Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Planting a Seed, Laying the Groundwork?

(Note: this is very long; get a cup of coffee or tea and get comfortable.)

At the UW, there is, what I would call a think tank, called the Center for Reinventing Education. From their website:

"The Center was founded in 1993 by the University of Washington's Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs.

From its beginning, one question has dominated the Center’s work: How can urban school systems provide strong, coherent schools that create equal opportunity for all children?

Through a national program of research and analysis the Center examines their consequences to date, and their possible suitability for Seattle."

One of their newest papers, published in February, is called "Mayoral Intervention: Right for Seattle Schools?"

In their preface they give some background on the issue:

"In early 2007, concerns about the performance of Seattle’s school board led to many proposals for a shift from election to appointment as a method of choosing school board members and to greater mayoral involvement in oversight of the school system. A prominent state senator drafted a mayoral takeover bill. Mayor Greg Nickels openly contemplated intervening in some way and people close to the mayor suggested that if he took responsibility for the schools he might appoint widely admired former Mayor Norman Rice as superintendent. Though talk of an immediate change in governance died down as citizens welcomed a new school superintendent and prepared to elect a new majority of school board members, many civic leaders expected mayoral intervention proposals to come back the next time the school system encountered a crisis, whether connected with finance, labor relations, or unequal student outcomes.

Leaders of Seattle’s business and foundation communities, working through The Seattle Foundation, asked the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) to review other cities’ experiences with mayoral intervention. This paper is the result. It reflects our survey of other cities’ experiences, and extensive analysis of the evidence on results. Our goal is neither to advocate nor debunk the idea of mayoral intervention, but to provide an evidence base for use in case takeover proposals surface again in Seattle."

Sure and the Viaduct is getting a rebuild starting tomorrow.

I'm not buying it. The paper is specific to Seattle and seems very much a position piece despite the posturing otherwise.

To be sure, the paper is a fairly dry and evenhanded (well, two-sided) explanation of the difference kinds of mayoral control over school districts throughout the country. But the note I hear and feel running through the piece is "this is what Seattle is headed for." And frankly, they may be right (more on that later).

I was not happy when the Mayor started interjecting himself into the district last year. The lines are very clearly drawn as to where the power lies for the school district. Now if the state wants to rewrite the rules, go ahead but it seems like the Mayor has his hands full already.

The final outcome of the paper is that mayoral control is a mixed bag with no real (or outstanding successes) in the country. Mayor Bloomberg in NYC has taken control with a vengeance (if you read the NY Times, you'll know that many are not happy but then again, we're talking 1.1 MILLION students - it's just staggering to contemplate). From the paper:

"Mayoral control is not a one-size-fits-all package. Mayors have become involved in education in a range of ways, from informal influence to full control of the school system. The term ‘mayoral control’ covers several models of reform, including (1) full mayoral control, (2) mayoral appointment, (3) strong hybrid, (4) weak hybrid, and (5) informal mayoral influence."


"Any change of governance in Seattle would require state legislation, either to replace the elected board with some other entity (for example, the mayor or an appointed board) or to change the elected board’s powers and responsibilities. At that time, Seattle leaders might consider asking the legislature to authorize mayoral takeover or other governance options, including using mayoral takeover as a transition strategy only, followed by restoration of an elected board, possibly with a more focused set of duties; limiting the responsibilities of the school board to hiring and firing the superintendent and deciding whether to replace schools, while devolving other hiring and spending decisions to the schools.

Seattle civic leaders might also consider an option that leaves the elected board in place but creates an unofficial body that builds consensus about a long-term school improvement strategy, monitors reform implementation, and independently analyzes successes and failures.

Seattle Public Schools: Governance in Perspective
As this is written, Seattle is welcoming a new superintendent and school board. Citizens’ appetite for major changes in district governance may be satisfied for the time being, and possibly for many months. However, the city’s recent history suggests that future periods of disillusionment are likely, in part due to serious problems that no school board has been able to solve."

Ah, we're in a honeymoon period but will it last? Obviously, that's up to the Superintendent and the Board. Will they perform to the satisfaction of "civic leaders" or parents or community leaders? It's interesting how often in this paper that parents are overlooked and community leaders are looked upon with suspicion.

