Superman and the Seattle Times

An editorial in today's Seattle Times buys into Waiting for Superman.

As usual from Times editorials, it is a bit difficult to cut away the meaningless language and try to determine what the Times is trying to say. In this case, the message seems to be "Don't get complacent about education just because your school and teachers are okay - there are parts of the city where children are not doing well and it is up to you to fix that for them." However Ms Varner doesn't offer us any means for helping these students.

Aside from that message of your responsibility to the less fortunate in your community, Ms Varner insinuates that the villian in this melodrama is the teachers' union - "the ills of public education's bloated bureaucracy: the high dropout rates, the widening achievement gap and powerful teachers unions that keep the conversation about adults rather than children"

Where does she live? What color is the sky on her planet?

Ms Varner says that we may all be like the film's director, David Guggenheim who "came to the topic after questioning why he drove past three public schools each weekday to drop his children off at a private school." Here are some facts: about 70% of Seattle schoolchildren attend public school. So, right there, rather than all of us being like Mr. Guggenheim, no more than 30% of us possibly could be. And, in case Ms Varner hadn't heard (because the Times hasn't reported it), our neighborhood schools are filled to overflowing. They are filled, for the most part, with neighborhood students. There are a few notorious exceptions.

She tries to guilt us by saying "We might all examine our blithe tolerance of schools we wouldn't send our children to." Then she tries to scold us some more "The task becomes more meaningful in Seattle Public Schools, where a return to neighborhood boundaries diminishes an option many parents had to escape the worst schools: leave them for someone else's kids."

But that's exactly her solution - like Mr. Guggenheim's solution: escape the bad public schools for the Charter schools and leave the worst schools for someone else's kids. Ms Varner writes "Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped thinking about adults and thought about what children needed: chiefly more, not fewer, learning options."

She seems perfectly content to leave the bad schools wallowing in failure so long as a few lucky students can escape. Well, that may allow her to be blithely tolerant of bad schools, but some of us have been working hard to get the District to do something about them. The District, however, has refused to take the necessary steps. And not because the teachers' union has stood in their way.

Seattle Public Schools has millions to spend on all kinds of administrative re-organizations and systems, but the Strategic Plan hasn't done a thing to improve academics. The curricular alignment effort is a fine idea, but the execution has been botched. The result is a loss of the best, no repairs for the worst, and the de-professionalization of teaching. The introduction of formative assessments is useful for the collection of data, but there is no action taken in response to that data. It is like taking careful measurements of the size of the bus, its speed and direction, the number of children onboard and their heights, but doing nothing to stop the bus as it drives off a cliff.

For all of the millions that Seattle Public Schools has spent on consultants and buildings and technology, why doesn't the district have any money to provide early and effective interventions for students working below grade level? Why isn't it a priority to give struggling students the support they need to achieve and progress? Why is everything else a higher priority? It is not because the teachers' union won't allow it. The teachers' union doesn't set the budget priorities.

The fault lies completely with the District administration and the Board. They set the budget priorities. They decide what is worthy for investment and what is not. They choose software and consultants over support for students. Who is going to hold them accountable and how?


Unknown said…
Many of your criticism are on target, Charlie, but I do have one dispute.

You are critical of an effort to "escape the bad public schools for the Charter schools and leave the worst schools for someone else's kids."

During the discussion of the NSAP, as well as other times, it became abundantly clear that many of us do precisely that. Replace "charter school" with "choice school" if you have a different memory of the NSAP discussions.

I remember one person from West Seattle who told me in a discussion that his kids passed three or four schools each day to get to the one elementary school he deemed acceptable for his kids, and if he couldn't get his incoming kindergartner into that one school, both kids would be moved to private.

TOPS traditionally draws from the south end, where the elementary schools have traditionally been uneven at best.

Lynn Varner is frequently wrong, and generally quite a bloviator even when she has a kernel of truth. But I can't help thinking we are off the mark when we try to pretend that our love of choice and alternative schools is so very different than the interest in charter schools in other districts. At least from a parent's perspective.
"They choose software and consultants over support for students."

And that, Charlie, is it in a nutshell.
ParentofThree said…
"They choose software and consultants over support for students."

And they ignore the acheivement gap that increases over the summer months and they ignore the overwhelming research that parent involvement is key to a students success and they adopt curriculum that is proven to fail students...

