For all of my time as an activist I have been getting advice about how to be more effective. - usually from people whose behavior I'm trying to change. They will say things like "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." They have suggested that they would respond to me more if I didn't contact them so frequently. They say I should be nicer. They say that I should try cooperating with them. I have tried all of these techniques and I can assure you that no matter what I did or said and no matter how I did it or said it, they had no interest in changing anything that they were doing.
I may appear confrontational in print or in my board testimony, but those are genres which require me to be concise, and, hence pithy or blunt. In person I'm a lot different - much more easy-going. I have actually had a large number of positive meetings with people who don't share my views. I have met with and get along well with a lot of Education Reform types like Liv Finne, Chris Eide, Kelly Munn, Robin Lake, and Lisa McFarlane. We have coffee and chat amicably. That's because we begin by talking about our common ground. We talk about our shared perceptions about problems. Then we can talk reasonably about our different solutions and offer honest critiques of each other's positions without acrimony. We don't agree on a lot of stuff but we have mutual respect and no one feels insulted. We come away saying things like "I understand your perspective, but I think the solutions I'm promoting will be more effective and expeditious than the ones you propose and bring fewer negative unintended consequences." We both say that kind of stuff.
This contrasts sharply with my history with district officials - staff or board directors. With the exception of a few notable individuals, such as Tracy Libros, I don't have positive interactions with them. I am beginning to wonder if it might be because we do not begin the conversation by talking about our common ground and our shared perception of the problems before we move on to a discussion of our different solutions.
So now I'm asking myself: Where is the common ground?
I have twice come close to winning support from board directors in my efforts to change the district's culture of lawlessness. Once with Director DeBell and once with Director Carr. In both of those instances the conversation began by establishing common ground. We read the policy together and agreed about what it required. Then we looked at what the superintendent had done and we agreed that it did not meet the requirements of the policy. Then we agreed that it was not reasonable to expect the superintendent to police herself. Then we agreed that it was the board's duty to get the superintendent to comply with the policy. The results were mixed. In one case Director DeBell raised the issue with the superintendent and extracted a promise from her to comply with the policy next year. That promise was broken, and he didn't pursue it - under the principle of picking his battles - but he did take action and he did get the promise. That's dreadful, but it is also, believe it or not, the best I've ever seen so I count it a good example. I never saw any results from Director Carr, but I strongly suspect she send the superintendent a polite email about the matter. That's even worse, but still qualifies as a good example. These are the straws I clutch at.
So maybe folks can try this method. In meetings with District officials, including Board Directors, begin as far back as you need to go to establish common ground. Begin, for example, by reading the policy. What does the policy say? What does it require? Seek agreement on this point.
Here's an example of how that might work:
Take a look at Policy 2090, Program Evaluation & Assessment. See what it requires?
The district will utilize a variety of assessment processes to:
A. Determine the effectiveness of the instructional programs,and
The Superintendent shall prepare an annual report which reflects the degree to which district goals and objectives related to the instructional program have been accomplished.Clearly the district is supposed to review instructional programs (in the old language) to assess their effectiveness. This means a quantitative review of the various special education programs, ELL programs, general education programs, option schools, IB, ALOs, Spectrum sites, APP sites, language immersion programs, International education programs, etc. I suspect it also extends to things like ReadRight, AVID, Project Lead the Way, and that sort of thing as well. Surely there should be, by policy, some sort of review of the effectiveness of these efforts, right? Some may say that the policy covers some of these "programs" but not others. But everyone can certainly agree that the policy clearly requires an annual review of the effectiveness of Spectrum. It is an instructional program, the only one that is still categorized as a program, and we can all agree that the policy requires an annual report that measures its effectiveness.
But there is no annual review of Spectrum. None. So can't we agree that the Board should direct the superintendent to produce and provide such a review? No one is saying it has to be done immediately or anything like that, just that it should be done. Can we get agreement on that?
Now when should the superintendent be ready with that review? The reasonable thing would be to ask the superintendent when he can provide it. Let him set the timetable. That's okay, isn't it? Now we have the superintendent's agreement on the deadline. So now we can all look forward to getting the review on or before that day.
I will, for the moment, pretend to forget that Shauna Heath promised a review of the effectiveness of Spectrum to the board and the public at the work session for the management oversight of Teaching and Learning in April of 2013. Let's forget that promise since no one ever held her to it and move forward with both a new promise and the commitment from the Board that they will hold staff accountable for keeping the new promise. How would that be?
If we could use this path to reach that point it would be the most effective advocacy that I have ever seen.