Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Every student achieving, everyone accountable

There has been a lot of talk about accountability. The Superintendent is talking about it. The Chief Academic Officer is talking about it. The School Board is talking about it. The School Board candidates have been talking about it. But who, if anyone, is doing anything about it?

In a recent thread about the NAEP, I noted that the District Policy on testing isn't being followed. Dan noted two other Policies that aren't being followed. On any given day I can probably point out a whole list of Policies that are getting ignored. So where is the accountability?

A number of these policies are derived directly from the State law, so when the Policy isn't followed, a law is getting broken. But where is the accountability?

I believe that most of the people who violate Policy aren't even aware that they are doing it. They simply haven't read the Policy. Do the motivations really matter? If the District staff doesn't comply with a Policy, does it make any difference if their non-compliance is knowing, willful and intentional or if it is done out of ignorance of the Policy, or if it is a simple, innocent oversight? In any case, the Policy wasn't followed.

So what happens then? Typically nothing.

I cannot recall the Board ever publicly telling the Superintendent that one of his decisions is in violation of District Policy and must be rescinded. That's probably for the best since a conversation like that would be more effective in private. A correction of this sort could easily be seen as a rebuke, and there is good reason for the Superintendent and the Board to appear united and in agreement. Just the same, I have scant evidence that such conversations have occurred in private either.

When Mr. Manhas "re-classified" about 900 students from 10th grade to 9th grade without so much as a wave towards the policy on the promotion/non-promotion of high school students, did the Board step in and tell him to rescind the decision? It's hard to tell. Perhaps they did talk to him about it, because he didn't repeat it the following year (or maybe he did and it simply wasn't reported).

Some of the candidates for School Board were been talking about holding the Superintendent accountable. Now they only talk about holding themselves accountable. Perhaps that's because they came to discover that the Board has no means for holding the Superintendent accountable - let alone the other members of the staff.

This, by the way, is quite an intriguing new trend. Everyone is promising to hold themselves accountable. Few are promising to hold someone else accountable, and no one is offering to be held accountable by others.

Usually when a Policy is neglected no one notices. Sometimes the policy violation is noticed and reported, but that's where it ends. You can tell the person who broke the Policy about it. They may be mildly distracted to learn of it, but it is regarded as trivia. They are holding themselves accountable, so they forgive themselves the mistake and then move on without correcting it.

You could report it to Customer Service, but they aren't interested in such complaints and they have no authority to compel corrections. They may not even respond to you.

You could report it to the Board, but they are likely to tell you that they have bigger fish to fry. What else can they do? They don't have the authority to compel corrections either.

So what can you do? If the Policy violation is also a violation of state law, you could try to contact the legal authorities. I've tried it, with no success. The previous Board - through sloppy bookkeeping - broke a state law by overspending the ASB budget one year. According to the law, the Board members could be held personally liable for the overspending, about $100,000. I contacted the state attorney general's office, but they declined to pursue the matter. So did the King County Prosecuter's office. That was pretty much the end of it. These folks weren't interested in enforcing that law.

Last year the District violated another state law regarding school improvement plans. I discovered that the State Board of Education was responsible for enforcing that law. I contacted the person at the state board of education with that job responsibility and she sent Mr. Manhas an email asking him about it. I contacted her again a month later and her response was that Mr. Manhas had yet to reply to her email. That was the limit of their enforcement effort.

The short-lived legal case over the closures taught me that any action of the Board that violates state law can be challenged in Superior Court. Within a specific time limit - I think it's 90 days - any citizen can bring the District to Court in an effort to overturn the vote. This sort of action takes a lawyer, which means money, but it is sure to bring the matter to someone's attention. Trouble is, very few Policy violations include Board votes. Most of them are just decisions by the Superintendent, the CAO, or a manager. Most of the time you can't get anyone to hear you. Most of the time you just get the brush off.

It may be, with the commitment to track and respond to issues raised in public testimony at Board meetings, that you could get some sort of acknowledgement if you could talk about the policy violation in testimony, but that is probably expecting too much from such a flimsy platform.

So what can you do? Just do what you can. The fact that all of your efforts are futile doesn't absolve you of the responsibility to make the effort.


Anonymous said...

Funny thing about "Board Policy". I was told by my principal that,
"No, you can't observe any teachers in the next grade at my child's school." The principal was afraid that I might request one teacher and thereby reject the others. Making a request would destroy "teacher morale." But there is most definitely a board policy permitting observation of public school classrooms. I pointed this out to him. He said he called somebody downtown and "No, he wasn't obligated to follow that policy after all."

Anonymous said...

School Board Policy isn't there to be followed or for any accountability purpose. It's there so it can be pointed to, in case there's a lawsuit.

The last board policy decision in special education was to get rid of all policies related to special education and replace them with 1, single, new policy. It states: "We will follow the law.(with some snippets of the law)"

What a joke.

Melissa Westbrook said...

