Friday, June 13, 2008

Don Nielsen Chimes In ... Again

Well, he's nothing if not consistent. Don Nielsen, businessman and former School Board member, is quite the education gadfly and so, every so often will appear in the op-ed pages. Here's his latest PI piece.

He starts out with this:

"She just published a five-year plan that has been developed with the input of citizens and many of this country's leading education and management experts. It is a blueprint for the transformation of Seattle schools, but there is a high probability she will fail."

Charlie, would you call the Strategic Plan "a blueprint for transformation"? Nope, me neither. Well, as Charlie has pointed out it is a good management plan but I thought we were talking about educational transformation.

His basis premise of why it will fail? She's talented, driven and bright but her hands are tied. How?
  • Governance - he claims that every two years her bosses change (the Board). He adds his own twist by saying, "History has shown that elected school boards create instability in governance. She has no assurance that the people to whom she reports will be qualified for the positions they hold." Whose history? SPS? State? Nationally? And what a nice slam for an office he once held (but I'm thinking he believes the quality of Board member has gone down since he left).
  • Personnel - this issue is one I won't touch because I don't know the ins and outs of it. I do know it is fairly hard to get rid of principals/teachers who are not doing their jobs well.
  • Rewards - this is tough one because teachers are so against it. It does seem weird that most jobs do have some kind of ladder (although I think if you get national certification as a teacher you get more money) but not teaching. It almost makes for less incentive to do well.
  • Performance - almost the same as personnel so why he had two categories, I don't know.
  • Flexibility - well there's a reason she can't determine the workday or calendar; some of that is union and yes, some of that is determined by the State Superintendent's office. We do have our own ability to have late start/early release days. He also states: "She has limited flexibility in serving her students." That's a bit of a reach.
  • Control - he says, "She can recommend a standard curriculum, but is virtually prohibited from enforcing it. The latitude of teachers is such that gaining coherence in what is taught is almost impossible." What? Yes, she can select curriculum and books but yes, teachers do have some latitude in how they present it. But, again, she's tightening up on that as well with a more central office oversight and less site-based management. He also said, "She has limited control over her schools and what is taught in those schools." If she has limited control over her schools, that's inherent in her abilities as well as determined at a state level and not in her authority as superintendent.
  • Money- He says, "She is given money, but virtually every dollar comes with strings attached. Almost all money must be spent in a prescribed manner regardless of the real needs of the district, school or student. She is limited in her ability to direct dollars where needed." This is partly true but that's because the money is directed towards specific students' needs. I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle but "virtually every dollar" is tied up?
  • Planning - Again, another category that goes with another (money). He says, "Her sources of money (state and federal governments) operate on two-year (state) or one-year (federal) budgets, making long-range planning virtually impossible. Her five-year plan may well be unachievable simply because expected funding may not materialize. She has no control over the funding she receives and little control over how it must be spent." Well, the state and feds control the funding but that's true at every district. I'd like to know where that isn't true. If she is budgeting the Strategic Plan with dollars she doesn't have, then that's in direct opposition to what it actually says which is the district isn't funding any initiative without money already attached. Did he read the plan?
  • Direct costs - This one is a bit of a whopper for some of his wording. He says, "She must serve every child who applies, but receives little extra funding for the very difficult-to-serve students. The more special needs children the district serves, the greater the financial burden on the district and the less money available for other students. She must serve everyone, regardless of costs." Where to start? "Very difficult-to serve students"? "More special needs are a greater financial burden? And the last one "she must serve everyone". Hey Don, it's not called public school for nothing. That's why private schools can do better and that's why some charter schools do better - they don't have to take all comers.
  • Other costs - He says, "Contracting out noneducational functions such as leaning [sic], maintenance, information technology, food service, etc., which may be better or more cost effective than doing it in-house, is prohibited. She is constrained in her ability to cut costs and/or improve efficiency." Hey, something we can agree on. Charlie has talked about the city managing district properties as a cost savings and I suspect we might be able to save some in food service, etc.
He ends by saying,"If we, as citizens of this city and state, want our schools to improve, we must address the management constraints put on superintendents. That means asking our governor and Legislature to pass new laws or eliminate existing laws that handcuff our superintendent and her management team. What we need is a "turn-around" mentality and we need it now. We have a leader, so let's give her the tools to lead."

