Who Are We Really Waiting For?

Timothy Hacsi, an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, wrote an timely op-ed on districts and their leadership.  Entitled, "Stop Waiting for a Savior,"  I think this is its most cogent point:

The problem is all the time we spend talking about how the last leader failed, how the current leader is struggling, how the next leader must succeed. 
 It's a good one.  I would have to say there is a point to reflecting on how a former leader did well/did poorly because there are, as we have seen, people who like to write revisionist history.   It is not in anyone's interests, least of all a school district, to have its history mangled and manipulated.


It is not clear what a superintendent would have to do to be universally seen as successful by teachers, parents, politicians, businessmen and taxpayers. 

On this point I can say this (and have said to many people) - if Dr. Goodloe-Johnson had been succeeding by any measure, she certainly could have shut me up.  I didn't like her leadership style, her planning or how she managed the district.  But if the district had been running well, scores were going up across the board (at any rate), and her Strategic Plan had major support, well, what could I have said?  I could have argued that I personally didn't like what she was doing but if she was succeeding at the things she said she would accomplish, then I would have to have accepted that.  (But she didn't.)

He goes on:

Until the headlines and our attention focus on what the research shows can directly improve school performance — additional money, used wisely; longer school days; better-paid and better-prepared teachers; year-round schooling — instead of the latest savior/soon-to-be-failure, we, like Ms. Black and Mr. Bloomberg, are missing the point.

And there's a familiar name in his piece - Raj Manhas.  

Thank you to a reader who alerted me to this story.


David said…
Absolutely, when an executive forces through big changes without listening to anyone else, he or she better achieve results. Someone who demands a very high level of authority must take a similar level of responsibility if they are wrong.

And, yes, I too would have accepted Goodloe-Johnson's dictatorial style and widely criticized closures and changes if they had produced results. But, test scores were flat to down across the district during her reign.

As for what a superintendent needs to do to be seen as successful, a big increase in test scores would do it. In that sense, a superintendent that focused almost entirely on student learning and achievement would be very welcome and well embraced.
Maureen said…
I actually wouldn't be at all surprised to see scores rise somewhat if enrollment continues to increase. If neighborhood schools and a stagnant real estate market are keeping people in SPS who otherwise would have the resources to go private or move to the east side, then we would expect to see scores rise on average. It will be difficult to net out the impact of this effect.
David said…
Maureen, sorry, I don't understand. Why isn't it a good thing to have more middle class families in our public schools along with their resources? Why is it a problem if that raises test scores?
Patrick said…
It's not a problem, it's just not something the Superintendent deserves credit for. Neighborhood schools were in the works before she came to the district.
David said…
Good point, Patrick, but I was thinking that a simple metric might be best. Test scores gains are simple to track and simple for teachers, parents, politicians, businessmen and taxpayers to understand.

I have to admit that there are problems with that metric. There certainly have been cases where superintendents encourage or overlook cheating or that try to move low scoring students out of the district rather than helping them succeed. That both of those are despicable doesn't seem to have stopped it from happening.
seattle citizen said…
Don't forget the "erase-a-thons" some principals (mainly back east?) have engaged in to raise test scores.

I took Maureen's comment to mean that more families might move from private to public; private families might, perhaps, be apt to be more engaged than public families (generally), so those students coming from privates to public might, perhaps, be coming from/with more engaged familes, hence have better test scores which would raise averages...At least that's how I read it.
Chris S. said…
Yes to Maureen's comment but also the recession will increase stress on lower income students and families at the same time, perhaps even increase the number of FRL, if not the overall percentage if indeed more middle-upper-class are comeing back from private.

I sort of tried to make the point at some community meeting that scores holding steady in the face of recession (and significant cuts in social support services from the state) was perhaps an accomplishment.

But I agree with Maureen, and think it's probably reasonable that the two effects net out to zero, and we're really just about where we were education-outcome-wise.
Maureen said…
Ah, I hadn't considered the increased stress on lower income families. In fact it had occured to me that FRL scores could actually increase because (1)the demographic might change with high and prolonged unemployment (kids who were solidly middle class switching to the FRL category) and (2)increased Pay for K means that families on the verge of middle class might start registering for FRL when they didn't bother before.

It's definitely not trivial to sort out the various impacts. I wonder how hard they try? If they really are measuring individual childrens' growth, then that could account for it. It's when they lump kids together into schools or subcategories that these issues can skew the results.
Charlie Mas said…
Attribution analysis is largely absent from the study of student academic achievement, but I have NEVER seen one that found the root of the improvement in the superintendent's office.

