Monday, May 31, 2010

Updates and Board Meeting on Wednesday

From the SPS website, there is this notice:

May 28: Update on 5th Grade Math Letters
Letters recommending math placement for students entering sixth grade in 2010-11 were due to be mailed on May 26. Unfortunately, the letters were not sent out. This is due to a production issue at the external printing and mailing service that is handling the letters. We apologize to our families, and we will get the letters to you the week of May 31.

So look for that letter in this week's mail.

There is a Board meeting on Wednesday night. Sign up tomorrow in the AM to speak.

The agenda isn't long but has a few interesting items.
  • The CAO update from Dr. Enfield will be about preliminary MAP scores
  • On the Action Item agenda is approval of an online learning policy prompted by a new WA State law, RCW 28A.250.050, which requires that by August 31, 2010, all school districts shall develop a policy and procedures around online learning.
  • On the Introduction Items is one that is surprising to me but we employ 9 full-time athletic trainers in our district and the cost is $270,000 a year (through Children's Hospital). From the item:
The proposed cost of the fixed fee of $270,000 will not only include 9 full-time certified athletic trainers, but will also cover their benefits and the administrative cost of the manager of Children’s Hospital and a stipend for the medical director of the program.

Some of what is done is work I would have assumed that the coaches/high school athletic director/PE teachers would do like advising the school what to buy for their program, providing conditioning and flexibility training suggestions, increasing the quality of the training rooms. I get the need to someone to be there to maintain records for injuries, for treating injuries at games and practices, etc. I guess $270K is not that much for 9 schools but I am surprised to learn about these positions.

The item that really surprised me was the repeal of a Board policy on
Community Schools. Not that they are repealing it but that apparently, there have been some meetings on this (and darn, I missed them). Here's the PowerPoint from the Board Work Session on this issue. I missed this meeting and this PP isn't all that informative. It doesn't give an estimate of the number of volunteers or volunteer hours given in the district.

The PP estimates that 5-15% of the schools need the "Community Schools" model of a longer day and overarching use of programs and opportunities to help kids at those schools. They estimate 15-25% need mid-need services and 100% of the schools should have partnership elements.

Then they ask the million dollar question:
How will governance be differentiated between Board policy, district staff and school based decisions?

Oh you mean, like how do we get parents to volunteer if it's not something they were asked about at a school meeting? Yes, now that you want our help, we are now part of "school-based decisions"?

Apparently there was a key stakeholders meeting on May 26 (which I'm not sure was advertised or did I just miss it?). This effort does involved the City's Families and Education levy, Alliance for Education, Gates Foundation and others.

There also seems to be the creation of another Central Office staff position, Manager of School-Community Partnerships. I, for one, want to see a real plan and how to see real outcomes if we are taking on yet another CA position.

The Board has a retreat the weekend of June 4-5 so there are no Board member Community meetings that weekend.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ballard Teachers Vote No Confidence in Superintendent

I had heard about this happening but was waiting to post it.

On Wednesday, the Ballard High School SEA had a straw vote of no confidence in Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's leadership. The count went as follows:
  • 35 voted no confidence
  • 1 against the vote of no confidence
  • 2 abstained
I would think that once this gets out among the general membership of the SEA that more votes may take place at other schools.

I have to applaud the teachers of Ballard for their courage to even get together and discuss a vote, no less taking one.

But there comes a time when people have to stand up and be counted. We did this with the two community surveys on the Superintendent and now the teachers are chiming in. In some ways, it is more serious that teachers are unhappy as they work for the district and yet don't have faith in the direction/leadership of the district. You don't get the best out of people who are not inspired, feel unheard and not supported.

Question is, will the Board listen?

News Round-Up

A couple of stories caught my eye this weekend.

One is a story about a woman who lived very, very frugally in Long Beach, OR. She died May 10th at the age of 98 and left behind $4.5M. She left behind no living relatives. From the story:

She donated $500,000 to a public-school endowment and another $500,000 to a foundation to be used for student scholarships and grants to teachers. The rest she left to the city of Long Beach to build an indoor swimming pool.

Bob Andrew, mayor of Long Beach, agreed it will take some study before the city accepts Oller's money. "It's a very generous offer, and we don't know in a small community what it takes to build the pool," he said. "We have to explore the process and talk to our citizenry. It's a wonderful surprise that someone felt that strongly about the community."

What a wonderful woman. What a gift to the public schools in Oregon and to the town of Long Beach.

The second story was from the sports page about a Seattle basketball player who wanted to play basketball in college but found he couldn't get a scholarship with his low grades.

Academics might be important to most high-school sophomores, but Roy was an all-star basketball player, so good and so ready, that the game would sustain him. The game would take care of everything.

He only needed math to tally up his stat sheets. And reading just took time away from the gym.

"I always thought that if you're good enough at basketball, you're going to make it and I'm good enough," Roy said sitting in an office Friday at the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club. "But when Lute Olson told me that, I went home and talked to my mom for hours. I didn't know what I was going to do. It was close to being too late."

So a long-time AAU coach found tutors for this young man. He made it through high school, played for the University of Arizona and was picked 6th in the NBA draft in 2006. He is now:

A self-described spokesman for the new A Plus Youth Program, which combines basketball with academic tutoring and civic engagement workshops.

A Plus, a program of the Rainier Vista Boys and Girls Club, is sponsoring fifth- and sixth-grade AAU basketball programs this year. Next season, A Plus expects to add more AAU teams.

This is a pretty important story to get out there to young people. Sports will not save you. The lack of ability to read (let alone understand a contract) could hurt you. Good for this man, Brandon Roy, for telling his story and supporting this program.

The last story is very sad for me. I had previously reported that the last remaining pre-school in SPS was likely to go away and it is. It's the Montessori program at Ballard High School.

It's sad because I know the woman who ran the program and Gail Longo is one of the finest educators I have ever met. The area at Ballard that she uses was created for a pre-school (low sinks and toilets). She pour much of her own money into creating the space. She worked with UW so that the Ballard students in the program might be able to get college credit. She created an after-school Chinese language program. But that's all done because Ballard needs the space for the autism program.

I totally understand the need for the autism program. However, several parents who had been in the program told me they were worried it would go away because the district had allowed many more students into Ballard and that their program would be pushed out. So the district pushed out another program.

Is it that important to have a pre-school at a high school with programming for high school students? Maybe not. But I recall that the district used to have about 4 programs where senior citizens would come to elementaries and interact with students. We had one at Whittier. That, too, got pushed out. It was really a joy to see those students and elders having fun and teaching each other. We had these partnership programs and without much fanfare, the district closes them. e

What is particularly disturbing about the story is the comments at the Times' website. There was a photo of a Ballard student working with a couple of children. She is wearing shorts and a camisole top. The majority of the discussion on this story was not about the validity of the program but about what this girl is wearing. I can't believe so many people made crude remarks about her (although I would agree that it's not appropriate school attire). This kind of remark worried me:

I am constantly asked for more money to help pay for things with the schools.

Lack of enforcing dress codes is one reason I continue to say no. Sure, you might think that is a petty reason, but to me, I cannot justify supporting any organization that doesn't think the BASICS are important - and what is more basic than teaching our kids appropriate ways to dress?