Well, that means having someone else (who would Don suggest?) appoint the School Board, fighting the union, fighting the Legislature, fighting the State Superintendent. Where to start and who would lead this charge? Frankly, I'd rather Dr. Goodloe-Johnson be doing her job than spending a lot of time arguing why she can't.


Auction said...

I think Don's comments are sound. Part of being a leader is gaining the support of your constituents (board, parents, teachers, and staff).

He is correct with the many obstacles he describes. Success will require support from the constituents to be successful

Melissa Westbrook said...

I would just say he doesn't sound like he's advocating support; it sounds more like intervention.

reader said...

This guy is a blow hard. He's wrong on practically every point. Personel - oh, poor us, we can't hire anybody good because they've got to have ed degrees, and we need math and science. The reality is, good and bad people come with all sorts of degrees. Certification is a good thing not a bad thing. - oh, poor us, we can't fire anybody. The reality is, yes you can if you've got the stomach. It isn't easy to fire anybody in the private sector either. It isn't easy but it is possible. Then there's - oh, poor us, there's no rewards ladder. The reality is, yes teachers ARE on a ladder. More experience, more education, more reward. To base reward on some nebulous performance say-so of a principal, would be very problematic, especially given the diverse situations in the district. And lastly, - oh, poor us, we have to educate students with special needs with no extra funds. The reality here is that the district gets twice as much funding for every student with special needs, regardless of their needs, which it then distributes according to needs... not exactly the "very little" as this dim-wit contends.

LouiseM said...

I really like this blog but every once and a while someone ruins it with personal attacks.

Reader, Don is not a "blow hard" or a "dim-wit" and even if he was, I don't think it's necessary for you to go there. Do you even know him? Do you even know all the work he's done to try to figure out how to improve education for our children?

So instead of the personal attacks, how about you stay on topic and share with us (in a constructive way) what you think would be a better alternative to what Don proposes in his article.

anonymous said...

Reader, I notice that almost all of your comments on many topics are sarcastic and inflammatory. Perhaps, you can share your opinion in a more respectful way. We will never all agree on anything, but we state our opinions in a way that is not offensive.

When I read your posts I don't take them very seriously because they are full of anger, rage and sarcasm, and that isn't productive.

reader said...

The point is... he is wrong on very many points. I'll rewrite them.
1) Certification is good. You couldn't really have a public (or private) school system with it.
2)You can fire people. It takes work to do it.
3) There is a rewards ladder. It rewards teachers with more education and more years of service. Rewards based on other criteria have benefits and problems.
4) High needs students come with lots of extra funding, almost twice as much as others.

And finally, just because someone has credentials in one area, business or military, it doesn't make them especially qualified in other areas, like education. We seem to be so happy to assume that it does.

reader said...

PS. I wouldn't agree with "anger, rage and sarcasm", especially since you don't know me from Adam. But those emotions can certainly be both motivating and productive. Ad_Hoc, I find your posts generalizing, arrogant, and ignorant, since you want to share. Evidently, that's what motivates you.

MathTeacher42 said...


"anger, rage and sarcasm" are labels used to avoid debating the points you bring up by ...

labelling you angry, bitter, negative !! ... YAWN

Does anyone remember those DC snipers who killed 13 or 14 people? Or that nut who killed a bunch of college students at Virginia Tech? Media coverage of those nuts used labels like 'angry' and 'rage', and angry and rage sure seem like appropriate labels for what those nuts did.

Why do people use the same labels over some behavior that isn't close to shooting people? Because unless people discuss reality in terms comfortable to your obtuse, saccharine / bambi cartoon 'reality', you don't want to deal with them. If you label them angry and full of rage, you don't have do discuss their points, and you can look down your nose at them.

I could have done without the name calling ... yawn. The satire was spot on.

Charlie Mas said...

I respect Mr. Nielsen. He performed honorably and honestly as a school board member. He followed up on what the staff told him and what the public told him.

I respect him, but that doesn't mean that I have to agree with him. A lot of what he has written in this guest editorial is true, although not as bad as he makes it seem. That's what you do when you write a persuasive piece - you use rhetorical devices to strengthen your argument. There's nothing wrong or dishonest about it, but it's not an unbiased view of the facts. Each of these facts can be viewed through another lens which doesn't make the Superintendent's efforts seem so futile.

