes."

Failure of “cultural competence” as applied to Rhee, who is Korean American, is thinly veiled code for perceived race/racism. While it might be easy for some to jump to Rhee’s defense or decry Ackerman for her own insensitivity, one has to wonder: What big city superintendent these days is culturally competent?

Recently, 15 of the nation’s urban superintendents signed onto a Joel Klein/Michelle Rhee-fronted Washington Post op-ed dubbed a “manifesto” on how to fix schools. Among the prescriptions: a blanket endorsement of charters, merit pay, and a focus on removing incompetent teachers. Most of the signers came through the Eli Broad Foundation, an elite grooming program for urban school superintendents. Arlene Ackerman, who later removed her name from the op-ed, has close ties to the foundation.

For more than a decade, think tanks and wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the Broad Foundation have been working to re-frame public education in America. Embracing controversial strategies like high-stakes testing, school choice, and high turnover teaching stints like Teach for America, they have won political support from both sides of the aisle.

A convenient vehicle has become revolving-door superintendents with big salaries, big entourages, and even bigger egos, who helicopter into urban districts armed with increasingly similar agendas. They shuttle from city to city (Paul Vallas went from Chicago to Philadelphia to New Orleans, Ackerman from Washington D.C. to San Francisco to Philadelphia) with their mandates and slogans – often disregarding reform efforts that preceded them.

I’m not much of a fan of Michelle Rhee. I think anyone who introduces themselves to the world on the cover of a magazine holding a broom to “sweep” folks out is asking for a lot of pushback. There was no question her tenure in Washington D.C. was fractious.

Yet Ackerman’s racialized potshot conveniently sidesteps the reality that Rhee was fully backed by D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty who is African American ; Is he culturally incompetent as well in Ackerman's eyes? It also places blame in a person rather than questions the practices Rhee embraced, practices which have found everyone from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg to Oprah to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cheering Rhee on. Practices which are part and parcel of a national education agenda in which Ackerman herself plays a role.

As Rethinking Schools writer Leigh Dingerson described it just before Rhee’s resignation from DC schools last month:

”Chancellor Rhee is the army of one at the top of the district’s lurching reform. An articulate and supremely confident 39-year-old, Rhee is, for now, the movement’s national poster child. Pundits debate her occasionally tactless comments in the media, but there has been little analysis of the reform model itself and how its “my way or the highway” culture affects students, parents, and teachers.”

Although Ackerman has clearly distanced herself from Rhee, the two are far more similar in style than the superintendent may want to admit.

Here in Philadelphia, Ackerman has pushed a Broad-friendly agenda through a largely unproven “turnaround” model that’s accompanied by major upheavals in schools and soon by school closings. It’s also an agenda that’s been remarkably unfriendly to communities and parents who disagree with the school district’s plans.

The superintendent may feel that time she has invested in meeting with parents across the city gives her a level of cultural competence. She certainly deserves credit for these efforts. But how often have these conversations actually resulted in a change in her approach?

One might question whether Ackerman felt she had "walked in the shoes" of families at West Philadelphia High School when she yanked popular principal Saliyah Cruz, ordered the Inspector General to investigate parents who challenged her Renaissance plan, and watched the school revert to chaos.

It's not too hard to find irony in Ackerman’s allegation of racial insensitivity when she herself has come under fire for such. In San Francisco she allegedly called Chinese American parents “racists” for challenging their school assignments. At South Philadelphia High School, the Department of Justice issued a “finding of merit” in its investigation of the school district’s civil rights violations of Asian students who had been racially harassed and attacked at that school.

So when we look at the tenure of big-city superintendents, maybe it’s less about the obvious cultural blind spots both Rhee and Ackerman exhibit, but whether short-term leaders who are determined to implement top-down mandates can effectively represent any school community. Both superintendents have demonstrated that they are willing to ride roughshod over communities if it advances their agenda.

