Monday, January 16, 2017

What's the Matter with Seattle Schools?

I have always been an action-oriented person who believes that there are solutions to problems.  But, as it was stated in the Moss-Adams report (from the Olchefske scandal in 2004), if you don't change the culture of a bureaucracy, you will change nothing.

The things that have been wrong with this district since 2004 are the same things. Which makes trying to track and follow the inner workings of the district tiring, frustrating and frankly, at this point, useless.

Charlie calls the problem "a culture of lawlessness" which is true but I would be more inclined to say it's a silo culture of hunkering down at headquarters and a near-complete lack of understanding about how to run a school district properly.  The leadership at the top that refuses to see/acknowledge problems, no matter how many red flags get thrown up, how many scandals occur or how many finding come from auditors, either internal or at the state level is also troubling.

I have met many good, decent people who work at the district headquarters through the years.  I think people's hearts are truly in the right place but the leadership's view of how to get to the top of the mountain is flawed. 

It's a bit dizzying to consider the number of superintendents, board members and staff members that Charlie and I have outlasted.  If you don't want to read my treatise thru to the end, here are the Cliff notes.

1) Operations - the district can't get this right and if you can't get this right, you will NEVER move ahead as a district on any issue.  This is key because all the good things that you may want for this district will not happen until this is under control.

2) Accountability - I keep getting told that people are being held accountable but there is no real evidence of that. The same mistakes keep happening, over and over.

3) Vision - what is the current vision for this district?  I'm not sure anyone really knows nor how the district plans to get there. 

4) Lack of transparency - I can categorically state that there has been movement but there is also evidence that staff hold onto data/information as long as they can and then dole it out by teaspoons.

5) Crisis - a culture of crisis whereby you don't even have to say "squirrel" to divert attention because there's always a crisis.

Why can't this district get its footing (no less be successful with more students?)

I get this question all the time.  "We're in a smart, rich city.  Why can't our district do better?"  and I know it's a question that both current (and former) mayors and members of the City Council get asked as well.

The collorary question to that is, "Why are so many school-aged Seattle children in private schools?" For decades at least 25% of those kids have gone to private schools. 

(What would be really great data to see would how many spent at least part of their K-12 years in Seattle public schools but unfortunately, the district doesn't track that data nor have they ever sought to find out where the kids who do leave go to.  Did they move away or just leave SPS?)

Years back, this was absolutely big deal because money left with every single kid who was not in public school.  The district needed those dollars. Today, with capacity issues, I'm sure the district is glad they don't have all those students because where would they put them all?

What are some of the issues?

Number one with a bullet has to be that the district - to this day - does not run in an operationally sound manner.  If you had years of sitting thru committee meetings after something goes wrong and hearing about protocols and safeguards that would seem common sense but then hearing staff saying, "No, we don't currently do that but we will now," you'd see the problem.

When you sit in a committee meeting with the highest-paid COO we've ever had and he wants a cool $1M for a consultant because "we can't wrap our arms around operations," you'd see the problem.

When you realize that the district started cutting back on preventative maintenance back in the late '70s (!) and that it now operates for maintenance basically on an emergency basis, you'd see the problem.  (Not to mention that the district has continued to build and renovate buildings with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars and yet is not properly maintaining them.  We have gone from building schools to last 50 years to then lasting just 25-30 years.)

I have said this before but if the district ran well, Charlie and I just might be out of business.  (Of course, if it were a well-run district, this blog could actually talk about issues of real meaning like academics.)  Instead, parents come here pick at each other and then complain about who gets what of the scraps of what the district doles out, whether it's dollars or information. That sure is a great way to divide and conquer and keep the attention away from the real issue for this district.

Number two has to be the lack of accountability.  I believe the majority of thisproblem stems from the district's great fear of being sued by employees.  Personally, I think there are legal ways to say that someone failed in their job but apparently not.

When things go south in the district, it gets swept under the rug as soon as possible (except when there is a villain like Silas Potter and then the district is more than happy to throw someone to the wolves.)  One thing I give the late Dr. Goodloe-Johnson credit for is taking the fall in that case. 

And here's the thing - I actually wouldn't care if anyone was held publicly accountable for misdeeds/mistakes.  What should happen is that the board in power at the time should hold the superintendent in power at the time accountable.  That means, if there is a flaw in the system that allowed a problem to occur, it is fixed and the board continues to keep an eagle-eye on that situation.

That means, that when the superintendent's evaluation comes up, problems, as well as successes, are noted.