"no superintendent of a major urban district has successfully put in place a multi-year plan of improvement and been able to carry it out to obtain districtwide results." This, for me, was the grimmest and most powerful of all of Mr. Nielsen's statements. Is this true? Could this be true? If it is - and it may well be - then I think we're on the verge of something truly amazing. Because, unlike Mr. Nielsen, I'm becoming more confident in the superintendent's ability to implement her management plan. I know, weird.

Mr. Nielsen writes:
"History has shown that elected school boards create instability in governance. She has no assurance that the people to whom she reports will be qualified for the positions they hold." This is true of the school board, but it is equally true of every other political office. There is no assurance that the person we elect President of the United States, or governor or mayor will be qualified. The governance structure of the District, however, gives the school board very little power to influence the administration of the District and no power to enforce their Policies, so their qualifications - if any - don't much matter. As we saw during Raj Manhas' administration, the Superintendent can completely ignore the Board.

Mr. Nielsen points out that the Superintendent can only hire certified teachers and principals who may not be qualified and cannot hire qualified people if they are not certified. As has been pointed out, requiring certification for teachers is, on the whole, a good thing. As for the possibility that not every hire will be very good, well, that is part of the art of management. And despite how hard it may be to let go of an established teacher, the ones that quickly show themselves to be ill-suited to the work can be removed much more easily.

As to the contention that "She cannot terminate an employee (teacher, principal or staff) without enormous effort", I would say that her management plan is focused strongly on correcting this very problem. The plan puts a lot of focus on doing the work necessary to shed ineffective teachers and principals. So while this has been historically true, I think the Superintendent's plan is addressing this problem directly and forcefully.

"She is unable to reward excellence.." Again, historically true, but the plan addresses it. She will begin with merit pay for non-represented central staff. She will use this as a demonstration project to show the representated workers that bonuses for good work are not deviltry. By finding and using objective measures of effectiveness, the favoritism of managers will not play as great a role as some would fear.

There are a LOT of industries in which the work day, work year, and working conditions are negotiated through collective bargaining agreements. It is hardly an extraordinary handicap for the Superintendent. And every workplace has rules set by state and federal law.

"She can recommend a standard curriculum, but is virtually prohibited from enforcing it." Again, true, but also a strong focus of the Superintendent's management plan. Teachers will be evaluated, in part, on whether or not they present the standard curriculum. Enforcement is coming.

Let me take a moment here and make sure that we're all using the same nomenclature. "Curriculum" is the set of knowledge and skills that is taught. Think of the Standards and grade level expectations as defined by the state. Curriculum does not dictate HOW that knowledge is taught. It does not dictate what materials are used to teach it. And it certainly does not dictate what page every class in the district is on every day. An example might be that the curriculum says that every third grade student should be able to quickly recite their addition and subtraction math facts for whole numbers from zero to twelve. That doesn't say how the teachers have to teach it or what book they have to use. There are LOTS of ways to teach math facts and teachers will need to use several of them to meet the diverse learning styles of a class. So let's not get too worked up over the idea of a standardized curriculum - it is not the invasion of the storm troopers.

Yes, much of her budget is already allocated, but that is true of every executive in every industry. There are all kinds of fixed costs that cannot be adjusted. Similarly, most executives - regardless of industry - have little control over the money coming in. We can go round and round about whether the extra funding for students with extra needs is sufficient or not.

All of these money issues are definitely work that the legislature has to do and Mr. Nielsen is absolutely right to ask folks to get on their state representatives about this. I don't, however, believe that these constraints damn the Superintendent's plan to failure or present extraordinary and intolerable constraints on the Superintendent's authority.

Finally, I think that she does have the option of out-sourcing non-educational functions and I would strongly encourage her to do so wherever it will result in efficiencies.

I respect Mr. Nielsen and he has some valid concerns. But on the whole, the picture is not nearly as bleak as he suggests.

Teachermom said...

I teach in the district and am also an SPS parent. I think his comments made sense, but seemed to be mostly a veiled (or not so veiled!) attack on unions.

I was very guarded about unions until I came to Seattle (I had 6 years of successful teaching experience out-of-state when I came here). When I went to on-site interviews and saw the variability in the building leadership, I started leaning more towards joining.

The first position I had here had a benignly neglectful principal. I was unimpressed, and worked in the private arena for a few years, but really wanted to teach in SPS.

My next position with SPS had a willfully destructive principal (who was not at my interview) who was breaking the law, and my attempts to get help were ignored, even though the people I talked to were in agreement that the behavior on the part of the principal was beyond unprofessional. They lamented that they could do nothing about it, and encouraged me to find another position.

