Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Whose Fault Is It Anyway?

During the last few days, I've been involved in several conversations about whose "fault" it is that the district is having such large problems. The argument has tended to divide people into two camps: the people who believe it is Raj's fault, and the people who believe it is the School Board's fault. I certainly lean heavily towards the side of blaming Raj, but obviously, there is plenty of shared responsibility and blame to go around.

Discussing the "Whose fault is it anyway?" question doesn't necessarily help us move forward with improving Seattle Public Schools. Yet, it is important to understand what has gone wrong in order to work on "fixing" it and preventing similar problems in the future.

On that note, I share this message from Charlie Mas:


I read Lynne Varner's editorial in the Times today and she and I have exchanged email about it. The end result is this question: How much leadership should the Board members show and what form should that leadership take?

Let's face it, the District doesn't have a strategic plan, doesn't have an academic plan, doesn't have a plan for closing the academic achievement gap, didn't communicate the closures correctly, doesn't engage the community effectively, and doesn't present an attractive face to the public. I can say that the Superintendent failed in all of these ways, but did the Board fail in all of these ways as well?

I am of the opinion that leadership by committee is impossible. Committees diffuse responsibility and muffle voices.

I have also concluded that the school boards were never expected to take on these sorts of challenges under these sorts of conditions. Things were a lot simpler when the money all came from the state, the state set the teacher salaries, there was no expectation to educate students like some that now appear in our schools in large numbers, and parent expectations were notably lower. School Board Directorships were largely honorary positiions. I think it takes a pretty extraordinary sort of person to get the job done today, so I don't blame the current Board members for their inability to get it done.


Johnny Calcagno said...

Once again I find myself largely in agreement with Beth and Charlie. While the Board has made plenty of mistakes, it seems to me that the people with higher salaries and real power are the ones who should be held most accountable. And I’m not just talking about Raj and District staff, although the obvious shortcomings have been duly noted.

Ever since Raj announced his original Reshaping Plan, I have been stunned by the near complete absence of discussion in the media, or by our elected officials, or even in our public school communities, about the most obvious and fundamental failing that is at the core of nearly all of the District’s problems.

There is simply not enough money coming from the state. Somehow, the phrases “42nd in the nation” and “paramount duty” just haven’t sunk in to the people who control revenue at the state level. I do understand the politics of raising taxes, but attacking families for fighting for their children’s school, or belittling volunteer school board directors for their unwillingness to devastate their constituents, misses the target by a mile.

I know that money is not the only problem, but some of the failings of the District that have been identified on this blog recently – lack of PR, terrible enrollment communication, inability to get data to decision-makers – are at least partly due to central staff being cut to the bone.

You will have a hard time convincing me that this whole closure process has not been a disaster for nearly all concerned, even if a case can be made to close certain schools. It just plain wasn’t worth it. Raj is out of a job, the School Board is held in contempt by all, the School District has an ever worse reputation, and of course families have been disrupted, either by having their school closed, or by having had to go through the terrible process of articulating why their school shouldn’t be closed.

And to save how much exactly? And to make which children better off?

To get back to our blame discussion, where did this closure process come from? Might it have been driven (tacitly at least) from the same people who so are fiercely holding on to the purse strings? How much pressure to close schools (and invoke whatever other painful remedies are on the horizon) would there be if Washington State was 10th in the nation in funding?

Anonymous said...

Leslie here - (cannot get the login to work, sorry)

Chris J. mentioned in one of his pieces of testimony that if Seattle were pulled from the rest of the state that it would be 9th in the US in funding? Does anyone have any more info. on that stat.? I found it fascinating.

Do others have an insight as to Ed Murray's proposed legislation as to Mayoral appt. process for two Boardmembers? Goodness knows that Ed has been a champion of transportation in Olympia but may have missed his school input.

My hope is as well we can start tagging our Legislators one on one in the Seattle Districts (though anything with the Seattle only stamp in Olympia meets with a backlash) but note that Tacoma just this week has announced closures - x2 - wonder how that process will work?

Is the idea of a citywide summit w/ SPS, Legislative folks at all levels, SEA, WEA, SPS Staff at all levels, Alliance for Ed (A4E), NAACP, LWV, Stop Closures groups, etc. too optomistic to assist in out of the box forward movement? The negative backlash on the PI's soundoff boards as well as the Times sudden interest in reporting and editorializing (such as it is) are breathtaking - the message in media since 7/26 is that anyone who has opposed "the program" are simply selfish, spoiled, uncivilized and . . . fill in the blank"

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the "backlash" as you call it is coming from many citizens and parents in Seattle who feel that their voices are not being heard -- that the Board seems to be responding solely to a small, well-organized, vocal group that represent a minority opinion. Perhaps this "backlash" is coming from those who thought the closure process was working as well as could be expected, and fully thought the Board would move forward on this issue, instead of being endlessly stuck in "process."

Perhaps the "backlash" is just a sign of things to come in the future, when levy money is sought to support a broken institution, and when Board members who seem beholden to a minority of the citizenry find that many in their respective districts are quite upset with their disfunction.

Anonymous said...

I hear a lot of people complaining about a "lack of leadership", but I feel a need to question that. Is it really leadership that we are lacking? Do we need a charismatic individual at the top and the front of the pack calling "C'mon everybody! This way! Follow me!" and then charging over the hill?


Maybe not.

