Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Report Card for Seattle Public Schools

In this era of accountability, it's time for us to fill out a report card for Seattle Public Schools.

This is a difficult task in many ways. Are we grading the outgoing Superintendent? the Chief Academic Officer? the School Board? Many of us love the particular school where our children attend, but have strong animosity towards central district staff. How should that be reflected in the report card? And what standards should we use in our grading? Do we grade the district compared to what we think it should be able to do? compared to other urban districts? other districts in Washington state?

Geov Parrish, former Seattle Weekly columnist and founder of the local nonprofit community newspaper Eat the State!, shared his assessment of the district in a recent article in the Beacon Hill News, Defending the Seattle School District. I disagree with some of Geov's points, but also find places of agreement, like his assertion that:

...the same problems - declining enrollment, old physical plants, poor tests scores (especially among non-white students), overtaxed special-needs programs - face nearly every other major urban school district in the country. Seattle is not unique and, in many ways, is doing relatively well.

As I fill out my report card for the district however, doing "relatively well" only merits a C+. I expect more from the public schools in this well-off, well-educated city. I take little comfort from the fact that Seattle's schools are in better shape than Philadelphia's or New Orleans' schools. I want Seattle's schools to be among the urban schools cited as making unusual progress in combating the problems faced by urban schools around the country.

I want Seattle to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education, a "prize awarded annually to the best urban school districts in the nation that make the greatest improvement in student achievement while reducing achievement gaps among ethnic groups and between high- and low-income students," but Seattle has never even been named a finalist. This year, Boston won the prize, which brings with it $500,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors. Four districts who were finalists (Bridgeport Public Schools, Jersey City Public Schools, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the New York City Department of Education) each got $125,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors. Learn more about the Broad Prize for Urban Education and why Boston won this year's award by reading the press release.

You could argue, pretty convincingly, that Seattle will never be in a position to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education as long as the state funding is so poor. But the lack of funding, while a real problem, is not a sufficient excuse for the current state of affairs in Seattle Public Schools. Unlike Geov, I believe that district "regime change" can make a real difference for our schools, and that while working to increase education funding in our state, vital organizational cultural and structural changes can be made by a talented, visionary superintendent.

So, with that said, here's my report card for Seattle Public Schools for the 2006 calendar year. I encourage you to fill out your own report card, changing and adding categories as you wish, and send it to the School Board and to Carla Santorno.

Introduction: This report card is based on my limited knowledge of the school district during the 2006 calendar year. With better and more frequent communication, and more genuine community involvement, you could see more accurate report cards from me and other Seattle citizens in the future.

Fiscal stewardship: B; according to the newspapers and School Board members, this is one area where concrete progress has been made.

Educational leadership: C, but showing signs of improvement including Carla's six key academic milestones presented in the fall, and recent moves toward more international schools and more arts in the schools.

Resource development: C-, for multiple reasons including losing the confidence of the Gates Foundation and a major grant along with it, and thumbing your nose at Stuart Sloan and the New School Foundation during Raj's first proposal for school closure and consolidation.

Equity: C-. While the weighted student formula does not appear to be achieving its stated goals, I'm concerned about a possible move towards equal funding rather than equitable funding.

Communication: D; really horrible throughout the school closure and consolidation process; inconsistent and unclear on topics including WASL scores, district finances, and the current Supreme Court Case on race-based tie-breakers for enrollment.

Community relations: D-; the lowest grade for any of the categories; too many reasons to list here; feel free to contact me for details or clarification.

School leadership: highly variable; the district practice of frequently reassigning school principals has contributed to problems at many schools.

Quality of instruction: highly variable; I question how much the district really knows about the quality of instruction in individual schools and what, if any, strategies the district has in place to improve the quality of instruction overall and especially in schools with the highest concentration of low-income students.

Overall: C+

Suggestions for improvement: Take a careful look at other urban school districts in this country that are doing a better job of meeting the needs of all students. Identify the similarities and differences in funding, structure, leadership, staff development, communication, etc. between those districts and Seattle and then develop a strategic improvement plan with priorities for short-term change (2-3 years), and long-term change (5-10 years).

Note: This suggestion does not mean the creation of another document like the district's five-year plan. That plan is almost meaningless; an everything-but-the-kitchen sink plan with too many action items and almost no follow through or accountability. Instead, I want to see a clear, concise document that outlines top priorities in ways that everyone in the city can understand, buy-in to, and keep tabs on how much progress is made towards them.

28 comments:

Frankie said...