I quickly joined the union, as I felt that I needed to be protected. I still don't agree with all of their methods, but sadly, teaching at SPS has become a matter of survival.

I think MG-J is on the right track, as she seems to be working on improvements from the top - down. You first need general organization and planned processes, then you need competent people hiring competent principals (yes, they need to be good managers with people skills, AND be "instructional leaders"!), then you will have well-run buildings (where performance reviews are really carried out with thought!), and better supported and higher performing teachers.

Note that I use the term, "higher performing". I see very qualified and dedicated teachers performing below the level that they could due to lack of support and dictatorial/abusive/incompetent principals. The teachers know it, and they are frustrated.

It is not all about pay for the teachers, really. You need to be emotionally strong to do this work, and workplace conditions are crucial to emotionally healthy workers. They are working with your children. And mine.

If we can get beyond survival/chaos mode, things will all work better. I am cautiously optimistic that MG-J is taking well-planned measures to get us there.

dan dempsey said...

Absolutely misses the point on personnel entirely with this one:

Personnel - this issue is one I won't touch because I don't know the ins and outs of it. I do know it is fairly hard to get rid of principals/teachers who are not doing their jobs well.

How many good teachers are leaving the SPS because of the administrative Chaos??

How may are exceedingly frustrated with the lack of rational decision making?

Mr. Neilson pushes an agenda rather than dealing with the real situation.

The Math Underground

dan dempsey said...

Charlie pointed out that:

Teachers will be evaluated, in part, on whether or not they present the standard curriculum. Enforcement is coming.

Most of our children are then doomed in mathematics. This "standard curriculum" chosen by Ms Santorno has been a total failure for the disadvantaged minority groups without access to outside interventions. Over the last few years, proven in Bellevue and elsewhere.

Remedial math at the collegiate level continues to rise for everyone. National Math performance continues to decline. The use of an incredibly poor "standard curriculum" will produce a more uniform disaster.

Look at the Standardized Curriculum plan for math in the Strategic Plan it defies rational thought.

Does the Stategic Plan ever get around to addressing social promotion?? D44.00 and D45.00

If not, it is just another reason this plan is a guaranteed failure before ever leaving the starting gate.

These items need attention now. Why does MG-J contoniue to neglect them?

Charlie do really see hope if these items go uncorrected?

Charlie Mas said...

The Strategic Plan doesn't directly address compliance with the District Policies against Social Promotion for the same reasons it doesn't re-affirm the District's commitment to arts education, or music education, or environmental stewardship, or equity and race relations - because that's not what it is about.

Strategic Plan is an incredibly bad name for this effort. The Plan should be titled "The Plan to Re-Introduce Sound Personnel, Project, and Process Management Practices to Seattle Public Schools". That's what it is about. It is not really a Strategic Plan in that it does not set some new course for the District or map out some new goals. In fact, almost all of the goals are old goals. The Plan is about management.

Now, it is possible that part of the accountability and performance evaluation for the teachers could reflect on the veracity of their progress report assessments, which could, in turn, speak to social promotion, but that would be a fairly indirect result of the Plan.

As for the District's math curriculum adoption, I don't know tht the curriculum - the set of knowledge and skills the District wants students to gain at each grade level - is so much the problem as the texts (Everyday Math, CMP2) and the teaching methodology (spiraling, discovery, etc.). I think the set of knowledge and skills could be more reliably installed using other texts and methodologies.

David Blomstrom said...

Charlie Mas wrote, "I respect Mr. Nielsen. He performed honorably and honestly as a school board member."

You're a blithering idiot - or worse.

I worked for the Seattle School District for sixteen years. I became an education activist halfway through my stint with the public schools, doing massive research and investigation and publishing reports online. I ran for public office six times - thrice for the Seattle School Board and thrice for Supt. of Public Instruction.

If I was going to name the ten most evil, twisted and destructive individuals in Seattle Schools history, both Don Nielsen and John Stanford - the derelict retired general Nielsen recruited to help privatize the schools - would easily make the list, along with Bill Gates. They might even make a Top Three list.

Nielsen's crimes are too numerous to list here, but they aren't hard to track down. When you characterize him as honorable and honest, a charitable person would accuse you of not doing your homework. I smell something worse; I think you're working for the same business interests Nielsen and Stanford served.

(What an amazing coincidence - the Word Verification feature is asking me to type in "scum.")