Seattle Public Schools, Tell Your Story

Everyone who reads this blog is familiar with my penchant for inventing stories. I'm not in the district staff meetings when decisions are made. I don't have a source who reports to me about what happens in those meetings. I just hear the (often surprising) results. From the outcome I reverse engineer the story of how this result came about. Some of my favorite blog posts have been these inventions of narrative that are both plausible and fit the facts. I don't know if they are true, but they earn credibility because they work. They do explain the apparently inexplicable.

They also earn credibility because they are never challenged by a more reliable source. My story - completely invented - is the dominant narrative because it has no competition from a narrative from the District. The District never tells their story. They retreat into their fortress and surrender the field to me. On the rare occurance that the District offers any sort of rationale it is weak, confused, dubious, and soon abandoned.

I'm not really happy about this pattern. I would MUCH rather have the real story from the District. Heck, I would even rather have a stronger lie from the District. But this is a weird failing of Seattle Public Schools. They won't tell their story even though it can only help them if they do.

There have been times when the District has over-promised (they almost ALWAYS over-promise), and then under-performed. I have an annoying habit of remembering their promises - they have an annoying habit of forgetting them - and publicly comparing the inadequate outcomes to the ambitious commitment. There have been times when I have spoken with District staff and they have explained to me how they missed their target. They started the project in good faith only to encounter unforeseen and unforeseeable obstacles that prevented them from meeting expectations. It was all perfectly innocent and didn't reflect either incompetence or insincerity. At those times I have said "Oh. Well. Okay then. I get that." Then I ask them: "Why didn't you just say so? Why didn't you just come to people and tell them that you weren't going to meet the target and provide the perfectly valid reason why?"

They don't come forward with problems because they fear criticism. Every parent just jumped ahead to the end of this paragraph, so please be patient while I grind through it for everyone else. Staying silent about the problem doesn't actually evade any criticism because the failure to meet the target will be noticed and they will be criticized. They will, in fact, get extra criticism for not coming forward. Eventually people will notice the broken window and they will ask you how it broke. You cannot evade criticism by silence. On the other hand, if they come forward with the news in advance and explain the unexpected turn of events that caused it, they will probably be treated gently with forgiveness and support. Keeping quiet is an incredibly bad, bad strategy.

There is a long list of unfulfilled commitments from Seattle Public Schools. There are literally hundreds of unkept promises that they have made to various communities. At one time, back when he represented the community instead of Education Reform, Director Martin-Morris collected some of them. He actually went to various District staff and asked them for status reports on the promises. I think he got some answers. Many of them included perfectly sound explanations about why the promise could not be kept. In a lot of cases the answer was just a lack of resources. In a number of cases, the community would forgive the failure if they knew the cause. THIS IS KEY. In the absence of an explanation, the promise appears to have been broken out of insincerity or callousness. Some story is going to fill the void. If the District doesn't offer a story then they can't control which story dominates. The story that does fill the void is likely to be much less friendly to the District than the story they would tell.

Was it Gretzky who said that he doesn't score on 100% of the shots he doesn't take?

So here's where I'm going with this (boy, do I need an editor!):

The District should tell their stories.

The benefits would be legion.
They would build trust
They would reduce criticism
They would win support
They would earn a more understanding community
They would earn buy-in
Their ideas would improve
Their internal accountability would improve
Their culture would improve
Seriously, we would enter a new era of peace, love and Bobby Sherman.

So what can we do to help them make this change? We can offer to tell their story for them.

Somebody needs to get some time with Marni Campbell and get the real story from her about special education. What is the goal with inclusion? What are the obstacles? What is the expectation? What is the real story there? Then that person needs to write it out as a narrative for her since she is clearly incapable of doing it for herself. The narrative has to be true - it has to be real. We need to acknowledge failures or inadequacies. It can include those and still be written from a sympathetic perspective.

Somebody needs to do the same with Bob Vaughan and find out what the heck is the plan in Advanced Learning. And with Mark Teoh to get the real story on the Strategic Plan, with Noel Treat to get the real story on the Ethics situation, with Holly Ferguson to get the real story on the policy revision process, with somebody (not sure who) to get the real story on Teach for America, with the new guys in Facilities to get the real story on capacity management, with Steve Sundquist to get the real story on governance and oversight, and with Cathy Thompson to get the real story on curricular alignment and the Southeast Region. These people need to answer the hard questions that have not yet been answered. It won't be a comfortable process for them, but once they answer the questions - and answer them truthfully and completely - they will never have to run away from those questions again. Those questions will stop. Better, the same people who were plaguing them with questions will step up and offer to help them to overcome their obstacles.