As Beth mentions Seattle is a "wealthy" and "well educated" city. It is very disappointing to see so many of the wealthy and well educated families choose private schools, or move to the burbs. (I myself, lower middle class, was very happy with our public elementary school, but am now grappling with the decision to send my 6th grader to a private middle school. I just have not found a public school that meets my high expectations.) All of this "flight" of middle and upper class higher achieving students, leaves public schools to serve an unusually large amount of low income, special ed., and English language learners. When we compare ourselves to other districts we have to make sure that we are not comparing Seattle as a whole, but rather compare ourselves based on the actual students and demographics that the district serves.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Geov Parrish is right about being suspicious of why the downtown folks believe that all that need happen is a change on the Board. After all, the Board previous to this one had 2 lawyers and, further back, other Boards had many business people and a doctor. Were things better? No. And we've now had two business people in a row as superintendent. Did that work better than having an educator? No.

I would agree with a lot of Beth's grading except in resource development. How did the district thumb its nose at the Sloan Foundation during school closures? No, until the Board has an actual policy about resource development and how we deal with private entities, I'd say they're doing fine.

Charlie has said it and I say it again. Nothing will really get better until the culture of the bureaucracy at the Stanford Center changes. People there work hard and care deeply about our students but they have a mind-set on how this district runs that has set us on a path that will never better our district. They don't want to change how they do anything, don't want to admit to errors, don't want to listen to parents (any parents, not just those you might label naysayers or critics) and don't want to believe there could actually be a better way to do things.

I am pretty discouraged at this point. I was Geov Parrish about 5-6 months ago, defending the Board and the district. I wrote to Ross Reynolds at KUOW asking him not to say our district is in "crisis" because it was over the top. He wrote back and said if that's how city and state officials are stating it, how can it be wrong? I told him if we were in crisis our schools would not be running as well as most do.

But now, well, now I just see floundering and indecision and frustration everywhere I look. There is no clear vision, no laser-like focus on a few clear goals (as Beth suggests), just a lot of business as usual. There is a lot of confusion in the high schools about direction (we lost the most recent high school director who was only here a matter of months), confusion over school closures (look at Marshall and Viewlands autism program), confusion about the upcoming planned changes to the enrollment plan, name it.

Who's in charge? Will the Board pick a superintendent with the courage to clean house and start some discipline within the Stanford Center which would then lead to clarity at our schools over what we are doing?

I'd give the district an overall C- and that's only because we have so many schools and school communities doing their best to rise above the medicority that is district leadership.

Anonymous said...

I don't know as much as most of you about the beurocracy and politics of the district, Superintendant etc., so I write from more of an indivdual perspective. Our son graduated from 5th grade last year with what I would consider, some huge holes in his academic instruction. Here are just a few:

*Most shocking and at the top of my list....He could not tell me the 12 months of the year.
*He could differentiate between a city, state and country, and didn't even know what a continent was.
*He can not multiply two digit numbers with accuracy.
*He learned only the basics of division. He still can not divide a two digit number.
*He learned very little about U.S. history. Does not know the U.S presidents, or even who the first president was.
*He knows nothing of the basic elements of how our governmental structure works...he doesn't know what the congress, house, senate are or how they work.
*He does not know what the constitution of the United States is, nor has he ever heard of important events in US history, such as the civil war, Pearl Harbor etc.
*His grammar is very very poor, and we realize that he never learned the basic rules of writing.
*He could not tell you what a noun, verb, or adjective is.
*He could not tell you what a run on sentence, compound sentence, etc is.
*He could not tell you what a synonym is.

I could go on and on and on. I challenge those of you who have a child about this age to ask them some of the questions above and see if they can answer them. I tried to decipher the EALR's but they are convoluted, and not very clear. I want to stress that this is not my sons issue. He is bright, in fact he tested in to Spectrum, but we chose not to change his school. His father and I are both educated, and hold masters degrees. And, he attended what most would consider a "good" or "fortunate" school. So, when I give the district a report card, I give it a D, and that's being generous. Of course, this is just my own personal experience. Maybe others have not had the same issues.

Brita said...

Introduction:
Wonderful idea for community to issue report card. here's my take as an individual board member.

Fiscal stewardship: A-
EFFICIENCY AND EFFECTIVENESS
the board has pushed the staff to look everywhere for efficiencies and has questioned expenditures absent program reviews for effectiveness. Bottom line is that district has gone from 34M in the hole to 24M reserves in just 4 years. District is now aligning expenditures with academic priorities.

This board took a lot of abuse (verbal, lawsuits, recall effort) for closing schools--shrinking facilities to align with actual enrollment—the first board to have the guts to do so in 17 years.

Educational leadership: B
SERIOUS RE-ORG
Carla has rolled up her sleeves and is tackling some huge items that had been left to languish. She has done major staff changes and could use your support.

The board set up comprehensive and stringent expectations and has done a systematic evaluation of the superintendent every year for the past three. We are now looking for a new superintendent.

Resource development: B+
PUSHING PARAMOUNT DUTY

We worked closely with other school districts around the state to push for a better funding structure and the gov and leg have moved somewhat in this direction. We waited patiently to see what wa learns would reveal but once the buried the results on k-12 funding, we are suing the state, along with our allies.