18 years old. A beautiful young woman, who evidentally hasn't gained a clue at all. This is a very sad statement of our Seattle school district.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Open Thread Friday (Plus Friday Funny)

Many of you have probably seen this before but here's a link to funny answers by kids to test questions.

Open Thread - what's on your mind?

Garfield Rebuild: The Never Ending Story

Even though the Seattle Times doesn't seem to be particularly interested in doing actual reporting on K-12 education in Seattle, there is reporting happening elsewhere.

The Central District News alerted us to this story in the Garfield Messenger about problems with the Garfield rebuild.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

South Shore Report Out

You know you really have to look carefully at the SPS home page. Things change but with no notation so you try to check every time you visit it.

So under What's News! there is a South Shore Update and a Family Survey story. I'll go with the Family Survey since its shorter. The opening line, very entertaining:

Hearing from our families, staff, and students is critical to our efforts to improve education for every student.

They say they have "redesigned" the school climate survey which is given to all students, school staff and families. Summary results will be in the annual district and school reports next fall. Surveys were to start on Monday via phone or web survey. Did anyone get an elementary or middle school one yet? I have a call into Research and Evaluation (run by one of our very own former Broad residents) to ask why this kind of info wasn't part of the survey. It's nice to know what it is for before you participate.

Onto South Shore. So there's a letter to the South Shore community as well as the report from the company investigating the odor issue. From the letter to the community:

"These results do not indicate a health hazard from airborne exposure to the VOCs including those likely from carpet/mastic breakdown products, aldehydes, or particulates. Toxicity would occur only at concentrations that are order of magnitude (10x or more) higher than were found at the time of our investigation." The report concludes "Some building occupants have experienced odors from building materials in the school leading to discomfort. However, based on the findings herein, there is no evidence of sufficient concentrations of airborne organic compounds or particulates that would cause acute or chronic toxicity."

The report states that they are working to determine the cause of the odor (and it seems its the carpet/concrete mix). They will likely have to remove it (but they do not state from how many areas). There is no mold problem.

"Our goal remains to have the South Shore building ready for occupancy on the first day of school in September."

Of course the company may say is not a health hazard but clearly it affected some staff and students. The report also states "Complaints occurred in other rooms after spring break, during which the ventilation system was shut down for maintenance." Really? Yet another brand-new school with ventilation issues? How could it need maintenance so soon after the building opened?

Shocker from the U.K. (Hope It's Not True Here)

From the Telegraph newspaper, this headline, "Children more likely to own a mobile phone than a book." A study by the National Literacy Trust of 17,000 schoolchildren from 7-16 found that almost 9 in 10 have a cell phone (or to go Brit "mobile") than have their own books in the home.

The Trust also had some research saying that 80% of children with better than expected reading skills had their own books compared with 58% below the level expected for their age group.

Research by Nevada University in the U.S. found that "children coming from a “bookish home” remained in education for around three years longer than young people born into families with empty bookshelves, irrespective of parents’ own education, occupation and social class."

Very sobering. What's interesting is that you see more kids texting than actually talking on the phone but does that make it any better?

I'd think it's probably true in the States as well.

Times Article Announces State Audit Findings

The Times had an article about the State Auditor's findings on several budgeting issues at SPS. I thought it had the basic facts but did kind of leave out what is most troubling, namely, that the district has been told about these issues before. Also, that the district seems to not be doing its own oversight but rather, waiting for the State Auditor to come in.

I did like the opening sentence:

If Seattle Public Schools didn't have enough financial problems already, it now has a few of its own making.

It makes it very hard for parents (and the public) to believe the district's cries of "we're poor" when we know they are not making financial oversight job one. When you don't have money, watching the money is the first thing on your radar.

The district's statement to the Times was, as you would expect, muted. They said:

District officials called the errors unacceptable and pledged to fix them, while at the same time saying that it brought most of them to the auditor's attention and that they are a very small part of the district's budget.

The overpayment of salaries, for example, represents a small fraction of 1 percent of the district's $558 million budget, said Duggan Harmon, the district's executive director of finance.

Harmon also said none of the problems will add to the $27 million in expenses that the district already is planning to cut from its budget for the 2010-11 school year.

I'll have to go back and read the audit again but I didn't think I read that the district "brought most of them to the auditor's attention". Also, yes, Mr. Harmon, the problem of finding the $82K for the Native American program does add to the expenses for the 2010-2011 budget; how can it not?

The district also issued a press release on this issue. Their opening paragraph was a doozy:

For many years, Seattle Public Schools has been working to improve the financial management of our district. As reported by the Alliance for Education, public confidence that the district’s resources are being spent wisely has increased steadily since 2006.

How come we don't hear about this, on a regular basis, about say, Renton or Bellevue? Why can't this district get its accounting under control? Why is it taking years (a VAX curse whereby everything takes longer)? And I'll have to ask Communications but I missed this Alliance evidence about people being confident about how the district's resources are being spent.

What's weird is that the district doesn't use the lines they used for the Times. They don't state that they told the Auditor about these issues as they did in the Times. Additionally, they don't make light of what they consider a small sum of money as they did in the Times.

They did have one funny line:

The district is also working to recover about $61,600 due from individuals who are no longer employees, and is in the process of investigating the remaining overpayments.

And good luck with that one. Again, it is troubling that so many employees would see extra money in their paychecks and say nothing. I'd like to think it might have been confusion on the part of some of them but most people do know what sum should or should not be on their paycheck.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

High School Survey

Did you get your e-mail or phone call yet from the district? Apparently (and without any notice), the district is surveying parents of high school students. (There is nothing at the district website announcing it nor at my own school's website.)

It's a 15-question survey that I don't find particularly useful. (I feel bad saying that because I'm happy someone is asking something but it's frustrating when it's not the survey it should be.)
I accidentally hit send before I wrote all the questions down. Basically, it was things like:
  • does your child feel safe at school
  • do you get notification of academic issues
  • do you get notification of meetings
  • are there opportunities to volunteer
  • do you find the principal effective
  • do adults in the building "care" about your child
  • is the school well-rounded in activities provided
  • do you feel the teachers are effective
  • do you feel welcome coming into the building
They didn't ask for your zip code or school so they will have zero idea what school you are talking about (not that it would be valid for everyone but you'd have a good idea).

Survey questions that have multiple answers in them are almost impossible to answer. Maybe you do feel the music program is good but not other activities. There is nothing to do except not to answer the question (and that's your alternative, not "don't know"). There is no comments section so you can't let them know what is important to you, a burning issue at your school, etc. Nothing about the alignment of the curriculum, about AP/Honors, about what's missing in our high schools.

I'm not sure what this survey will tell them. What I do think is that many people are loyal to their schools and will answer in the affirmative rather than the negative. And, in the end, what will it be used for? What does it mean?

Teachers: Need Part-time Work This Summer?

Stand For Children has part-time work for teachers this summer. They are looking for teacher ambassadors who believe in the work that Stand does and are willing to talk to other teachers about it.

(This is not an endorsement of Stand but rather, just a notice for teachers who read the blog and may be interested.)

Seattle Times editorial board chimes in again

Another day, another Seattle Times editorial on public K-12 education. This one in praise of state grants to districts that will pilot new teacher and principal evaluations.

Lots of room for discussion here.

