Wednesday, February 17, 2016

If I had a million dollars

The recent $1.5 Billion prize in the PowerBall lottery made a lot of news. A lot of people who don't normally buy lottery tickets bought some for that drawing. I didn't because, as my brother succinctly told me, buying a ticket does not significantly improve your odds of winning. Needless to say, I didn't win the big prize.

I didn't think about what I would do with the money if I won. That's what you buy when you buy a lottery ticket, right? You buy the license to dream. I didn't buy a ticket so I didn't have license to think about how I would spend the money and I certainly didn't presume that I would win and start spending the money before the drawing. That would be crazy, right?

Yet that's what Seattle Public Schools does on a regular basis. They draw up all of these initiatives - Targeted Universalism is the latest one - which, I suppose, are all very high-minded and well-intentioned, but are predicated on one or more fantasies.

With Targeted Universalism they rely on about four of these fantasies.

First, they assume that they can implement a consistent Tier 1 curriculum across all classrooms and schools. They can't. They have been trying to do this ever since they introduced Standards-based Learning over fifteen years ago, but they have never been able to do it. Not only have they repeatedly and utterly failed in this, they have never admitted it so they have never learned from the failure. Instead, they chose to declare victory and move on. Since they claimed success, they could never figure out what kept them from succeeding and, worse, they persist in the delusion that they can do it.

It could that the JSCEE just doesn't know that standardization has not been implemented in the schools, it could be that they know but they have been lying to the Board about it, it could be that they do know, but they are lying to themselves about it, it could be that the schools have lied to the JSCEE about it to get the bureaucrats off their backs, or it could be some other possibility. But no matter who is misrepresenting the facts - knowingly or unknowingly - there is no consistent implementation of curriculum in Seattle Public Schools. Not across schools - not even across classrooms within schools.

When I think of this I am haunted by the emails that came after the Board's adoption of Math In Focus in which the Executive Directors of Schools contacted the principals in their regions to ask them what math materials they were using. They had to ask because they didn't know. I'm not sure what the Executive Directors of Schools are doing and how they are overseeing principals and schools without knowing what math textbooks the schools are using. It reflects a level of detachment and negligence that I had, previously, believed far beneath them.

Second, they assume that they can differentiate instruction. Seattle Public Schools has never - NEVER - been able to implement differentiated instruction on any scale or with any reliability. Differentiating instruction requires a heroic amount of work. It requires time, training, and effort - none of which is compensated or even allotted. Yet people in the JSCEE who don't have to do that work keep writing these absurd action plans in which they presume that they can achieve differentiated instruction simply by wishing it or typing the words onto a PowerPoint slide. That's not how you get differentiated instruction to happen.

Third, they are relying on the CSIPs to be meaningful documents. That's simply not the case. Most schools treat the CSIP as a form that needs to be completed for compliance purposes, but it isn't meaningful or binding in any way. They are typically completed in a careless fashion using canned language. No one ever has or ever will hold anyone accountable for what is in a CSIP. The bulk of CSIPs are missing elements that are supposed to be there, such as descriptions of the programs or services in place for advanced learners, but there are no consequences for the absences. No one takes these documents seriously but they are represented as meaningful.

Fourth, they presume that they can change the attitudes, beliefs, and behavior of all of their staff. When have they ever been able to do anything even remotely like this? When has any institution? They think they are going to do it with a few training sessions? When has that ever worked?

All four of these fantasies are analogous to my making plans for my financial future starting with the presumption that I will win the lottery. Keep in mind that I don't buy lottery tickets.

Seattle Public Schools makes plans for Targeted Universalism that start with the baseless presumption that they can implement a consistent Tier 1 curriculum and the equally baseless presumption that they can differentiate instruction. They say that the effort will be documented in CSIPs that have no connection with the operation of schools and they say that they will change attitudes with half-day training sessions. They do this without making a serious effort to accomplish any of these pre-requisites. They have never confronted the truth that they have failed in every effort and they have never explored the contributing causes of their failure or taken any steps to address those causes.