In spite of a year of controversy brought on by school closures and alarmist press in dec., our levy and bond both passed with great numbers, in one of the most child-free cities in the nation.

Not all dollars are green. This board listened to the community and fought hard against charter schools. We now have an appropriate memorandum of understanding with the new school foundation that clearly puts the district in the driver’s seat. Tom vanderark of the gates foundation admitted that they went into school ‘reform’ without really knowing what they were doing. This board has also productively questioned the structural relationship with the alliance for education. The tail is powerful but is no longer wagging the dog.

We revised our donor policies so that grants have to be aligned with district goals, and cannot cost us more than they bring in.

Equity: B
MEETING STUDENTS’ NEEDS

It’s fair to say that our board considers equity in every thing we do. The way we distribute funds is heavily skewed toward schools with students who most lack outside resources, far more than any wealthy pta could ever raise. Our contract with the teachers’ union is unusual in that it relaxes seniority for highly-challenged schools, with the goal of increasing stability for the students.

We all—board and senior staff – are clear that equity does not mean equal. We worked with sea to establish strategic funding for southend schools, ‘the flight schools’.

The point of the proposed weighted staffing standards is to increase equity, accountability, transparency, and efficiency. Our entire board (including Michael and Cheryl) has been through the undoing institutional racism training by the peoples institute, along with Raj and 20 senior staff. We get it. And there is plenty more to do.

Communication: B
DAYLIGHTING THE DISTRICT

phase one school closures was carefully designed by the board to be inclusive, transparent, and fair. Our board added extra public hearings, appointed the cac from the community, and gave updates constantly. I personally read every piece of email and testimony from all the hearings. Contrary to board direction, Phase 2 was otherwise, which is why I did not support those recommendations.

This board has opened up the district—info is now posted on the web, our board meetings are televised, we invite public to observe all our committee meetings, we have a literature table at all our board meetings with crucial information.

Our communications office is understaffed and has had high turnover this year. Since this is a high priority for the board, we are increasing funding to this dept. Of course, bear in mind that as prez, I spent many hours being interviewed by reporters—at the end of the day, they print what they want.

It is clear from postings on this blog that the public does not understand district finances and they need to. As soon as I got on the finance committee in jan, I started a project to remedy this—stay tuned.

Not sure what you want to know about the supreme ct case—we haven’t heard anything since arguments were heard in early dec.

Ditto wasl scores. They are going up but not fast enough and not for all groups. We have ‘wasl pathways’ in place to work with students who need it most. There is no justification for using wasl score alone to deny a diploma but that is not our decision.

Community relations: B
CRITICAL FRIENDS

Our board members all hold community meetings as needed—I have held weekly drop-in office hours for the past 3 years and find these dialogues very beneficial.

we initiated the community advisory committee policy 3 years ago and have used it successfully to leverage community expertise and develop policy in areas as varied as nutrition, transportation, alternative education, physical fitness, toxics. Now that I chair the student learning committee, I will be turning my attention in that direction.

Our board sees the district as part of the community. That’s why we initiated and adopted policies that provide for an apprenticeship program and working with historically-underutilized businesses on our remodeling projects (which has plowed 30M back into the local community. We also worked w/ king county to migrate high school students onto metro not only to save money but to relieve congestion. We have adopted an energy efficiency policy to improve our use of natural resources.

The community is not monolithic—we listen to many communities and to what our staff members have to say. At the end of the day, we vote our individual consciences, based on our values and the best info we have at the time.

With our board, you see the sausage being made, and that is a messy and time-consuming process.


School leadership: B-
ACCOUNTABILITY
I agree that it is highly variable. The board has pushed the staff to develop and use meaningful performance evals and this work has finally begun.

Note that District does not have a policy of moving principals for the sake of doing so. Needs at buildings dictate the changes and there is often a domino effect.

Quality of instruction: B-
ACCOUNTABILITY

see above. Carla has revamped the evaluation and professional development for teaching staff as well as admins—this is not going to happen overnight. She has initiated strategies focused on improving instruction in all classrooms but also has put emphasis on the historically underserved. Carla has been on the job less than one year. In her reports at board meetings, she describes these projects—that is the place to go to keep current.

Overall: B
WE HAVE STARTED TO TURN THE SHIP AROUND. We work hard at bringing needed change to the district and we are doing a good job at an extremely challenging task.

Beth, I respect you a lot and appreciate the thoughtful, critical discourse on this blog. It is frustrating having a broken arm but I felt it was important to hunt-and-peck a response.

No one is more critical of this district than our board. The good news is that we are having an effect. Yes, there is an entrenched bureaucracy with a circle-the-wagons mentality and we are working constantly to convince staff that the public is not our enemy but our critical friend. Many staffers do get it—some do not. We have serious work to do and we need your help.

