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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Excellence for All

So, finally, after all of the anticipation, we finally get a look at the Superintendent's Strategic Plan, and it turns out to be nothing but a wish list.

All we see is this insipid powerpoint presentation full of bluster and posing, but completely without any meaning or relevance. Nearly every one of the 19 slides is tragically flawed in some way, but the sum is less than the parts. There is no plan in this "plan" - only goals. That's it? She took a year and had to listen to "hundreds of internal and external partners, critics and stakeholders" (I can't help wondering who these hundreds were - no one I know) to determine... what? That we need to ensure excellence in every classroom, strengthen leadership throughout the system, and build an infrastructure that works well? She needed a year, a crowd of experts, and a stack of studies to reach that conclusion? Pardon me if I'm not impressed.

And how does she propose to ensure excellence in every classroom? By doing a better job of teaching (math and science in particular), by giving the students frequent assessments, and by helping struggling schools. Wow. They must have listened to hundreds of people and consulted with experts, because there is no way that somebody could think of that on their own. How else could anyone have come up with this idea that we'd improve education if the teachers did a better job? And who would have thought that the schools would be better if the supervisors at the headquarters actually reacted when they were in trouble? This is truly a testament to the awesome power of collective wisdom.

And how are we going to strengthen our leadership? That's easy: "hire the best teachers and principals". So this old plan that we were following, the hire-them-at-random-regardless-of-their-qualifications plan, that isn't working out? Hire the best! Man, I wish I'd thought of that. Then, get this, the new plan says that the district should support them. What a crazy idea! Finally, evaluate their performance. This is truly revolutionary. Who ever heard of an employer who evaluates their employees? It's inspired!

The last piece, building an infrastructure that works well, is equally insightful. What a great idea - an infrastructure that works.

In short, the strategic plan boils down to this: the district leadership has to start actually doing their jobs. They have to actually choose effective curricula - instead of the crap they've been adopting like Everyday Math and CMP2. They actually have to manage their staff, instead of allowing them to do or not do whatever the hell they want. And they actually have to get up off their fat asses and react when things go wrong. That's the big strategic plan.

Ask yourself this - why aren't these things already in place? Over and over, in case after case, the answer will distill down to this: the district leadership and central office staff aren't doing their jobs.

And, of course, as always, the community engagement portion is re-defined as public relations and tacked on to the end as an afterthought.

Is anybody seeing anything of merit in this document? Does anyone sense any strategy or planning in this strategic plan? I'm not seeing it.

Worst of all, this plan will provide the cover for even more delays and deferrals while they study and plan, while they set goals and build matrices. While they fiddle as Rome burns.

31 comments:

Syd said...

I don't think that this is "The Plan." I think the plan is to be released sometime in the next few weeks. This looks like a powerpoint presentation for a talk to give highlights of the process and goals. Based on the report completed by McKinsey & Company and posted on the Seattle Public Schools site, I have to believe we are going to get something a lot more detailed.

Danny K said...

I hope syd is right. This is pretty clearly managerial happy-talk, the kind of stuff PowerPoint was made for. It doesn't mean there isn't something meaty in the offing, but if there is, when will they share it with us? I'd honestly be happy if the super just told us, says, three things that she wanted to fix and gave us some idea of how she'll do that.

Charlie Mas said...

I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but this is pretty much it. This powerpoint is an outline of the plan. The actual plan is a narrative document of about 30 pages (or 50 pages or whatever), with a bit more detail, but, frankly, not much more.

The actual document, for example, doesn't offer any more answers to the questions that everyone keeps asking over and over again all through the powerpoint: "How are you going to do that?"

The actual plan puts forward the three "foundational strategies" of ensure excellence in every classroom, strengthen leadership throughout the system, and build an infrastructure that works well.

The actual plan does propose to ensure excellence in every classroom by strengthening our teaching of math and science, developing assessment tools, and systematically recognizing high performing schools and helping struggling schools. That's it. That's the plan.

Charlie Mas said...

Let's, for the moment, pretend that this isn't the plan but is just the plan's goals. If that's the case, then what sort of community engagement are they looking for?

Are we supposed to say whether we think they selected the right goals? I don't see how these goals could be wrong. There are only three types of work in the District, the teachers, the building administrators, and the central staff, and their goals are to improve the teaching, improve the building leadership, and improve the function of the central staff. That's pretty generic. It took the superintendent a year to figure out that these are the three areas she wants to improve?

