Friday, April 17, 2009

Where's the Accountability?

Mark Twain famously said: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody ever does anything about it."

In Seattle Public Schools everybody talks about accountability but nobody ever does anything about it.

There can be little dispute that accountability is much discussed. It is literally referenced on every single piece of paper the District produces. It appears right there at the bottom, "Every student achieving, everyone accountable". The Superintendent cannot speak without mentioning it. The concept is unrelentingly ubitquitous.

Likewise, there can be little dispute that accountability is practically non-existant in practice. In the past two years I can only think of one instance in which accountability was imposed - and I'm not so sure about that one. It was the end of the reduced walk zone for Rainier Beach and Cleveland. That may have been a consequence of accountability, but the District never touted it as such. Other than that, however, I can't think of another thing.

It's not as if there have not been opportunities to exercise accountability.

There are thirty-six projects in the Strategic Plan. 34 of them are failing to meet the requirements of the Community Engagement protocols. You remember these. There were presented to the Board on October 1, 2008, and the Superintendent claimed that "The protocol serves as a guarantee for how the district will communicate and engage with key stakeholders for each major project of the strategic plan". Six months after the protocols were adopted, these guarantee have so far proven worthless.

Not only are the 34 project managers failing to hold themselves accountable for meeting these protocols, but their executive sponsors - who have no involvement in the projects except to hold the project managers accountable - are failing to hold the project managers accountable for meeting these protocols. The project managers are making regular status reports to the Senior Leadership Team, who are failing to hold the project managers accountable for meeting these protocols. The Superintendent, who is responsible for the entire Plan is failing to hold the project managers accountable for meeting these protocols. And, finally, the School Board, who have responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the Strategic Plan are failing to hold the project managers accountable for meeting these protocols. That's five levels of management and not one of them is exercising any accountability at all.

Similarly, the Plan itself, on page 51 in a section titled "Next Steps" says that every strategy (those are the projects) will have a detailed timeline complete with a work plan and performance measures, and that "all materials will be posted on the SPS web site". Now we all know that there are scant materials posted on the web site - certainly not a set of timeline, work plan, and performance measures for each project. So what does this mean? It means a failure of accountability by the project managers, the executive sponsors, the Senior Leadership Team, the superintendent and the Board. All of these people who spout off about accountability and who have a duty of imposing accountability are all failing to provide any accountability.

There may be other instances of failure of accountability around the Strategic Plan, but I would have no way of knowing since they are not providing the necessary information that would allow me to know. So what do you think? Do you think they are hiding the information because it is favorable or do you think they are hiding the information because it is unfavorable?

Outside the Strategic Plan, "Excellence for All", there are other opportunities for accountability, and they are all going unfulfilled. When Ms Cameron reported to the Board on Program Placement, the Board asked her for information on how the decisions were made. That was good. And Ms Cameron promised to provide the rationale for each of the program placement decisions and post it to the District web site. That was also good. But the document that Ms Cameron posted was horribly inadequate. There were a few proposals that were rejected and the rationale given was: "No change in location
is recommended for the 2009-10 school year." In short, the proposal was rejected because they don't recommend accepting it. That is not a rationale and it sure isn't founded on data, or policy, or best practices. It's no explanation at all. Yet the Board and the superintendent have accepted this document as satisfactory. That's a failure of accountability.

Did you know that the original budget for the Garfield High School renovation was $54 million? The current expense is somewhere around $125 million and there is more yet to come. Where's the accountability for that?

Everytime that anyone in the District talks about accountability when we see failure of accountability everywhere it diminishes the District's credibility. The District leadership needs to staunch the damage by either applying accountability or stop yammering on about it.

There are countless more examples of failures of accountability - promises broken around the Capacity Management project, promises broken in advanced learning, promises broken for special education students and families, promises broken for ELL families, lots of examples. Feel free to add some in your comments.

If, however, anyone has an example of accountability applied, I really really want to know about it. Please do tell us all about it. We need the good news.


Unknown said...

I just got an email from the new assignment plan "people" saying they want to recall an email sent out yesterday regarding community engagement meetings this spring. No explanation, they just want to take it back.

They make themselves look so inept on nearly a daily basis! They can't even announce a few meetings without screwing something up. Sheesh. Somehow this seems related to accountability; maybe it's just credibility.

BadgerGal said...

And the email had everyone's email addresses listed. Anyone ever heard of using bcc:? UGH.

Charlie Mas said...

It's ironic, but the original message was sent with all of the names and addresses visible.

As soon as I saw yesterday's message I wrote to them and asked them not to do that in future as it compromises the privacy of those on the route list.

So today they tried to recall the message and resend it with a blind route list - but the recall repeats the error by also showing all of the names and addresses.

What's the accountability around something like this? Is there any?

ParentofThree said...

I got this email from Heather Paige,SPS email address:

Paige Hatcher | Senior Administrative Assistant
Enrollment and Planning |
Seattle Public Schools

"We apologize that a previous email was sent with email addresses visible. We have recalled that message and sincerely regret any inconvenience this caused you."

So those meetings are off?

As far as the strategic plan goes, I just think they took on more than they should have. Personally I rather have SPS do 15 things really well, then 30 things halfway.