The very idea is hilarious, despite Mr. Payzant's assertions.

The most a superintendent can do is form policies, practices, and programs that either allow teachers to do their best or prevent teachers from doing their best. The academic improvement is then based in the teaching, not the administration. The superintendent doesn't teach any students.

So, the conclusion that we should draw is not that some Super-powered superintendent will boost student scores, but that typical superintendent's make decisions that suppress student achievement by creating roadblocks to teachers.
David said…
That is a good point, Charlie. You are saying that a superintendent should be a competent administrator and not much more.

Similarly, people say that CEOs should not be glorified celebrities, paid a fortune, and credited with a companies success, but administer the company and serve those who actually do the work, more like what they are in most Japanese companies.

Convincing, but I wonder if it might go a little to far? For example, in addition to policies that allow teachers to do their best, don't we need the district to open new programs (especially duplicating popular or successful programs) and replace unsuccessful principals?

And, even if what we want is a competent administrator for a superintendent, how would we judge that? What would be a measure of successful superintendent if not overall improvement in test scores?
Anonymous said…
It's crazy to want MORE families in public education. There's some sort of idea the MORE families means MORE money. Exactly the opposite. The state does have a limited budget and education is one of its largest expenses. The state's budget isn't an bottomless pit. So, if SPS gets a much larger student base, then per pupil funding allocation will certainly go DOWN to cover that budget gap. The state isn't magically coming up with more money just because there maybe some influx into the public schools. We should be thanking each and every private schooling family for removing another cost from public education.

spsmarketshare said…
Parent, that is a great way to destroy public education.

Your mistake is assuming that there is a fixed pool of funds. Public education is supported by state and local taxes, which must be constantly voted on and approved.

If most people send their kids to private school, people will stop voting for those educational levies and taxes, vouchers will pass and suck more funds away, and those children unfortunate enough to be left in the public education system will get the dregs.

Engagement of the middle class in public education is necessary for its success.
Parent, there are indeed funds attached to each and every public school student. You said this:

"The state's budget isn't an bottomless pit. So, if SPS gets a much larger student base, then per pupil funding allocation will certainly go DOWN to cover that budget gap."

No, the budget isn't a bottomless pit but I have never seen the pupil funding allocation go down in any significant way. Could you tell us when that happened?
Dorothy Neville said…
I believe Parent is showing an exaggeration argument. What percent of kids state wide are in private school? Let's say 10%. So if all of a sudden, all 10% of those kids were to enroll in public school what would happen? Would the state suddenly increase its K12 budget by 10%? I doubt it. State doesn't have 10% to increase its K12 budget.

So I think Parent is correct that if all the private kids suddenly go public, then per student allocation would go down. Incrementally though, if only one extra student goes public, then the state coughs up more. But when does that stop? I don't know enough of the figures to hazard a guess.
Anonymous said…
In SPS' case, you need more than one great leader, you need several that can work together and support one another. It seems there is a culture not just downtown, but out among the schools too that has thrived on confusion, diaspora of conflicted interests, and lack of accountability because as long as we have chaos, people can do what they want under the radar with job security.

You have 3 major forces: parents, teachers, and administrators all clamoring for one thing or another. What you don't hear are the students' voices. Perhaps our leaders need to get back to that level and listen to the kids. Perhaps our leaders need to look across the lake to Bellevue and other districts to see how they wrestle their administration into manageable and productive proportion.

What has been discussed here regarding prioritizing needs and funding is hardly rocket science. It really is about committing to the best interest of the kids that should drive the work and not follow the whims of latest educational fable and special interests (be they SEA, non-profits, think tanks, PTSA, textbook publishers, testing LTD., etc.). We need smart leaders who can manage those special interests, but keep our kids' welfare first and foremost.

Waiting for smart leaders
Anonymous said…
No SPSMarketshare,
You actually don't get it. Yes there is a fixed pool of funds. Have you heard that there's a budget deficit in this state? Have you heard of SPS "budget gaps" of umpity-ump millions? Turn on the news. Where do you think those gaps come from? The state funding.

