Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tired of This Rhetoric

Why is Charlie always right? I would have to paraphrase but on the subject of Michael DeBell, Charlie always seemed a bit mistrustful of Michael's words. And, increasingly, Charlie is right.

I believe that Michael is a bright guy and a calming presence on the Board (not that any of them are prone to hysterics). His heart is in the right place but his brain is...MIA.

To wit, Nina Shapiro interviewed him about the Board vote to extend the Superintendent's contract. Here's what he said:

Far from a skeptic, board president Michael DeBell frequently serves as the official voice of the board. And even he, while voting in favor of the superintendent, indicated that he had "wrestled" with the decision.

"It's important to acknowledge that many parents and teachers have felt they are not part of this reform process," DeBell says, explaining his ambivalence in a conversation with Seattle Weekly this morning. By reform process, he means a variety of changes that the district has made to standardize curricula, centralize decision-making and monitor student progress through continual testing.

"This change can't be mandated; it has to be cultivated," he adds, in what is surely a nod to the way Goodloe-Johnson is seen by critics as autocratic and aloof. He goes on: "I think it is really incumbent upon her, having been in Seattle for three years, to attempt to understand the city and community a little bit--and to make sure she's sensitive to the political culture and to what was already in place when she got here."

I'm not sure I believe he wrestled with anything except maybe his thumbs. You would have thought that the audit would give all the Board pause but apparently they were either too tone-deaf to what was said and/or embarrassed that they got singled out. I think Sable Verity has it right when she said that continuity and stability are THE rule of the day for this School Board and the powers that be in Seattle. I think the Wicked Witch of East's house would have to fall on them before they come out of their shell.

That Michael has the ability to say, after 3 whole years, that sigh, yes she needs to do better in public engagement is almost a slap in the face. C'mon Michael, parents have told you and the Board has told her in her evaluations to do better on public engagement and her answer is a big "talk to the hand" attitude. And why not? She is in the power seat and the Board built her that throne. They didn't even say in their own evaluation that their major LEGAL job as elected officials is to oversee her work. They are clearly afraid of her, do not want to challenge her and go so far as to ignore what their legal mandate is.

What is interesting is that over at Harium's blog (and again, credit to him for having one but not really answering that many comments), one commenter said they didn't want to know what Harium thought of the Superintendent. The commenter wanted to know what was the feedback from the voters. That's a good point - when have Board members used and/or cited feedback from parents and the public and why not?

He goes on, in the Weekly article, to talk about alternatives and earned autonomy and guess what? His idea doesn't match hers. I know, shocking to him but not the rest of us. To wit:

In DeBell's view, that included a number of successful alternative schools, which fit into a broader system of decentralized power. While he largely supports increasing centralization, he notes that one unresolved issue revolves around the "earned autonomy" that high-performing schools are supposed to get under the new "performance management" system. He explains that the superintendent has defined autonomy "quite narrowly" to mean school-based control over such things as teacher training and extra-curricula activities but not the "things that are important to schools" like choice of textbooks and other classroom materials. The board has yet to set an official policy on the matter.

Yes, Michael, the Superintendent has one definition and schools have another. Will there be any compromise on that definition? Please. Who do you think will win the day?


Jan said...


From the interview:
While he largely supports increasing centralization, he notes that one unresolved issue revolves around the "earned autonomy" that high-performing schools are supposed to get under the new "performance management" system. He explains that the superintendent has defined autonomy "quite narrowly" to mean school-based control over such things as teacher training and extra-curricula activities but not the "things that are important to schools" like choice of textbooks and other classroom materials. The board has yet to set an official policy on the matter.

Wait! I can't find it now on the blog, but I could swear that I recall MGJ (or one of her senior management team) answering a question on earned autonomy very differently -- my recollection is that it NOT so narrowly worded as to apply only to things like extra curriculars. And the response was to the effect that "high performing schools" didn't have to worry. She wasn't here to make changes in THOSE schools -- but the underperforming ones would be subject to changes, dictated centrally, in how they taught kids.
I can't find the reference now. Does anyone know where/when that conversation was? And in what context?

reader said...