But, soon we will have a district web site that will rival Everett's web site, this you can count on!
Charlie Mas said…
Rosie, you're right. And you've got it right in the same way as Ms Varner and Mr. Guggenheim. We do try to escape the schools we perceive as bad.

But choice isn't going to change that. Not if the choice comes from alternative schools, private schools, charter schools, or open choice among neighborhood schools. Even with choice we will still drive past the schools that we deem poor and leave those schools for someone else's children. And that is the problem that we need to address.

Choice won't help us. We've tried it and it didn't work. It didn't work because, unlike free-marketers' utopian vision, the schools don't compete for the students. The schools have finite capacity, so the good ones are turning kids away. Instead, as in Mr. Guggenheim's film and as we experienced here in Seattle, the students compete for the schools. And those who lose the lottery end up in schools that didn't have to compete for students, schools that could be as bad as their downward spiral took them and they would continue to be open and continue to enroll students because the District abdicated its duty of quality assurance.
dj said…
My view on this is that choice is not the answer, but neighborhood school assignments do not fix bad schools either. Certainly it should be news to noone that where schools are assigned by residence, people who can do so select their residence according to what school they will be assigned to. So it should be no surprise that people who aren't constrained by residence select schools that they perceive as good. Same thing, really.

Both approaches are going to lead to schools people avoid. And neighborhood school assignments do not necessarily fill schools, as Madrona K-8 is demonstrating this fall.

Choice vs. neighborhood school assignments? In my view, selecting one system of school assignment over the other is pretty much irrelevant for the real issue, which is how do we help kids who clearly are struggling in school, and also make sure that kids who are not struggling are getting the academic preparation and challenge that they need and deserve.

WV dings my argument.
Unknown said…
Thanks Charlie, for fleshing it out. I agree with you.
wseadawg said…
Charters have a higher dropout rate, by the 8th grade, than conventional public schools.

If some parents want a charter school, by all means, organize and make it happen. But don't turn our public assets over to private businesses - even the ones that call themselves "non-profits" while paying high 6-figure salaries to their officers - that will fleece the taxpayers, kick half the kids out, and close the doors to any special ed kids.

Those who think charters are the answer to our achievement gap and high dropout rates do believe in Superman.
Sahila said…
drop out rates have been seriously exaggerated by the reformists... see here:
Charlie Mas said…
Completely aside from questioning the validity of various statements and measures of drop-out rate or graduation rates, is the need for a benchmark.

We have a number for high school graduates, but we don't have a scale. That is, unless you regard anything less than 100% as unacceptable.

We hear that only 68% of US schoolchildren graduate from high school, but is that more or less than it ever was? Is that more or less than our international rivals?

My guess is that the number is about the same as it ever was - perhaps a bit better - and about the same as our international rivals - perhaps a bit better.

At the risk of appearing to be less than a patriot, I don't understand why we insist or expect that the US be #1 in everything. Really, finishing in the pack is good enough. There is no reason - unless you believe in American Exceptionalism - to expect US students to be much different from students in Canada, England, France, Germany, Japan, or any other industrialized nation. I don't understand this idea that we are in some kind of race with them. Instead, it would be great if students in all nations were doing well against some appropriate absolute measure without regard to how they are doing relative to each other.
Maureen said…
I've been thinking about what it means to compare Seattle's HS graduation rate to those in other cities where a different percentage of kids go to private school.

A casual googling indicates that nationally about 10% of students are enrolled in private schools. In Seattle, it's more like 30%. Assume for the moment that 100% of private school kids graduate from High School. So a public school system graduation rate of 60% in Seattle would translate into a 72% rate overall. Whereas if an 'average' city had a 60% public school graduation rate, their overall rate would only be 64%. I guess I'm trying to account for the 'cream skimming' impact of private school enrollment and to compare apples to apples.

I went looking for other cities graduation rates to sanity check my quick calculation, but I'm not confident that comparable numbers are available.
Moose said…
I don't understand why we wouldn't want/expect 100% of kids to eventually graduate high school. Why would we settle for 7 of 10 or 6 of 10 kids getting a high school diploma. (And I am not even talking about on time graduation here!) It's not about "being #1" or even being in a race against another country. It's about a minimum.
Maureen said…
Moose, I basically(*) agree with you. My point is that if we are going to use 'graduation rate' as a measure of success or failure, we need to understand what we are measuring. One of my concerns is that (A) set boundaries for Garfield and/or (B) a highly resourced STEM school at Cleveland will draw a significant number of kids from private and thus raise the graduation rate without materially changing anything for the kids who struggle.