Actually that "fixed pool" of money is shrinking. And that money goes to pay for all the services the state pays for which includes education, but also lots of other things. Nobody's destroying public education by attending private school, nor is anybody suggesting people exit the public schools. But, private school students are strengthening public education by making money available to those who remain in it. Nobody chooses private school because of the way it effects funding levels in public school. They do select it because of the overall funding. And yes Melissa, the state has decreased funding for education because it has to. You can count that however you like, but a reduction is a reduction. That money gets spread out on more or less a per pupil basis. More students = less money per student. So, in the short run, the state will give out more basic allocation units (while it has them) to school districts based on their enrollment. But then what about all the other services that citizens need? Those will just get reduced if the state decides to somehow keep the education per student funding the same. There is no free lunch. If people choose a private school, for whatever reason, and in whatever numbers, they are in fact saving the state money. And that savings shows up right here at our doorsteps every day.

Lori said…
I agree with Parent that in the current economic environment, every kid in private school is in fact saving the state money. I think the misunderstanding may be semantics.

The amount of money available to schools in the next biennium is fixed. If there were a sudden surge of students leaving private for public schools, the state would have to provide some level of "per-student" funding, but it would have to cut somewhere else. Maybe they would finally have to cut the Advanced Learning office in Seattle, which for now has been spared. Maybe they'd have to cut whatever money goes to full-day K. So while each student would get funded at whatever the level is, it's all a shell-game; money would have to come from somewhere else to cover it.
spsmarketshare said…
Parent, there is no need to get hysterical. The difference in our viewpoints obviously is short-term versus long-term.

In the short-term, small increases in enrollment help the Seattle public school district by increasing funding, which is mostly per pupil, from the state. But it is possible that an unanticipated and extremely large influx of new public school students across the entire state could aggravate already tight state budgets. That seems to be the apocalyptic scenario you are talking about. If such an unusual event were to happen, yes, the state would have to scramble to find more funds or cut per-pupil funding.

In the long-term, public support for public education and all the taxes that support it depend on the middle class using public education. If you want to see the state and local funds for public education drop quickly, nothing would do it faster than turning public schools into a place where the middle class is not welcome.

It is not at all crazy to want more families in public education. More families does mean more money. Increased participation in Seattle Public Schools yields more funding from the state and more support for public education levies and taxes. We all should want more families using Seattle's public schools.
hschinske said…
I don't think it's "apocalyptic" to suggest that the economy may force a lot of families out of private school, enough that per-pupil spending might have to go down. Seems like a perfectly reasonable possibility to me. We already have far more students in private school than most cities; why would a correction putting us closer to the average be so strange?

Helen Schinske
Anonymous said…
It's not there's some magically large number that changes the equation. And it isn't an hysterical. It's completely obvious. It's the marketshare whiners that are hysterical and think the district should somehow change something to please a certain group, or become some sort of marketing organization. Every private school student saves the state some money. That's money that could go to other services or back into education. Lots of big cities have huge private school participation. Sure, podunkvilles have less private school participation. So what?

Anonymous said…
Ha, ha, ha, money save by students going private "goes back into education or basic health plan. Nice try. First in line is to hire more outside consultants, more IT analysts, and more ways for those smart doctorate prepared educators to measure our belly buttons to standardization.

Cynical me
Anonymous said…
Don't know how much the numbers have changed since the 2000 census, but this article from The Olympian in November of 2001 indicates that the percent of Seattle kids in private schools is 30.6% (over 19,000 kids).


spsmarketshare said…
Parent, it is not unreasonable to think that it is best for everyone if our public schools tried to serve all the children of Seattle.

And I doubt trying to label everyone who disagrees with you as crazy whiners is going to convince anyone.
Charlie Mas said…
David, yes, I am saying that a superintendent should be a competent administrator and manager. We don't need anything more - or less.

We do need the district to open new programs, duplicate popular or successful programs, close unsuccessful programs, and replace unsuccessful principals. But the superintendent's role in that should be to set and maintain a single set of criteria for all schools.

Was it right or wrong to close the AAA? It may have been right, but how was the AAA any less successful than Rainier Beach High School? Was it right or wrong to close Summit K-12, Cooper, or TT Minor? The criteria for closure were never clearly stated. It would be fair to let Pinehurst know what those criteria are so they can take the necessary steps to meet them.

And when has a superintendent ever duplicated a successful program? When has a superintendent ever started a new program? Sure we have some additional language immersion programs now and the decision to create an alternative program at Queen Anne Elementary were initiated by the District, but the usual case is that new programs are initiated by the community and the usual case is that successful programs are NOT duplicated. Remind me again where TOPS II is located.

There are plenty of ways to judge the work of the superintendent other than student test scores, just as there are plenty of ways to judge a teacher's work other than student test scores.

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