What kind of comments would be constructive? Are we supposed to say whether they have chosen the right points of focus for improving teaching, leadership and infrastructure? Again, in each case, she has made broad, generic, and obvious choices. Wow, improve teaching by doing a better job of teaching - and measure the work, improve the leadership by helping them to be better - and measure the work, get better software - and measure the work.

It appears that this is her big innovation - she's going to measure how well things work. Given that this is her definition of accountability and that she has been promising accountability since before she arrived, I don't really see anything new here. This powerpoint could have been presented on her first day as superintendent. Instead of taking a year, this could have been written in a weekend.

So if this isn't the plan, then why is this what they are taking on the road so close to the adoption of the plan? If this isn't the plan, then where is it? And what - if anything - are people supposed to say about this other than "Are you joking? Your big idea for improving teaching is to improve teaching?!?"

Charlie Mas said...

Oh! I almost forgot!

And our Board - the experienced managers that they are - think this is great stuff?!?

AAAAAARRRGGGHHH!

seattle citizen said...

A nit-pick on comments above, unrelated to critique of the plan:

One of the three "categories" of work[ers] that Charlie mentions needs a slight expansion: While buidling admins run the place, and central staff does whatever it does, the first category, teachers, should also include Parapros, IAs, counselors, building staff such as secretaries...
A small point, but an ongoing focus on teachers diminishes the wonderful work (and future possibilities in terms of added responsibilities) of the non-cert educators in the buildings.

anonymous said...

Charlie is right, the key components of the plan are vague, and have not been clearly defined. So, Charlie's question is spot on "How are you going to do that?"

We shouldn't be left wondering. The plan should be well defined, with clear goals, an action plan, a budget, and accountability.

But instead we get more vague promises. Just like the SE initiative. Great promises, little oversight, poor planning, not enough funding, and no accountability. Is this strategic plan going to be more of the same?

Charlie Mas said...

Urban Dictionary: Vaporware

TechyMom said...

It's true that this is very high-level, and lacking in details. There are times when it's appropriate to talk about "what" before you talk about "how". I've written a fair bit of both "management happy talk" and detailed documentation. There's a place for both. So, looking at this as goals rather than details, what do I think?

Too much focus on bringing up the bottom to an arbitrary standard, rather than on helping every kid progress from where they are. This is a national trend, so probably not entirely the Sups fault. Changing this attitude will take years. Maybe it will be done before my 4yo finishes high school.

I do like the goals about improving high school gradution rate and college entrance requirement completion rate. Increasing the number of 9th graders who earn 5 credits also seems like it would help with this. Just giving this guidance to principals and councilors will help make it real.

There are quite a few things in here that are obvious, remedial management tasks (clear goals, ongoing evaluation, targeted support so employees know where to go when they get stuck or need someone to bounce ides off). It's sad that the district doesn't already do them, but starting to do them would actually improve things a fair bit. I've been on teams that didn't work, where a new boss came in and did basic management better. It does improve things, sometimes more than you would think possible.

I like the idea of both recognizing high-performing schools and helping struggling ones. We too often seem to punish schools for doing well, taking money and resources from them to other schools. There should be incentives for schools that do well. This is also remedial management.

Fixing IT issues. We have a VAX. That should have been done years ago. Again, this is a duh, as is most of the plan, but fixing the duhs will make things much better, or at least, much less bad.

Spending protocols. Having tools to help people decide how to allocate money will make it easier and (probably) more fair. Right now it is very political. Having rules to guide it could reduce that.

Program evaluation tools. Charlie has been asking for this for a long time. Program placement is political and opaque. Again, having rules will help.

Supporting strategic priorities. Everything on this slide is good management. Late, but still good. Define goals. Yep. gotta do that. School performance framework. This is management jargon for a set of rules that help you evaluate something. It's supposed to allow for both interventions (good) and flexibility (I'm assuming for schools that are doing well or want to innovate. If that assumption is correct, that's good too). Central office dashboard. This is trendy management software that rolls up reports and alerts high-level managers of problem areas. It sounds dumb, but when implemented well, it can help to alert managent to problems (and progress) earlier, maybe while something can still be done about it.