(* 'basically' because I don't think 100% of kids should ever do anything in particular. I know a tenured Physics professor at Vanderbilt who never graduated from High School. She quit to dance professionally, weaseled her way into the University of Tennessee and got a PhD from Yale. She also makes the best pie crust I have ever had!)
Moose said…
Ah, I see your point re: graduation rates, Maureen. However, your Vanderbuilt prof is truly an outlier -- both in being able to "weasel" into a college without a high school diploma and in having a deft hand with pie crust, which to my mind can be a lot harder than physics!
Charlie Mas said…
It's not that we wouldn't want 100% of children to graduate from high school, but we need to acknowledge that it isn't a reasonable goal or expectation.
Floor Pie said…
“They choose software and consultants over support for students.”

Exactly. Helping my highly-anxious child with his transition to first grade really hits that point home for me. He did just fine on those all-important MAP tests last year. But what does that matter when he’s crying in class, so fearful of making a mistake that he won’t even pick up a pencil to write his name? I am so thankful we’re at a K-8 and still have access to a school counselor. But it’s heart-breaking to think that most kids like him no longer have that support in their schools. Being test-smart is such a small component of being successful at school. I wish more people would realize that.
seattle citizen said…
Moose, maybe people who "weasel" their way into colleges SHOULDN'T be outliers, maybe this is best practice. Using merely SAT scores and GPAs as first-cut identifiers does not ensure a deep and thoughtful look at potential college students - I've heard that many colleges are actually starting to back away from this practice. I myself came out of high school with a low GPA (I was a "rebellious" child and my grades suffered) I took some interesting community college classes, still "plan-less" and didn't exactly excel there, either. Yet a college was willing to sit with me and INTERVIEW, and the admissions officer found, I suppose, an excellent candidate whose standardized test scores and GPA did not reflect who he was at all, nor his potential.

So I guess I'm one of those weasels, and damn glad of it.

WV wants to runto, but doesn't say where.
Moose said…
SC, according to Maureen, Vanderbuilt weaseled in to university w/o a high school diploma. You had one.
hschinske said…
I can think of at least two people I know, not homeschooled, who went to quite prestigious schools without technically having finished high schools (and without GEDs). The colleges simply didn't care whether they had the "diploma" box checked off or not. But they had, of course, essentially met high school standards long before. I don't think it's necessarily weaseling at all.

Helen Schinske
hschinske said…
Prestigious colleges, I meant, sorry.

Helen Schinske
seattle citizen said…
Moose, I don't think it would have mattered if I had a diploma or not.
wsnorth said…
There are a lot of statistics thrown out here without attribution (thanks, though Sahila for yours).

Especially so recently after the "we have to get it right" topic.

Does anyone know of the validity of the data this site? They might have some ax to grind, I don't know.

I guess it depends how you spin it, but the data on this site would seem to contradict many of the "facts" thrown out here, including that only 70% of Seattle students go to SPS, the graduation rate, the private school rate nationwide, and also the infamous "44th" in spending stat, that I have never quite found credible.
Maureen said…
Thanks wsnorth, I actually did go looking at that site, but couldn't find what I needed. Now I do see the Seattle "averaged freshman graduation rate" of 78.5% for '05-'06, here. They also post a four year drop out rate of 15.7% for grades 9-12.

For 06-07, the SPS Strategic Plan (p 11) lists the four year graduation rate as 62% and the five year rate as 66%. I don't know how to account for the discrepancy.

I can't find anything that lets me calculate % of public school enrollment for Seattle on that site (there is public school enrollment and total child population data for the 100 largest cities, but I don't see Seattle.) Can you link to the table (or post the Table number)?

I can find total private enrollment of about 6mill, total public of about 49mill so % private national is about 11% (years don't match up exactly-so that's an estimate)

I didn't look for state expenditures.
hschinske said…

Census: 1 in 3 Seattle students in private schools

Private enrollment figures among highest in nation


Originally published November 22, 2001

SEATTLE -- Nearly one-third of Seattle students attend private schools, a number that ranks among the highest in the country for big cities, census figures show.

About 19,200 first- through 12th-graders, 30.6 percent, attend religious or other independent schools.

Census analysts say the survey sample of 700,000 households was too small to say definitively which cities have the highest ratio of privately educated children. But among them are Seattle; Honolulu, with 27.3 percent; San Francisco, 24.6 percent; and Pittsburgh, 23.3 percent.

