Thursday, June 22, 2006

Reforming Seattle Public Schools

Although most of my posts from now until July 3rd will focus on the pressing issue of school closure, today I want to address a broader issue: How can we successfully work to reform Seattle public schools?

Some of my friends have told me that working to reform public schools is like hitting your head against a brick wall. Many, many people have tried for years, and little has changed.

In a report entitled, "Put Learning First: A Portfolio Approach to Public Schools", Paul Hill writes:

"The problem for reformers is that our current public school system is a lot like a building designed to withstand an earthquake. It has multiple, independent structural supports that flex and bend, dissipating outside jolts of energy. While this makes for a very stable educational system, it also diffuses pressures for positive change—most notably, efforts to reform schools to meet the shifting needs of students and society.

He identifies the following items which have constraints placed upon them, thereby making changing difficult:

  • Instruction: "State curriculum rules typically require coverage of a wide range of subjects. State testing programs also provide strong incentives to emphasize some skills over others."
  • Use of funds: "Although overall spending within a school might amount to several million dollars, school-level leaders typically only control budgets of perhaps $10,000 to $50,000...Also, state laws and labor contracts largely govern teacher salaries and benefits, which account for about 80 percent of spending at the school level."
  • Human resources: "School principals have little control over the hiring and assignment of teachers, who typically work in schools according to the terms of collective bargaining agreements. In general, teacher seniority trumps other factors in determining who gets to fill a particular vacancy."
  • Teacher and principal licensing: "States establish licensing requirements for teachers and principals. Schools of education generally define these standards, thereby ensuring demand for their courses and degrees. The requirements set minimum, yet not very effective, standards for teacher and principal quality: More than one-half of new urban principals and teachers report being poorly prepared for their jobs."
  • Investments: "...while individual teachers and principals are constantly coming up with new ideas about teaching and learning—and every city has a school or two that beats the odds with poor and disadvantaged students—other educators have few, if any, incentives to investigate what is working best and imitate it."

So working toward change in Seattle could require:

  1. Changing union contracts for teachers;
  2. Changing teacher and principal certification rules and education programs;
  3. Giving principals more control over their budgets. (Although Seattle principals currently have more control over budgets than most principals, at last night's Board meeting, I think Raj referred to taking back some of that budgetary authority from principals. Did I hear that right?)
  4. Resisting imposition of district-level curriculum decisions. (Last night's math curriculum discussions seem relevant here.)
  5. Creating incentives for duplication of programs that work.

#1 and #2, while vitally important, feel overwhelming.

#3, #4, and #5 seem like items we could tackle as parents and community members across the city.

What do others think? What should we know about efforts already doing on in these areas and/or barriers to success we could fight to remove?

And of course, making these changes would not in any way guarantee better schools in Seattle. It would just remove some of the structural barriers that make positive change so difficult.


Anonymous said...

First of all, take Professor Hill with a grain of salt. What is reprinted here is okay but he is a strong charter school advocate (and undermining public schools helps that cause) and, in fact, was trying to help Joseph Olchefske recreate SPS as a charter "district". Not pretty.

Principals in SPS have a lot of discretion over their budgets. Good and bad. Good because it allows a school to give attention to what it needs individually. Bad because (1) principals don't generally involved the community in the budget until after the fact and (2) some principals are just not good with numbers and may, in fact, hurt their community.

You probably did hear Raj correctly. We need to have earned autonomy for principals. If they show success, they can have more power in the running of their schools. But this blanket site-based management has got to go. As parents there is no way to judge from school to school if each operates under its own structure. It puts too much pressure on principals to create entire structures and rules; things that should be done by the district. I don't have as much a problem with academic freedoms (again, as long as a basic structure, created by the district, is in place) as long as they are showing progress. But too many principals are running their own fifdoms and not serving their communities well.

Anonymous 1

Anonymous said...

The fundamental problem with Seattle Public Schools is that the district is both structurally and culturally incapable of responding to the needs of the community it purportedly serves.

SPS is not unique in this regard. The culture and structure of public K-12 education is dysfunctional.

There is no accountability because the teachers are treated as volunteers. If you have ever worked with volunteers, then you know that you can't complain about the quality or quantity of their work; you're just happy they showed up. And let me tell you, if you've got someone with a Master's degree managing 150 people with no real authority over them, long hours, angry customers, thick binders of complicated regulations that they must follow, and limited opportunities for career growth for a paltry $35,000 a year, that person IS a volunteer.