The new era of good feelings isn't the fantasy element of this scenario. The fantasy element, I'm afraid, is the idea that the District staff will ever come out of their fortress and tell their story.


Anonymous said…
"Staying silent about the problem doesn't actually evade any criticism because the failure to meet the target will be noticed and they will be criticized. "

I think they do it because they don't believe this. They don't believe that failures will be reported and noticed and they will be criticized. There's a book out on "punditry" that argues that the most successful pundits are the ones who make the most specific predictions (i.e. the price of gas will be $7.32 on August 27th, 2014). You'd think that would be a failure because people would start noticing that you are wrong most of the time (as you're almost certain to be). But, people don't notice, 4 years from now, when you're wrong and they like your specific prediction right now.

I believe SPS operates on the same scheme. Promise great things; set great goals. When you don't meet them in 4 years, well, a bunch of the people who heard you will be gone. Kids will have graduated. Parents will have found solutions for their own kids. Community members (the one's who just avoid the neighborhood with the broken window) just never notice unless you start throwing the glass at them.

I think they do it because they actually win by following the pattern you've described. The goal, then, is to prevent them from succeeding.

Pointing out what they're doing (as you do here); keeping track of the behavior in the long run (we know, every year a new parent comes to the board and believes a promise because they have no reason to suspect it); unveiling misleading speech and promises that sound too good to be true; spreading the news about double-speak to different communities. Those are all worthwhile efforts.

Second the Motion said…
Truer words have never been spoken. Communication with their employers(the public) should be required of the SPS district. Weekly one hour updates from each dept- they could spare the time. Teleconference, internet- do they not know how to do it? The culture of hiding in that fortress is deeply ingrained in the administration, even at the school level. They are not proficient at dealing with the public. What they need to realize is that we don't need perfection we need an honest and sincere attempt to communicate. Make miistakes, but be brave and talk to us about them.
Charlie Mas said…
zb, I fear you are, to a large degree, correct. Look around. How many of the folks in charge of the District were here four years ago? Almost none of them. If you remind them of a four-year-old promise they will simply disavow any obligation to fulfill it because they didn't make it.

It is a common tactic of theirs and we cannot allow them to use it. We must hold them to the promises made by their predecessors and hold their successors to their promises.

We do this by documenting them. We do this by remembering.
dan dempsey said…
Dear Mr. Mas,

You wrote: "I'm not really happy about this pattern. I would MUCH rather have the real story from the District. Heck, I would even rather have a stronger lie from the District."

At this time due to budget restrictions, I am unable to hire an Assistant Superintendent for Lying .... I will try to get the Public Relations department to step up their performance. Perhaps I can find an appropriate Professional Development for the School Directors and some of central office administrators to attend.

Please accept my apologies.

Sincerely, .... Dr. S. Enfield
Charlie Mas said…
I would add that the District lacks any sort of institutional memory. By documenting their story - how and why decisions were made - they would create the institutional memory they need.

With this institutional memory they would not repeat mistakes, they would not deny their obligations, they would not stumble around just as confused about the workings of the district as we are.
dan dempsey said…
WOW Charlie,

If the directors would explain their decisions rather than fabricate their own stories for the public that would be an amazing transition. I suggest we give four new school directors a shot at that task.
seattle citizen said…
As I wrote about in my recent post on Stand For America, this problem, the failure to tell stories, is prevalent not just at the dsitrict level, but throughout public education in America.

In a society whose citizenry seem to be more and more self-interested by the day, Reform provides ample opportunity for those who don't want to tell stories but profit in the short term.

Ask a Reformer why they exist: "The achievement gap!" they cry. Ask them what it really is, what they are really doing to "fix" it, what their successes and failures so far are, and mum's the word. Telling the full story of public education requires telling the stories of all the individual students, the rich and varied experiences, successes and failures of each. That story can't be told, for it negates the reason to publicize an "Achievement Gap" by noting that all children are different, and have different experiences.

So the story isn't told, individual students don't get what they need, and, meanwhile, self-interested career-climbers in a privatized public education system make big bank. Three or four years later, when someone asks, What about that "achievement gap," the Reformer is onto their next job with Edison, Goldman Sachs or Walmart corporate.