Experts point to Seattle's concentration of high-tech and aerospace workers. Some 52 percent of Seattle residents older than age 25 have earned at least a bachelor's degree.

"A lot of wealthier and more educated people have moved into the city," University of Washington demographer Richard Morrill told a Seattle newspaper. "Even if the public schools were better, these parents would still send their kids to private schools."

In Seattle's lower grades -- first through fourth -- even more attend private school: 36 percent.

[snip; more at URL]

The Olympian: copyright 2001
hschinske said…

"About one out of every four school-aged children in Seattle attend private school, according to a recent demographic analysis the educational consulting firm DeJONG, Inc. conducted for Seattle Public Schools."
hschinske said…

31% in city bypass public schools

By Tan Vinh

Seattle Times staff reporter

Nearly one in three students in Seattle attends private school, a ratio that puts the city among the highest in the nation, according to a Census 2000 Supplementary Survey to be released today.

About 31 percent, or about 19,200 first-through 12th-graders, attend religious or other independent schools.

The number is even higher in lower grades: 36 percent of first- through fourth-graders attend private school.

Census statisticians consider it the most comprehensive survey of school-enrollment trends among cities with populations of at least 250,000.

Moose said…
According to the US Dept. of Education, from 1999-2000 (most recent data that I could find), only 7% of undergraduate students enrolled in college did not hold a high school diploma. (

Helen and Maureen's point that some go on to higher ed without a HS diploma is taken, however 7% represents the outliers, not the norm.

And this is not just about going to college. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, "[b]etween October 2008 and October 2009, 383,000 young people dropped out of high
school. The jobless rate for recent high school dropouts was 55.1 percent,
compared with 35.0 percent for high school graduates not enrolled in college." Those are the recent drop outs. What happens 5, 10, 15 years out? So yes of course there are ways for folks to either get into college or get a job without that high school diploma. But those ways are simply not the norm.

It raises the question of what we as a city, as a nation, might find reasonable or acceptable to expect with regard to HS graduation rates? Perhaps 100% is not a reasonable expectation. But how many think that 62-65% is acceptable?

Back to the original topic, I am planning on seeing Waiting for Superman if only to understand better what one side of this great debate has to say. Who else is going?
hschinske said…
Actually 7% is a lot higher than I expected. I wonder if that includes homeschooled students. Nonetheless, I do think in general students are better off completing high school.

Helen Schinske
wsnorth said…
Here is the school search on the nces site. It kind of depends on how you filter. Some schools with "Seattle" addresses are not really in Seattle, for instance. Not definitive, but interesting.
hschinske said…
From the link wsnorth just gave, I get 17,404 students in private schools in Seattle (you can download search results as an Excel file and put in a sum function below the column of enrollment figures). There are about 45,000 students in SPS, so if you say 17,000/(45,000 + 17,000) you get something over 27%.

One thing to remember is that many of those students have attended, or will attend, public school at some point in their education. I really don't think many are in private school from K-12. The same is true the other way around: surely some of those 45,000 currently in public school have been, or will be, attending private schools. So if you were to ask what proportion of Seattle students will go private for some portion of their education, that's a hard number to get an exact handle on, but I think it has to be higher than 27%.

Helen Schinske
wsnorth said…
It will be interesting to see what the next census shows, but maybe not too meaningful. The "nces" site shows 46,000 SPS students, but also shows some schools as having Seattle addresses when they actually are not in Seattle. Also, of course, almost all the Pre-K are private.

Even at that 25-27% would be a 10-20% (percentage, not percentile, if I got that right) market share increase compared to 30-33% of ten years ago. I wonder how many are home schooled in Seattle.
hschinske said…
I sent an inquiry about the number of homeschooled students in Seattle to the Seattle Public Library, and was pointed to this site:

The weird thing is that the latest report doesn't include Seattle at all. The second-to-last one (2007-2008) does, and said there were 294 homeschooled students in Seattle, plus 27 part-time students. That sounds low to me; maybe it means only those who are using the Homeschool Resource Center? The HRC's annual report for 2007 said they served approximately 250 students: see

Helen Schinske
Moose said…
Helen,I thought 7% sounded high as well. My guess is that that figure includes a good number of homeschooled students, but I can't yet find any breakout of this number. I am still nosing around though, simply to satisfy my own curiosity.

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