Amid allegations of widespread pressure to pass even the most lax students, Philadelphia schools chief Arlene Ackerman has ordered new levels of scrutiny to keep students from getting undeserved grades.
Ackerman will be monitoring any changes principals or teachers make to student marks due out in report cards today, and disciplining anyone who boosts grades without cause, she said yesterday.
And, as tempers over her directives flared at a meeting of the district's largest union last night at the Liacouras Center, the superintendent also acknowledged that she is in for a rough summer of talks with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
The Inquirer has reported that teachers around the district say they feel pressure to pass students who don't deserve it, even those students who rarely go to class and don't do work. Ackerman said she became aware this spring of the decades-old practice, which she has condemned.
There's no excuse for any teacher or administrator who doesn't toe the line, said Ackerman, who sent an e-mail to all teachers last week advising them to give students only the grades they earned.
"To me, it's bordering on insubordination if it happens now," said Ackerman. "I'll talk to Personnel about what kind of actions I can take against people who now have decided that they're going to do what they want to do, even though our position is clear."
But Ackerman acknowledged that she has no way of detecting and fixing passing grades already awarded to undeserving students by teachers who say they are being pressured by principals and the administration to keep failure numbers low.
"I don't know that I can go back and single-handedly look at all of this," Ackerman said. "My job now is to make sure that it doesn't continue in the future."
Ackerman said she can track grade changes only from this point forward. If principals want to change a grade, they are supposed to inform teachers in writing. Teachers can request a grade change as well.
Ackerman said she would be looking at all schools for large numbers or patterns.
She said she became aware of the pressure to pass in April, at a monthly teachers' roundtable meeting. She also learned then that students could earn no mark lower than a 50 even if they do no work.
"I was just shocked, and I hadn't heard of anything like this before," said Ackerman, who has also led school systems in Washington and San Francisco.
Beginning next year, she said, there will be no 50-point minimum. Students will receive the grade they deserve, even if it's a zero.
But the superintendent does want teachers to do everything within reason to make sure students succeed, she said - including giving hardworking students chances to earn extra credit.
The pressure to pass, Ackerman said, probably stems from her holding principals' and teachers' feet to the fire.
"There's been no accountability for adults," Ackerman said, referring to practices she found when she arrived in the district last July. "Remember, this is the first year that principals may be losing their jobs or being demoted if they don't perform. I'm openly talking about how we can't have the kinds of results that we have in this district and only having 13 teachers rated unsatisfactory."
Last year, only 13 of the district's 10,000 teachers were disciplined for poor performance.
Ackerman has earned the ire of principals and teachers alike for her stance. The two groups - who don't always see eye-to-eye - wore red yesterday and will dress in blue today in solidarity for each other's causes.
"I came here to take a last stand for children," Ackerman said. "I'm not against teachers and I'm not against principals, but I am for children. I think it's easy to make me the sort of villain, but that deflects the real issue about accountability for adults."
Ackerman also yesterday sent a letter to teachers reiterating that she is requiring them to sign individual contracts for the first time in decades.
Union officials say most members should not sign the contracts, which they say are legally unnecessary. Only those hitting the tenure mark - the end of their third year teaching in Pennsylvania - need sign them, they said.
The superintendent, and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak, whose letter to her she also passed along to teachers, say that the contracts are mandated by Pennsylvania school code. Ackerman also says the individual contracts are necessary for the district to keep tabs on how many classroom spots it will need to fill in the fall.
Ackerman wrote to teachers: "The decision to sign the contract that you will receive in the next few days is your choice. But please understand that the consequences for not signing will be dictated by state law, including any disciplinary action taken by the district."
Teachers who do not sign the contracts say they fear removal from their current classrooms, though those with tenure are guaranteed some position in the district.
In an interview after last night's closed union meeting at the Liacouras Center, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers head Jerry Jordan said that his members feel "a tremendous level of frustration" with Ackerman, and that threats of discipline are demoralizing to the professional staff.
Jordan said that he expects all-day, every-day negotiating sessions to begin in the next few weeks. The teachers' contract and those of four other unions expire Aug. 31.
He also said he plans to fight Ackerman's "renaissance schools" proposal, a piece of her five-year strategic plan. It would close up to 35 failing schools and reopen them as charters or schools run by outside managers.
"It's not sound educational policy," Jordan said. "It has not worked anywhere, and why would we want to do that in Philadelphia?"
About 5,000 members showed up at the meeting last night.
Jordan said he would argue not just for salary and health benefits, but also for better classroom conditions, including more supports for schools and more librarians and nurses.
Ackerman said that she realizes many teachers and principals are angry with her, but that she would stand her ground - teachers must sign contracts, principals will be demoted or fired if their schools don't perform.
"No doctor could keep their practice open if they're losing half of their patients," Ackerman said. "No lawyer could stay in business if they were losing half of their cases."
About half of the district's 167,000 students cannot read or do math on grade level.
Given what she's demanding of teachers, Ackerman said, it's going to be a rough summer.
"It's not going to be an easy set of negotiations," she said.