Of course, one brake on this is the elected school board and an educated, voting citizenry elected politicians who are GOOD for education but...The board rubber stamps, many people are uneducated (except in Math and Reading, they've got those down, right?!) so the self-serving Reform profiteers make out handily.
drwilda said…
A good start would be fixing the worthless web site and really being interested in giving accurate and timely information to ALL interested parties. Methinks that the bloated PR Apparatchik's sole purpose is to obscure, obfuscate, and obliterate.
dan dempsey said…

I must agree the achievement gap is the reason for everything.

Most recently the PESB conditional certification for TfA ... was granted because of the Achievement Gap ... zero evidence that TfA is a solution ... but no matter Conditional Certification approved.

When I spent my one year teaching at WSHS .... I noticed SPS math was completely screwed up ... It has continued just as screwed up .... and the rational put forward is the SPS is concerned about the math achievement gaps and this reform math will fix that situation. ((Evidence be damned)

Then CAO Carla Santorno stated that Everyday Math would eliminate the 4th grade SPS math achievement gaps in five years. (School Board will believe anything)

Ms. Santorno in Tacoma pushed "Algebra for All" into 8th grade for this school year 2010-2011.... because of a need for equity.

Check the OSPI 8th grade annual math test data for Spring 2010 in Tacoma. (This was the first year of MSP testing that actually tested the grade 8 math standards.)

8th math grade for all students....
41% = unable to score above level 1

8th math grade for Low Income students....
50.3% = unable to score above level 1

8th math grade for White students....
31.7% = unable to score above level 1

8th math grade for Black students....
54.8% = unable to score above level 1

8th math grade for Hispanic students....
52.4% = unable to score above level 1

8th math grade for Asian/Pacific Isl students....
37.7% = unable to score above level 1


But the real question in about those 7th graders that headed into grade 8 algebra in 2010-2011 ...
Here are the grade 7 scores in bold - followed by the (8th grade scores) from above.

7th math grade for all students....
45.0% = unable to score above level 1 ( 41% )

7th math grade for Low Income students....
54.0% = unable to score above level 1 ( 50.3% )

7th math grade for White students....
36.1% = unable to score above level 1 ( 31.7% )

7th math grade for Black students....
60.0% = unable to score above level 1 ( 54.8% )

7th math grade for Hispanic students....
53.8% = unable to score above level 1 (52.4% )

7th math grade for Asian/Pacific Isl students....
34.5% = unable to score above level 1 ( 37.7% )

Wonder how many of these 8th graders actually took the OSPI End of Course assessment for Algebra I in 2011?

Wonder what their required 8th grade math MSP scores will look like?

The above are percentages of students unable to score above "Far Below Basic" on a test of grade 7 math standards

..... yet a cry about the achievement gap is good enough for Carla Santorno to again push through a completely irrational response to the Achievement gap problem
... for Carla the answer is to put students who produced incredibly poor scores on the 7th grade OSPI MSP into Algebra class.

Really now we are to believe that more testing of students will improve outcomes ... the CCSSI is one enormous expensive krock of Ka Ka ....

Many Current administrators are completely unable to make intelligent decisions based on evidence.

We do not need to fund more testing ... try some teaching based on practices that have been proven to be effective.

OH Super WOW!!!
It is a message from God in response to the man-made disaster....
the Blogger word identification I needed to insert to make this comment is "clowns" ... How true.
Anonymous said…
Re: the achievement gap

Has been engineered since at least the early 80s by IBM. The SRA color coded reading program was dumbed down year by year. "Writers" for the program were given required word lists which became shorter and more restrictive every year.

This, in turn, ensured kids couldn't read - at least those who depended on schools to teach them.

Ever wonder why and when McD's & other fast food restaurants switched from cash registers with words to cash registers with pictograms?

Truism: it's much harder to rebel/lead/succeed if you can't read. And much easier to be held in wage-slave bondage.

Who ever would want that result...?

John said…
After spending years working with low-income, sp.ed., minority, ell kids (and kids who were various combinations of the above), I'm beginning to believe that the standardized tests that we force on kids aren't really measuring the achievement gap, the are causing the achievement gap.

There are people who advocate using some kind of standardized assessment, low stakes, because the teacher needs the info from the test to help remediate the students' skill deficits. Even this idea is wrong-headed because it makes the assumption that teachers can't figure out what their students know and don't know.

Why would anyone assume such a thing? The average teacher is not an idiot and is perfectly capable of assessing his/her students' skills without resorting to an expensive pre-fab test.

There was a time when teachers were actually trusted to do the job they were trained to do.