I have been astonished at how many evaluations I have read where issues seem to (again) be swept under the rug or not even mentioned.  A superintendent's evaluation should be transparent and have the good, the bad and the ugly.

That means, if a situation occurs again that seemingly was addressed previously, the board ferrets out exactly what happened and someone gets punished.  That we have had not one but two very serious incidents with violations of district policy around field trips at one high school means no one is truly taking field trip policy seriously.

If you had a combination of number one and number two and had to put it into one word, that would would be "money." 

I firmly believe our schools are underfunded.  Shame on the Legislature and, in particular, the GOP members who are dragging their feet.  (We have one senator who thinks this is all a ruse to get an income tax.) We have some in the Legislature who are willing to allow real live students to suffer to make a point (see the levy cliff.) 

You certainly could compare the GOP in Congress who want to get rid of Obamacare without having any idea of a real replacement to the GOP members of the Legislature that complain about the Governor's education budget or the Dems' plan for McCleary and yet, offer no ideas of their own.  That's pitching spitballs from the back of the classroom scorning proffered solutions without having any of your own.

Unlike Charlie, I'm not just going to read the district's budget or "gold book" and say it contains all the info you need to figure out where the money in this district goes.

I don't believe it because time after time we later find out money was spent that was listed under some vague or bland title.  I am deeply disturbed that in the midst of this current levy cliff crisis, the district is going to "lend" the Capital program money from the General Ed fund because the Capital folks have already spent 90% of their budget on only 50% of the work to be done. 

This means that not only do we have an General Ed fund crisis, there is also one in Capital building.  I'll go on record as agreeing (again) with Charlie; this district needs to contract out their capital building.  They simply don't know what they are doing. 

Number three a the lack of a succinct and clear vision for this district.  There are "mission statements" and "strategic plans" but you probably couldn't swing a dead cat in this district and find 10 parents who could tell you what that vision is (no less how it is being carried out.)

What seems to happen, time after time, is a lot of churn and reports and "look what we 'accomplished'" kind of outcomes. Not good enough by half.

But let's be clear - this is NOT a failing district.  This district has, bit by bit, seen more students graduate, more students across the board take the SAT, and the district has more board-certified teachers than ever.   

BUT, the gap between white students and most students of color continues to grow.  And oddly, the district doesn't point out one reason for the gap is that white students are progressing faster than students of color are catching up. (I will have more to say about the opportunity gap in a separate thread on race and equity)

What's my point?  I'm just trying to make clear what I see and how desperately I wish things were different (or even going in a different and obviously better direction.)

What am I advocating for?  Not a darn thing.

What should you do?  I really don't know.  Apparently the Board seems to think things are progressing but I think a snail's pace isn't going to get much done.

I'm just sayin', as Chris Rock did in one routine; Tired of this shit man! Tired. Tired. Tired.


Another Name said...

Every large organization or bureaucracy has problems. Try looking at the cities, health care, environmental agencies etc.

Chris S. said...

It's kind of amazing, with the personnel turnover and shortness of institutional memory, how dysfunction persists. I suppose someone with organizational theory knowledge might be able to explain it to me. I do see where bad decisions throughout history come home to roost (deferred maintenance, ill-conceived sales of property.) Maybe the dysfunction changes over time but the human response to circle the wagons and pretend everything is OK just makes it look the same to us?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Another Name, honestly, repeating the same mistakes over and over is not simply "every org" - they can and should do better.

David said...

It's a great question what would help.

More state funding would help, but getting that is hard with the resistance from representatives outside of Seattle.

A Board that holds the superintendent accountable would help, but it doesn't seem to matter who we elect to the Board, they all acquiesce quickly.

A strong superintendent with a commitment to educating kids would help, but we can't ever seem to get that, the Board always hires someone quickly, always picking a careerist who seems to be more interested in Seattle as a stepping stone then helping Seattle's kids.

A dedicated auditor and tight budgeting process might help, but the state seems uninterested and the Board's auditor is a toothless reflection of the Board.

Constant press attention might help, but the Seattle Times and others do little investigative reporting on Seattle Public Schools, and this blog can only do so much.

What would help? How do we get from here to there?

Jet City mom said...

I just read this today, and it distressed me.

Id like to see Seattle schools step up and encourage more community participation in the schools and buildimgs.
Stop redrawing boundaries every year, and give families continuity.
House community forums and events after hours.
I dont have an answer for the churches, when it sounds like the parshioners have already moved from the area, but we do need gathering places.

Anonymous said...

Melissa, you said, "the Capital folks have already spent 90% of their budget on only 50% of the work to be done."