However, I believe the accountability lies with the board. Obviously Dr. G-J is floundering a bit on this Strategic Plan and it is in the boards bests interest to sit down and help her prioritize projects. I think the problem stems from her not seeing her last "Strategic plan" all the way through before coming to Seattle. She has "producing the document" down pat, just does not know how implement and complete a Strategic plan.

zb said...

"As far as the strategic plan goes, I just think they took on more than they should have. Personally I rather have SPS do 15 things really well, then 30 things halfway."

Unfortunately this is not the choice their given. Which 15 would you choose? Which 15 would I choose? Which 15 would Charlie choose?

I find these "accountability" posts to be mind-numbingly boring, because I don't think that adding accountability requirements (more public meetings, more opportunities to suggest that rules haven't been followed, more litigation) will actually improve the education of the children.

I do think there's an accountability problem, but that it can only be resolved by an increase in trust. And, I see that some have no trust of the system. But, I don't think they can resolve that issue by trying to come up wit more rules. I think we need to do more to build relationships among the stakeholders, but am really unsure about how that gets done (given that I don't think more public meetings will do it).

Charlie Mas said...

There is a simple reason for the lack of trust - the District has proven itself untrustworthy.

There is a simple way to build trust - be trustworthy.

I never asked the District to indulge this accountability mania - they created it. I never asked them to make all sorts of promises - they made the promises without any solicitation.

HOWEVER - now that they have made the promises, I expect them to fulfill them. Now that they have promised all of this accountability, I expect them to deliver on it. I would never have had these expectations if they had never made the promises - promises that, so far as I know, no one in the public ever asked them to make.

anonymous said...

A bit off topic, but interesting.

I just received this letter from Shoreline Schools ASKING parents for their input via participating in a survey! Why can't SPS do this???

In response to the Washington State Legislature’s unprecedented proposed reduction in K-12 funding for 2009-11, the Shoreline School District is anticipating the need to significantly reduce expenditures for next year. Due to the reductions that have already been made over the past three years and the restoration of an ending fund balance necessary to provide fiscal stability and secure a strong bond rating, Shoreline is in a better position than many surrounding districts. However, cuts are inevitable for the coming school year and will be difficult. When Shoreline receives its final notification of next year’s allocation, we will have limited time to construct a balanced budget. We would like to incorporate your input and opinions on budget priorities. Please take a few minutes and share your opinions about overall budget priorities for the Shoreline School District

Here is they survey:

It covers many things from reducing class size to funding advanced learning.

Michael said...

SPS Mom says: "However, I believe the accountability lies with the board."

Hallelujah!!!!!!! Someone said the magic phrase!!

If the Board doesn't make it a priority, no one at the district, including the superintendent, will bother to make it their priority.

Charlie Mas said...

So it comes to this.

Some say that I expect too much from the Superintendent and the staff, but I'm not setting the expectations; they are. I didn't ask Ms Cameron to provide the rationale for the Program Placement Committee's recommendations, she offered it. I didn't write the Community Engagement Protocols for the projects in the Strategic Plan, the District staff wrote them. I didn't write the part of the Strategic Plan that says that the staff will post all materials to the District web site, the Superintendent wrote it.

If the expectations are too high, then I am not responsible for that because I did not set the expectations.

The question now comes, what is the Board's role in this accountability structure? Is it the Board's job to demand accountability when the superintendent and the staff do not meet the expectations they set for themselves? Shouldn't someone on the Board demand that the Project Managers meet the community engagement protocols? Shouldn't someone on the Board demand that Ms Cameron provide actual rationale for the Program Placement Committee's recommendations? Shouldn't someone on the Board be kicking up a fuss about how late the superintendent is with the district dashboard?

And if the Board were to take a role as the final enforcer of accountability, what mechanism would they use? Would they just mention these things at Board meetings? Would they discuss them in committee meetings? Would they send emails to the Superintendent? How would they go about demanding accountability?

Michael said...

How does any manager enforce accountability? They set expectations and consequences in advance so that they are known to all concerned. Then when those expectations are not met, they make inquiries as to why (annual review) and apply the consequences as previously outlined.

In this arena, the mention of the expectations and failure to meet expectations would be done in public, and documented for posterity in, for example, the superintendent's annual review.

With all of our collective experiences at the district it should be evident that, due to the political environment in which it operates, whatever is a priority for a politician (elected officials) suddenly becomes a priority for the non-politicians. If the politicians don't care, as demonstrated by their actions, then staff won't care either.

Charlie, I wouldn't say that you ask too much of the Super and staff. It's just that the Board does not require as much as their constituents expect from staff.

Tone at the top. If those in charge don't care, no one else will.

casey said...

I have written several pieces, out of frustration, under the Special Education post. But, alas, I guess that it really is accountability - transparency and communication that are the overarching issues. Let's say, for argument, that I'm not even asking to be part of any decision-making, I would just like public information about how, and even just WHAT, decisions are being made - in writing, in a public forum. So I guess Special Education programs and policy is treated no differently then any other issue. Trust? Way too much confusion and inaccurate information for trust.

seattle citizen said...

A big piece for me regarding accountability is access to information via the District website.
It is a maze.

A redesign of the entire thig, or perhaps the addition of a readily apparent section entitled "Works in Progress" or something, would help enormously. As it is now, one must search through miles of various leads...