Check out my blog at
seattle citizen said…
well said, John.
Anonymous said…

Well, 3 excellent, 2 good & one mediocre teachers over 6 years consistently assured me that my son was slightly above standard cognitively but very lazy and just needed to work harder in school to meet expectations. However a battery of standardized tests done by the UW showed that he was above the 99.9th percentile cognitively and had a learning disability. By waiting to address the disability we lost the opportunity for most remediation. The confidence these teachers had in their assessment of my son cost him way too much.

And that was in elementary school when the teachers really got to know the kids. I trust their assessments even less when mine is one of 150 kids they see everyday.

-No confidence
That Passionate Teacher said…
With respect, "no confidence", which standardized test would have given you the information that your student was 99.9th percentile cognitively, but had a learning disability?

None. That would require a specialized assessment like the one you had done at the UW.

MAP certainly wouldn't have done it.

MSP certainly wouldn't have done it.

Neither DRA nor DWA would have done it.

Learning disabilities can be very tricky to diagnose, even for trained professionals (e.g., psychologists), so it's very little wonder that "3 excellent, 2 good & one mediocre teachers over 6 years" could have missed it.

I personally was in high school before mown learning disability was discovered (turns out I'm mildly dyslexic). I use that fact to destigmatize learning disabilities when I think I've found a student who may have one. Of course, by the time they get to me, they're in the same boat I was...

The obsession with testing is still counterproductive, IMHO.
Anonymous said…
Passionate Teacher,

I am not advocating for more standardized testing. But I did take issue with John's statement,

"The average teacher is not an idiot and is perfectly capable of assessing his/her students' skills without resorting to an expensive pre-fab test. "

It was certainly not the case for us. In fact there was strong evidence in the WASL & DRA that was dismissed by teachers because they knew better.

This is not a slight disability, it made a huge difference in classwork & testing, but was chalked up to laziness by teachers who felt completely confident in their ability to diagnose without testing.

-No confidence
That Passionate Teacher said…
I stand corrected. Thank you for clarifying.
Dorothy Neville said…
I am very sympathetic to Not Convinced, I most definitely believe that their story is not unique. Far from it.

What's the best way to solve it though? If money were no object, could each child get a complete battery of assessments, hearing, vision, allergies, cognitive, etc? Much smaller class sizes?

More PD for teachers about identifying learning issues? Or having each teacher identify the three laziest, unmotivated kids in their class and have them professionally assessed? Most likely all three have hidden issues.
Anonymous said…
I think that the first change that could make some difference would be for teacher & administrators to understand the limits of their abilities to assess. At least the teacher could say, Sally is learning differently than many other kids I see and we don't know why. Johnny is refusing to do writing assignments and we don't know why.

Next I think that PD should include training about learning & developmental differences, with case studies, to the extent that at least teacher are familiar with the possibilities. (I have spoken with so many SPS teachers & administrators who believe that twice exceptional kids don't exist.) There are signs to look for.

I also think that there should be some staff members who develop expertise and can act as advisers in their buildings as teachers discuss the different kinds of minds they teach every day.

SIT teams should have staff that is well trained & up to date. (I have been through many meetings where SIT teams fill the time citing out of date research and misinformed legal opinions.) They should recommend assessment more often.

Finally I think that teachers need to have the freedom to offer different materials and approaches to kids. One day I saw a teacher in tears because she had a student with processing difficulties and she had materials that would work for that child in that math lesson. But she was told by the principal that she had to use EDM exactly the same way for every child who did not have an IEP saying differently.

-No confidence
seattle citizen said…
"the first change that could make some difference [in identifying learning problems] would be for teacher & administrators to understand the limits of their abilities to assess. At least the teacher could say, Sally is learning differently than many other kids I see and we don't know why. Johnny is refusing to do writing assignments and we don't know why."

This is the intent of Response to Intervention (RTI), which the district made much of a couple of years ago and could still utilize to great effect.

RtI uses a variety of metrics (ideally: it COULD just use, say, MAP....shudder...) to indentify when a students is struggling for one reason or another. If the teacher can address the struggle in class, great; if it requires someone outside the class but inside the building, those resources can be brought to bear. If the building can't help, then the district has its network of resources.

This requires the training mentioned in other comments. Teachers, IAs, principals, counselors, district admins and members...

Unfortunately, for a couple reasons RtI is still quite the non-starter: Much made of it early, but resources cut, and focus on merely one metric (MAP) as a tool for identification, has led the district into a morass of good intentions gone bad.

