Sunday, May 25, 2014

Have we seen this movie before? Did it star Shirley Jones and Robert Preston?

Please forgive me, but I'm old, and old people like to natter on about the past. It's just what we do. We like to imagine that our experience has value. We see things and we think "Hey, I've seen this before!" That's bad enough, but then we feel compelled to tell you about it.

Back in 2000 Seattle Public Schools was on fire with a revolutionary idea. It was a change in perspective that would reform public education. We were going to become a Standards-Based Learning System. Once implemented, Standards would fix all our woes. It would get all struggling students to learn at grade level. It would support advanced learners without those politically disturbing self-contained programs. It would integrate our students with disabilities and our English Language Learners. Once we became a Standards-based Learning System we would enter a new education paradise. The District headquarters spoke of little else. They did pilot projects with big announcements and then made big announcements about the implementation. Everyone got a daruma to remind them of the goal. I was at the Board meeting when Joseph Olchefske announced that the district had done it. We had completed the goal, he filled in the other eye of the daruma, and announced that the District was now a Standards-Based Learning System. The daruma sits on the window sill in the Board room for anyone who wants to see it. It is one expensive ball of papier mâché.

Only the district didn't really fully convert to a Standards-Based Learning System - not in the textbook definition - and the promised benefits never appeared. Of course, that didn't keep the district from removing the supports that had been in place for students - the supports that they promised would be unnecessary once the district converted, the supports that students continued to need because the promises went unfulfilled.

That was the failed education revolution of 1999-2001.

There were other failed education revolutions to follow. Differentiated instruction was another big promise that went bust. Same for Accountability and Site-based Decisionmaking. Each of these movements were supposed to revolutionize education. Each was supposed to solve all of our problems and make troublesome (or expensive) programs unnecessary. Each was the buzzword on everybody's lips and the talk of the district headquarters for a couple years, through all of the expensive and trying planning period (complete with stressed out teachers and staff turnover) and into the early days of the implementation period. All of the real problems of the district were forgotten during this time. Don't worry about trying to fix any immediate problems, the revolution is coming and it will solve that problem. No need to take any intermediary action, just wait for the revolution. All of our real problems went un-addressed.

Unfortunately, however, each of these revolutions fizzled. The implementations were complete failures, the Big Ideas failed in their primary purpose, and they all failed in all of their secondary purposes as well. They did not make the supports and programs unnecessary, they only gave the District two or three years to ignore those problems while we waited for the big fix to take care of them. In the meantime, all of the real problems got worse, and worse.

Then, after the failure, no one talked about the Big Idea anymore. It would be rude to mention it, I suppose. Also, with the staff turnover, the current staff could deny all knowledge or responsibility for both the failed idea and the failed implementation. Or, believe it or not, they would claim it was a success. Dr. Goodloe-Johnson actually claimed that the Southeast Education Initiative was a success.

So what is the education revolution du jour? MTSS, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. MTSS is actually a sequel to RTI, Response to Intervention. By changing its name the district bought an extra planning year or two. MTSS is following exactly the same pattern as the previous Big Fix snake oil education revolutions: it has "research" that supports it, it requires teachers to do a lot more work (actually, a nearly impossible amount of work), it promises to bring our struggling students up to grade level, support our advanced learners, reduce referrals to Special Education, close the academic achievement gap, make all schools equal, and, I believe, walk your little sister home from the movies. The folks downtown get a gleam in their eye and specks of foam in their mouth when they talk about it, but no one else really seems to understand what the heck they are talking about. It is following the pattern exactly. Right now it is purportedly at the pilot stage, but it has been an official Board priority for a couple years already. It is the centerpiece of the Strategic Plan. Next year it is supposed to go to scale (Phase I). The following year, in Phase II, they will add Tier II. This is a little weird because without Tier II you don't really have MTSS. Then, in 2016-2017 they will complete the implementation by adding Tier III. In other words, they have given themselves three more years before they have to show any results from this. At that time they will probably say that it needs to be in place for a year before we can reasonably expect any results.

They will use that time to come up with the next Big Idea to distract us all. Then they will pull the same 1984-style propaganda they have done in the past in which they deny all knowledge of the recently failed Big Idea and claim that it was really the pet project of the person who had this job before them and they aren't responsible for its failure in any way.

Or am I wrong about this? The pattern can be hard to see because the cycle is so long. It takes about three to five years for a Big Idea to come, go through years of planning, pilot, and phased implementation before it is revealed as snake oil, and then be denied and forgotten as the staff turns over and our attention is drawn to a scandal or the next Big Idea. They seem to have learned that they need to give themselves lots and lots of time so no one expects any results until they are long gone. The timetable for MTSS is the longest one yet, but come 2017, when nothing has really changed except that more supports for students have been removed, and when MTSS is shown to be a bust, where will Shauna Heath, Michael Tolley or Jose Banda be? Probably not in Seattle. They will be retired or off peddling MTSS (or some new snake oil) in the next River City.

That's right. You got trouble my friends. Right here in Emerald City. And the solution is to get all of the children into a band MTSS.


Anonymous said...

this essay is toooooooooooo depressing. what am I paying union dues for???

how come we can't take $10 or $30 or so of those monthly dues and pick where to send the money to ??

how many would pick Rush Limbaugh? how many would pick Charlie & Melissa & Dora ???


Anonymous said...


A good, though frustrating essay. Very accurate analysis.

I have looked on the SPS website for anything about the MTSS "initiative" or whatever it is called, but can't find anything. Can you point me to something that describes what it is that the District is doing?


Melissa Westbrook said...

As usual, Charlie is right.

There is NEVER any explanation of why the district would pivot from one (expensive) plan to another. Just kind of a "that was then, this is now."