I don't know why the JSCEE staff persists in these fantasies.
I don't know why the Board tolerates them.


Anonymous said...

Utterly frustrating. Wouldn't it be nice if for every 5 years of service in the headquarters, staff would be required to spend one year in the classroom? Let them experience first hand the difficulties in implementing these policies with a class size of 28 and minimal planning periods.

-NW Mom

Outsider said...

Why is differentiating instruction considered hard? The elementary school I attended from grades 2-5 was relatively low-funded by national standards, but they differentiated instruction with ease. No grand theories or powerpoint (which did not even exist then.) Just common sense and they did it.

What does SPS even mean by differentiating instruction? On one hand, they seem to want every classroom to be doing the same lesson on the same day across the whole city; and yet the phrase "differentiated instruction" appears in their working documents. What does it even mean?

Melissa Westbrook said...

It means the teacher will adjust teaching/curriculum to serve the learning needs of students. So if a child is a good reader, assign them a higher level book. If a child is struggling in math, give them more basic questions until they achieve mastery.

But that takes a lot of planning and, with a large class size, can be very difficult.

I'm not a teacher so this is just a basic answer. In the end, teachers generally teach to the middle because that's all they have time for if they don't have professional development in how to differentiate or the materials to do so.

Outsider said...

Melissa --

The simplest form of differentiation is to just vary the pace in covering the exact same materials. It doesn't require complicated systems or heroic effort by teachers. Seattle teachers don't do it because they are forbidden (so they tell me.) They are required to teach the exact same material to every student in every classroom in the city on a given day. That seems to be the SPS policy. Spectrum was the only exception, and now they seem to be removing acceleration even from Spectrum.

SPS seems to be strongly opposed to differentiation as you describe it. One can hardly say they failed to achieve differentiation when all of their actions have been oriented to eliminating it.

When they speak favorably of differentiation in some documents it seems to mean only for a subset of students who are struggling or disadvantaged. It seems to mean the equivalent of having an individual tutor for every struggling student who can exactly diagnose where that student is stuck and devise a personalized teaching plan. Since personal tutors are too expensive, and teachers can't be a personal tutor to every struggling student, Plan B seems to be some sort of quasi-computerized data-driven system where struggling students are continuously assessed and the computer tells the teacher exactly what they need next. That mostly a guess on my part. But it's the only way to make sense of the fact that SPS has mostly been stamping out differentiation in recent years as it applies to most students, but calls for differentiation in documents about MTSS for disadvantaged students.

Melissa Westbrook said...

But the document seems to indicate differentiation for ALL students and I perceive this as their answer to Spectrum.

We'll see.

Anonymous said...

Charlie -

This was an excellent piece. I'm surprised it didn't get more comments.

It seems to me that one of the hardest things about being a board member is making decisions when *no one* in the district will be straight with you. No one will acknowledge faults, programs that aren't working, systems that are failing, etc.

Yet, everyone knows, based on what happens in the district that its a mess.

I'd really love to see some senior leadership stand up in front of the board, in front of the public and say "you know what, this isn't working. And we're going to put metrics in place to measure our successes and failures, and then go and fix them."


Anonymous said...

In most systems "Differentiated Instruction" is little more than a convenient fairy tale to believe in. It allows convenient scheduling as capabilities and prerequisite knowledge of students can be ignored in scheduling as "Differentiated Instruction" will take care of it.

It is extremely difficult to find any quantitative research on the efficacy of "Differentiated Instruction"

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

Here are the official SPS procedures on MTSS, approved in 2012. Has anyone seen any of this actually occur?

Half Full

Bloated said...

Seems to me the simple solution to this is to cut the administration and move more funds to the schools. These grandiose plans that repeatedly fail to work suck down resources that obviously would be better used in the classroom.