As someone who has worked with and/or butted heads with numerous staff members, I get what Charlie is saying. All this talk about accountability is is perplexing. With laws to protect people, you never hear about any staff getting in trouble or called out. Never. They have to break a law (and even then, not always)to get called out.

So it's an easy (and empty) promise for Dr. G-J, the Board, Carla Santorno or anyone else to say "we will hold people accountable". And is that accountable to follow policy or show significant progress or what?

There are at least two more School Board Candidate forums coming up - one this Thursday at Franklin High and one October 11th at the Stanford Center. Buttonhole those candidates and ask them what it means. I'd be willing to bet (even though I support some of them) that no one gives you a real answer.

Charlie is right; it is worth trying to hold their feet to the fire. One reason is that if they hear about it from enough people it makes them uneasy. Two, if it's interesting enough and/or affects a lot of kids, the media might run a story. Three, public officials, big and small, always need to know there are watchdogs out there.

Anonymous said...

SPS did not preach that parents should sit in the forest and meditate. That is what the Center of Leaderhsip at UW took to doing. Chrispeels and Rivero (2001) said it well when they said: "Teachers and administrators often perceived that Latino parents do not care about their children's education...and Latino parent involvement should be customized to specific families and their commmunity and to the specialized schooling."


Parents are used to thinking that they have a separate self this is not true. They are co-responsible for all the suffering around us. Kids don't necessarily have to pass the WASL, but parents have to find a way to keep their kids from dropping out of school. Standards math is the best way to pass the WASL. Standards math means all kids will be successful. That is the only way to be successful, since it teaches pure wisdom and with constructivism you don't need a teacher to be successful.

I think SPS is espousing a philosophy of decentralization to solve the problems of school, parents, children, and education. Problems which have become endemic in Seattle. Hundreds of volunteers helped build schools back to being the best in the world. They sustained a dream by envisioning a community where peaceful workers can meet and share ideas at retreats and return to the world rejuvenated so they can continue their difficult work of educating children.

Charlie Mas said...

Of course! We don't share a single understanding of accountability.

It does mean academic results. It also means compliance with policy. And it means fulfilling commitments. They are all part of accountability.

Accountability should be 360 degrees. Yes, supervisors should hold their direct reports accountable, but colleagues should also hold each other accountable, and, believe it or not, people should hold their supervisors accountable. The one person who should not be responsible for holding a person accountable is that person themselves.

For someone to say that they will be holding themselves accountable is for them to say that they will be unaccountable to anyone else, which is to be unaccountable.

Dan Dempsey said...

At 7:13 Anonymous said:
I think SPS is espousing a philosophy of decentralization to solve the problems of school, parents, children, and education.

Dan says: I see no reason what so ever to think that there is any hope of decentralization. Dr G-J stands for the centralization and one size fits all for most everything.

Extremely positive data from West Seattle, SPS ignores it and throws it out. It is in the way of standardization.

For the Math adoption pick the curriculum most aligned to the defective state standards. Relevant data ignore it. We must all follow the leader and OSPI is the leader so line up and follow.

Dr. G-J plans on Seattle winning the Broad prize ala NYC recently. Her plan we will all follow the correct way. As determined by ..... I give up here – who has that correct way?

At the Parent meeting at the JSCEE this week she was unable to come up with what the objectives are that we are working towards in K-5 math. .... The problem here is that is the core of D44.00 and D45.00 those speak to necessary skills at each grade level - testing for those skills and effective interventions. ... The result is that policies can't be followed because SPS has no idea what is required or rather ignores what is required.
... I wrote letters to Mr. Manhas and the Board and then Dr. G-J--- no one cares. SPS adopted a textbook without even defining what children should learn. ....
The problem is that now SPS has teachers moving through the pacing guide to Everyday Math which has far to many topics at each grade level to work effectively. ...

So what they do not care --
In regard to SPS board or Cenral admin, I've said rational arguments forget it. ... Massive disruptions and law suits are needed as little else makes an impact on either the board or the administration.

Charlie ... thanks for posting this topic -- it seems that there are still a few in the City who are unaware of how this pathetic game is being played. Laws & policies who cares?

I think that board members who continue to ignore both the law and policies should be recalled. Admin should be terminated with cause when they refuse to follow the law and school board policies – but that would probably require some meaningful action on the part of the school board.

Here is the most recent example of ridiculous admin double talk. Ms. Santorno says data inconclusive at West Seattle - she's concerned about math. She presents no data. She comes to WSHS on Tuesday evening - I have data posted outside the theater. She tells parents there will be an appeal process. Wednesday - new rule for school board meetings no posters allowed - must come down immediately after testimony - painters tape not allowed to hold up posters. Supposedly these are not new rules - I wrote the next day to Joan Dingfield requesting to know what the rules are? I got no response.
Friday Ms. Santorno sends letter stating that after checking with the Supt. there are no appeals to this decision.

Ms. Santorno announced there will be a meeting on October 1 at WSHS to discuss how the transition to the 6-period day will be accomplished. "Discuss" is that a euphemism for listening to autocratic mandates being forced on you by people who's only concern is following the "Cliff Notes guide to how to run a school district through monstrous detached uniformity, while ignoring state law and school board policies as well as the needs of the children, while insulting the teachers, parents, and the community".

