Thursday, September 14, 2006

Vision? What Vision?

I attended the Community Conversation tonight at Mercer Middle School. Very heavy district staff turnout, mediocre community attendance.

Unlike Melissa Westbrook, who shared her feelings/impressions in a comment on my previous post, I came away from the meeting angry --- angry and bitterly disappointed. What was presented tonight by Carla (who is clearly knowledgeable, articulate, and passionate) was NOT a vision for Seattle Public Schools. I had been waiting for a vision. Carla had promised me I'd hear a clear academic vision. What I heard was the same predictable list of milestones Raj talked about two days ago. Please tell me they didn't pay some consultant or researcher to come up with that list!

I checked in with a few people before I left the meeting early, and reactions were quite varied. Here's my interpretation of what I heard:

  • We are going to focus on the academic achievement of children.
    Apparently, this is a new thing for Seattle Public Schools. I'm not against focusing on the academic achievement of children. That is one of the main purposes of school, but I find it hard to get excited by this statement which should be assumed for any school district.

  • Academic achivement will be measured by standardized tests, and the goal is to have all students meet the minimum requirements.
    If students pass the tests and meet the minimum achievements, all is well. Carla even said the district won't "keep students" from performing beyond the minimum standards. Teamwork skills, the ability to set personal goals, verbal communication skills, and all sorts of other things that are better predictors of success in life are not going to receive the "laser-like" focus that standardized test scores will.

  • Two of the main strategies for achieving these minimum academic benchmarks are more centralized curriculum decisions imposed on schools and lots and lots of testing and measuring.
    The district knows what good curriculum is and wants consistent curriculum. More mention of the newly adopted middle school math curriculum. Wonder if their other curriculum choices will be as popular and effective? Despite significant research on the value of art, music, gym and other "non-core subjects" in helping students learn, no mention of those in the six benchmarks. If students aren't meeting benchmarks, the district will deliver more and more of the same kind of instruction. More, louder, longer --- eventually, the kids will get it. Carla said not to worry if our "pet projects" like foreign language education aren't mentioned. They will still be offered. No discussion about alternative schools in this picture --- schools whose philosophy is that there are other important things to do at school in addition to preparing kids for the WASL.

  • On the operations side, the good news, according to Mark Green, is that academic needs will actually be considered early in the budget process. He describes this as a significant shift, so maybe that is the good news of the night.

Two kudos to Carla this evening:

1) She showed off her political and strategic smarts. She got people who have been involved in criticizing the district involved as facilitators of table discussions. That is a smart strategy.

2) She got a lot of district staff to show up tonight, and has called for central office staff to be focused on service. All staff, no matter how far removed from instruction, are to be constantly reminded why they are there and what they are working for. I support that effort completely.


Anonymous said...

I was also at Mercer tonight. I wasn't looking for a Vision, I was looking for a plan. A real plan with action steps and metrics. I had heard the goals, what I wanted to hear were the steps we were going to take to make them happen. While the action steps were not fleshed out in full detail, they were there in a level of detail that was appropriate for this event. I get the idea that there is a more detailed list somewhere.

The parts with the clearest action steps and the best detail were those elements that applied directly to academics - the parts written by Carla Santorno. The elements of the plan that had incomplete action steps in poor detail were those dealing with operations - the parts written by Mark Green. The elements of the plan with no action steps and no detail were those dealing with administration - the parts written by Raj Manhas.

So it is very clear, or at least clear enough for me, how we are going to work towards those academic milestones. It is much less clear how we are going to achieve fiscal and system sustainability. It is completely unclear how the District will develop leadership and accountability. As for Family and Community Engagement, their definition continues to be uni-directional communication from them to us. They're totally lost.

The best part of the night, for me, came at the end when I chatted with Mark Green. I asked why a lot of the capital costs associated with the closures and consolidations didn't appear in BEX III. He said that they would be paid for out of the savings on BTA II. In other words, the money that would have been used to fix up Columbia will follow ORCA to Whitworth and be used instead to convert it to a K-8. It doesn't balance to the penny, but it is close enough to work. That was a good answer.

I kind of stuck it to him over the Accountability Plan, but he remained pretty good-natured. He did say that the Accountability Plan continues to be operational. It is still the plan, they just haven't completed it as originally scheduled but they are still working on it.

Beth Bakeman said...

Is this a first? Am I more cynical and disappointed in the district than you are tonight?

BTW, sorry we didn't get a chance to connect. After only meeting you once briefly at school closure meeting, I couldn't remember exactly what you look like.

Anonymous said...

You want cynicism? I have none for Ms Santorno, but I have a ton of it for Mr. Manhas.

We got detailed definitions of the academic goals, complete with rationale, action steps, metrics, and benchmarks.

Mark Green was fuzzier with the operational goals. They were about 80% defined, we got examples of actions, and an idea of metrics.