Whether it's Seattle, Chicago, Washington D.C., or in Philadelphia, maybe the real lesson to be learned is that education is complicated and complex, school communities are fragile and need nurturing, and bad decisions – even ones made by charismatic and bold leaders – still count as bad decisions.

By Valerie Strauss  | December 2, 2010; 10:30 AM ET
Tags:  arlene ackerman, michelle rhee, philadelphia schools, public schools, school reform, the notebook, washington d.c. schools  
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The "reform" propagandists, like Ackerman, were preparing the "bad communication" model for Rhee's eventual repudiation for months before the election. As Ms. Gym, correctly, points out, however, Rhee's problem was not bad communication, but bad policy. The Gates/Broad/Walton/Rhee/Klien/Duncan "reform" agenda is based on a cult-like faith in i9ll-concieved and disproven ideas about education (to call them "theories" gives them too much weight. Any thoughtful analysis would have discarded this junk already, but in American, where money trumps reason, thecy continue due to their corporate backing. On the other hand, if we continue to educate the next generation this way, soon no one will know any better. Perhaps that's the real goal, if we're be happy with 3rd-rate, obsolete comupter software and "savings" on Wal-mart junk, Gates and Walton will not have to fear competition from better products.

Posted by: mcstowy | December 2, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad this is getting wider coverage -- but it needs more -- how about contacting Oprah?


Posted by: efavorite | December 2, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

Ackerman is not an official graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, but she is an official faculty adviser.

Rhee isn't a graduate either, but she was in frequent contact with the Broad Foundation during her tenure, and met with Eli in his Fifth Ave. apartment in June 2008.

Posted by: pondoora | December 2, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps any debate on schools should start with the simple question, "Is what's being done now working?" Data I don't know about can change my mind, but as of this date, I don't believe that anyone has demonstrated that average graduates of DC public schools, or Philadelphia public schools, are challenging the rest of the world for intellectual leadership. I freely admit that I have no idea what "cultural competence" has to do with actual results. Certainly, there are leaders who have done a better job of enlisting community support that Rhee did, and I think one can make a strong argument that Rhee failed, ultimately, because she was not good at that. Still, the question remains, "Is what's being done now working?"

Let's make a reasonable assumption here that, by most criteria that involve actual results, the DC public schools are not performing well. If that's the case, what's to be done? Surely, ANY attempt to change ANYTHING that's being done now will meet with resistance from those who, for one reason or another, don't want change, even if it leads to more success. Is it "culturally incompetent," then, to insist on reforms when continuing to do business as usual will certainly result in further failure? If those reforms fail, is it culturally incompetent to try something else until something works?

Ms. Strauss, this column could be interpreted to mean, essentially, "Let's never make any changes to the DC public schools system so long as anyone, anywhere, objects. Further failure is a completely acceptable outcome."

Is this what you meant? If not, what is the exact answer to fixing the DC public schools that will meet with approval from everyone?

Posted by: stuos | December 2, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

"Surely, ANY attempt to change ANYTHING that's being done now will meet with resistance from those who, for one reason or another, don't want change, even if it leads to more success."

This a the false straw man that the equally false "refomers" would likt to make the issue, but the reality is that change happens all the time in education. Often it's a new fad, like small schools or whole language, that is empraced by schyool administators and p0oliticians who don't know any better, but want to look like they're "doing something." Less often, is research or experience-based change that often works, but without fanfare, such as the curriculum reforms in Richmond, VA and Brockton Mass. that raised student achievement, as measured by standardized tests or graduation rates that were as dismal as the districts to challenging the richest jurisdiction in their respective states. But when positive, and provable, change comes from teachers and superintendents with experience and an understanding of education research, they are ignored in favor of the latest fad.

Posted by: mcstowy | December 2, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"This a the false straw man"

By definition, any straw man argument is false, so your redundancy was unnecessary. It is not a straw man, however, because a straw man is an argument erected to misrepresent an opponent's position. In this case, there was no opponent and no position, so there can be no straw man.