1) These things start out with talk about multilayered and textured systems, but they end with student scores on standardized tests and a form on a clipboard with checkboxes for principals to fill in. It has to be dumbed down for the managers to use. The same managers who are being trusted to design the system. Big hint: the people who design the system will design it to make their own jobs easier.

2) The Times now says that effective teachers and principals are the most important factors in student learning outside of the students' homes. So why, earlier this week, did they try to give the superintendent credit for increased student achievement? That credit should have gone to teachers and principals.

3) The Times seems blind to the fact that the very people they are relying upon to design and implement these reviews are the very same people who have proven incapable of doing exactly that for the past forty years. So what is the source of their optimism that these are the right people for the job? What makes them think that these people, who have failed at exactly this task for decades will suddenly be able to do it now that they have the incentive of a state grant?

4) The Times obviously still prefers less multi-layered and textured reviews for District executives. The Times obviously doesn't trust surveys as a measure of executive performance, but like the idea for teachers.

Seattle Times doesn't really have either a grasp on the facts or their own principles when it comes to issues around public K-12 education. Consequently they contradict themselves like this all the time. It's part of the reason that thinking people don't agree with the Seattle Times on these matters.

Superintendent Review Update

Nina Shapiro over at Seattle Weekly has a piece about the Superintendent's review. It has a few illuminating statements that bear updating you on. From the article:

Both board president Michael DeBell and district spokesperson Patti Spencer-Watkins dismiss the surveys as "unscientific," as did a Friday Seattle Times editorial that leapt to the superintendent's defense. Spencer-Watkins points to a different survey, released by the non-profit Alliance for Education last month, one she portrays as more credible because it was done by a marketing firm.

What I would say to that statement is that the Alliance's survey did have a credible number of respondents from various groups in multiple parts of the city (although the CPPS survey had more respondents overall). The questions for the phone survey were a far cry from the earlier on-line attempt but, to my eyes, somewhat tailored for the answers the Alliance wanted.

The main point is that the two surveys were asking about two different issues and had two different objectives. The Alliance survey was about teachers and the CPPS survey was about the Superintendent. The Alliance survey didn't ask any questions about the Superintendent. If they had, I think we would have seen alignment between the two surveys.

Also from the article:

DeBell, as well as board member Steve Sundquist, add that enormous change has been happening in the district, such as the new assignment plan, and it's that, rather than Goodloe-Johnson per se, that could be causing unease.

I'm thinking here that DeBell and Sundquist are posturing for the public. We're not idiots reacting to change. They have heard from way too many parents and community, way before any survey, about the discomfort and unhappiness with Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. There was a lot of upheaval around the first school closures and yet no one felt the same way about Raj Manhas. Raj had some deficiencies in his skill set but being approachable and listening with interest weren't two of them.

According to the article, the June 16th Board meeting is where they will announce their results. (And again, I'm confused as to why they have to decide now if they will renew her contract. She's got 2 more years on this one. Why not wait until next year?)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Director Carr Would Like Input on Budget Issues

I had written to the Board about the lack of engagement during this budget cycle. I had mentioned how Bellevue seemed eager to ask parents for help in guiding difficult budgeting choices. I heard back from Director Sherry Carr. She said that Bellevue had modeled Lake Washington and that they are both a best practices model. (She also noted that Bellevue had started its reform/improvement work over a decade ago and so is in a different place than Seattle.)

June 10th is the next meeting for the Audit and Finance Committee. At that meeting they will be discussing improvements for the 2011-2012 budget cycle and it must include improved community engagement. She is interested in hearing from parents and community on how these improvements might work. Here are some suggested questions to help guide your answers:
  • What about the process worked?
  • What didn't work?
  • What changes would you recommend?
  • Would the process that Bellevue used work?
  • Anything else?
Here is a link for a reference to what was done by SPS this year.

Sherry is the head of A&F; contact her at sherry.carr@seattleschools.org
Peter Maier is also on the Committee: peter.maier@seattleschools.org
Michael DeBell is also a member of the Committee: michael.debell@seattleschools.org

State Audit Reveals Issues With District Compliance

The Washington State Auditor's office released a report yesterday on the district's compliance with federal grant funding. What pops into my head constantly when this kind of thing appears is "We're in 2010 and we still have these issues." We have Moss-Adams report, the CAICEE report and now the State Auditor's report (again) and yet, it still happens. That it happens this regularly makes you wonder. From the audit:

In our 2004 and 2007 audits, we notified District management of these requirements, and in our audit of fiscal year 2008 we reported noncompliance with federal procurement requirements. These conditions have not been resolved.

These are grants for Special Education, Native American programs, and others. Some of the issue is that the district is not going out and getting bids or proposals from multiple vendors as is required and don't have records to support claims of doing so. From the audit:

Special Education: We examined eight personal service contracts totaling $1,172,328 charged to Special Education grants. The District could not provide documentation to show these contracts were competitively procured. District staff stated they considered the contracts sole source, but did not have documentation to show how the District reached that conclusion.

Indian Education: We examined two personal service contracts totaling $14,603 charged to the Indian Education grant. The District could not provide documentation to show the contracts were competitively procured. District staff stated they considered the contracts sole source, but did not have documentation to show how the District reached that conclusion.

Head Start: We examined four personal service contracts totaling $217,982 charged to the Head Start grant. The District could not provide documentation to show these contracts were competitively procured. District staff stated they considered the contracts sole source, but did not have documentation to show how the District reached that conclusion.

Title I: We examined six personal service contracts totaling $175,998 charged to the Title I grant for private tutoring services. The District could not provide documentation showing these contracts were competitively procured. District staff stated they considered the contracts sole source, but did not have documentation to show how the District reached that conclusion.

Cause of Condition

District staff was unaware of federal requirements related to procurement. The District also did not follow previous audit recommendations.

Effect of Condition

By not complying with federal procurement requirements, the District cannot ensure contracts paid with federal funds are awarded to the lowest responsible bidder. By not retaining appropriate supporting documentation, the District cannot demonstrate other providers were unable to supply the necessary personal services before it selected vendors. Therefore, it is possible other providers were not provided an opportunity to compete for these contracts, which can affect contract price and quality of service.

But again, how many years before the district has a streamlined and efficient method of operating? It almost seems like they got frozen in time at some point and are continually struggling to keep up.

Brief Overview of each Finding

Indian Education Grant - The District claimed 1,123 in its 2008-2009 grant application and received $233,792. In 2007, the U.S. Department of ed found that the district's number of eligibility forms on file did not match the number of students counted. The district provided 927 eligibility forms but only 377 were valid. There was also a finding that they did not created the parent committee required by the grant, a finding initially discovered in 2007.

Special Education (IDEA)

This is for a Safety Net award. The district received about $460K in 2008-2009 but there were two students who left the district but the district kept the money. The district claimed it thought that OSPI automatically changed the grant amount if a student withdrew from the district.

Title 1
The district had one paraprofessional who did not meet the highly qualified requirement. The district did report this to OSPI. (The employee had earned $31,455 during 2008-2009.) The district said it wasn't aware of the requirement and thought this employee was providing services not related to Title 1. An additional finding was that the district had 73 teachers who did not meeting the highly qualified teacher requirements (but none of them taught Title 1 classes). This one seems like a genuine human error on the district's part and not a big deal. The odd thing is that the reason it occurred is that a teacher resigned and they put in an IA instead of a teacher.

