Back in 2000 Seattle Public Schools was on fire with a revolutionary idea. It was a change in perspective that would reform public education. We were going to become a Standards-Based Learning System. Once implemented, Standards would fix all our woes. It would get all struggling students to learn at grade level. It would support advanced learners without those politically disturbing self-contained programs. It would integrate our students with disabilities and our English Language Learners. Once we became a Standards-based Learning System we would enter a new education paradise. The District headquarters spoke of little else. They did pilot projects with big announcements and then made big announcements about the implementation. Everyone got a daruma to remind them of the goal. I was at the Board meeting when Joseph Olchefske announced that the district had done it. We had completed the goal, he filled in the other eye of the daruma, and announced that the District was now a Standards-Based Learning System. The daruma sits on the window sill in the Board room for anyone who wants to see it. It is one expensive ball of papier mâché.
Only the district didn't really fully convert to a Standards-Based Learning System - not in the textbook definition - and the promised benefits never appeared. Of course, that didn't keep the district from removing the supports that had been in place for students - the supports that they promised would be unnecessary once the district converted, the supports that students continued to need because the promises went unfulfilled.
That was the failed education revolution of 1999-2001.
There were other failed education revolutions to follow. Differentiated instruction was another big promise that went bust. Same for Accountability and Site-based Decisionmaking. Each of these movements were supposed to revolutionize education. Each was supposed to solve all of our problems and make troublesome (or expensive) programs unnecessary. Each was the buzzword on everybody's lips and the talk of the district headquarters for a couple years, through all of the expensive and trying planning period (complete with stressed out teachers and staff turnover) and into the early days of the implementation period. All of the real problems of the district were forgotten during this time. Don't worry about trying to fix any immediate problems, the revolution is coming and it will solve that problem. No need to take any intermediary action, just wait for the revolution. All of our real problems went un-addressed.
Unfortunately, however, each of these revolutions fizzled. The implementations were complete failures, the Big Ideas failed in their primary purpose, and they all failed in all of their secondary purposes as well. They did not make the supports and programs unnecessary, they only gave the District two or three years to ignore those problems while we waited for the big fix to take care of them. In the meantime, all of the real problems got worse, and worse.
Then, after the failure, no one talked about the Big Idea anymore. It would be rude to mention it, I suppose. Also, with the staff turnover, the current staff could deny all knowledge or responsibility for both the failed idea and the failed implementation. Or, believe it or not, they would claim it was a success. Dr. Goodloe-Johnson actually claimed that the Southeast Education Initiative was a success.
So what is the education revolution du jour? MTSS, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. MTSS is actually a sequel to RTI, Response to Intervention. By changing its name the district bought an extra planning year or two. MTSS is following exactly the same pattern as the previous Big Fix snake oil education revolutions: it has "research" that supports it, it requires teachers to do a lot more work (actually, a nearly impossible amount of work), it promises to bring our struggling students up to grade level, support our advanced learners, reduce referrals to Special Education, close the academic achievement gap, make all schools equal, and, I believe, walk your little sister home from the movies. The folks downtown get a gleam in their eye and specks of foam in their mouth when they talk about it, but no one else really seems to understand what the heck they are talking about. It is following the pattern exactly. Right now it is purportedly at the pilot stage, but it has been an official Board priority for a couple years already. It is the centerpiece of the Strategic Plan. Next year it is supposed to go to scale (Phase I). The following year, in Phase II, they will add Tier II. This is a little weird because without Tier II you don't really have MTSS. Then, in 2016-2017 they will complete the implementation by adding Tier III. In other words, they have given themselves three more years before they have to show any results from this. At that time they will probably say that it needs to be in place for a year before we can reasonably expect any results.
They will use that time to come up with the next Big Idea to distract us all. Then they will pull the same 1984-style propaganda they have done in the past in which they deny all knowledge of the recently failed Big Idea and claim that it was really the pet project of the person who had this job before them and they aren't responsible for its failure in any way.
Or am I wrong about this? The pattern can be hard to see because the cycle is so long. It takes about three to five years for a Big Idea to come, go through years of planning, pilot, and phased implementation before it is revealed as snake oil, and then be denied and forgotten as the staff turns over and our attention is drawn to a scandal or the next Big Idea. They seem to have learned that they need to give themselves lots and lots of time so no one expects any results until they are long gone. The timetable for MTSS is the longest one yet, but come 2017, when nothing has really changed except that more supports for students have been removed, and when MTSS is shown to be a bust, where will Shauna Heath, Michael Tolley or Jose Banda be? Probably not in Seattle. They will be retired or off peddling MTSS (or some new snake oil) in the next River City.
That's right. You got trouble my friends. Right here in Emerald City. And the solution is to get all of the children into