What I stated is simple fact. I work with large organizations, and am, I believe, pretty well versed in the literature on mass behavior, especially behavior around change efforts. In all the research literature I have read, and in all my experience (about 25 years worth), I have yet to see any change effort, whether it be the introduction of a new piece of superior software or just introducing a new filing procedure, that didn't meet with resistance. Resistance to change is endemic to human beings. Only the degree of resistance is in question.

Given this reality, your argument is circular. Fads are introduced. Fads fail. Therefore, it must the the "fad" that was at fault, and not resistance to the fad. I would submit that every positive change in education delivery has been called a fad by someone, at some time, during its implementation phases.

For instance, I have seen, with my own eyes, whole language techniques rescue children who were word-calling when they were reading (able to read out loud beautifully, but entirely unable to comprehend what they read). Many teachers who resisted, and resist, those techniques doom at least some of their children to a lifetime of inadequate reading skills. Yet, they call it a "fad."

On a local level (where I live), resistance in some schools to computer-aided reading and tracking techniques is causing those schools' reading scores to fall way behind other schools that have embraced the technology. Not surprisingly, surveys at the failing schools reveal that teachers have rejected this new technology as a "fad." It just happens to be a "fad" that's boosting schools with 80% free and reduced lunches to the top of the district in reading scores.

If there is something that's working in Richmond and Brockton, the BRAVO!! I will bet you my life's saving, though, that there was resistance to it from someone, somewhere in those districts, and maybe great resistance.

Posted by: stuos | December 2, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Isn't Fenty half Italian and half African American? If he was raised by his Italian mother, he may not understand the issues of African Americans well.

Posted by: educationlover54 | December 2, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

stuos wrote: Perhaps any debate on schools should start with the simple question, "Is what's being done now working?"

I think the debate should start with questioning the validity of the underlying premise that there is a correctable problem in regard to the achievement gap issue.

Politically correct people ASSUME that children of poor parents are just as intelligent as children of upscale parents. But this is actually a FALSE assumption!

Upscale children tend to have higher than normal IQs and poor children tend to have lower than normal IQs. This is understandable because in order for parents to be upscale, it usually means that they themselves were of above average intelligence, otherwise they would not have gained the professional degrees and career paths that enabled them to be upscale. Now since IQ-type intelligence is a highly heritable trait, the children of the intelligent upscale parents will tend to be of higher than average IQ. Conversely, children of poor parents (e.g. low IQ Dad is in prison, low IQ Mom is living on welfare or disability...) are apt to be of lower IQ because of the genes that they inherit from their lower IQ academically unsuccessful parents.

Politically correct people ASSUME that children of all different ethnoracial groups have the same average IQ. But this is actually a FALSE assumption!

Children of some higher-IQ ethnoracial groups (e.g. Jews, high caste Hindus, Jains, East Asians) tend to have higher average IQs compared with the average White children, and children of some lower-IQ ethnoracial groups (e.g. Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans) tend to have lower average IQs compared with the average White children. This of course is simple empirical fact that even PC liberals will acknowledge to be true, but they will claim that these well established ethnoracial group IQ differences are entirely due to cultural/environmental differences and NOT due to innate genetic differences. But, I ask, why is it then that adopted Korean infants raised in White homes still grow up to have higher average IQs than average Whites, and similarly adopted Black children raised in White homes still tend to have average IQs about 15 points lower than Whites (i.e. about the same as Blacks raised in Black homes)?

Just as it is probably true that ethnoracial differences in sprinting ability are due to genetic differences, similarly we can assume that it is probably true that ethnoracial differences in IQ-type intelligence are probably due to genetic differences.

Judging from the immense popularity of the NBA and the NFL I think as Americans we have all become comfortable with appreciating ethnoracial group diversity in general athletic ability. As we learn to accept the fact that ethnoracial group academic achievement gaps are NEVER really going to be closed it is perhaps comforting to know that we are at the same time learning to appreciate the true nature of ethnoracial group diversity in general mental ability!