Culture and structure. Yeah, well, that would be great. I doubt she'll pull this off. It's harder to change than some of the other things. Setting clear expectations can help. So can modeling it, and so can repeated interventions in things like performance evaluations. Sometimes you have to fire people to make this work, which might be hard with public employees. We'll see.

Involving the community in developing a public engagement strategy sounds good too. My first piece of advice would be this: Don't speak management-ese to the public. It takes years or re-education to understand this jargon.

I don't think this is PR. It may be too late for this particular document, but building a framework (management-ese... see, I can't help it either) for future public engagement is good idea. Asking the public for input on how to stucture that is also a good idea. It will never work without stakeholder buy-in, and it's good that she's recongizing this.

Can she pull it off? Well, that I don't know. That's where the "How" comes in. I'm sure she has ideas here, but it's also important to get buy-in from the staff (both central and school staff), and that requires giving them the same sort of time for input that the community wants.

Now that I've revealed myself as a corporate hack, I'm going to go write some PowerPoint slides...

anonymous said...

For those of you who have not heard, there is an article in the PI this morning announcing that Caprice Hollins Office of Equity and Race has been eliminated. The District is expecting 15 managers and staff positions in the learning and teaching department to be eliminated.

TechyMom said...

I should add that this plan isn't exactly strategic. It's a plan for baby steps. I'm ok with baby steps.

anonymous said...

Director Martin-Morris has posted this topic on his blog. It's a great way to give feedback directly to a Board Director.

Maureen said...

Techymom, thanks for the translation!

I went to the forum at Montlake last night with Holly and Cathy (I should know their last names but I didn't write them down and they aren't on the CPPS page). They admitted that this doc is very much an overview and that details of implementation will be worked out over months and months. Many of the details will be dependent on the many outside evaluations that have been and continue to be done.

Techymom said "Too much focus on bringing up the bottom to an arbitrary standard, rather than on helping every kid progress from where they are." From the forum, I got the impression that this isn't at all true--they went out of their way, more than once, to say that this plan strives to bring up ALL children (and schools) no matter where they start. Look at slide #7: they really emphasized the 'all levels' and 'all students' language. Same for slide 9. Maybe they were just saying that because of the a (Montlake) audience, but I was encouraged.

TechyMom said...

If the district is starting to include middle-class and affluent kids who are working at or above grade-level in the word "All" that is great news. I've heard people who work for the District use "All Children" as code for underperforming poor and minority children so many times, that I didn't consider that it might actually mean "All Children" this time. If it does, that is enough to make me happy about the direction of the district. Today's firings seem like they might confirm that.

My comment about bringing up the bottom is mostly about the few specific goals on page 8. 3 are about high school course completion. The rest are about percentage of children at various grade levels being "at or above standard" in various subjects. That's part of what the schools should be doing, but if a second grader can pass the 4th grade WASL, does that mean the school has no obligation to teach him anything for 2 years? If, when the details are revealed, there are also goals, and measurements, about the progress of individual students, I will be much happier. How do we measure that our hypothetical 2nd grader progressed at least a grade level? If he was already at the 4th grade level, maybe he should be advancing 1.5 grade levels every year? We don't have goals and measurements like these. Until we do, those performance evaluations will be based on what percent of 4th graders pass the WASL, not whether we're serving the needs of that 2nd grader. They need to include both.

Unknown said...

Looks to me like the district used to measure advancement not just the number of students meeting a standard.

Check out this url
www.seattleschools.org/area/siso/distsum.xml
and look at the bottom where it says "Value Added".

Last date for the metric is 2005. I don't know why.

I agree that it's disheartening that the district apparently no longer measures this. It certainly signals that they don't care about it at all.

seattle citizen said...

techymom,
Yes indeedy. This is where formative assessments, differentiated instruction, and a moving away from the "age=grade" mdoel and towards a "what level is the student AT" model would be helpful.
Big district, fewer and fewer resources, more and more complications...but of course the question isn't "is the student 'at level'", but "what level is the student at?"
Hopefully we are moving towards that, but it'll take a lot of resources in development, labor hours, ongoing review of progress with benchmarks...

Unknown said...

Incidentally, I suspect that not working to advance kids who have already met standards is a detriment to the goal of having all kids meet standards.