I accept the notion that you have graded us so harshly because you only saw half the work we had done. The burden is on us to turn in our homework in a way that you can find it.

Anonymous said...

"We have serious work to do and we need your help." - Brita

Ok. So, as a daily reader of this blog (and a VERY grateful one, by the way, to all who contribute and participate in these discussions), my question is this:

What help can I give?

I am a parent of a three-year-old who is eyeing the goings-on in Seattle schools with a wary but hopeful eye.

I have taught at a high-needs public school and a small private school here in Seattle, so I fully understand the challenges of educating young people, communicating with parents, and keeping teachers happy and at the top of their game.

I would like nothing more than to support public schools, and I'm talking about going beyond just paying my taxes and voting for the levy and bond measures that show up on my ballots. I want to send my son to public school and get involved as much as necessary (and appropriate) to keep our public school system thriving.

But I can't seem to figure out exactly what "helping" looks like. Is it just a matter of picking a local school and volunteering in whatever capacity the teachers and administrators see fit? It seems like the major issues with Seattle's public schools stem from the central administration, not the individual schools.

So what is a regular citizen/parent to do? I know there is an incredible amount of work to do at the district level, and I have to believe I can help.

Brita, Melissa, Beth - any thoughts?

Kim

Melissa Westbrook said...

Kim, thanks for doing this research so soon for your child and thanks for being interested in public education.

You rather hit the nail on the head on your first try. I've been around this district for more than 10 years and I absolutely agree that most people are satisfied with their schools but it's the central administration that is so troubling. Having said that, please, when the time comes, go and visit schools in your cluster (if we still have clusters by then) and any alternative schools. I absolutely believe it is money wasted to send any child in Seattle to a private school for elementary (unless you have religious reasons). I think we have many, many fine elementary/K-8 schools and you will find great programs and communities that would welcome you.

As far as helping, well, yes, volunteering at your child's school is very important. It helps you get the lay of the land, helps keep many programs/activities running and, if you help your child's teacher, helps the teacher focus on teaching.

I would love to tell you that there is a broader role for you in the district. You would likely be told to vote for and support the levies and write to your legislators about supporting public education by fully funding it. I'd go further and say go, attend a Board meeting; it is eye-opening to realize the scope of problems and challenges in our district. It helps to realize that other communities have struggles and you get a broader perspective which you'll likely need as your child heads towards middle and high school. (I know that seems so long off but as a mom who sent her first-born off to college this past fall, it all comes sooner than you'd think.)

You may end up wanting to champion a cause whether it's more bilingual education choices or gifted programming or some kind of athletic program.

But as to a real role for parents, I don't really think the Board or the district staff want us to do anything. Just volunteer, donate money and vote for levies. I know so many parents with real experience in communications and marketing who would be happy to help the district because they can't (apparently) afford enough staff to work on these areas. But they always get turned away. I know that Nancy Robinson, who heads the Halbert and Nancy Robinson Center for Young Scholars at the University of Washington, offered to help the district for years with our gifted program and was turned away.

I can only hope that we have a superintendent who comes in equipped with guts and vision who is willing to stand up to staff who say "no" or "it can't be done" or worst of all, "that's not how we do it". As Dr. Phil says, "How's that working for you?" What we're doing now is not working and change needs to be happening more rapidly and/or more discernably than it is now.

Anonymous said...

You want more communication on the Supreme Court case? Really? That case has been going on for six years. What would you like the District to say? "We are still waiting for a decision?"

Anonymous said...

Why is it that children are not taught history anymore and get very little science?? Is it because they are not yet tested on the WASL??? Is all of our teachers energy going to reading, writing and math (the WASL tested subjects). Is this what people mean when they say "they are teaching to the test"? If, so this is very sad. Recently, theres been a big push for more Art, drama, music etc. (which I am all for), but what about the basics in subjects that have been overlooked like history?

still anonymous said...

Maybe I'm feeling cranky today - take these observations with that in mind:

Beth - I think you're great and so is this blog; I love the way you provoke discussion on various topics based on your research; and I hear you saying the report card is based on your "...limited knowledge of the school district during the 2006 calendar year", but can you help us understand your qualifications to evaluate the district on matters like equity, finance, or resource development? I've been a Seattle schools parent for 5 years and more seriously focused for 2 and while I feel qualified to comment on specific issues I know well, I would never in a million years feel qualified to issue a district report card.

Are you saying that a move to Weighted Staffing Standards is a move to equal (not equitable) funding? Can you explain that?

Speaking of never, re the comment by anonymous with the 5th grader, I would never reveal that I wasn't aware of these gaps until after he left elementary school, nor would I lay at the feet of Seattle Public Schools the sole responsibility for assuring he knew these fundamentals.