Posted by: rifraf | December 2, 2010 4:10 PM | Report abuse


Do you have any data on what ethnoracial components contribute to stupendous dunderheadedness?

Posted by: gardyloo | December 2, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse


According to my dictionary:

dunderhead = dunce or blockhead

dunce = one who is dull-witted or stupid

Of course "one who is dull-witted or stupid" is a way of saying "one who is of low-IQ".

If you read my previous post you will see which ethnoracial groups are known to have smaller or larger proportions of low IQ individuals (or "dunderheads").

Posted by: rifraf | December 2, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

You may have a legitimate point, stuos, about resistance to change, but blaming teachers and only teachers is not change - it's passing the buck, and admins and parents have been doing it for years. You want change? Run to the nearest failing school district/school and ask them to run their schools like KIPP schools, since all the pro-reformers want KIPP-like results ... tell the you want to require parents to make their kids call with questions about homework ... ostracize kids who don't complete their homework or act inappropriately in class ... force kids to come to school and hour early for reading sessions where they must sit and read and answer questions correctly about the material before being dismissed ... force kids to come to school every other Saturday and for 3 extra weeks in the summer ... force parents to come to the actual school building to listen to teachers and admins explain what they, the parent, must do to support them ... none of that requires a dime.

Let me know how much 'change' you get.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 2, 2010 7:06 PM | Report abuse


There is considerable debate and conflicting research about IQ, how to measure it, environmental influences on it, and even about the validity of the tests given the context in which they are administered. This has nothing to do with PC, and everything to do with sound science. It appears you have been reading only one side of this raging debate.

Let's take a few things you either haven't heard about, or have ignored. A Harvard or Stanford study (I forget which) done a couple of years ago found that African-American kids who were given IQ tests after being told the data would be used to compare ethnic groups did very poorly. Other groups were told that the results were simply for baseline, normative data. The second groups did extremely well. Other studies of performance on IQ tests have shown that those with demonstrated confidence in their cognitive ability did better than those with less confidence. In other words, as we all know, anxiety has a negative impact on cognitive function, and confidence reduces anxiety. Those from groups expected to do poorly on IQ tests tend to demonstrate higher anxiety about taking those tests, thereby depressing the results.

In order to accept your premise, we would have to find a way to explain why some schools produce Ivy League scholars from the ethnic groups you deride, while others do not. Clearly, technique must play a role of some sort. You would also have to explain why early Benet-type IQ tests done on poor white children suggested that these children had inherited inferior IQ genes, while follow-up tests on their descendants indicated average intelligence. Finally, you would have to explain the recent findings from neuropsychology that IQ scores can be influenced by teaching concentration skills, and the findings from nutritional studies suggesting that early brain development is closely linked to a family's having enough income to provide superior nutrition.

None of these studies have been tested enough to conclude that they are absolutely valid, or to give us 95% confidence in the results, but they do shed a great deal of doubt on your hypothesis. Regardless, it certainly does appear that IQ is quite a bit more complicated than social Darwinian thought would have us believe.

Posted by: stuos | December 2, 2010 8:37 PM | Report abuse


I've read what you had to say a few times now, and I'm at a loss. I don't understand your point. I get the point about blaming only teachers. My wife consults to challenged schools, and she will tell you that the #1 predictor of elementary school performance is the strength and competence of the principal. However, part of being a strong principal is in getting rid of weak teachers, and these weak teachers certainly exist.

What I don't get is the point about KIPP schools. Are you saying some people would resist what they do? If so, who? What is it about KIPP schools that invalidates what I had to say?

Oh, and please show me where I blamed all teachers. I don't believe I did.

Posted by: stuos | December 2, 2010 8:41 PM | Report abuse


I have not ignored any important studies in the field of ethnoracial group differences in cognitive ability (but I strongly suspect that you have).