If you continue to educate a kid one year even though he's met grade level standards, that extra boost will help to keep that student from slipping below standard the next year.

Maureen said...

At the forum, they did say something like, well we use the WASL to measure progress because that's what we have. They did express an interest in creating new measures; I remember they said they really want to know what % of kids PASS AP exams, but the only data they have is the % that TAKE AP classes. So they plan to start collecting the data they want (of course they won't have a baseline # to compare it to). I didn't get to ask if they are thinking about adding a different assessment exam that would let them measure improvement for all kids.

big: From what I understand the District gave up the value added measure when they stopped giving the IOWA exam (about 2005). I guess the WASL doesn't give the right info to let them calculate it?

dan dempsey said...

Please note:

The SPS paid $124,000 for the Phi Delta Kappa curriculum audit.

Read that and you will find an ugly sight.

Is is surprising that the Plan will likely focus more on McKinsey & Co. and have little mention of Phi Delta Kappa?

This all appears to be a public relations game. This district make extremely poor decisions on a regular basis. It would be a great idea to have the central office stop producing disasters.

Let's see that could be the goal and the plan could be to consult someone other than the myopic Central office personnel in making decisions.

Denny/Sealth fiasco,
Garfield cost over runs,
Math Adoptions,
& West Seattle 6 period day mandate are just a few of the dictatorial screw ups from the last 12 months.

If and when the New Strategic Plan ever emerges see if it gives any indication that it will end Non-data driven Central Office Screw-ups.

Syd said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Syd said...

It looks like we are getting more.


http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2004400047_strategicplan08m.html


"The full, 30-page draft plan, which likely will include specific recommendations on curriculum and testing, will not be presented to the School Board until May 21 — the day after the last of the public meetings."


I don't think it works if we start poking holes before we know what's going on. It is hard to wait, and historically this district has not been forthcoming. I would like to give the new superintendent a chance. I want her to be positive about the future, and I think as parents with big stake in this district, we should be positive too.

Michael said...

Stop whining. Did you expect them to hire you Charlie???

Jet City mom said...

^^^^^
Above is why despite being a uneducated ( no college/no high school diploma) lowish income, blue collar family, we opted to send our first child to private school & why if we had to do it over again, I would send our 2nd child to private school through 12th grade, instead of through 2nd.

When I think of " The battle in Seattle" it is not about WTO.

hschinske said...

They never got very far with the so-called value-added data anyway. There were no two consecutive grades being given the same test, so they were comparing (say) third-grade ITBS to fourth-grade WASL scores and it was all very loosey-goosey indeed.

The closest thing I know of to value-added testing being done in this district is Garfield's practice of having the kids take the PSAT every year from 9th to 11th grade. I don't know who has access to that data, but I suspect it would be quite interesting to analyze.

Helen Schinske

Jet City mom said...

The closest thing I know of to value-added testing being done in this district is Garfield's practice of having the kids take the PSAT every year from 9th to 11th grade. I don't know who has access to that data, but I suspect it would be quite interesting to analyze.
Not much data to analyze yet.
My D who is a senior, only took the PSAT in 11th grade @ Garfield, so they just started that plan last year.
I am also not sure who is paying for it.
All these tests add up-

Charlie Mas said...

syd wrote:
""The full, 30-page draft plan, which likely will include specific recommendations on curriculum and testing, will not be presented to the School Board until May 21 — the day after the last of the public meetings."


I don't think it works if we start poking holes before we know what's going on.
"

Since the district is not presenting the whole 30-page report until AFTER the end of the public input, I would say that this is the time to give our input, positive or negative. This is when they are asking for it, this is when they are allowing it, whether or not this is when it could be most meaningful.

TechyMom said...

The district hasn't communicated it well, but this is exactly what this sort of a high-level document is supposed to do. You outline, at a very high level, with no detail, WHAT you want to accomplish. Then you enlist the stakeholders (usually employees, but in this case both employees and the public) to do the legwork to fill in the HOW. At the end of the input period, you write up what you got.

Because the stakeholders built the HOW, they will be bought in to the process, and will have had time to get used to any parts of the WHAT they may not have originally agreed with. Note that while this is calculated and even a little manipulative, it isn't evil. Since they helped craft the HOW, the stakeholders have good reason feel ownership of it, and it is likely to be more to their liking than a plan crafted without them. They also more likely to want to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work to implement whatever was agreed upon.

