Meet Arlene Ackerman

The woman who shook up San Francisco's schools.


Interviewed by Lisa Snell.

No person deserves more credit for introducing a robust school choice system to San Francisco than Arlene Ackerman, 59, the district's superintendent since 2000. The city had experimented with open enrollment since the '70s, but it was Ackerman who made the size of a school's budget dependent on the number of students who attended the institution, thus introducing a market-like feedback mechanism; it was Ackerman who gave schools the autonomy to use those budgets as they saw fit; and it was Ackerman who made parental preferences the first criterion for school assignment.

Her relationship with the Board of Education has been frequently stormy, in part because of ideological differences and in part because of her management style, which critics consider autocratic. Indeed, she will be leaving the district at the end of the school year, invoking an "incompatibility" clause in her contract that allows her to resign with severance pay. But while in office, she was able to introduce some radical changes to the ways the city educates its children, and student achievement improved immensely as a result.

Despite her departure, Ackerman is optimistic about the future of the reforms she put into place. She is now bound for Columbia University Teachers College, where she will run a leadership program for aspiring superintendents.

Lisa Snell spoke with her in January 2006.

Reason: How did the weighted student formula get put into practice in San Francisco?

Arlene Ackerman: We started with a year-long pilot program. We took a cross-section of about 27 schools—schools that had a lot of parent involvement and schools that didn't have a lot of parent involvement. That gave us an opportunity to look at what kind of resources we needed at the district level and what kinds of support the schools would need regardless of the conditions on their individual campuses.

We paid them $200 per student to participate.

We went full-scale the second year.

Reason: What has been the impact of the new system?

Ackerman: Five consecutive years of academic improvement for all groups of students at every level. I mean all groups—even special ed.

When I first came to the district, the African-American students' achievement was going backwards. We reversed that. The last two years we have been the highest-performing large urban school district in California. This last year we were up for the Broad Prize as one of the five top urban school systems in the country. I'd say that's pretty good.

I'd link our success not only to the weighted student formula but to the fact that the formula is linked to an academic planning process that's based on trend data and performance targets that every school has to meet.

Reason: What's the role of school choice?

Ackerman: As a school's academic performance index gets better, the school becomes more desirable to parents. We had schools that were 8s [in their academic performance index rating] that are now 10s and schools that were 3s that are now 6s and 7s. When I arrived six years ago, those were not schools that parents were choosing. Now they are, because their academic performance has increased and they are much more desirable.

A new union president came in about three years ago who wanted to get rid of the weighted student formula. There was a resounding no from the majority of the schools because they like making the decisions. For example, we've had to make deep cuts for the last three years. In the past those decisions were made in the central office. Many of the schools felt that was inappropriate because the central office is too far away from the needs of the students. Even when it's been difficult to make hard choices, I've heard parents and principals and teachers say that they'd rather make those choices than someone else.

Reason: What do you think is the future of school choice and the weighted student formula in San Francisco?

Ackerman: I'm not really worried about the weighted student formula and the academic planning process because I think people in the schools really appreciate it. As for the student assignment process, we just have to wait and see. The board is very split on whether or not race should be used as one of the guidelines for choice. I think they are going to adjust the diversity index [part of the formula for determining who can attend popular schools], and one of the new factors might be race.

I'm proud of the work I've done in San Francisco. This is a great city, and I leave a legacy that I know is going to continue after I am gone.