Here's food for thought:

"Some reformers, such as Don McAdams and organizations like the National School Board Association (NSBA), seek to continue the professionalization of school governance, further removing politics from decisionmaking. McAdams writes:

'What districts need are strong reform board-superintendent teams: boards that provide leadership for reform through vision, goals, policy, and astute politics; and superintendents empowered to manage for excellence. In this partnership, the superintendent will do most of the work. He or she is the chief executive officer and the only person who can create a new organizational culture. The board, however, will do the most important work, for governance makes possible management, not the other way around.' "

There is a key phrase in there and it's "organizational culture". I keep harping on this phase which the Moss-Adams report called "culture of bureaucracy" because I believe whoever wrote this at Moss-Adams astutely observed that nothing can change, not really, if people continue to believe in the same ways of performing.

More interesting observations:

"Advocates of mayoral control rely on several arguments to support their claims. Kenneth Meier suggests three mechanisms by which mayoral control may operate: (1) centralizing accountability, (2) broadening the constituencies involved in governance, and (3) decreasing micromanagement of administrators.

By ensuring a single point of authority over school governance, mayoral control may increase the likelihood of developing a governing coalition among board members, the superintendent/CEO, and the community. A sustainable governing coalition is the central problem facing most urban school districts. Many of the problems in school governance may be traced to its absence: policy churn; superintendent turnover; board fragmentation; and community disengagement.

Seattle has recently suffered from a combination of policy churn, superintendent turnover, and board fragmentation. On policy churn, Hess writes: 'The collective exercise of reform has become a spinning of wheels. More and more energy is expended in an effort that goes nowhere. Like a car stuck on a muddy road, urban school districts have not benefited from simply spinning the wheels more and more rapidly. Getting urban schools unstuck requires a shift in emphasis—away from the pursuit of the curricular or pedagogical “silver bullet” that will really work—and toward an understanding of why urban school systems engage in reform and why nearly every reform produces disappointing results.' "

I love that phrase "policy churn". I also agree that it seems that many look for a silver bullet, just the right plan or initiative that will weave its magic. There's just no one thing for children that will make learning happen.

Then comes this observation:

"On the surface, civic engagement around education is quite high in Seattle. The city has several prominent civic organizations devoted to the subject (for example, Alliance for Education, League of Education Voters), the school board holds frequent community meetings, and citizens everywhere are talking about schools. However, despite the prominence of education on the city’s agenda, Seattle lacks coordinated, sustained, and productive engagement. Civic engagement involves more than a process for communication with the community or casting a vote at the ballot box."

And who is to blame for this lack of "coordinated, sustained and productive engagement"? It has to start with the district. Even the Alliance with its money and the League of Education Voters with the human dynamo that is Lisa MacFarlane haven't been able to gather up all those concerned with public education.

This part continues:

"It has been almost a decade since political scientist Clarence Stone suggested the importance of ‘civic capacity’ to urban school reform.1 In Stone’s work, “Civic capacity refers to the mobilization of varied stakeholders in support of a community wide cause . . . [it] builds when actors see an issue as more than a matter of individual concern or an opportunity to further particular interests.” In other words, civic capacity is coordinated engagement and collective action."

Another great phrase "civic capacity" with a solid definition.

At the end they offer a couple of ideas of what could be done: limit the School Board's responsibilities, use mayoral control as a transition strategy or create an independent community oversight board. (These are laid out on pages 30-31 of the paper.)

I do believe there is some groundwork being laid here but then I have been accused of being paranoid and suspicious before.

The authors aren't necessarily wrong on a couple of counts. One, the outcomes of mayoral control throughout the country have produced mixed results. It is hard to judge if it would work and what method would work the best. Two, Seattle is tired. We go through superintendents and new initiatives and plans. Boards either become cheerleaders or go off track with the issue of the day. You can't blame the general public for becoming weary. But beware of the push behind this paper; those are the people to watch.

1 comment:

Charlie Mas said...

I would gladly accept an appointed Board - IF we could elect the Superintendent.