Now, of course, I'm assuming that the final plan will include the public input. If it's already written, and the input period is for show, everything above is off.

Charlie Mas said...

Thank you, techymom for that explanation. You're doing a much better job of explaining this than the District has done so far.

If this presentation was just to announce the goals of:
1) Ensure Excellence in Every Classroom
2) Strengthen Leadership Throughout the System
3) Build an Infrastructure that Works Well
4) Monitor Progress at all Levels (Performance Management)
5) Improve Stakeholder Engagement

Then I don't get it, because those goals were presented before.

The District had already set those goals for the Strategic Plan in this document. We also saw these five themes in this presentation and this one.

So, if that's the case, then this presentation doesn't really show us anything new. This is essentially the same framework for the Strategic Plan that they have been working with since December.

So what's the deal? Now, after working with this framework for six months they're stopping to ask people if they have it right?

rugles said...

"The district hasn't communicated it well, but this is exactly what this sort of a high-level document is supposed to do."

Give me communicated well please. I'll pass on the high-level documents.

"You outline, at a very high level, with no detail, WHAT you want to accomplish. Then you enlist the stakeholders (usually employees, but in this case both employees and the public) to do the legwork to fill in the HOW. At the end of the input period, you write up what you got."

Outlining at a very high level with no detail, in other words, saying VERY LITTLE. Thats the WHAT that they want to accomplish. The stakeholders (salaried employees) then spend time figuring out HOW to do VERY LITTLE. Then they write a report on it.

Stephanie Jones said...

Techymom has done a great job of explaining the why and how the district is doing what its doing -- I'm having a hard time weighing some of the criticisms of the content. While I agree the power point is thin and obvious (or so it seems to many of us), in presenting the power point, the district strategic staff is endeavoring to do just what a lot of these commentors are calling for.

At last Thursday's presentation, a lot of really good questions were asked. Personally, I was challenged to think about what I want generally that was missing in the strategic plan framework (which is what they are presenting - the big picture goal statements. I wanted them to speak to indicators of "good schools" or quality education across the district that didn't appear in the list of quantitative measures (raised test scores, grad. rates, number of courses). Lots of parents that I know NEED the district to support student learning that occurs outside of the test score, minimum standard, 3 Rs goals presented. In the context of the presentation (as opposed to just reading the document), the planning staff addressed broader, more qualitative indicators of good schooling as important. And, they pointed me to the background info on the strategic planning web pages, where I could follow up.

So far, so good. I need to dive deeper into what the district described as "pages and pages of background research and thinking" before I feel okay about the big picture. Tomorrow evening (Wednesday)at Roosevelt High, there will be another opportunity to hear them lay out their plans, raise your questions, and indicate where you think they might have missed the boat. I think the more of us that show tomorrow, Thursday, or next week (May15, May 20), the better our chances of pushing them to get it right.

TechyMom said...

Sorry, I've been busy with my real job this week.

As to the other decks, I'd say we're in Phase 4 (March - May) listed on the timeline in the February deck, where input is to be gathered and public engagement defined. Since it's mid-May, and the public meetings are in late may, I'd say this project is 2-3 weeks behind schedule.

This deck has more detail, not all the detail, but a more detailed definiton of what. The bullets from the first deck are now titles of slides, with more bullets under them. There's also the table of goals on slide 8. That's what's been added. It does seem to be based on a analysis of the problems described in the McKenzie report (summarized in the February deck).

My biggest concern is that the more detailed presentation to the board is one day after the last public input meeting, and only about a week after the first, which does't seem like enough time to process the public input in any meaningful way. Perhaps that report is just preliminary, or perhaps the district is trying to make up for being a few weeks behind schedule by shortchanging the analysis. It's also a possibility that input is a sham, but if that were the case, I think that far less emphasis would have been put on it in the various presentations. Why set yourself up like that, raising expectations, when you could coast along on the existing (lousy) process?


So, ask yourself... Do you want constructive input or do you want the sup and the staff to do all the work and hand you a finished product? You can't have both. Meaningful input IS the work.

So, if you want input, before the details are worked out, input INTO the details, go to the meetings. I plan to.