Maybe we don't need charismatic and visionary leadership so much as we need some ordinary, soft-spoken competence and effectiveness. While the Teddy Roosevelt image is appealling in a strong-father/imperialistic sort of way, I think I would be just as happy, perhaps happier, to see the work done by a few nebbishy accountant types who banged out a strategic plan that meshed with the Board's stated mission, vision, beliefs and goals. They could then follow that with an academic plan, a plan for closing the gap, reasonable assignment and transportation plans, a budget driven by academic priorities, and reforms for nearly all of the District's processes to authentically include public input early in the decision-making.

I would be just as happy - and in many ways happier - with Clark Kent as with Superman.

I don't think we need leadership so much as we need basic competence. I don't feel leadership lacking so much as I feel a lack of competence and completion of basic tasks.

Johnny Calcagno said...

Yes, competence is exactly what I’m looking for, and as a parent and taxpayer, I’d like to see that competence throughout the system, from the district leadership right on down to the building level. I do think that charismatic individuals can inspire those reporting to them to step up their performance, but sure, that charisma can be quiet and intelligent.

At the national level, the incompetence is staggering, and government service denigrated, so I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that there are performance problems at lower levels of government.

This leads back to my point about money from the state: The Legislature has as yet not been given the necessary political cover to increase funding. This is a huge failure on the part of district leadership, the school board, education advocacy groups, elected officials at all levels, and frankly, parents. I like Leslie’s idea of a summit, if for no other reason to reframe the debate from images of weak school board unwilling to slap down whiny parents, to the abysmal funding situation.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the "backlash" and the general impression of dysfunction, I think the media is to blame for this. Try to set image aside for a moment and focus on the substance.

Here is the Substance of what happened: The Superintendent brought a school closure proposal to the Board and the Board passed it 5-2. Seven schools will close. Image: the Board opposed the Superintendent's plan; substance: the Board passed it by a significant majority.

I believe that the majority of informed Seattle voters can see that the District is maintaining excess capacity and that represents a waste of scarce resources. A vocal minority opposes them for reasons that are not all that closely tied to the students. Image: popular opposition to closures; substance: popular support for closures.

Although the District never did a good job of explaining it clearly (image), students in very small schools with enrollments in the 200 range cannot be cost-effectively provided with the same sort of services and opportunities that can be cost-effectively provided to students in larger schools. Image: the closures hurt the students; substance: the school consolidations should benefit the students.

There has been a lot of talk about the benefits of small schools without a lot of information about what a small school is. The small schools movement advocates elementary schools with enrollments under 500 - not enrollments under 300. The consolidated schools will still have enrollments under 500. Real small schools are small by design, not because very few people choose to enroll children in them. Studies show that small schools are effective; the schools being closed did not demonstrate that sort of academic effectiveness. Image: we are losing precious and effective small schools for ineffective kiddie factories; substance: the students were not at true "small schools" but will be at more effective schools that are still small.

Do you see how the image makes this action appear choatic and dysfunctional while the substance, what actually happened after you scrape away the spin and misinformation, is actually shows some effective functionality?

The Superintendent then brought Phase II to the Board, proposing to close two more schools. At least half of the Phase II proposal, the Cooper/Pathfinder part, was clearly ill-conceived and in direct violation of the closure criteria that the Board had set. The AS#1/Summit part may have been a bad idea as well, but was not as clearly a bad idea. The Board voted to table that proposal.

That is the substance of what happened. Everything else is theater and not relevant to the question of function or dysfunction.

So where is the dysfunction?

I submit that the dysfunction is in a media that features the extreme and theatrical and lives on conflict and crisis. I submit that the dysfunction is in a few individuals who are not representative of their communities who would not conduct themselves as adults and who would not focus on the students.

If the District leadership, the Superintendent and the Board, failed to function properly in any way, it was their failure to manage the image. The substance of their action was actually pretty good. Yes, the Phase II proposals were bad, but the process worked: the Board voted to table it.

It appears to me that the "backlash" is manufactured, perhaps to sell papers.

Anonymous said...

Oh! Regarding the Chris Jackins data point about Seattle per student funding being more like 9th in the nation - he is most likely correct about that. I say that primarily out of respect for Chris (plus the data is easy to find).

Chris is conveniently leaving three things unsaid

1) Per student funding rates can be very misleading, particularly as the size of the sample shrinks. Comparisons of states may be meaningful, comparisons of districts less so. These are averages and can be easily skewed. If you were in a room with 99 other people from Western Washington the average net worth of those people may be about $300 thousand. If Bill Gates is one of them, the average net worth in in the room is more like $300 million. There are a few students who are EXTREMELY expensive to serve. Seattle, as an urban district, has more of these students than other districts in the state. Consequently, we receive funding for these students that raises our per student average.

2) It isn't apples to apples to compare Seattle's funding to that of STATES. Let's instead compare Seattle's per student funding to that of other urban districts.

3) Chris says that if we were a state we would be 9th. I dispute that. If we were a state, we would be first because a Seattle state legislature would support schools more than the Washington state legislature does now.

Anonymous said...

Charlie, your "image vs. substance" entry is right on. Can you get the papers to publish that??!!

Anonymous said...

I have been reading this thread for the past couple of days and think each person commenting has something very relevent to say. I would hope someone from the district and board have a look here, they might get some insight into what some thoughtful parents have to say. Special thanks to Charlie, i think you have many relevant points, sure you dont want to run for the school board or super?