If merely MAP is used, it's too easy to make quick judgements, assigning students ito categories of ability, struggle, etc, that might not be the whole picture and could well be inaccurate.

This speaks to the complaint I, and others have about Reform: It treats students as groups, makes snap judgements about them (and educators) based on meager "data," and modifies education (for the individual and for whole schools) based on these meager assessments, thereby causing more damage than good.

The district, no the district, state and feds, are as guilty in this as are teachers who make incorrect judgements based on meager information and lack of training. Both the teacher and the larger bureaucracies are causing much damage to many students because of this.

Demand RtI, with staffing capable of a)making informed decisions or knowing who can; b) metrics that are broad and deep; c) resources that can allocated to help individual students with individual difficulties (or with individual aptitudes that likewise need attention.)
Charlie Mas said…
Remind me again what is a higher and more urgent priority than Response to Intervention.

Oh, right. Everything.

That's another story the District needs to tell. I remember a Board meeting when Director Smith-Blum asked about assessments for incoming students. It went round and round for a while with Dr. Enfield and Dr. Goodloe-Johnson, until Dr. Goodloe-Johnson said that the work (identifying struggling students and giving them the support they need to get to grade level) was the central work of the district. Then Dr. Enfield said that they were seeking outside funding so they could do it.

No one asked (nor was an answer offered) to the obvious question: if it is the central work of the district then why aren't we doing it?
seattle citizen said…
"the work (identifying struggling students and giving them the support they need to get to grade level) was the central work of the district. Then Dr. Enfield said that they were seeking outside funding so they could do it.
No one asked (nor was an answer offered) to the obvious question: if it is the central work of the district then why aren't we doing it?"
I believe you to mean, "why aren't we FUNDING it as a district, rather than relying on outside funding (from, say, Gates....shudder...)
Your comment could be read to mean, "why aren't we DOING that outside funding?"
RtI IS really the organizing feature of all education. Not the RtI "package" sold by edu-wonks, but the idea that educators respond to attempts to "intervene" in the knowledge-gaining process of a person: Educators' jobs are to create knowledge in people's heads, note when that knowledge doesn't "take," reteach or "intervene" to try another approach...
Differentiation, different levels of a discipline, different programs and schools...ideally, all of these would "RtI," all would note who a student is, what they know, what has worked and what hasn't, and intervene to try and get it [knowledge acquistion] to "work."

This should be one of the core elements of district organization: Make sure everybody (in buildings, downtown, parent/guardians) is doing their best to identify students who are struggling with a particular learning, identify students who are ready for the next step of that learning, and identify students who are beyond the next step. After such identifications are made, the district's core mission should be to provide services (where it can, and in concert with the parent/guardians and community) to meet that particular student's need.

This is the heart of the IDEA of Response to Intervention (tho' the word "intervention" seems to imply only helping the struggling students, particulary in the district roll-out two years ago, while embraced more fully it would "intervene" in the educational process of a student to advance them, as well.)

This work should absolutely NOT be "waiting for outside funding"; it should be at the center of everything all employees of SPS, the parent/guardians and the community do to support learning for individual students.

"Waiting for outside funding..." Incredible.
Jan said…
Charlie and Seattle Citizen: Ah! Reading the two posts above is like finally being given water to drink (rather than pictures of water) when you are thirsty. Yes. Yes. This is the exact thing that needs to be done. We need to cut loose our teachers teach -- and to stop (when a child is not learning) and figure out what the issues are -- and then intervene effectively. SO many of us have been in the same shoes as "No confidence" (though my child had the good grace to fail to learn to talk -- which was a HUGE, unsubtle clue to language disabilities.) For many kids (esoecially 2e kids who figure out ways to compensate), it is much harder.

And yet -- ALL the money seems to be spent moving around the deck chairs -- implementing MAP, paying coaches to implement fidelity to pacing guides, closing (and then opening) schools, etc.

I agree with Passionate Teacher -- the kinds of tests we administer would NOT have helped "No confidence." I think we need to eliminate/scale back much of the broadscale testing we do -- but we need to do more to focus on individual students, to learn to at least ask the right questions (is this child really lazy/unmotivated (unlikely) or might there be learning issues interfering with his/her ability to learn -- and how can we identify them?

Popular posts from this blog

Tuesday Open Thread

Seattle Public Schools and Their Principals

Weirdness in Seattle Public Schools Abounds and Astounds