I'm in no way saying SPS gets an "A", and like Melissa and others, I've had my share of the bunker mentality and accountability-free-zone downtown (note to Brita and board - please, please choose someone with as much personal integrity as Raj but who ensures real accountability at every level and can tell you precisely how s/he has done so in prior posts)-

To Kim's question about how to help - my current feeling on that is we do it the way we do in other parts of our lives - by seeking information about issues; stepping up as opportunities arise and where we think we can make a contribution; acting with integrity and personal responsibility; and not giving up in the face of frustrations. Sometimes that's in the classroom; sometimes it's at the school level, district level, city or state. I would also say that getting involved in your school's parent group is also a great way to contribute - it will serve the hundreds of children at your school and provide a link to larger venues if you want it.

Anonymous said...

To still anonymous,
I am the parent of the 5th grader who had the huge holes in his instruction. In reference to your comment that you would never reveal that you weren't aware of the gaps until after he graduated 5th grade, I think, perhaps, I didn't give the whole picture. We became aware very early on that these huge gaps in instruction were happening. We spoke to his teachers, the principal and district administrators about our concerns. We checked the EALR's to see if our school was doing what they were supposed to be doing, and we tutored our son at home and privately. My concern is not a selfish one, that addresses my son alone, we have taken care of his needs. I am concerned that the district as a whole and parents are not concerned with these gaps. They are not isolated at our "good" school (according to the EASLR's and district administration) our school taught exactly what they were expected to teach. Fortunately, we had the education and resources to provide our child with what he needed, others don't. Shouldn't Seattle Schools be accountable to teach a well rounded curriculum, and not just the WASL requirements??

Beth Bakeman said...

I think the conversation on this thread is very interesting and productive so far, and want to respond to many of the questions and comments.

However, work and school deadlines compel me to leave the blog alone until Friday. I'll post my thoughts on this thread then.

Anonymous said...

to 5th grade parent. When did you reconigze gaps in his instructions? Your post made it sound like you didnt notice this till after he left 5th grade. My 5th grader can answer most of the questions posed in your post. If your son didnt know what a noun is or how to multiply two digit numbers, I wonder how he did on the WASL, it covers math, reading and writing.

Anonymous said...

*Most shocking and at the top of my list....He could not tell me the 12 months of the year.
"

My kindergartener knows the months of the year - it is one of the first things they covered in Kindergarten and she had it down in one day - just put it to music. Her sense of time/what day it is, month, when is what, etc. etc. has made leaps and bounds from preschool.

Don't all Kindergartens do this?

JPR said...

I wonder is this a "district issue" or an issue with "Seattle as a Whole". Indecision, politics, and infighting.

Anonymous said...

Hi again, I am the parent of the 5th grader. As I said we noticed the gaps early on, but not being educators ourselves, we just kept thinking that the instruction would come at a later time. We questioned teachers, principal and administors along the way, but were continually made to feel like we just needed to trust that they knew what they were doing. We supplemented what we could, but not being teachers, we really didn't recognize the severity of the situation until the end of 4th grade, at which time we began professional tutoring. The tutor could not believe the gaps..Once we started talking to other families we found that we were not alone, many others had the same issues. As for the WASL, he did OK, passing all categories, with the exception of science where he scored 59%. His school did an excellent job with reading, and though they did not teach much grammar they did do a lot of writing. I'm sure this is how he passed the WASL. My complaint is that the curriculum is no longer well rounded, with huge gaps in the social studies, history and science areas, as well as grammar. As for my son not knowing the 12 months of the year, all I can say is, it's teacher by teacher. My younger son learned them in kindergarten, in fact that is how we figured out that our older son did not know them. My younger son was singing the song that his teacher taught him to remember the 12 months and my older son was amazed that his younger brother not only knew all the months, but knew them in order. One teacher taught it, another didn't. Another example is that when my 5th grader was in 3rd grade, the district made a proposal to discontinue cursive writing in favor of keyboarding, so my sons teacher, in anticipation of the change, decided she didn't have to teach cursive that year (the proposal never passed), and so my son never learned cursive writing. He couldn't even sign his name! We wound up having to teach him ourselves. Our 5th grader is in a "good" middle school now, and it's more of the same. He recently turned in an essay with the word crap in it, 2 misspelled words, and several gramatical errors, and recieved a 100%, with no corrections. Huge holes, and lack of cosistency. Convoluted, unclear, EALR's left up to the teachers interpretation, and poor leadership. Don't know what else to say?? I'm just not satisfied. I posted this to see if this is a common issue across the district or if it is just an issue that we experienced at our school?

still anonymous said...

Sorry, 5th grade mom - I obviously inferred some conclusions that needed more information. Thanks for your additional posts.

