I have been a close observer of Seattle Public Schools for over six years. During that time I have seen how most of the District's decisions are made and I can report that the District's decision-making is dysfunctional. By that, I mean that it doesn't work.
I mean that as objectively as I can.
Near as I can reckon, a decision should have two qualities. First, it should be a good decision - one that solves the problem in a cost-effective way without creating too many new problems. Second, it should be decisive - it should resolve the question. A great number of the decisions that I have seen from the District fail to demonstrate one or both of these qualities.
Setting aside for the moment the quality of the decisions - and there have been some real stinkers - I would like to address the District's difficulty in bringing issues to resolution with their decisions. I believe they have not been able to achieve resolution because they routinely fail to gain the support of stakeholders. The District's decisions have typically been unilateral, top-down and dictatorial. They are certainly free to make their decisions this way; the District's structure puts all of the authority at the top in the hands of a few. Those people are under no obligation to seek counsel from stakeholders - let alone seek consensus from them. No wonder they figure that it is just easier and quicker for them to gather their own information, use their own process, and make the decision on their own.
What they neglect to consider are the consequences of their choice not to involve stakeholders in the decision, their choice not to try to sell the decision to the stakeholders, their choice not to even explain or, sometimes, even inform stakeholders of the decision. The usual consequence is opposition to the decision from the stakeholders. It don't take Dale Carnegie to figure that out.
Perhaps they think that over time the stakeholders, usually students, families, and teachers, will drop their opposition and accept the decision. They are wrong. The stakeholders persist in their opposition. The stakeholders persist because they know four things:
1) The stakeholders are often called upon to implement the decision so they can actively oppose it through their refusal to implement it.
2) The stakeholders can make life miserable for the decision-makers by going over their head and kicking up a fuss.
3) The stakeholders can make life miserable for the decision-makers because they have to continue to work together and this sort of unilateral decision-making poisons the relationship.
4) Most of all, the stakeholders know that they will be around much longer than Central Staff people, so they will simply keep the issue open and hope to have it overturned by the decision-maker's replacement, whom we can expect in the short-term.
It is this fourth one that strikes me the strongest. In just over six years of involvement, I have seen three superintendents, three chief academic officers, four chief operating officers, countless chief financial people, at least two Board members from each District (three from one of them), and four different managers of Advanced Learning.
Compare those average tenures of two or three years with the thirteen years that a student will be a stakeholder, the sixteen years that a family with two kids might be a stakeholder, or the twenty years that a teacher might be a stakeholder. The stakeholders are the ones with the long-term involvement - not the decision-makers. We can wait them out.
So if the new Superintendent, as part of her 100 days of listening, were to ask me about the issues in Advanced Learning, I would include on the list a lot of issues that appear decided and that should have been decided, but continue to be open issues because the stakeholders have not accepted the decisions. The problem isn't just the poor quality of the decisions - and, really, some of these decisions are just plain wrong and absolutely undefensible - but the utter lack of effort to win stakeholder approval. I would go further - the apparent contempt for stakeholder approval.
Those who would seek stakeholder input and approval run the risk of being accused of "interminable Seattle process" or "caving in to the mob". I would suggest that the interminable process is having your decisions fought for years after they were made and then re-decided by your successors for years after you are gone.
Anyone else have thoughts on this?