It doesn't really make any sense. Earned autonomy. Why would you want to change the high performing schools? If a school is high performing, you'd want them to keep doing the district mandated stuff where they've demonstrated high performance. In that case, if the district ever selected methodologies that were problematic, there would be evidence of failure in the high performing schools. With "earned autonomy" for high performers, only low performing schools would need to stick to the plan... and the district would never have a clue as to the cause of the failures. Plus, it's grossly unfair to require something of low-performing schools, but not of high performing schools. If any schools need autonomy, arguably it's the low performers for whom the plan isn't working.

Teachermom said...

The schools that were high-performing before all of this district-mandated material rolled out were forced to change from materials that were already working for them to the district mandated material.

So that is not what the problem is, is it? They do not have a problem with changing things that are working.

Sahila said...


Sable Verity's piece on Hard Knock Radio on KBCS July 6th...

dan dempsey said...

OH my .... I remember back when I tried to make sense out of MGJ's directives.

After looking at her arbitrary and capricious actions for the last 3 years, I no longer do that.

If you want something changed in the Seattle School District forget using logic unless you employ logic as part of a legal action.

Get ready to get RECALL petitions signed ... that will work a lot better than logic if you want things changed.

dan dempsey said...

I should say changed for the better. This crew has done a lot of change and much of it is NOT change for the better. Many of these changes were done in a way that does not comply with State laws or District policies.

Look for the WA supreme court to start pointing this out in September.

Nice of the State Auditor to point out so many shortcomings so nicely. Unfortunately the BOARD talks about holding the Superintendent accountable and does absolutely nothing once again.

The auditor said:
"Further, the School Board delegated authority to the Superintendent to create specific procedures to govern day-to-day District operations. The Board does not evaluate these procedures to determine if they are effective and appropriate."

Auditor's Office sure got that right.

reader said...

Teachermom, that would indeed be a problem... and good evidence. A school that was high performing, but becomes low performing when it switches to district mandated materials. A low performing school that stays low performing when switching, says nothing. (usual case). That's why you actually need the high performing schools to stay with the program.

dan dempsey said...

The 7-7 school board meeting is now online HERE

Melissa Westbrook said...

Yeah, Jan, that bothered me as well. I'll have to go back and find it.

But the discussion here does point to a mix of autonomy and central oversight. Schools that are performing well should need less of the "executive directors" oversight and the under performing schools more scrutiny. Furthermore, what makes the high performing schools work well, should be replicated. (Of course, some of the performance could be due to the population, the parents, etc. but it never hurts to look at what works. Again, Maple Elementary was performing well with a more challenging population. Why wasn't that replicated? I did ask Dr. Enfield and got a pretty vague answer.)

Dorothy Neville said...

Reader, that always bothered me too, that the whole concept of earned autonomy was flawed. With the elementary math adoption, some felt that if they did well with the adoption, they could earn autonomy to change, but that doesn't seem logical. Did the staff lead them to believe that? I suspect so but my memory is aging. Why would a school that is doing well with something earn autonomy to change? Catch-22.

Additionally, high performing schools are also filled with kids whose parents aren't going to sit back and let fidelity of implementation prove or disprove a curriculum. As has been said before, no one measures the rate in which kids get tutored by parents or by software or a paid provider.

It's all more of the same BS and lack of careful analysis. The state provides a regression analysis to label schools as doing much better than, worse than, or similar to their predicted outcomes based on demographics. The latest math work session powerpoint (the first one) has a list of the Seattle schools that did much better than expected in math. It's just screaming out for some committee of objective statistically literate types to investigate further.

Back when Charlie was talking about the Alliance and possible roles, this was one of the things I was thinking about. I wouldn't trust the Alliance to do this on their own, but if a couple citizen volunteers joined a couple of Alliance folk and followed through with the investigation...

ebaer said...

I think there is one example of "earned autonomy" that might be helpful. Schmitz Park had high math scores and was allowed to change to Singapore math. (They had to pay for it, of course.) I don't know the details of how the waiver was gotten or the politics of the decision to switch.

Charlie Mas said...

Let's first make it clear that the whole concept of earned autonomy is flawed.