I have a 4th grader and sometimes wonder what's up with one subject or another, e.g. "why is he coming home with division homework he says they haven't covered in class?", so can relate to the cycle: want to trust and give professional courtesy; acknowledge that what I learned and the way I learned it could well be obsolete; talk to teacher now and then and get assurances all is well; talk to other parents - lather, rinse, repeat.

I know a number of parents who go the Kumon/private tutoring route around 4th-5th grade because they've had similar experiences (especially in mathematics) and are worried about preparedness for middle school.

That my children's school, SPS and the state are zeroing in on math is a relief - though I don't think the fundamentalist "where's the math" crusade is solely the answer.

Anonymous said...

Beth, you said “Instead, I want to see a clear, concise document that outlines top priorities in ways that everyone in the city can understand…” But the Five Year Plan you cite contains just such a statement of priorities in the executive summary. It’s all of a paragraph:

1) Improve the effectiveness and relevance of instructional and support services for all students.
2) Eliminate the achievement gap.
3) Eliminate all systemic barriers to student achievement.
4) Build leadership capacity for accountability, inclusivity, and effectiveness.
5) Manage resources and set priorities using principles of equity and sustainability.

That’s pretty concise. A 31-page document to provide direction over five years for a large district like Seattle is positively svelte. Since you read the document, you know that what follows is a discussion of how to achieve those goals, and measure the results. You may disagree with that plan, or with its implementation, but the plan exists. I, for one, don’t want the district leaders to run around making new plans all the time. I’d prefer that they take action to implement the plans already in place.

This whole discussion is indicative of the “me me me” tone that this blog veers into pretty often. The New York Times has an article today about high-powered PTAs, that seems to summarize this situation pretty well: “There have also been conflicts with teachers, principals and local elected officials who chafe at being told how to run their schools by some parents with their own agendas and little experience in education.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/23/education/23pta.html?em&ex=1172379600&en=d92202dad1ec497e&ei=5087%0A


On volunteering at the district level:

It’s not surprising that the district staff doesn’t jump at the chance to manage a bunch of parent with lots of “communications and marketing experience.” The school district is in the business of educating children, not marketing or communications. I’d rather have my kids’ education be conducted and managed by people with actual education credentials and experience. Being a parent doesn’t make you an expert in education, any more than being a homeowner makes you a plumber. Are there ways to involve parents with disparate backgrounds and training in other areas? Probably. But making effective use of their time would require that the parents make a substantial, long-term commitment of time, and that the district have a volunteer coordinator to match parent skills with work that needs doing. It might make sense to have such a position, but it might also make sense to use that money for classroom teachers, counselors, aides, and other such positions.

As a working parent, I’m astonished that people are complaining about too much time on their hands and not enough ways to do things for the schools. If going to parent meetings and volunteering at your own school is not enough of a time commitment, you might want to contact Powerful Schools.

http://www.powerfulschools.org/getinvolved

Or run for the school board. (Not a job I would want, thanks.)

Beth Bakeman said...

So much I want to respond to, but I'll start with the final Anonymous.

The section you cite from the 5-year plan's executive summary is NOT a statement of a few key, measurable priorities. It is more a set of principles or perhaps a generic vision. For example, not a single school district in this country has "eliminated the achievement gap" and the 5-year plan includes no clear strategic direction on how the Seattle School District is even going to attempt it.

Similarly, the district says it will "Eliminate all systemic barriers to student achievement." How? and how will they know when they get there? And do they really think it can be done in 5 years?

You claim that "what follows is a discussion of how to achieve those goals, and measure the results." I completely disagree. What follows is a list of all the possible steps that might be taken in any of the areas to achieve positive change of any type. It is like a wish-list. So little of what was listed has been accomplished and when, for example, I asked about the progress on the principal selection goals, no one ever (even with multiple attempts over a 6-month period) could point me to or tell me about any progress made on any of the suggested steps.

What you identify as the "district's statement of priorities" in the 5-year plan is like a list of New Year's resolutions. You could take the same list and repeat it every year, looking back with regret on how little progress was made in each area. You could also take the same list and apply it to any school district in the country. That kind of language is nice, but too generic and vague to be useful for planning purposes.

A list of district priorities needs to be measurable, easy to understand, do-able within the timeframe of the plan, and included in an accountability loop (preferably public) so everyone can see what progress is being made, which can galvanize support behind the effort.

I have no quarrel with the length of the 5-year plan. My quarrel is with the number of objectives, the fact that they are unfocused, and that there is no accountability in place about meeting them.

Beth Bakeman said...

And also, to the previous Anonymous, the article you cite in the New York Times is a good one, raising important issues. As one school board member in the article said,"the new breed of parent groups [are] both a “great asset” and a “tough challenge” for a school system."