Education State Grants

These are grants to boost funding from K- college. The district had received a one-time sum of $19.8M in 2009. Of that, $12.5M was spent on salaries and $4.1M on benefits. The district had put in a new payroll system in 2008. Apparently this new system can't detect overpayments to employees funded by these grants. Because of this, the Auditor was unable to determine how many employees were overpaid so how much was lost here is unknown. They were only able to identify one employee who was overpaid by $40K (and the charge to the grant was $8k). A Special Report will be issued later this year on district's salary overpayments. (The cause here of the overpayments?

When it switched to the new system, District staff members manually entered employee pay codes into the new system. No one did a review to ensure they were correct. Therefore, the District’s controls were insufficient to detect and correct errors in a timely manner.

Internal Controls in Accounting

This one is pretty troubling.

District staff members did not have adequate knowledge of and experience with prescribed financial reporting requirements. Staff did not use the Accounting Manual for Public School Districts in the State of Washington for guidance and information related to capital asset transactions, and recorded them incorrectly.

In fiscal year 2009, the District processed more than $330 million in payroll. We noted that when District changed its payroll system in 2008, it did not update its internal controls to address the increased risks of error or inappropriate entries related to manual data entry. Therefore, the District’s controls over this payroll

Financial statement preparation

District management is responsible for ensuring annual financial reports are accurate, complete, and comply with reporting requirements. However, the District relies on our audit to identify errors in the financial statements and notes, rather than dedicating the necessary staff time, training and other resources to ensure annual financial reports are accurate and complete.

Payroll Processing

During the payroll system conversion, District staff members manually entered employee pay codes into the new system. No one reviewed these to ensure individual pay rates were the rates shown in the signed employee contracts.

The effects of this lack of oversight are that buildings were reported as "equipment". Salaries and benefits for General Fund were reported int he Capital Projects Funds. Capital accounts payable of $1.6M were in the General Fund. The district also overstated its total unreserved,undesignated fund balance. For Payroll,

At least 150 employees were paid at a higher placement on the pay scale than their contracts supported. Thus far, a total of $335,000 has been identified as overpaid. This is the result of a systemic issue.

The district admits fault in every case but this isn't the first time for many of these issues that they have been told that they are not in compliance. That the Auditor's office thinks the district is relying on the state audits to find their mistakes rather than doing it themselves is troubling.

Superintendent Performance Evaluation

The annual Board review of the superintendent's performance is coming up. We're seeing signs of it, calendar items on the Board calendar, hagiographies in the Seattle Times, etc.

By what criteria should the superintendent's performance be judged and, by those criteria, how has she performed. We could look to Policy B61.00 for some clues. We could also look to any statement of the District's annual priorities.

Here's the tool used last year.

I think her performance should be measured in a number of ways including:

Overall satisfaction with the District as expressed on the District's student family surveys

Overall academic achievement by all students

Improvement in academic achievement by under-performing students

Graduation rates

Closing the Academic Achievement Gap

Effective management of the budget

Capital projects completed on time and on budget

Compliance with Board Policy

Progress on the Strategic Plan

Effective management of her staff

Labor relations

Compliance with State and Federal law

Community relations

What other criteria are appropriate?

Monday, May 24, 2010

Hard to Believe

Checking the Times today, I found that the Times editorial on Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's tenure has certainly taken it on the chin. Several people did write in more than once. Here's part of what Charlie said in his second post:

There are now 63 comments in response to this editorial. (Note: After Charlie posted this, one lone kindergarten parent weighed in to say she was happy.)

Not one of the 63 comments agrees with the Times. The vast majority of them are civil and on topic. Most of them reflect better reasoning, better research, better data, and better writing than the Times editorial.

At what point does the Times editorial board begin to question their perspective? Or don't you ever? Perhaps you think that you are courageous for holding an unpopular view and sticking with it? If so, please consider another possibility: you are completely wrong.

Your dismissal of the CPPS poll compared to your fawning over the Our Schools Coalition poll reflects a deep bias that you need to acknowledge.

This was my favorite comment:

Note: Her ability to turn water into wine was omitted.

So the Times failed in both logic and reasoning in its editorial. But let's what about educational reporting? Oh look, here's a story today, headlined "Roosevelt High School Teacher Gives Her Students a Review in Cursive." Well first, it's about an RHS teacher who brings in another teacher to review for students the basics of cursive. It's a cute story and that's fine.

The problem is there are more stories out there not being covered. Dan Dempsey has pointed that there are several on-going lawsuits against the district (most of which are not personnel matters and so, can be easily covered). And yet, silence from the Times. I would, if I were an editor at the Times, find it interesting that parents and community continue to fight back against district decisions.

Further, what is quite odd and painful to anyone who might have some sensitivity towards a disenfranchised group is the lack of coverage on the issue of the Native American program in our district. (Note: the Times had an editorial on this issue but no coverage which is important to give background to the editorial.)

I wrote a thread about this back in March when I attended an Audit and Finance Committee meeting where it had come out that the program manager of the Native American program had overcounted the number of students by a wide margin. (This is for a federal grant which requires a certain form be filled out by each student's parent or guardian. The district knows - mostly - who is Native American in our district but cannot claim them on the grant without the form being filled out.) This gross error caused the district to have to go back and repay the money to the feds (although I still don't know how much and if there was any penalty for it).

So what now comes out is that even though the original program manager who made this mistake is gone, the new program manager compounded the error by getting the grant in late. He was trying to send it to the feds....15 minutes before the due date and he had a "computer" problem. So the grant was, of course, denied.

So now the Native American program grant is in the second tier of funding which means if there is any money left over. Think that will happen? I doubt it. The district is kicking in money for the program but only a third of what was funded. So they are getting rid of the two teachers who were helping the students academically.

Now, at the time of the Committee meeting, Michael DeBell seemed very upset and he asked who was accountable. What he was told was that the program manager was gone. HOWEVER, the district didn't mention at the meeting that there was a new person in place nor was that person in the room. Now why wouldn't the district bring in the person who is in charge of the program? Probably because it turns out that person had committed the gross error of not getting the grant off in time and district staff KNEW it at the time of the meeting.

There have been a few meetings with parents/community and the district. Apparently at one meeting, there was some tense dialog between one parent and the head of the program, Arlie Neskahi, over whether he had responded to e-mails. The Superintendent was there and yet again, brushed it off as a personality conflict. (See the pattern? She likes to dismiss, on any grounds, parent/community input as too subjective, too personal and basically, not worthy of her time.)

So this past Board meeting, several Native American parents and students came forward to let the Board how upset and concerned that they are. Then, the Superintendent, during her updates, had Dr. Enfield and the head of the program, Arlie N. get up and explain. Did they mention the overcount? No. Did they brush over the late grant? Yup. Did the Board let them off scot-free without even so much as "this is deeply disappointing"? Sure.