But back in your original reporting on this the BEX Oversite Committee minutes say "the district has used 90% of the program contingency when there is still 50% of the work left to do in BEX IV."

The big difference is that word 'contingency'. There is a significant distinction between the overall BEX IV budget and the contingency budget.

I agree that it is still a problem to spend 90% of your contingency budget with 50% of the work still to be done. But this is a much smaller problem that spending 90% of the overall budget with half of the work completed.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Thank you, Mark, I will correct that.

But if our General Fund has no money, but can make loans to another department then I'm confused. Or, it's just general purpose BS.

Anonymous said...

Here is an interesting NPR piece about school choice creating institutional racism and segregated schools:

Not saying I agree, since our choice led us to a more diverse school, but it's good food for thought on this important holiday.

Wishing Well

Anonymous said...

We left to homeschool. Fortunate to have the ability to do so. Grateful not to have to settle.

- mindset free

Anonymous said...

I started in the district in 1996 at Ingraham High School. Funny how that school has changed. I worked at Sealth and Rainier Beach and I am not so sure how those schools have changed or not as they ebb and tide with the times.

Today I see it exactly has it was dysfunctional and a culture of compliance. The students have changed dramatically given as has the city itself and oddly they don't seem in alliance at all.

The Seattle way of talking endlessly changes little to nothing despite the city's growth and diversity it seems less so than ever. The Bubblelator a long relic of the city's path now describe its populace.

Go throughout the US or read Edshyster and her takedown of DeVos which shows you what a heavy fist in velvet glove can do to get their way. She makes Bill Gates seem gentle and kind natured.

Scolding, browbeating and berating doesn't work unless you have a check in which to proffer the same fist you are beating your opponent with.

Good luck and Bonne Chance!

- Old Timer

Charlie Mas said...

Here's what I think it will take.

#1 A Board that wants to enforce policy. Institutional culture flows down from the top, and the top of the District is the Board. Just look at this week's Board meeting and you will see the annual report required by Policy 2090, which utterly fails to meet the requirements of Policy 2090. The Board's response is "We are happy to see that you are making progress towards the initial steps of compliance." The Board's response should be: "This is completely unacceptable. You have 30 days to produce a report that complies with the policy." Same for the annual report required by Policy 2200 - the report utterly fails to meet the requirements of the policy but the Board meekly accepts it. If the Board held the superintendent accountable to policy compliance, then the superintendent would hold his cabinet accountable for it, and they would hold their direct reports accountable and so on down the chain. But it all starts with the Board. The District's compliance will be exactly as good as their enforcement.

#2 The Superintendent needs to set a narrow mission for the central office and he needs to guard vigilantly against mission creep. The central office does too much of what they shouldn't be doing and not enough of what they should be doing. They should recognize that the mission of the district is teaching and that NONE of the teaching happens in the JSCEE. So the role of the JSCEE should be first, to relieve the schools of ALL of the non-academic activity. Beyond that, they also need to make policy enforcement and quality assurance their job.

#3 The principal job should be split up. The principals should narrow their duties to serving as the instructional leaders in their buildings. This is what they want to be doing and this is what only they can do. All of the school business work (HR, scheduling, maintaining the physical plant, etc.) should be assigned to a School Business Officer who can probably handle the business for multiple schools. All of the discipline work should be assigned to a school discipline officer who specializes in this task. That way each of these tasks can fall to someone who actually knows the policies and can be held accountable for this task alone.

#4 It is time for the School District to close the academic achievement gap by providing students with the preparation, support, and motivation they need to succeed in school but are not getting at home. They already do pretty well on support, they are starting to improve on preparation, but they haven't really done anything systemic about motivation. The three things that have been shown to motivate people to do cognitive work (like learning) are autonomy, the opportunity to achieve mastery, and the sense of working in service to a purpose greater than oneself. Schools traditionally don't allow children much autonomy and, despite what you might presume, they usually target proficiency (or even just familiarity) rather than mastery. As for the sense that the students are working in service to a purpose greater than themselves, I hear almost nothing along those lines. So let's train teachers to be motivators and evaluate teachers based, at least to a significant degree, on how well they motivate students. This is the transition we keep hearing about from "the sage on the stage" to "the guide on the side". I like the idea of teachers as coaches, providing some skills training and practice and then working on motivation.

I would be totally okay with class sizes of 35 for students who are motivated and don't create disruption or need much supervision and class sizes of 15 for students who need more attention, for an average class size of 25.

#5 Finally, I would like to see a budgetary focus on the reforms that have been proven to work: mentors working with at-risk students, summer school for credit recovery and for retention, family support workers, and whatever else.