But I think you are off the mark about the "“me me me” tone that this blog veers into pretty often." Kim's earlier comment that "I want to send my son to public school and get involved as much as necessary (and appropriate) to keep our public school system thriving." sounds like civic engagement and a desire to work for the greater good, not a selfish, me-focused desire.

That is certainly what keeps me going working on this blog. My girls are at a school we love. If it was all about "me, me, me", I could just volunteer at the school or, as you seem to imply, inappropriately order the principal around and tell him and the teachers how to run the school. Instead, I believe I should spend my time and energy working to improve the quality of schools and education overall in Seattle, because I don't believe all children are being served as well as mine are by their schools.

And finally, on volunteering at the district level, you said you would "rather have my kids’ education be conducted and managed by people with actual education credentials and experience." Guess what? Depending upon how you define them, many district staffers, including Raj, do not have "actual education credentials and experience."

Beth Bakeman said...

Still anonymous, you asked a reasonable question: "can you help us understand your qualifications to evaluate the district on matters like equity, finance, or resource development?"

The answer is simple --- I have no more qualifications to evaluate the district than you do. However, I believe, whether qualified or not, we all evaluate the district in ongoing, informal ways -- through discussion with friends, how we vote on school levies, and where we choose to send our children to school.

I posted my "Report Card" to generate the kind of discussion that resulted on this thread. I particularly appreciate Brita's thoughtful and thorough response, which gives all of us more information abou the district than we would otherwise have had. In other words, my report card post was designed as a discussion-starter, not as a serious evaluation. Does that make sense?

To your specific question, "Are you saying that a move to Weighted Staffing Standards is a move to equal (not equitable) funding?" No, I'm just saying that I'm concerned and think the funding discussion merits careful attention this coming year. The weighted student formula was designed to put more resources in the schools with higher concentrations of children who face more learning challenges. (And before anyone else chimes in, I know it didn't work as designed.) So a move away from that plan makes me a little nervous.

Beth Bakeman said...

Kim, your comment on this thread has is so similar to what I asked myself when I started this blog last May, and what I continue to ask myself as I evaluate and re-evaluate whether this blog is worth the effort.

How can I make a difference in the quality of public schools in Seattle? Is this blog making a difference? And if not, what should I put my time and energy into?

The answers are definitely not easy. Mel, Still Anonymous and others who responded to your comment gave you some good ideas. I hope you keep interested and engaged, because I do believe that true parental and community involvement at a district-wide level is essential for high quality schools, and therefore, high quality education for all students.

If you (or others) come up with more potential answers to your question of "So what is a regular citizen/parent to do?", let us all know.

And I think we should keep asking the School Board members and the new superintendent that very same question.

Anonymous said...

It is difficult being a parent of a public school child because you do have to "homeschool" some of the gaps in the school. And you have to question and and ask your child and their teachers what is being covered in class. Then you have to cover what is not cover in a fun way at home.
The list of what your son doesn't know, my second grade son knows all. Yes, thankfully they were all taught in K, 1st and now 2nd grade--he did learn them all in our Seattle Public School, but how do I know? Because I check every night what he learns in school and then I also invested in a good book about what our school age children should know.
I do not want to sign my name, although I fequently do, but this seems like a "brag" about my great north-end school and about my follow-through home education and parenting.
And yes I do know that many of us can't do this with our children, and I do know that I am very fortunate.
However, as a parent it is your job to not be naive about what a teacher with 28 kids can achieve. I work in the class twice a week and at my school the teachers are the best, and still they cannot give the attention that a parent can at home for 30 minutes at night and by limiting screen time and playing educational board games that teach between those gaps.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, I am glad that your child recieved a well rounded education at a Seattle Public School. Not all schools are equal, and not all families circumstances are the same. I'm glad that you had the resources to fill in the gaps, and it seems like the parent of the 5th grader did too. But, doesn't Seattle schools have a responsibility to consistently teach all children, what is expected for their grade/level? We have some of the highest class sizes in THE NATION!!! We can't excuse the district, saying ridiculous things like "we can't expect them to teach 28 kids efficiently". Doesn't that outrage you?? How have we become so complacent as to say we will just fill in the gaps on our own?? Sigh.
We must demand more from the district, each individual school, and every teacher. We must hold the district accountable for higher per pupil funding, reduced class size, and clear standards. We must stop moving kids along (promoting them) when they don't have the skills that they should. It is noble of you to "homeschool" your child, but you certainly can not expect that from every parent in this district.
Some parents don't even speak english, some parents have addiction problems, some parents work two jobs, some parents never made it through collge themselves, some parents/cultures don't place as large of an emphasis on education as others. Should those children just live with the "gaps"?? Outrageous.

Anonymous said...