Here's what was said:
  • Dr. Enfield claimed that the staff shares the "urgency" that the community does. She says the program needs a more comprehensive program for both academics and support. She claims they are now in compliance with the grant requirements. (And note, the grant specifies a parent advisory committee which they hadn't done for years.) She says they will do a better job getting Native American parents to fill out the form needed for the grant. She talked about the district "improving our internal systems and processes" and that Arlie "has taken the lead on this". What?!? The same guy who couldn't do the most important task at his job, namely, getting a grant off on time? This is the guy you trust?
  • Then Dr. Enfield said something that should give us all a good laugh. "How do we put into place opportunities for community conversations in an ongoing basis so we are engaging in collective problem solving?" That's the $64,000 question, isn't Dr. Enfield? Go ask your boss, I'm sure that would get filed right in the circular file next to her desk.
  • Then she said the most damning thing of all, "I think we want to get to a place where we are not reacting to things that crop up as perhaps a 'pseudo-crisis'". More on that in a minute.
  • Arlie gave some stats on Native American students in our district. There are 850 above the ship canal, 150 located in Central, 1,000 in the SE and 375 in the SW. They have a goal of getting 700 of the needed 506 forms.
  • When asked about what academic supports will be there for these students now that their teachers are gone, Arlie danced around the question with a lame mumble about tutoring after-school sometimes. Dr. Enfield said that the district has challenging budgets and limited resources. Really? And how is that a comfort to these parents?
I have been communicating with Native American parent and activist, Sarah Sense-Wilson. She and other parents are deeply dismayed with all of this. They have tried to work with the program manager(s) and have largely been held at arm's length. For example, they tried to set up a presentation by the NW Justice Project for parents and students on their legal rights regarding explusions and suspensions. That got blocked by the district. But then, at the Board meeting, Arlie named that very group as one to work with. According to Sarah, the district has tried to exclude or block community engagement.

Look folks, what really burns me is two-fold.

One, this is 2010, not 1910. We, as a country, have treated Native Americans like crap (sorry but that's the word that defines it). And we do it over and over. Educationally, we have really let their children have it. To say that we have to do better and "ask the community" about their needs is more crap. Seriously, how long do these people have to wait? Then people to the right wonder why we need affirmative action and why we need special programs? Well, if the people in power had been doing what they should have been all along, maybe we wouldn't be sitting here discussing it...again. Spike Lee had it right - DO THE RIGHT THING.

Two, the Board. Where is the righteous anger? I know, for personnel reasons, they can't say "you are incompetent" or "fire that person". But they could express disappointment and disapproval to those in leadership. They allowed Dr. Enfield's "pseudo crisis" line to get off without a hitch. The program screws up not once but twice and doesn't have the money to continue the program as is and there is no comment on this?

Michael did, during his Board comments section, say some hearts and flowers comments about "people who came before us". Great Michael, but the problem is staring you right in the face. So do something. Tell the Superintendent, privately, that this is not good enough and that you her "priorities" should include this program. We have an absolute responsibility to these students who have, for a very long time, been waiting.

And we wonder why, generation after generation, these families don't trust or believe in government institutions. Shame on the district and the Board to just let this off with wink and a promise.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reminders and Open Thread

A couple of meeting reminders:

Monday the 24th - Joint City Council Environment Committee/School Board Operations Committee meeting from 6-8 p.m. at Eckstein Middle School, 3003 NE 75th St. (By the way, this one doesn't even rate a notice in the News and Calendar section of the SPS website. I wonder why not.)

Thursday the 27th, Community meeting with Steve Sundquist at SW Library, 9010 35th Ave SW from 10-11:30 am

Saturday the 29th, Community meeting with Betty Patu from 10 am - noon at Tully's, 4400 Rainier Avenue South (at Genesee)

Did anyone attend DeBell or Sundquist's Community meetings this past Saturday?

Open Thread for anything on your mind.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Saturday Morning Laugh

Oh those kids at the Times! What a bunch of jokers. They have this wonderful and silly editorial today about how great Dr. Goodloe-Johnson is doing and guess what? It's all based on their opinion. Now, other peoples' opinions, those are suspect but the wise ones at the Times', well, they know all. I'm not even going to print their nonsense here but here's what I wrote in the comments section.

My name is Melissa Westbrook and I am both a long-time SPS parent and education activist in our City. I write for the education blog Save Seattle Schools. With no arrogance, I would say I know this district far better than the entire editorial board of the Times put together. So I feel confident in pointing out the errors both in thinking and in the Times' final judgment on Dr. Goodloe-Johnson and her tenure at SPS.

This editorial is full of half-truths and stretches of the imagination.

-First, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson IS the public face for the district and so she is the main "lighting rod" for what has occurred in our district.
-Second, "lesser leaders" DID indeed close schools so she doesn't get credit for that one. Point in fact, she closed schools and now is opening schools at a cost of at least $50M. The enrollment numbers for the 3 opening this fall? Pitifully low because she refused to give any of them a real focus such as Montessori or foreign language immersion. So where is the great thinking here?
-Then, "enrollment has risen". It's not because of her leadership - it's because of a baby boomlet that this district largely ignored until just last year. Also, note to Times, we're in an economic downtown so the thought is maybe the private schools could have lost students.
-The Board did NOT create the Strategic Plan; Dr. Goodloe-Johnson and her staff did and the Board approved it. We did have a 5-year plan previous to Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. She just reformed it and called it her Strategic Plan. From the Plan, "It is built on the
foundation of work accomplished by past School Boards, Superintendents and community
advisory groups." So yes, past Boards, not just this one, created the Plan.
-that "nonscientific survey by a group of parents"? It was by the respected parent group CPPS (Communities and Parents for Public Schools). It covered 37 different zip codes from throughout city. Even Dr. Goodloe-Johnson's most favorable responses were still, overall, negative.
-that the Superintendent is holding true to HER vision and parents and community members recognize that doesn't mean they approve of it.

The last two paragraphs of the editorial are somewhat shameful. The Times (and their coherts) may believe that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson is a courageous leader but ignoring public input, brushing off wide-spread parent concerns and generally being a bully is another way to look at it. What makes the Times' viewpoint more valid than the survey respondents? Our test scores are marginally better and not statistically (there's that science stuff again!) better.

The last sentence is laughable. Here's the thing that has been true in this district for years; parents like their schools and HATE the way this district is run. That more and more parents see their principals shifted around like pawns on a chessboard, see a student assignment plan that splits siblings from each other, see a curriculum alignment that will change alternative schools from the basic idea of them presenting the curriculum in their own way, and lastly see this district struggle to control its budget as it continues to curry favor with private foundations for its own purposes, no I wouldn't call many SPS parents "happy". I would call many of them exhausted.

There was an additional survey done in the last week for parents and community through our blog. It was tailored along the lines of exactly what the Board will be looking for when they evaluate the Superintendent. It, too, shows parents and community to be very unhappy with the Superintendent's work. Both surveys and their results are available at:


See you at the School Board elections in November of 2011.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Newest Survey Results

Below is information about the results of the Superintendent Survey from last week (after the CPPS survey). There ended up being about 180 people surveyed which is far less than the CPPS survey. However, this survey was only published here and in a shorter timeframe. Again, not scientifically valid but a bookend to the CPPS results. Here is a link to the survey with comments.

This Superintendent Performance Survey was produced by a group of Seattle community members who regularly interface with SPS District staff individually, through school groups and in business. Because of the sensitivity of their position in relation to positive or negative criticism for the superintendent, they chose to circulate the survey anonymously, with the hope of adding an additional discussion point during the current superintendent evaluation.

