Alliance for Education Continues Drive to Shape the Seattle School Board

The Alliance recently had an press "event" during a national urban school board directors convention held here in Seattle in late July.  The theme of the convention was "Building Educational Communities to Close the Achievement Gap" but that was not what this event was about at all.

I had hoped this would be a press conference but no, it was really a dog-and-pony show to somehow drive home this point of what Seattle's School Board should be. 

There was a smattering of press with Directors Peaslee and Smith-Blum in attendance as well.   I was confused as to who was in the room until I realized that some attendees from the convention had joined us as well.

The speakers on the panel  - billed as "experts in the area of school board research and effectiveness" - were:
Roger Eskine - on the Alliance's "School Board Task Force" and former Executive Director of the SEA
Thomas L. Aisbury - Ed professor at Seattle Pacific University - certainly the most interesting of the speakers with the most detailed information
Jonelle Adams - Ex Director of WSSDA (Washington State School Directors Association) - a breath of fresh air, smart and pragmatic
David A. Pickler - President of the National School Boards Association (NBBA) - a bit slick for my tastes but a fairly good speaker.

The theme of the event: "Eight Characteristics of an Effective School Board" and why SPS and other Washington State school boards should adopt these recommendations.  What was interesting is that no one ever said what the ramifications or benefits would be to "adopt" these so it was unclear why the Alliance wants these boards to do.  (FYI, the Alliance has adopted these so they must be good.)  

The Alliance said it had done "research" on the topic of board effectiveness but really just presented the Center for Public Education's Eight Characteristics.   I honestly did not see much, if any difference, between what the Alliance presented and what's at the CPR's page.  FYI, major funders of CPE are the Gates Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts and among their funders are Brokers' Risk Placement Service, State Farm, Coca Cola, and Pearson.

Go read these characteristics - I see a lot of what the Board has already vowed to do.  Much of this territory has been gone over at retreat after retreat.  What goes to the heart of the matter is one of the characteristics - "less time on operational matters and more time on policies that improve student achievement."  But nowhere does it speak of the Board flexing its power to ENFORCE those policies.  Oh.

What is a good one that I wish the Board would use? "Effective school boards align and sustain resources, such as professional development, to meet district goals."  That would mean that the Board would only support those items that do help meet district goals and push back on any that don't.  Our district has shifted focus and resources around and around and the hand of a firm Board might stop that.

What was noted - by all the panelists and at the CPE website - is that the research on school board effectiveness is in "beginning stages."  Okay, so why are these Eight Characteristics being pushed as gospel?

Mr. Eskine stated that the Alliance had started as business people (82% of whom had graduated from SPS) who formed to support "what the schools are trying to do."  That is true and that is key to what he then went on to say - "gradually tasks have changed and assets as well."  (He was referencing the F&E levy.)   What those "tasks" were was not explained but yes, the Alliance has definitely changed its original mission.  He did say one thing I liked which was that that all those concerned about Seattle public education get so focused on the problems that "we forget about the possibilities." 

He said the Alliance believes the School Board is the key to moving towards those possibilities.  (I think if you took a poll, I'm not sure I think the School Board would come in first but that's what the Alliance believes is important.) 

Professor Aisbury said the message from the early research is that school boards matter.  He said school boards that are "politically motivated" can cause "chaos" in a district and a constant turnover means loss of institutional memory, decline in staff morale and discontinuity and excellent principals and teachers choosing to go elsewhere. 

He also said what we in Seattle have found to be true - that school boards need to be accessible and responsive and can be directly influenced by the local community.  (Yes, even if this isn't in the RCW and the Alliance doesn't care how accessible/responsive the Board is - voters do.)  He said "even if the turnover is negative, communities have the ability to exercise democracy and change their board."  

He said that school boards tend to more closely reflect their communities than any other elected group. 

He said boards should learn to work as a team to develop shared beliefs and "model reconciliation."   I guess that means that Director DeBell should apologize to President Smith-Blum for saying in the Seattle Weekly that he doesn't trust her.

