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Masterman, Obama, and Ackerman. Part I

Ever since I heard that President Obama had decided to make his “Back to School” speech to the nation from the auditorium of J.R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia, the place where I spent the final ten years of my thirty four year teaching career before retiring in 2008, my head has been spinning with questions.

Why Masterman? Who chose this school for him? Masterman, a magnet school for academically talented and mentally gifted students from every neighborhood in Philadelphia ( though in truth, more prosperous neighborhoods, filled with well educated families are home to a disproportionate number of its students) is not a typical Philadelphia school. It is a unique environment that serves pre-selected, high performing students from grades 5 to 12. So when I first learned of this upcoming event, I did wonder whether the president had been informed by his advisers about the special relationship Masterman has with the city of Philadelphia. After all, two recent mayors, other public figures, and many school district administrators have sent their children to this top school. Mayor Nutter’s daughter is currently in the 10th grade there.

My questions turned to shock, then ire this morning when I read the account in the Philadelphia Inquirer in which (the controversial-to-teachers but highly praised by the media) Superintendent of Schools, Arlene Ackerman took credit for Obama’s choice of Philadelphia as the site for his national address. She asserted that he had selected Philadelphia for its highly publicized and (overstated?) increase in PSSA test scores and (in a sleight of hand naming gambit that would make George Orwell cringe) her Renaissance Schools Plan. This plan displaced experienced teachers at thirteen district schools, replacing them with different teachers from within the district, along with new recruits, including Teach for America rookies ( straight from their six week long summer “training institute” that served as their teacher preparation program) and spending massive amounts of money on “scientifically proven” scripted curricula that alienate teachers and students alike and line the pockets of text book conglomerates who shamelessly peddle these materials as the “answer” for all that ails underfunded schools in economically struggling communities — all decisions made without the professional input of teachers.

I have quite a bit to say about this hypocrisy and travesty and my friends who are still teaching in the district are urging me to speak out, now that I am far enough removed from the vindictive arms of administrative retaliation which they fear were they to do so. On Tuesday, you can trust that I will be watching this speech as it is streamed live on the White House web site. ( I have given up any hopes of being invited to my former school to see him live.) And I will be listening closely to what he has to say about the issues that students, parents and teachers hold close to our hearts.

Last year Obama was criticized for making a back to school address directly to students. Many parents put pressure on schools not to air his speech, fearing that his words would be partisan and political and that having them broadcast in school, would be coercive. This is an interesting point and one that speaks more to the kinds of discourse happening (or not) in schools today and by extension, in our society,than it does to the actual content of the president’s address.

No one seems to know how to create spaces for open, ethical and generative dialogue about the serious issues that are facing us today. The media no longer even tries, giving air-time to entertainers who fashion themselves as serious journalists, and sensationalizing the antics of fringe lunatics for the sake of ratings. The parents who objected to their children’s hearing the president’s address assumed that the students would be forced to listen to that speech without any critical discussion afterwards. And perhaps this is true in many schools today.

For herein lies my strongest criticism of Ackerman’s pedagogical programs – they do not allow for critical engagement of the hearts and minds of young people. Programs and teaching methods geared towards finding “right answers” for decontextualized test items do not promote critical thinking nor leave room for exploration of nuance, paradox, contradiction, multiplicity, shifting perspectives and complexity –skills that are needed in the fast paced, interconnected global world in which they live.

One needs only to look at the current circus surrounding the “minister” in Florida and his threat to burn copies of the Qu’ran or the knee jerk reaction to the building of an Islamic center in Lower Manhattan to see how few people in this country are capable of the kind of nimble, complicated and ethical thinking necessary for a working democracy.