Raj Manhas was nowhere with the Leadership goals. No definitions, no rationale, no action steps, no metrics, no benchmarks, nada. Why should we believe that he will do these things now when he hasn't done them over the past three years? He has some explaining to do.

As bad as that was, Caprice Hollins wasn't even there to discuss the Family and Community Engagement Goals. A total no-show in mind, body and spirit. Ironic, isn't it? No communication on the communication plan and no community engagement on the community engagement plan. I can't write comedy like this.

I have sent emails to Mr. Manhas and Dr. Hollins asking for their definitions, action steps, metrics, benchmarks, and information on how I can play a role to support their work. I will continue to write to them until I get satisfactory answers. This could take a while.

Let's not forget that leadership and engagement are each a quarter of the District's Strategic Framework. I expect them to be considered as seriously and to an equivalent level of detail as the academic and operational parts of the Framework.

Beth Bakeman said...

I think I was less frustrated by Raj last night because I have come to expect nothing from him.

I was very hopeful about Carla, which I think led to my disappointment. And, to be clear, the disappointment was not with the presentation she gave, which was thorough and professional. It is with the vision, or lack or vision for Seattle Schools.

If Carla accomplishes everything she laid out last night, we will have a test-focused school system which celebrates mediocrity. I don't find that exciting or inspiring.

Anonymous said...

I understand your frustration, Beth, but I think that you need to take a more global view and give her statements a more sympathetic interpretation.

First, for every student family in Seattle Public Schools for whom "at Standard" represents inadequate mediocrity, there are three or four for whom it represents an ambitious goal. On top of that, I'm sure you can see how ambitious it is to EVERY student at standard - 100%. If one of the Seattle schools hadn't done it this past year I would have thought it impossible. I still think it is impossible for the District as a whole. It is a monumentally ambitious goal.

Second, I heard Ms Santorno say, and say it a number of times, that every student must be challenged and that working at standard is not a high enough expectation for many of them. Beyond her talk, her documents made reference to advanced learners in several places. I have spoken with her, and I can tell you that she has a broad definition of advanced learners.

Trust me, Carla Santorno is no advocate for mediocrity. She wants every student doing work at the frontier of their knowledge and skills.

So try to remember that she is giving the focus to the most critical emergency - students working below standards in need of intervention - but that doesn't mean that she has lost focus on the students working at or beyond Standards or that she doesn't want them appropriately served as well.

Perhaps I'm giving her too much benefit of the doubt or listening with too sympathetic an ear, but that is what I heard. I hope that encourages you to take a moment and consider that perspective.

May I suggest that you contact Ms Santorno and share your concerns with her? I know that I can rely on you to do so diplomatically. Maybe you could describe for her what I heard and tell her that you didn't hear that, but could she please confirm it.

Beth Bakeman said...

Charlie, your last comment made me laugh, which is a good thing today. I did share my opinions directly with Carla, but, unfortunately, did that last night when I was angriest (never a good idea), so I don't think I did a very good job at doing so "diplomatically."

As I mentioned in my main post, I give Carla credit for political and strategic smarts. Obviously, by meeting with you and Melissa Westbrook individually, she was able to share her ideas and opinions in a way that made you both more inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt than I was.

And let's not exaggerate, at least half of the high school students have passed all 3 WASL tests. That's far from acceptable performance, but if, in trying to help the half who are not there yet achieve standards, we ignore the other half, I'm not sure that should be considered a step forward.

Anonymous said...

sorry if I swerved off topic a bit

I think raising the bar for everyone is important-
92% of the students who passed two of the WASL tests - but not the 3rd, didn't pass the math test.
I know many students who are at grade level or well above ( taking AP), but at or slightly below grade level in math, who didn' t pass the math WASL.
These students are obviously bright- they obviously are working hard- so why didn't they pass the math WASL?

Obviously multi casual
Perhaps a math disability, compounded by less than stellar instruction/curriculum in elementary through middle school- exacerbated by parents who couldn't coach/pay for math tutors to teach what they weren't getting in the classroom.

Some schools- have great math instruction with teachers who have supplemented the school approved/district approbed curriculum.

Supplementation by teachers takes more work, and teachers who are encouraged & supported by parents to do so are more likely to.
Schools where the community is less involved, especially when there is less leadership from teh principal, seem more likely to have students who do poorly.
By raising the bar for all classrooms- and providing support for those students where they need it, we have a greater chance of reducing the "acheivment" gap.
I am really disappointed that Ms Hollins didn't choose to attend. I think listening to the community is an important part of engaging the community.
But maybe that is just me?

I also don't expect anything from Manhas, but he is intelligent enough to know that he isn't what the district wants or needs- and to remain in that position despite that knowledge seems .....

Ms Santorno I am undecided about. I have read some really positive work that she did in Denver, but when I have seen her at meetings, she seemed to fit into the Seattle culture a bit more than I was hoping for.
I guess I am at the point where I want to see blood-
The education of Seattles school kids can't wait until all the adults involved are happy with every possible scenario.