I think you are trying to refer to the Stereotype Threat theory of Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson. In peer reviewed academic publications, the eminent psychologist Paul Sackett has thoroughly critiqued the Steele/Aronson work and has shown that their hypothesis can not explain any significant portion of the well known Black-White gap in cognitive test scores.

Next, you try to bring up something about early IQ testing studies, it seems you can not remember it exactly but you are probably trying to recall the reports of a study that supposedly showed that Jews have low IQs. There is an often repeated "urban legend" in the anti-IQ testing literature about how some early study in IQ testing supposedly claimed that immigrant Jews had low IQs, this is a total misrepresentation of the actual study because the study was examining a specific cohort of immigrants who had been preselected because they were known to be mentally impaired children, the study merely found that mentally impaired Jewish immigrant children--just like the other mentally impaired immigrant children--had low IQs.

Then you comment that some Black students are smart enough to be accepted at Ivy League schools, but I never said that NO blacks are highly intelligent, I just implied that a far smaller proportion of Blacks are highly intelligent compared with with higher average IQ ethnoracial groups. Consider an analogy using ethnoracial differences in sprinting ability, Whites are (probably due to genetics) usually slower sprinters compared with Blacks, but that does not preclude the fact that occasionally White athletes can be highly talented (e.g. Toby Gerhart, the famous Stanford running back now in the NFL).

Before you attempt to sound like you are knowledgeable about the subject of IQ testing and the nature of human intelligence, I suggest that you first do some reading of articles and books by some actual experts in the field, scholars such as: Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen, J.Philippe Rushton, Richard Lynn, Tom Bouchard, Nancy Segal, David Rowe, Matt McGue, Linda Gottfredson, Ian Deary, Robert Plomin, Stephen Petrill, Dorret Boomsma, and Nick Martin.

Posted by: rifraf | December 3, 2010 12:43 AM | Report abuse

stuos, there are a great many people who would resist KIPP-like changes. One would be the progressive admins that run school districts ... who believe in the self-esteem movement at the cost of upholding a standard. The ones who find it easier to point the finger at a name on a spreadsheet than to get off their butt and engage the entire community, starting with the parents. I'm sure a great many teachers would be against against it - and they would need to be let go. Your post sounded like another snear at the very people who are willing to carry the torch at underperforming schools, with low pay, low morale, and an increasingly hostile environment. It may not have been, so you'll have to forgive my sensitivity - I'm tired of people bashing teachers. It's that simple.

Posted by: peonteacher | December 3, 2010 8:31 AM | Report abuse


Your follow-up post shed a lot of light. It was also written with a great deal of passion and conviction, which would explain the many comma splices.

What's your time in the 100-meter dash?

Posted by: gardyloo | December 3, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

peonteacher: I'm very sorry. I still don't understand how what you're writing about has anything to do with what I posted. Perhaps it's my own genetic inferiority to someone like rifraf, but I just don't see the link.

rifraf: Before you start accusing someone else of not doing homework, you should do some of your own. Even Fritz Heider, back in the 30s, demonstrated quite amply that performance on any sort of test, given a large enough cohort, will reflect consistency with preconceived, personal notions of competence. Heider's work is in the process of taking a front seat to Hull and the expectancy/valence theorists because neural imaging technology is rapidly confirming the work in consistency theory, counterintuitive as some of that work may be.

As for the authors you mention, I've read one, read abstracts of at least three others, and critiques of, perhaps, three of them. Your immersion in their works better demonstrates consistency theory, and its tangential prediction of cognitive dissonance, better than I could explain it. Clearly, you want your genetic superiority to be a fact, so you seek cognitions that reinforce what you want to believe and ignore cognitions that contradict what you want to believe. That's human. We all do that. But only a few of us, like you, adopt an extremely minority opinion in a given field as fact.

Oh. Yes. I almost forgot. Any deviation from the racial superiority thing is "political correctness." PC is a handy term for ignoring enormous volumes of contradictory research, isn't it?

Posted by: stuos | December 3, 2010 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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