If the system works for your community, then you are free to deviate from it, but if the system does not work for your community, then you must adhere to it more rigidly. That's just stupid.

The problem, of course, is that the District does not recognize the system as a possible source of the failure. They reckon that if the system isn't working for your community, then the failure lies not in the system, but in your implementation of it or, in the case at Cleveland, in your community. So they see the earned autonomy this way:

If your implementation of the system is successful, then you will be free to continue to implement the system without further direction. If, however, your implementation of the system results in failure, then we will closely instruct you in the implementation of the system.

Dr. Deming would have a lot to say about this.

Since the autonomy that is available to be earned is not freedom to abandon the system but the freedom to implement it according to your best judgement, there is no opportunity - either with or without earned autonomy - to opt out of the system. Hence, no waivers. It's not on the menu.

Early in the discussions about Performance Management there were a number of intentional efforts to mislead people about what autonomy could be earned. When the Performance Management came down to a Board vote, however, Director DeBell included an amendment that would defer Performance Management until the earned autonomy was defined and codified. Instead of sticking to his principles (and, since he didn't stick to them I guess he didn't really have principles), he accepted a promise from his colleagues and the staff that the earned autonomy would be worked out later if he would just accept Performance Management now.

This is how he is a fool. He continues to accept their empty promises of future action. When has the District EVER fulfilled a commitment of future action? I can't think of a single instance. I can, however, think of dozens of times when they promised them.

When the Curriculum and Instruction Policy Committee met to discuss earned autonomy they learned that it would be EXTREMELY limited, that it would not include waivers from the standard materials, and that it wouldn't even be discussed for several months. No codification of the waiver process or earned autonomy is expected for at least a year.

Charlie Mas said...

What's interesting about this is that the staff is telling the Board what the limits of earned autonomy will be rather than the other way around. Who works for whom?

dan dempsey said...

It is pretty obvious who works for who... I went to a school board work session on policy. ...

Staff comes in with a "template" for the board to begin from.

The "template" is exactly what the staff thinks the Board needs. The Board members read it over and do a bit of jargon wrangling and BINGO its school board policy.

dan dempsey said...

ebaer said...

I think there is one example of "earned autonomy" that might be helpful.

NO this is not an example of earned autonomy. Schmitz Park had lots of other stuff it was committed to in school year 2007-2008. So they sought an exemption from beginning Everyday Math .... too burdensome with all their other commitments. That began the year that most teachers tossed TERC and began Singapore. This was under the radar.

For 2008-2009 there was enough heat on SPS Central for their faux Singapore Math supplement school district wide lie ... That SP could seek to come out in the open and get permission to start using Singapore.

That is not earned autonomy.... This is the length that one school needed to go to in order to get decent math materials for their kids in the sorry-ass school district MGJ has created.

Recall the five.

Jan said...

Charlie and Dorothy: You are right. Earned autonomy, as explained by both of you, makes no sense. I guess I had thought that it meant earned autonomy to continue to use non-standardized "stuff" (curriculum/materials - never sure here what term enlightens and what term obfuscates). For example, a school like RHS, with high scores, could have "earned autonomy" to continue to offer individualized, semester-long English courses that deviate from the "reading list" and the concept of "English 11" and "English 12." Garfield could continue having a huge portion of the sophomore class take the very difficult (at least for my kids) Marine Science, instead of following the Physical Science/Bio I/Chemistry I/Physics path that I am hearing has now been mandated. So, I thought (hoped?) what it meant was autonomy for teachers to craft their OWN courses and curriculum, under the watchful eyes of their principals, to meet their strengths and their communities wishes.
I guess it doesn't matter -- since we don't get earned autonomy anyway.
And no, I don't think it is fair that teachers at schools with a higher proportion of low performing kids should necessarily lose their "autonomy" -- but I was at least hopeful that MGJ wouldn't use centralization to destroy what was clearly already working and didn't need to be fixed. I thought maybe we could have a one front battle (stop forcing standardized stuff on low performing kids that doesn't help) rather than a two front one (and stop wrecking good classes that clearly work for kids who ARE performing well).