Some hard copy surveys circulated through the community. The same version of the survey was posted, again by anonymous request, via one location only: this blog. Due to a compressed timeline (superintendent evaluation will be completed during May) the survey was active for one week, May 11-17. This summary reflects only the responses submitted by the link on the blog. One-time response was requested. The survey was screened for same-person multiple responses. 178 responses were deemed valid.

Survey responses came from 27 area Zip codes. The top three responding Zip codes were 98115, 98103, 98117, 98118 and 98112. Approximately 78 percent identified as parents of current SPS students.

The survey was structured to follow the performance matrix Board members follow to evaluate the Superintendent. It allowed for multiple degrees of satisfaction/non-satisfaction with the superintendent’s performance in the following order: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neither Agree/Disagree, Disagree, Strongly Disagree. Each question allowed respondents the chance to comment. All comments are available for public review. No comments were edited. Only contact information was removed.

The ultimate question, whether to extend the Superintendent’s contract for another year, was offered two ways, “Yes I agree….” “No I do not agree…”, again with comments, to maximize the opportunity for a wide range of input. The reaction to the question, phrased two ways, was consistent: More than 80 percent of respondents do not wish the Board to renew the Superintendent’s contract.

A few of the comments:

"I have been to several of her meetings. She only takes pre-screened questions and doesn't give real answers. The meetings are a mere formality. Parents go away feeling like they haven't been heard. She makes her own decisions, not based on feedback or input that is gathered at meetings. The meetings feel like a formality so she can say that she "heard" the parents. I come away very very frustrated at her meetings."

On principal placement - "Dr. Goodloe-Johnson has certainly stirred things up, but as things settle, I don't see the differences making better outcomes for all students."

On the Budget - "Don Kennedy's communication is excellent."

"It is unbelievable that district staff do not have budget figures at board meetings and are allowed to repeatedly state, "I will get back to you on that."

On whether to renew her contract - "She has been a catalyst for change. Maybe too much. I am not sure we can sustain it all."

"Only extraordinary performance would warrant this."

Parent Comments - "I am embarrassed I have not come forward in voicing my concenrs previously. I thought if I kept my focus on my children his performance and joined PTA it was enough. I thought that school and school board leadership was aware and proactive at his school. I am disappointed with myself and with your performance. We have let our children down."

This can't be "new" news to the Board. I'd be willing to bet they hear some form of this daily, namely, why is the Superintendent so arms-length with parents and community? The question is not whether they hear this enough to affect their decision whether to renew her contract (versus let her finish the final 2 years of her current contract). The question is whether they are listening. They can certainly listen to the powers that be in this town who see the churn but not the waterfall. Is the noise of the churn enough to drown out the voices of parents and community?

The Board has a big decision to make and I hope they don't just go along to get along. I hope they look down the road and then say to the Superintendent, thank you for your vision, your ability to send a lot of initiatives into motion and your steadfast belief in SPS education. You've done the job we needed for your tenure but now we feel, in two years time when the new SAP has settled in as well as other initiatives, that we will need a new type of superintendent to lead us.

That's what I hope will happen. But it will take political courage. Whatever decision the Board makes, it will likely impact the four members who come up for re-election in November 2011 (should they all run again as I suspect they will).

The Board takes up the Superintendent Evaluation in an Executive Session next Wednesday.

Updates on Enrollment

I taped the Board meeting Wednesday to listen to public comment and see what the Superintendent might have to say this time around. I'll go in reverse order on these two.

The Superintendent herself didn't speak much for her updates. She had Tracy Libros, from Enrollment Services, talk about how this enrollment season had gone, early data and what to expect before school starts in September.

  • during Early Registration, 84% of those registering were kindergarten students
  • Enrollment processed 7,038 forms, 5,780 were for choice seats
  • Notification of waiting list movement should start soon (but again, it depends on the school)
  • there are 8 schools that have 6-10 K sibs on their waiting list, 6 that have 6-10, 3 with 11-15 and 2 with 16-20
  • Enrollment will be collaborating with principals to see if they can revise their enrollment to put in more kindergarten students (okay, but what does collaborating mean? Arm-twisting or promises for more resources? It's hard to say.)
  • Enrollment has a place at their website for parents to say "will not attend" their assignment as well as having schools take that information and pass it onto Enrollment (great but has this been widely disseminated? Has the district instructed schools to make sure this request gets out to parents so that parents on the waiting list can find out sooner what school their child will attend? No mention of how this information is getting to parents. Have you heard this at your school?)
  • Update: I rechecked my notes and I forgotten this one. Tracy was talking about how many fewer requests for non-attendance area schools there were previous to last year. First, she had this information from a previous year available but when a couple of Board members asked for similar info, not available. What gives? She also stated that this must mean there are more satisfied families who like their assignment. Maybe but it could also mean that (1) the district didn't make it clear there was STILL choice and many thought they HAD to accept their assignment (if they didn't want an Option school) and (2) the district has no idea how many of those are going to show up. Just because they had fewer people using Open Enrollment doesn't necessarily mean more families are satisfied. I'm surprised no one on the Board pointed that out.

Questions From Board
  • Harium: how does this year's kindergarten enrollment measure to previous years? Tracy: Don't have that information but this year was a new SAP and parent may have made decisions differently, etc. (I'm sorry, it's still enrolling students so it seems like a valid question and frankly, something you might expect the Board to ask.)
  • Betty spoke of the long waitlist at Kimball and worried parents. She also spoke about RBHS and its low enrollment. She said, "It's so low it's almost like you should close the school down." Tracy said that RBHS traditionally enrolls low and gets more students closer to the start of school or into the school year. Dr. G-J said that RBHS will still have core AP classes.
  • Sherry asked about how the waitlist movement might play out and Tracy said that they had simulations and that as one school moves their waitlist then that would free up seats at another school with assigned students who now are going elsewhere. (All the more reason to let parents know that the district really wants them to let the school/district know if they have made a decision.)
  • Peter asked when parents might know when the waitlists are moving. Tracy said they will now and continuing throughout the summer.
  • Harium worried aloud about how the extra K kids might affect schools' budgets. He said the "subtleties of budgets" were a concern.
  • Michael asked how many older sibs had moved to a younger sibs school. Tracy didn't know but said that people had until September 30th to make this decision.
  • Michael also asked about the percent of Open Choice seats requests that had been granted? Tracy said she'd get that info to them.
  • He also asked about how many sibs got in on the Open Choice seats as that had been a concern that most of those seats would go to sibs making for few seats as truly "open".
  • He also asked about the use of half-day K as a surge mechanism and Tracy said that was no longer on the table.
  • He also mentioned the issue of waitlists for Spectrum. Tracy said that parents had priorities and some people wanted a certain school, Spectrum or not and some wanted a Spectrum school. She said there were some opens Spectrum seats at certain schools as well as ALOs. (But, of course, we all know Spectrum schools are not created equally so it's not just a matter of going to a different school for Spectrum but what is the quality of Spectrum at that school.)
Two BIG points to remind you of:

One, you CAN reject your child's assignment and still remain on the waiting list for the school you want. From the district's website:

Dropping a student's assignment does NOT drop them from a waiting list. Waiting lists stay active through September 30, 2010. If space becomes available at that school, you will be contacted to see if you want the assignment for your child or not.

