I recently met with one of the several new employees at Seattle Public Schools and gave a rundown on history and culture of the District.
Here's the short version:
1. There is a complete disconnect between what is said, done, and decided in the JSCEE and what happens in the schools.
The headquarters folks make bad decisions because they have no idea how those decisions will actually play out in the schools - and they don't want to know. Their decisions don't matter because they don't check to confirm they are being followed and they couldn't enforce them anyway. The schools know all of this - that the District headquarters is clueless about the realities of schools, that their decisions are horrible, that they will never come around and confirm compliance with the decision, and that they are powerless to enforce those decisions - so they simply ignore the decisions. The schools see the gap between them and the district headquarters as insulation and they work to keep it. They don't want any district interference because it is always bad. The schools work to go unnoticed by the district headquarters. Ideally, they would like the District headquarters to forget they are there. The tall blade of grass gets cut; the high nail gets hammered down. If you have ever been part of an alternative school or an advanced learning program, you've heard people say "Don't make waves, we don't want to attract the District's attention." There are very, very few examples of district intervention in a school that proved beneficial. I think the District's decision to put elementary APP in Lowell in 1997 was one. The interventions at Hawthorne and West Seattle Elementary are looking like they could buck the trend. STEM might also. If so, they would be the exceptions rather than the rule.
2. There is a complete disconnect between what the District leadership says and what the District leadership does.
I've pointed out a lot of these. They say that closing the gap is their top goal, but they never make a plan to achieve it. They talk about accountability, but never hold anyone accountable. They talk about earning trust, but never do the things that would earn trust. They talk about improving community engagement but never engage the community. They talk about getting all third graders to read at grade level and all 8th graders ready for algebra, but don't actually do anything that would achieve those goals.
3. The District never keeps any of its promises.
The District doesn't include stakeholders in the decision-making process so they have to struggle for buy-in after the fact. Their usual process is to announce a bad decision to howls of protest. The stakeholders list all of the damage that the decision will cause. The District then promises to take a number of actions - in the future - that will address the concerns and mitigate the damage. The stakeholders grudgingly end their opposition, and the decision moves forward. Then the District utterly fails and refuses to fulfill the promises. In fact, they won't even acknowledge the promises. After all, why should they do the work of fulfilling the promises when they already have what the promises bought them? What can the stakeholders do? Renew their opposition to a past decision? Does anyone see any point to re-opening the decision to split elementary APP? The District will never admit that they broke a promise, so they invent rationalizations to excuse themselves from fulfilling the promises. Their favorite rationalizations for breaking promises are: the person who made that promise isn't in that job anymore, we only promised that we would try to do something - not that we would actually do it, that promise didn't mean what you think it meant (or what we said it meant back when we made it), the budget doesn't allow for it, staff couldn't fulfill this promise because they were busy working on some other emergency, we need more time to get it done - please be patient, that old promise? (which often comes right after the plea for more time), do you have it in writing?, and plenty more. If the District promises something, you can't be sure what they will do, but you can be sure of one thing they won't do: what they promised.
4. Every decision is driven by the internal politics of the JSCEE.
I know how cynical this sounds, but I have been observing the district for ten years and this is the only narrative that fits. I am going to be a very rich person someday because I am going to make a popular board game called "Clout: the game of bureaucratic politics". All of the rules for the game and the game play will be based entirely on what I have observed at Seattle Public Schools. Players get basic points for the number of people who work for them and the number who, although not direct reports, owe their job to them. Then you can get more points by gambling point on getting your decisions accepted. Decisions are accepted based on a vote of each player's clout points risked on either side of the decision. You get double points if the decision is accepted without question (opposition). You get triple points if the decision is totally absurd. If your decision is reversed you lose all of the clout points that you bet on it. You also lose any points you voted against a decision that was accepted. The only way to win is to amass points and then gamble them trying to force through stupid decisions. It's going to be a great game. In real life, however, it is a totally dysfunctional system.
5. No one in the District gives a damn about what the community thinks.
Remember that the community doesn't have a role in the decision-making, they aren't even part of the game, so there is no benefit to be realized from pandering to them. Suck up to the people who matter, the political heavy-hitters within the JSCEE. Oh, and the Board are just particularly loud and troublesome members of the public. They are not players. Never mind them. Don't tell them anything more than what they need to know, and they don't need to know anything. The District staff has all of the authority and no reason to share it with the contemptable public.
There's more, but start with these five themes and see if the District's actions don't align with them. If Dr. Enfield or the Board or newly elected Board members want to have any hope of breaking the dysfunctional culture of the District, they are going to have to break these five rules.