There is nearly no learning from mistakes or experience in this district. Every "taskforce"report gets filed away (probably in the district archives in a deep, dark corner).

Is the current Strategic Plan any more streamlined or fleshed out than the last one? It is not. (And this is another thing I'll give Susan Enfield - she used to try harder on the big communications piece). Most of what comes out of the Superintendent's mouth seems very pro forma.

Again, I will say what I have said for a long time - the trains don't run on time in this district. Meaning, the district will not advance until it has its operations under control. And I don't believe they have. Especially when they continue to hire more and more at JSCEE to "oversee" project management, etc.

Money should be driving to the schools and it isn't.

It is interesting that Charlie decided to write this piece because he gave me late Superintendent John Stanford's book (I had never gotten around to reading it.) It was quite charming, old-fashioned (against today's ed reform) and eye-opening. I might just write a thread on it.

Disgusted said...

I often find that teachers don't get too unraveled by the latest shiny penny. Why? They have lived through many passing fancies.

Next-up: Common Core. An unfunded mandate that will cause lots of discussion, energy time and resources, and will be gone in five years.

I do like the idea of using all the paper used on new initiatives to make paper mache!

Anonymous said...

This is why teachers are so often accused of being resistant to change, or now "reform". Because each new administration that comes in brings some shiny new idea that will revolutionize education and be the magic bullet that gets their name down in history as THE ONE who saved public education......
The teachers have been there, done that. They've weathered standards-based grading, mastery learning, 3rd grade retention for low-readers, merit pay, etc. They know the pendulum swings back and forth, that there are no silver bullets, and the best they can do is keep things as normal as they can for their kids. Larry Cuban has a book called "Hugging The Middle" which is a pretty apt description of what most teachers seem to try to do these days.


Melissa Westbrook said...

And that's why I feel for teachers.

No one has to go thru the massive changes in their work like teachers. I'm an outsider and if I think that, I wonder how it feels on the inside.

I wonder how it felt to go thru the entire Gates process of evaluating your school, feeling proud that the work got done (no matter how you felt going in) and then seeing the money taken in away so that all that work and planning won't happen.

FYI, that money that Zuckerberg gave to the City of Newark? Mostly gone, mostly gone to planning and consultants and where's that school system now?

That's probably why a principal just won the race for mayor of Newark.

Vomit said...

I totally agree about funding going towards consultants, administration and high levels of bureaucracy. It is almost impossible for the dollars to trickle down to provide teachers/students with the supports they need.

We can begin by looking at Olympia and wealthy individuals that wish to influence our educational system.

Anonymous said...

Sad. Exhausting.

What teaches kids?

Methods? No.

Strategies? No.

Standards-based whatever? No.

Textbooks? No.

Teachers teach kids.


Teachers inspire kids. Teachers mentor kids. Along with algebra and syntax, teachers teach humanity and model kindness and excellence. Teachers.

The MTSS is a farce. Stupid, wasteful farce.

Here's an idea: lower class sizes in k5 classrooms in all title 1 schools to 15:1. That way, the teacher can really get to know a kid, really mentor and support a kid. Really inspire and motivate that child to learn. Really connect, really make gains.

How about we try that? We can just put the 193 page (or however long) strategic plan du-jour in a drawer and -- radical, I know, - hire teachers!

I am so sad common sense just can't prevail. Hire teachers to teach kids. Make class sizes small in communities with high poverty to ensure very close relationship between teacher and child.

The MTSS is a joke, because it's structure incentives every student to be 'classified' as 'grade level' so you don't have to offer 'support'. So for high achievers, the quicker their differences are erased, the less time, effort, cost and paperwork for the system! Neat trick! Again, there are two ways to 'close' an achievement gap.

Let's just let good teacher loose on the kids; they'll never know what hit them, but, they'll sure be richer for the experience.

Dream of 15

Anonymous said...

As a special ed teacher, I really feel for the general education teachers. There was always a newly -worded form to fill out and new requirements for evaluations, and I have to say, most of them were pretty dang flexible with following all of the poorly described changes.

How do I know this? Because I had to sit in all of the inservices that laid out general education requirements. There were no clear equivalents for specialists, and frankly, the plan seemed to be, "We don't know what to do with you. We haven't thought that far ahead. Just sit and try to get something out of this. Support your colleagues. We're a team."

MTSS operates on the premise that different interventions are offered at each tier by people who are trained to implement specific interventions with fidelity. SPS is so deeply entrenched in the one size fits all mindset that MTSS will be impossible, no matter how many times we use the term and look at pictures of three-tiered triangles.

-"Tier" Weary

Anonymous said...

Excellent point, @Tier:

They say "MTSS."

They do "one-size-fits-all."

Judge them by their actions, not their words. WSDWG

Anonymous said...

"One size fits all" now varies by zip code. Teaching to the middle in a yuppie population for first graders will be significantly different than it was before neighborhood schools. Those who were read to in utero do not start school in a "one size fits all" mode except what is now relative to their neighbors.

You are all now in your peer group.


Charlie Mas said...

Step one of the MTSS implementation is to get every teacher in every classroom to deliver the Tier I curriculum. The District has tried to do this a few times before - under different names - and has failed miserably every single time. What are they doing differently this time to address the causes of the previous failures? Nothing.

They haven't learned anything from their previous failures because that work was done by a completely different set of people. And these people - just like those before them - refuse to listen to the advice of those who were here for the earlier attempts and know where the obstacles are.

Nope. Instead, they will try the same crap that didn't work before and it will fail again. Their pride will not allow them to accept advice from people who have been down this road.

Anonymous said...

I still don't understand how MTSS can be phased in level by level. Don't you need all the levels for it to work?

So confused