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.
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.