So yes, I am fired up about this. I will will be listening very closely to President Obama on Tuesday when he addresses the nation from a place where I spent ten years as a teacher and taught hundreds of the “best and brightest” students in Philadelphia. I will also be thinking about the thousands of students I taught at Simon Gratz High School for twenty years, a comprehensive neighborhood high school that did not have the luxury of pre-selecting students who already had high test scores, that lost many of its resources during he 1980s to the establishment of magnet schools, that continues to lose resources in the 2000s to the proliferation of public charter schools. And I will be hoping ( yes Mr. Obama, I have not yet given up hope) that I hear our president say that what’s broken about the system is neither the teachers who can’t teach nor the students who refuse to learn, nor the parents who don’t care. Those statements, while they carry some truth in a few circumstances, serve as canards and ways of keeping the public from looking at the structural inequities in the system itself which is not designed to make available to ALL students in Philadelphia or anywhere in this nation the kind of respectful, rigorous, and critically engaging education to which the students who are lucky enough to attend Masterman have access.

Masterman shares its reasons for success with other excellent schools. Caring, hard working teachers. Involved parents. Students who are fired up to learn. But there are two inextricably connected characteristics that make Masterman unique which cannot be dismissed in any analysis of the current system: 1) the students enter the school having already mastered the skills to d well on standardized tests and 2)
the teachers at Masterman are treated as professionals respected enough to modify and design their own curricula to engage and inspire their students.

Masterman “works” because it is not forced to follow the same restrictive and repressive rules as the other schools which cannot select their students nor teach in ways that will challenge and engage them.

I will be listening on Tuesday, hoping that I hear in the president’s words some understanding of this reality and the implications his support (tacit or otherwise) of Ackerman’s policies has for all of our young people as well as the future health of our democracy.

Let me know what you’re thinking about this.. and stay tuned.

Marsha Pincus is a post-mid life woman, riding the Age Wave and writing for her life.

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  1. Hi Mrs. Pincus,
    I read your blog&I fully agree. I believe that its absurd to limit the issues with education to teachers,parents and student&feel that the lack of motivation stems deeper than that. However I will say that Masterman also "works" because of the compassion of veteran teachers such as yourself who refuse to give up on students and provide a class environment that doesn't avoid the bigger issues. Ill be watching Tuesday as well and I hope he addresses not only grammar school student grievances but the grievances of so many college students. I believe that Textbook conglomerates do not only capitalize on struggling school districts but struggling college students as well and its frustrating. Touching on the point you made about teaching style, I to have seen the work that comprehensive middle and high school receive now& its all geared towards heightening standardized test scores to launder more money into the school district but they kids are missing out on a chance to have a love a learning and exploration of complex though&being programmed to be focused on a number that will continue to "define" them intellectually. I hope he goes into depth and not only focus on the surface issue because those Masterman kids can definitely handle it! =)

  2. Mrs. Pincus–

    I have to say, I definitely agree with what you mentioned concerning how open our country is in terms of critical discussion. No one seems to want it anymore. The knee jerk reaction is to burn or protest something you disagree with. Tragically, these particular people are also the loudest people. They are show cased in the media because the media thrives on sensationalism.

    For example, let's look back at September 11th. I remember being in the Masterman cafeteria, with the TVs showing people in the Middle East "celebrating" this tragedy. Whether that was staged or not, that was a tiny percent of that region of the world. A great majority of Muslims condemned the actions of any terrorists and joined the United States in mourning.

    What I'm trying to say is that this kind of reporting is shown on our televisions and on our computers every day. A tiny fraction is interviewed for the news, and the media attributes that one extremist voice to define the conservative or liberal view point. These people do not represent how most Americans think, just as those cheering on September 11th do not represent how most of the Muslim communities think.

    I do believe people are open for critical discussion and debate. I think that given the right education, most of our youth would thrive in that kind of environment, no matter what we see or hear on TV of some close minded individuals.

    We're simply caught in the web of the media trying to get the most viewers.

    -Jared Friedberg

  3. If only the majority of people in the city could read this and understand the situation of things the way you do! As a former teacher in one of the failing high schools, I have experience with the constantly shifting reform that will "fix all"… Thanks for writing!