Now I guess you might do this if you absolutely didn't want your assignment but I would guess that most people, unless they had a spot at a private school waiting or knew their assigned school couldn't possibly fill up, could reject an assignment but it seems like most would keep it as a bird in hand.

Two, Tracy said, very clearly, that the Enrollment Office will be handling the waitlists, not the schools. This is different from in the past. If, for any reason, your school indicates it is handling them, you should ask why and then let the Enrollment Office know because she was firm on this issue.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Parents Doing Good for Their Schools

So I received this joint press release from SPS and SSIA (Successful Schools in Action, a local non-profit created to support public schools in the QA/Magnolia area) about what sounds like a wonderful event. From the press release:

Successful Schools in Action (SSIA), which runs Seattle’s only elementary school debate program, announced the date for their spring debate tournament. It will take place Saturday, May 22, at Catharine Blaine K-8 from 9 a.m.-noon. Close to 40 fourth- and fifth-grade students from four Seattle public schools – Coe, John Hay, Lawton, and Catharine Blaine, currently participate in this highly successful program. The debate topic is:

Seattle Public Schools should change to a year-round schedule.

The SSIA debate program is unique in Seattle, and remains one of the only elementary programs in the country. Now in its fifth year, it continues to receive extraordinary accolades. Coe principal David Elliott said, “I have seen the profound and transformative impact of this debate program on hundreds of 9-through 11-year-olds as they learn how to think critically about a subject, gain self-confidence, and have a great time preparing and arguing their cases with their peers.”

Great idea and I love that topic so debate among yourselves. Everyone, sometime in their life, will likely have to speak in public. Whether it's part of your job to give presentations or, like many of you, feel the need to speak at a City Council hearing or School Board meeting, this kind of experience can give you confidence.

One thing in the press release that made me smile was this:

SSIA is a powerful example of a public- private partnership that helps strengthen public schools and better meets student needs.

It is true that it is a public-private partnership. But I know the Executive Director of SSIA, Lisa Moore, and asked her if the district itself had anything to do with the debate program. The answer was no. This program started out of an idea from one of the principals of the schools in SSIA and parents (and other principals) grew it from there. Not to bash the district, I don't mean to do that but it seems to me many of the best programs in this district started either from parents and/or school level and grew to prominence not from district support but the support of those school communities. Again, one more reason for the district to listen to parents; we've had some good ideas and support others' good ideas to fruition at our schools.

Movie Time

I'm a big supporter of the Seattle International Film Festival (SIIF). It's a great 3 weeks of films you may never see anywhere else and there is truly something for everyone. Here is a link to their website.

They do have a Films4Families program with some great movies that kids and adults can enjoy. There are some live action as well as animated films this year including what looks like an "awww" film about a white lion cub called White Lion. (The info for these films is on page 20 of the schedule.)

Additionally of interest, there is a Grease Sing-along which could be big fun for those of you with musically inclined children. Another musical offering is the 1916 classic of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea with ensemble music including the mighty Paramount Theater organ AND author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) on the accordion. The other Paramount Theater film is the 1925 silent film Riders of the Purple Sage with music by The Maldives (NW country rock band). The film includes quick-draw cowboys, villains and outlaws, a cattle stampede and an avalanche. (I've attended some silent films with music at the Paramount with my kids when they were younger and it was a fabulous experience.)

They have a FutureWave shorts which are short films by filmmakers 18 and under on Saturday, June 5th. There is also a FutureWave Features as well.

Also, to keep on your radar for next year, are the Youth Juries which are increasingly popular. For the FutureWave films and Films4Families films there are youth juries comprised of 5 students from across Seattle who view these films and then award a Youth Jury Award to their favorite.

And, of course, for the adults, there is Waiting For Superman, about education reform in the U.S. (there are two showings of this; Friday, June 4th and Saturday June 5). I would expect this would get wide release in the U.S. so you will likely get a chance to see it outside the film festival.

SIIF policy for their other films is no babes in arms and the majority of the regular film schedule is not for children (not rated, foreign films, adult material, etc.). Schedules are available at most libraries and many coffee joints and supermarkets. You can buy tickets online, by phone or in person at their box office on the second floor at Pacific Place.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

CPPS Survey Results In

Stephanie Jones, the head of Communities and Parents for Public Schools (CPPS), released the results of the recent survey on the performance of our superintendent, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. From their results:
  • In just over a week, they received 662 responses.
  • More than half included optional written comments
  • 273 (41%) included an email address (this is a great sign of standing up and being counted)
  • Submissions came from 37 different zip codes, covering all regions of the city
  • As you would expect, the anonymous responses were more negative but the non-anonymous ones were still "solidly" negative.
One absolutely great thing that the folks at CPPS did was to include every single comment. There are pages of them so it takes awhile to read. But it is valuable reading because you start seeing a theme to them even as each one differs somewhat in its issue.

What did people say? If I had to sum it up, it would be two things. One, there is almost zero feeling that Dr. Goodloe-Johnson listens to parents. There were several comments that applauded her strong stance (which many others thought autocratic) or the changes she has made in the district . I didn't see one comment saying she was approachable or was someone who collaborates well with the community.

Two, is the overwhelming sense that she is hurting the district, either through her lack of ability to engage/motivate/inspire and/or the amount of churn that she has caused in the district with not a lot to show for it in terms of results.

It is clear, at least to me, that the ability to communicate and engage with others matters to Seattle parents and community. That Dr. Goodloe-Johnson either doesn't have this ability or is tone-deaf to this important aspect of her job is deeply disappointing. And, I certain hope the Board understands that this is part of her job and this lack of buy-in from parents and the community undermines almost every move she makes.

I hope the Board reads every page and, as well, that every City leader sees these results.

Thank you to each and every person who took the time to take the survey. And a big Thank You to the folks at CPPS especially Stephanie Jones and Andrew Kwatinetz (a SSS occasional blogger) for their hard work on this effort.

Teachers' Unions' Last Stand?

Central Mom gave us the heads up on this fascinating (and long, she wasn't kidding) article in the NY Times Magazine coming out this Sunday. Entitled "The Teachers' Unions' Last Stand", it is basically about New York state's application for Race to the Top funds. But really, it takes a national view of what is happening (and coming) in education reform.