Anonymous said...

It's been proven that the more disorganize a bureaucracy is the easier it is to embezzle or skim off the top. In fact embezzlement is very common in school districts and we have had our fair share in SPS.

Speaking of skimming, why are tax payers are paying for SPS staff to trip to China ,it's just crazy. Most people don't understand the danger in the never the ending waste of financial resources and how it leads to diminished ROI down at the JSCEE. Shall we count the failed projects? There are over 50 and growing.

The folks at JSCEE must think all they need to do is spin up another levy. I think those days are over and there where lies to true danger.

It would be very interesting to list all the projects and initiatives spun up at JSCEE over the past 10 years with the cost and outcome. What a sad picture it will be.


Robert Cruickshank said...

I've always felt Charlie has it right when he describes a "culture of lawlessness." I've seen it up close in numerous ways and in several different roles - City staffer, parent, community advocate. I have seen a highly functional form of local government (the City of Seattle) and SPS is nowhere near that standard. The actions that SPS senior staff get away with are actions that would get them fired in almost any other bureaucracy in the Pacific Northwest.

To this day SPS senior staff continue to believe this district revolves around them, that the board and parents and teachers and community members exist to serve their needs and not the other way around. Operations problems will not get solved when SPS senior staff do not believe those problems are theirs to solve. It doesn't help that nobody is willing to hold them accountable, but that's a story for another time, I suppose.

The culture of lawlessness will only end when people lose their jobs.

Ed said...

Agree (most heartedly) with Robert C.

And NOT low level staff euphemistically called "central administration" like has been done in the past.

Charlie Mas said...

Here's how the culture of lawlessness works:

First, the employees are treated as if they were volunteers. No one criticizes the quality of anyone's work, they are just happy that the people showed up and did something. Also, the culture of the public education industry is the culture of teachers, who always want to give their charges one more chance to do the right thing (when their charges are White).

No one enforces policy.
Because the policies are not enforced, no one bothers to follow them.
Because no one bothers to follow the policies, they don't even bother to read them or learn what they are.
Because no one even knows what the policies are, everyone just does whatever seems right to them.
Because everyone just does whatever seems right to them, tragedy inevitably occurs.
In the wake of tragedy, the policies are finally researched and the gross violations of policy are discovered.
When violations of policy are discovered, the response is to make the violator aware of the policy and require them to express remorse and give a commitment to follow policy in future. This is that teacher culture at work. So long as the violator expresses remorse and a commitment to be good in future, they will get another chance. And another, and another, and another. Only those who refuse to express remorse or don't promise to comply in future are punished (so long as they are White).
Because the policies are not enforced, no one bothers to follow them.

and so the cycle repeats.

The way to break the cycle is to enforce the policies. Impose consequences on those who violate the policies - even if they express remorse and give a commitment to comply in future. This is not a kindergarten class; these people are professionals. They can be held to a professional standard.

Melissa Westbrook said...

It would be very interesting to list all the projects and initiatives spun up at JSCEE over the past 10 years with the cost and outcome."


I also still am not sure that all the promises under BTA and BEX (but especially BTA) were fulfilled. The district releases laundry lists but nothing specific. With all the movement of money from BTA to BEX and back plus now, movement of money from the General Fund to Capital, who really knows for certain?

Anonymous said...

Well, having seen inside the palace many times in the last 10 years, generally speaking, there is a vast failure of accountable leadership - I have heard on more than one occasion someone say of a Department Director "all X does is send stupid emails all day". Parents and the general public are often seen as the "enemy" not the customer.

Its a cultural issue that never changes, despite moving the chess pieces around the board and it's mostly driven by those in command, NOT the underlings/front-line folk - many of them have tried repeatedly to changes things for the better, only to be beaten down by "the system"

Unless and until there's a widespread change in leadership expectations, nothing will ever alter.

The players and the titles (and the salaries!) change but the ultimate mission of SPS leadership seems to be "I GOT MINE" - I hate to be so cynical, but that's what I've seen, time and time again.


Future Workforce said...

Seattle is such a liberal city. In all this country, we're just the kind of place where you would expect to find great public education. We also are embracing a shift from relying on Boeing to a more varied, resilient, forward thinking workforce. We bring in a lot of brain-intensive workers from all over the country. To staff UW and our other colleges and top notch medical research and all our computing industries and their innovations and on and on. I don't understand why businesses aren't lobbying for better public education. Of all places in this country, we should have the best. This is geek city. Bring on the books!!! Open the minds!

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with Seattle Public Schools? In a word - Seattle.