  4. Obama's advisors chose Masterman because it fits a wonderful mold of a "diverse" urban school that is very successful in what it aims to do.
    Masterman students do not necessarily need to hear from Obama. However, Obama wants the nation and the world to see a place like Masterman. Meanwhile, the remainder of our city schools are incredibly segregated by race and class, and by Duncan's standards: failing.
    Where is the back-to-school speech for those students? If only Obama would take a stand by speaking from a school which highlights how much there is to be done, instead of hiding the truth of our separate and unequal school system as he speaks from a safe, high scoring, "diverse" school.

    -Masterman Class of 2002
    Educator, Philadelphia School Distirct

  5. Over twenty years ago, and English teacher left West Philadelphia High School for Central. She visited us about a year later, and said that it was amazing what a good teacher she had become in that year! She was honest.

    America is unwilling to be honest about education. Rather than look for strategies proven to work by reliable research, our country opts for the easy way out. Blame teachers, students and occasionally parents. Then, find the cheapest way to shuffle paper and children and say reform is taking place.

    That suits the power-mongers, who benefit from an uneducated electorate. Without critical thinking skills, people just might believe the pundits on Faux News and vote for the very politician who is stabbing them in the back. It is so frustrating to see this scenario play out under the Obama administration.

    Furthermore, to make Masterman look like it is something it is not and use it as a tool to promote a lie is heart breaking.

    Thank you Marcia for your insightful article.


  6. Hi! I just read your blog and I have disagree with you. I just started teaching in the district, I'm one of those "new" employees. I've been teaching for well over a decade and just moved to Philly. So far I'm very impressed by the new "blood" the district has hired and less impressed with the "veteran" teachers I have encountered on PD days. One look at some of these so called teachers and you can see why the schools have been doing so poorly (late to meetings, unprofessional dress, vulgar language). It's a shame the district has to resort to scripted lessons but after seeing the previous staff here it's not a big surprise. However I do agree that scripted education isn't the answer but until the union allows for merit and allows good teachers to be recognized this shall remain the status quo.

  7. Mrs. Pincus-

    This was a really insightful commentary on the unfortunate situation in our district. Our schools are becoming increasingly reflective of the society we live in. Schools, like other institutions, are being monopolized based upon standardized test scores (which in itself creates an unfair situation since standardized tests aren't created to test all students) and leaving the lowest achievers to wither with very little support. Please keep writing. I appreciate your tenacity for social change through irrefragable written expression.

  8. More than anything, I have been gratified by the cogent and empathetic responses to this blog post written by my former Masterman students. In addition to the ones posted here, I have received countless messages and emails from students from just about all of the years I taught there, and to a person, they have thanked me for speaking out, encouraged me to continue to do so and recognized without a shadow of a doubt the privilege that was theirs at Masterman and how that privilege is part of a wider more pervasive system of inequity that is the School District of Philadelphia in particular and education in America in general. Many are teachers themselves, or have parents who teach. They are a testament to what is possible when students are offered a rigorous, engaging curriculm that allows them to engage in thoughtful debate and dialogue and learn to think responsibly for themselves.

  9. As a former Masterman and Central Student and a current Phila public school teacher, with a Master's plus 30 and several certifications, these prefab scripted programs sadden me. No one ever learned to LOVE reading by parroting sounds after a signal and reading a list of words in a primer. It is a fallacy that children of low levels cannot be engaged by literacy through chapter books and guided reading. It is an insult to my craft that I am expected to read curriculum from a script when I have taken enough course work to have 2 Master's degrees in education. When I attended Masterman and Central, I NEVER recall doing anything but becoming immersed in reading and writing. If this curriculum works for the "priveleged" students of Philadelphia, then it can be made to work for all. Ackerman insults the intelligence and professionalism of great teachers everyday with her incessant insistence on scripted programs, which DO NOT allow for a great deal of differentitation and personal growth of students. It is a sad situation, and I feel for all the bright students in low income schools who are forced to sit through tedious script reading when they should be engaged in authentic literacy activities. Thank god my school does not use a scripted curriculum! If I had to read from a script I would rather quit the profession than to have my professionalism and expertise questioned in such a harsh and demeaning way!

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