So how does one fix this mess?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Here's a good example of double-speak or "huh" talking from the last minutes of the BEX (building excellence) oversight committee (this discussion was about the Hamilton project - the first sentence is Don Gilmore of Facilities, the second "Steve" is a member of the committee but not staff and Michael is Michael deBell, school board director):

" The District may engage in mediation with Parks and the activists as long as it’s crafted in a way that doesn’t require consensus. Steve suggests calling it a “facilitated conversation”. The term “mediation” sets up expectations and rules.
o Michael: It’s important to focus the City on the needs of children. This point needs to be made at the City (use of playfield). Also, that the District is now signed on to City’s climate partnership plan (re: ground source heat pump)."

Yes, let's not try to get consensus on project from people who actually live in the neighborhood. We'll listen and call it "facilitated conversation" but certainly the District has no intention of mediating at all. Michael's remarks are an example of finding consensus with the parties involved.

Charlie Mas said...

So let's say that you become aware of a Policy - or a state law - that isn't being followed by Seattle Public Schools. What should you do?

The first thing you should do is contact the person responsible for compliance - the person who either did what they should not have done or failed to do what they should have done. You should ask them, in a respectful and constructive way, if the situation isn't one in which the specific law or policy applies. You should cite the rule. Write your question in such a way that it affords them plenty of room to be right - in case the policy or law does not, in fact, apply - and plenty of room to decide to comply with the rule if it does apply. This is not the time to be sharp, accusatory, or demanding.

In the event that the person either ignores you or is clearly disregarding the policy or rule, it is then time to contact their supervisor. This might be the Superintendent or, if the Superintendent was the person neglecting the Policy, the Board.

Again, you should ask questions and make requests, not lay down the law and make demands.

If you do not get satisfaction from the supervisor, then you should contact Customer Service. Customer Service can be kind of hard to reach. They don't have an email address, but they do have a phone number and you can download a complaint form, print it, complete it, and send it in by mail.

It's a weird thing, but the Customer Service office is within the Public Affairs/Communication office, not the family and community engagement office. If you think that's weird, remember that the family and community engagement coordinator office operates under the umbrella of the equity and race relations office.

You may have to call Customer Service back a few times to follow up on your complaint. You really should be nice to these people - they didn't cause your problem. Of course, they may not be able to do much about it either. After all, they have no authority. Even if they take action on your complaint, which you can never be sure they have done, they probably won't be able to do anything for you.

At that stage it is appropriate to contact the Superintendent and the Board - if you haven't already. You can send the Superintendent and the Board an email and you can testify at a Board meeting. Again, you should be respectful and polite. Again, you shouldn't rely on hearing back from any of them or getting any sort of response from anyone within the District.

You should always hold out the possibility that you might be wrong. Of course, you might be right. You might even be in a grey area somewhere between right and wrong. Either way, it doesn't matter if they just don't share your perspective.

After contacting the superintendent and the Board you are pretty much done. Not even the state laws have outside enforcement - and we know that there is no internal enforcement - so there is no place, no person, and no way to get things corrected. Unless you're ready spend the money to lawyer up, you're done.

On the good side, there is every reason to believe that a letter on a law firm's letterhead will get you a meeting. Once you have the meeting, which may be the first time in all of this process that you actually get the real-time attention of a human being somewhere within the District, you may be able to make your case and get a response - which may be the first on-point response you get at any point in this process. Promising as this sounds, since you have introduced the threat of litigation into the mix, they will have retreated deep into their fortress of denial and you may not get anything of value after all.

Those who prefer a more formal rendition of the process can view this

or read
Citizen Complaint Policy E23.00
. A link to the complaint form can be found on the Board page of the District web site.

Dan Dempsey said...


Thank you for stating the correct process for all to follow.

At OSPI and the State Attorney General's office today I learned that School Board policy is close to a total joke.

THE VOTERS are the only ones that can hold the school board responsible for following policy. The media and public shame were other suggested avenues.

If the admin or the board do not follow RCW & WAC that is another story.

Hey we have the curriculum audit coming from the state Auditor. Is there a possibility the auditor could shame the SPS into compliance with their own policies?


Charlie Mas said...

Shame does not motivate people who are shameless.

The possibility of public humilition does not motivate people who know that almost no one is watching.

They are not concerned about public opinion becaus they know that the public isn't watching and doesn't care. They care very deeply about what their peer think, and they don't want to be seen as weak or as "caving in" to student families. They are a lot more concerned about showing themselves to be strong within the District political structure than doing the right thing according to the law, the Policies, or the students' best interests.

Anonymous said...

The biggest shame of all is when somebody sues and wins. I believe district officials are in fact shamed by that. Which is all the more reason that DWT should collect every dime of its fees from the district. Bad judgement and poor decisions that cost nothing, aren't shameful and don't lead to accountability.