This isn't a city where there is a consensus on items like effectiveness (as measured by test scores for example) or accountability. Rather, the way to get elected in Seattle is to talk about "Seattle hot buttons" - equity, social justice. The people we elect as our school board then install simpatico personnel as superintendent and executive staff. You can see how this manifests in the mission statement: "Seattle Public Schools is committed to ensuring equitable access, closing the opportunity gaps and excellence in education for every student". The thing that many parents actually care about is just an appendage at the end of the sentence "...and by the way, excellence for every student".

I think there are a couple of problems with this. First, as I've posted a few times, the district has made it very clear to parents that the first part of the mission statement is the priority. The closing of Spectrum, Garfield Honors for all etc etc. When there is conflict between excellence for every student and equity concerns, it seems like equity trumps all. So you've gotten a large chunk of the Seattle population (about 28%) that just opt out and as private school is pretty expensive, this sucks a lot of oversight, engagement and support out of the system. Note that I don't think people opt out because they don't believe in equity, they just care about their kids and are tired of being told that excellence for their kid is not a priority.

Secondly, the problem is a hard problem. The district doesn't really define what equity is, so that begets the culture of lawlessness you refer to. The district hasn't made that much progress - we're still talking about it. So much of it is tied into poverty and what happens outside of school. Of course white scores are going up - that correlates with the changes going on in Seattle now. Really well paid people who can afford all sorts of enrichment are moving here. I have to believe that accounts so much more for any improvement than the district. My point is the district continues to be basically at square one on a really hard problem and I think that generates all sorts of friction that we're seeing now through the dismemberment of advanced learning, the activism of teachers etc.

Finally, since the problem is hard, the equity term in Seattle isn't well defined, and we're in, well Seattle, that generates a ton of cover for lack of accountability. You can basically be terrible at your job but as long as you talk about equity all of the time, you're good. When Ted Howard was criticized in the Times this summer about the suspension rate of black teens, he used the opportunity to announce that he was eliminating honors classes (his words, turned out to be not quite the case) at Garfield. Nobody can hold him accountable for how many National Merit Scholars there are, or making sure classrooms are staffed. People are able to get away with stuff in this town that is just crazy, as long as they talk about equity, social justice and closing the gaps. And they don't really have to produce results.

And I'm not saying that we don't have a problem in terms of our society, race and education. We know our history as a country and we can look around. I am saying there has to be a better way - better leadership, and a more balanced set of goals. There's more than enough money here to fun programs and if people had some level of confidence in the institution, they would probably tolerate higher taxes.

But back to where I started this - that just doesn't play well generally in Seattle...

Cap Hill

stuartj said...

The comments above would apply to a lot of other school districts as well: advanced learners are simply a lower priority than closing gaps. But Seattle has so many well-educated parents who speak up that at least there's some visibility. Nationally though, the priorities embodied in No Child Left Behind are also a big part of what drives the goals for Seattle.

What would be really interesting as a separate topic is: what are some best practices from school districts that are large, have a diverse population and have outcomes we would call commendable?

Also interesting is to look at what does work. Cap Hill, check out the AP scores for math. Ballard and Franklin are much higher than Garfield. But, as noted above, no one is looking at the outcomes and saying hmm, how come the Challenge destination has only 62% getting a 4 or 5 on Calc AB, and Franklin and Ballard are getting 85% with a 4 or 5? There are some lessons to be learned.

Lynn said...

There is an awful AP Calc A/B teacher at Garfield. No classroom management skills and very little effort put into instruction. My child self-taught via the Kahn Academy. Those scores don't surprise me. Excellent advanced math instruction isn't a priority for Ted Howard.

Dave W. said...

You continue to be spot on Charlie. I have watched for 38 years and am often asked about SSD. I wish I was as eloquent as you.

Dave W. said...

You are not cynical, just observant and forthright.

Chris S. said...

Cap Hill, when you say "The people we elect as our school board then install simpatico personnel as superintendent and executive staff." ...well, let's just say my perception is different. Both seem to turn over frequently on an irregular schedule, but the role of the board seems limited to "choosing" between one or two candidates selected and vetted (or not) by others. How could they even run a search on their stipend with no direct reports? Besides, even liking the wrong candidates leads to accusations of "micromanaging" from the Times. As for other executives being buddies of the board, why is Michael Tolley still here? He was the bud of the super 10 years ago! Executive turnover only happens when one of them finds greener pastures elsewhere and/or the superintendent installs his simpaticos by expanding the number of executives.

Oh, I think I've just answered my first question!