  • Finding out that there is yet another Broad-type academy for leaders, this one run by Jon Schnur, of the New Leaders for New Schools group. Interestingly, they place leaders but don't pay their salaries (Broad pays half), nor do they expect their leaders to get hired after residency. The Times points out about these self-styled reformers: They have been building in strength and numbers over the last two decades and now seem to be planted everywhere that counts. They are working in key positions in school districts and charter-school networks, legislating in state capitals, staffing city halls and statehouses for reform-minded mayors and governors, writing papers for policy groups and dispensing grants from billion-dollar philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp; and the New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein could be considered the patron saints of the network.
  • Explanation of the sudden reform surge: Why the sudden shift from long-simmering wonk debate to political front burner? Because there is now a president who, when it comes to school reform, really does seem to be a new kind of Democrat — and because of a clever idea Schnur had last year to package what might otherwise have been just another federal grant program into a media-alluring, if cheesy-sounding, contest called Race to the Top. It has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact and that is already upending traditional Democratic Party politics.
  • (Fifteen states, including New York and California, now operate under union-backed state laws mandating that seniority, or “last in/first out,” determines layoffs. These quality-blind layoffs could force a new generation of teachers, like those recruited by Teach for America, out of classrooms in the coming months.)
  • So how did the stars align for RTTT? First there’s the rise of the reformers who seem to be in daily communication through e-mail and blogs. The standard profile is someone who went to a prestige college, joined Teach for America for a two-year stint and found the work and the challenges so compelling that he or she decided education should be more than a layover before a real career. Great and what about them? Although Schnur is a cheerful, modest type, there is a strain of self-righteousness that runs through the reform network. Some come off as snobs who assume any union teacher is lazy or incompetent and could be bested by young, nonunion Ivy Leaguers full of energy. And others see tying teachers’ pay to their students’ improvement on standardized tests as a cure-all. But most — especially those who have taught and appreciate how hard it is — understand that standardized tests are far from perfect, and that some subjects, like the arts, don’t lend themselves to standardized testing.
  • Second?

    The second force at work is a new crop of Democratic politicians across the country— including President Obama — who seem willing to challenge the teachers’ unions.

  • Third, there’s the boost given to school reform by high-powered foundations, like the Gates Foundation, which have financed important research and pilot reform projects, and by wealthy entrepreneurs, who have poured seed money into charter schools.
  • And fourth, there’s the charter-school movement, which has yielded an increasingly large and vocal constituency of parents whose children are among the more than 1.5 million students attending more than 5,000 charter schools. This one is interesting to me because, of course, we don't have them here in Washington State so the lobbying by charter school parents wouldn't be all that apparent.
  • However, "If unions are the Democratic Party’s base, then teachers’ unions are the base of the base. The two national teachers’ unions — the American Federation of Teachers and the larger National Education Association — together have more than 4.6 million members. That is roughly a quarter of all the union members in the country. Teachers are the best field troops in local elections. In the last 30 years, the teachers’ unions have contributed nearly $57.4 million to federal campaigns, an amount that is about 30 percent higher than any single corporation or other union. Money AND foot soldiers - it's mother's milk to any campaign.
  • Didn't know this: Bredesen (Governor of TN) points to an earlier development in his state that, he says, had “broken the ice.” In 2009 the Gates foundation provided a $90 million grant to the Memphis school system — the state’s largest — on the condition that teachers there allow 35 percent of their performance ratings to be based on student test scores. Bredesen’s icebreaker was emblematic of the forces of reform coming together around the Race.
  • Charter schools are not always better for children. Across the country many are performing badly. But when run well — as most in Harlem and New York’s other most-challenged communities appear to be — they can make a huge difference in a child’s life. So by the time the Race rules were issued, the charter cap had become something that many New York parents, particularly in neighborhoods with underperforming schools, cared a lot about. In Harlem, for example, about 20 percent of all age-eligible children are now enrolled in charters, and in April, 14,000 other children submitted applications in the lottery for next year’s 2,700 open seats. So we get the chicken or egg story. Are people choosing/wanting charters because they are fleeing bad public schools OR are they choosing something better? Are all their charter choices better AND what is holding back the public schools from reform on their own?
  • There a very interesting example of public versus charter schools on page 4 where one school is divided down the middle with one side charter and one public. Guess who comes out better in this example? The charter. What's weird is how the charter is able to figure out, to the dollar, its costs but not the public school.
  • Klein’s response is that while charter schools can never be a substitute for a public school system, they can demonstrate how public schools can be improved, while creating healthy competition for a system that used to be a monopoly. “Parent choice can only make all schools better,” he says, paraphrasing a favorite line on the placards of the parents who picketed Perkins in Albany last winter and in Downtown Manhattan last month when he held a hearing about charters. Really? If only we have market competition, we will have better schools? Again, I just don't buy the business model theory. We did try a version ourselves (which Ms. Finne says wasn't carried out properly) and it didn't catch on. I think what hasn't been tried is truly reforming poor performing schools. Meaning, start over completely from top to bottom with a new staff and then ASK parents what would make them stay and how they (the parents) could help. I believe buy-in from the community around a neighborhood and within the school is vital to a successful school.
  • Interesting (and I wonder how this will play out): To make this expression of commitment unambiguous, the Race application included the exact M.O.U. that was to be signed. The contest instructions also stated that if the wording of the M.O.U. for any local school system was changed to make it “conditional,” the box should not be checked. So New York checked ALL the boxes for their schools districts but in an appendix had phrases like “consistent with any applicable collective-bargaining requirements.” and “Nothing in this M.O.U. shall be construed to override any applicable state or local collective-bargaining requirements.” Apparently Florida, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California and - one of the winners - Delaware all did the same thing. (In Delaware’s case, however, the core of its commitments — like how teachers will be evaluated — did not require a union sign-off, explained Donohue, the Delaware state teachers’ union president. The collective-bargaining caveat in the M.O.U., she said, “has to do with other, smaller aspects of the plan, like extending school days at turnaround schools, which I am sure we will agree on.”)
  • There is a little bit about Washington, D.C.'s chancellor (superintendent) Michelle Rhee. Rhee says “I’m not big on the collaborative, warm and fuzzy approach,” she says — and became a hero of the reformers." Part of that is okay and part isn't. She doesn't have to group hug everyone but yes, I would think compromise, consensus and yes, collaboration would be part of it. Somehow she got a very strong contract. Two clauses now make it possible for Rhee to fire any teacher with tenure, no matter which track he or she chooses (lockstep compensation or performance-based pay), if the teacher is evaluated as “ineffective” for one year or “minimally effective” for two years. The criteria used to define “ineffective” or “minimally effective” are, according to another clause, “a nonnegotiable item” determined solely by Rhee and her staff. She got the teachers to sign a contract with evaluation criteria for teachers being determined only by Rhee and her staff? She is tough.
  • There was also some discussion of the bills in various legislatures around the country dealing with teacher pay and assessment. While Governor Crist in Florida vetoed one, there is apparently another one moving through the Colorado legislature. Their bill would have student achievement growth to be 50% of a teacher's evaluation. It wouldn't dismantle tenure but would allow a tenured teacher have yearly evaluations and to get probation and eventually dismissal if found unsatisfactory. What is really interesting is this bill would: put a lot more pressure on principals by basing at least 66 percent of their evaluation on a combination of growth in student scores and increases in teacher effectiveness. (This info from an article at Ed Week.)
  • How RTTT applications are vetted: " Joanne Weiss, who runs the Race program for Secretary Duncan, began last summer to recruit experts, called “peer reviewers,” to score the applications in a way that would inoculate the decisions from charges of political favoritism. Five vetters were assigned to each application, and the score was the average of their individual scores. Duncan would reserve the right to override the point scores, but if he did, he would have to explain himself because the scores would be released publicly. Department of Education regulations required that the scorers not only have no financial interest in the outcome of their decisions, but not even an appearance of a conflict, both in terms of money and potential bias." "This pretty much eliminated people involved in operating school systems or those who are active in Schnur’s reform network, yielding vetters who were academics, education foundation staff members (but not at places like the Gates Foundation that finance reform projects) and long-retired educators."
The second round of RTTT applications are due June 1.