Obviously I am outraged or I would not be volunteering in my school as much as I am. But I am a realist regarding my children--I do what I have to and homeschool a little, I am a involved in my school and in raising the funding issue-and I am also an activist by lobbying my representatives and reminding people of the dismal funding in Washington state.
Nevertheless, as a parent I have to live for the here and now. Each day matters to my children and I will not fail to do what I can to help them (right now I pull weeds and garden for someone who tutors my son in one subject that I am not strong in.) I do care about other children (one reason I run a school club) but in the mean time my kids are getting older and I do not wait for thing to get better. And if you can write on this blog you can probably do what I do.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you have totally missed my point. I said that I am glad you were able to fill in the gaps for your child. I'm gad that you live in the here and now. I am a stay at home mom, and have plenty of time to write on this blog and tutor my children. And I do. I'm not talking about you and I. I'm talking about the people that I mentioned in my previous post. Low income families who work two jobs, single parents with little or no time, families with drug and alcohol abuse issues, parents who are not capable of tutoring due to their own lack of education, families who do not speak english, families whose cultures do not place as high a value on education as your does.....I can go on and on. I'm not attacking you for helping your child. As I said I am glad that you are able to do it. As I am. But, I feel that the district owes a solid, consistent education to all children. Especially to the children who do not get the extra support at home. Each day matters for every child, not just yours and mine. Obviously by the previous posters comments, all schools are not performing equally. Not even close. You call yourself a realist, but is it realistic to expect parents in the categories that I listed above to fill in the gaps?

Charlie Mas said...

So here it is.

Let's say, for the sake of having a simple model, that there is a standard level of support provided to every student by the District. We will, for the moment disregard variations from school to school (this apparently grotesque error will be justified later).

Let us further assume for our model that this standard level of support has gaps and is, in a number of ways, inadequate.

In this model, there are families that are capable and willing to fill these gaps, and they do. They do it, in whole or in part, for their children and, to some extent, for other children - usually at their child's school. Those children therefore have fewer or smaller gaps through a combination of school and community resources.

This is the primary inequity.

It leads to a secondary inequity. In those schools where the gaps are more completely filled, the school is able to provide more advanced or challenging education because the students are ready and able to succeed with it.

This expands the gap, but should not be discontinued. Every student should get lessons at the frontier of their knowledge and ability. Lowering the ceiling is not the way to close the gap.

The way to address the inequity is to apply more school resources to those students with fewer community resources. The weighted student formula and compensatory education dollars (Title I and LAP) were/are the means by which the District tries to do this.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars go to schools in compensatory education funding, yet the inequities persist. So why didn't they close the gap?

Was it not enough money? Was the money not spent in the most effective way? How, exactly, WAS this money spent? It is nearly impossible to tell. There are a number of schools that got six figure amounts of compensatory education funding ON TOP OF their weighted student formula and foundation allocation money. What the heck did they do with it?

Will the new school budget allocation process make it more clear how this money is spent?

And how SHOULD this money be spent? Should it not be spent to mitigate the absence of those community resources? Should it not be spent to provide those experiences, opportunities and supports that other students get from home? Who has demonstrated that they have spent this money effectively and what did they do with it? Has ANYONE demonstrated an effective use of this money?

Does anyone have answers to these questions and if not, why not? Are these not the central questions? What kind of leadership or oversight would not have asked these questions and gotten these answers?

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the earlier posters achievement gap is not between the North and South, or low and high income families. It appears both posters had their child in "good" north end schools. So whats up with the inconsistent curriculum?? One spectrum qualified 5th grader has not learned what a 2nd grader mastered at another school?? Instead of pointing fingers at parents who are not "homeschooling" why don't we point fingers at the schools that are not doing their jobs effectively. Another gap comes with Alternative education. Some of these schools are masters at manipulating curriculum guidelines. A few years ago when I went on a tour of AS1, we toured a mix age class (3rd - 8th grade, yikes) that had decided not to take math that year. The principal was sure to let us know that the children who were interested in math could take it as an elective. How can schools get away with this?? Is this fair to the children?? Who holds the schools accountable??? Are they only accountable for their WASL scores?? AS1 had a pass rate of 7% on the math portion of their WASL.


Now for the achievement gap.....It appears that The New School, by means of private funding, is able to close the gap??? Perhaps TAF could have done it too?? So, why have none of the other schools with the extra compensatory dollars they receive from the district been able to do the same?? Perhaps it takes more than $$$ to be successful. Perhaps it takes a group of very committed parents and a strong, clear vision (like The New School has), to be successful.

Anonymous said...

continuation......
don't get me wrong, the $$$$ are absolutely necessary, but perhaps $$$$ are just part of the what is needed to close the gap??? I think that motivation by students, families, teachers and admin. must accompany the $$$. Schools recieving the $$$$ should absolutely be held accountable, and unless they are making progress, there should be some sort of intervention.

You can water the soil every day, fertalize it, rake it.......but if you don't plant the seeds there is no garden.
Deidre