Then came Director Martin-Morris.  Now I know who he is but the guy who stood straight and tall and spoke out at the microphone was not someone I recognized.  Where was the director who consistently hunches over at the mic at Board meetings and mumbles into it?  It was a fascinating change.

He said that over six years on the Board that he learned a lot about the complexities of any board.  He said a board should "provide oversight, set policy, govern thru policies and make sure those policies are implemented and be an advocate for children and our families."  Make sure those policies are implemented?  Absolutely, Director Martin-Morris.

He said that Seattle was a passionate place for education and that despite working on improving the system, "often times we have situations where someone is going to gain and others perceive a loss."  He said sometimes the message is difficult but has to be "for the greater good." 

He said the board/district has had challenges but a lot of success and named the neighborhood enrollment plan, IB, dual-language schools, STEM schools and economic struggles.  He said, "As a Board, we have always managed to find a way."  Doesn't sound like a dysfunctional board to me as he just described it.

He said SPS had a unique challenge that almost no other urban district was experiencing - growth. 

He said the "learning curve" for new directors is "incredibly steep" and they need training and support to be successful.  He said the Eight Characteristics provides a "roadmap for all of us." 

He said he was "personally committed" to making sure that the Board and every other school board around the country has the skills and support to be effective.  Well, I'm pleased he wants this for our Board but I am troubled about this expansiveness in his role as a Board director.  He really has time to worry about other boards?

Janelle Adams of WSSDA called Seattle the "flagship" district of the state.  She talked about the challenges of implementing Common Core.  She said that there were "particular critics" who say "there's a better way" but listening to communities was what school boards did best. 

She said their survey of members showed that 93% ran because they believed in public education and "wanted to save it." 

I did manage to ask the Professor Aisbury, in reference to his "reconcilation" comment about boards, what he thinks a board should do if a member is speaking out in the media about another member?  That question drew nods and gasps from members of the audience who were board members.   He said that it didn't help and that the board should talk and clearly make understood what should and should not be said in public.  He said that board members have to "own what they say" and remember their motivation for service. 

He noted that boards operate under public disclosure laws and cannot meet as whole without the meeting being public.  He said it is often difficult to air differences in public (a lot of nods).

There was a question about compensation for school boards and apparently the research doesn't show a link between who get paid as a board member (in a real way and not a token manner) and student outcomes.  Nationally, most boards get the same kind of stipend as in Seattle.  The follow-up was about whether you get a larger/more diverse pool of candidates with pay and the answer was no.

I was a bit taken aback by this because I think it would be very difficult for any research to show a real correlation between student outcomes and paid board members.  I also find it hard to believe that you wouldn't at least get a bigger pool of candidates if there were some real payment. 

It's interesting because the consensus was that somehow it was unseemly to pay board members as school boards started out as "volunteer" positions and never got to the compensation of other elected officials.  I still say if the Port commissioners can get a raise, surely Board members should as well. 

He said that a 2013 study of board members found 30% are blue collar workers, 23% previously in education and the remainder in business. 

So apparently our Board isn't doing so badly, at least from the outside perspective of others.  According to the rueful chuckles of Director Martin-Morris, they are really trying.  (Was he putting on a good face or was he being honest?  I didn't get to ask him.)

I think the Alliance should back off and allow the Board - with the help of WSSDA and other national board groups - to do its work without the Alliance's micromanaging.  Maybe the Alliance should go back to its original mission. 


Charlie Mas said…
How odd that Director Martin-Morris - of all people - should say that the Board should make sure that policies are implemented. He has never done this. Should we expect this of him going forward?
mirmac1 said…
But the board's goal do whatever it takes to keep the Chamber and LEV/BMGF (and its media outlet the Times) off its back so that it can get out of crisis mode and actually try and govern. Whatever it takes includes giving Mary Jean Ryan and friends our private student data and jumping through the Road Map idiot hoops.

Who's micromanaging now.
I note that this is all on record - it was audio and videotaped.

Just as I suspected, some of the comments from the Board's own evaluation may have been for effect because either Martin-Morris was trying to put on a good face for his Board (and look like the "expert" he says he is on effective boards) or he doesn't believe his own board is as bad off as advertised.

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