Finding Common Ground

I have been an education activist for a long time and I have never had any delusions about my effectiveness. After all, the district officials have all of the power and all of the authority, so they don't have to do anything they don't want to do and they are free to do whatever they like. We have seen that there is almost no accountability or consequences for them, so they really aren't answerable to anyone. They have carte blanche. You have to presume that they are already doing things the way that they want to do them, so there can't be much expectation that community activism is going to have much of an impact.

For all of my time as an activist I have been getting advice about how to be more effective. - usually from people whose behavior I'm trying to change. They will say things like "You catch more flies with honey than vinegar." They have suggested that they would respond to me more if I didn't contact them so frequently. They say I should be nicer. They say that I should try cooperating with them. I have tried all of these techniques and I can assure you that no matter what I did or said and no matter how I did it or said it, they had no interest in changing anything that they were doing.

I may appear confrontational in print or in my board testimony, but those are genres which require me to be concise, and, hence pithy or blunt. In person I'm a lot different - much more easy-going. I have actually had a large number of positive meetings with people who don't share my views. I have met with and get along well with a lot of Education Reform types like Liv Finne, Chris Eide, Kelly Munn, Robin Lake, and Lisa McFarlane. We have coffee and chat amicably. That's because we begin by talking about our common ground. We talk about our shared perceptions about problems. Then we can talk reasonably about our different solutions and offer honest critiques of each other's positions without acrimony. We don't agree on a lot of stuff but we have mutual respect and no one feels insulted. We come away saying things like "I understand your perspective, but I think the solutions I'm promoting will be more effective and expeditious than the ones you propose and bring fewer negative unintended consequences." We both say that kind of stuff.

This contrasts sharply with my history with district officials - staff or board directors. With the exception of a few notable individuals, such as Tracy Libros, I don't have positive interactions with them. I am beginning to wonder if it might be because we do not begin the conversation by talking about our common ground and our shared perception of the problems before we move on to a discussion of our different solutions.

So now I'm asking myself: Where is the common ground?

I have twice come close to winning support from board directors in my efforts to change the district's culture of lawlessness. Once with Director DeBell and once with Director Carr. In both of those instances the conversation began by establishing common ground. We read the policy together and agreed about what it required. Then we looked at what the superintendent had done and we agreed that it did not meet the requirements of the policy. Then we agreed that it was not reasonable to expect the superintendent to police herself. Then we agreed that it was the board's duty to get the superintendent to comply with the policy. The results were mixed. In one case Director DeBell raised the issue with the superintendent and extracted a promise from her to comply with the policy next year. That promise was broken, and he didn't pursue it - under the principle of picking his battles - but he did take action and he did get the promise. That's dreadful, but it is also, believe it or not, the best I've ever seen so I count it a good example. I never saw any results from Director Carr, but I strongly suspect she send the superintendent a polite email about the matter. That's even worse, but still qualifies as a good example. These are the straws I clutch at.

So maybe folks can try this method. In meetings with District officials, including Board Directors, begin as far back as you need to go to establish common ground. Begin, for example, by reading the policy. What does the policy say? What does it require? Seek agreement on this point.

Here's an example of how that might work:

Take a look at Policy 2090, Program Evaluation & Assessment. See what it requires?
The district will utilize a variety of assessment processes to: 
A. Determine the effectiveness of the instructional programs,
The Superintendent shall prepare an annual report which reflects the degree to which district goals and objectives related to the instructional program have been accomplished.
Clearly the district is supposed to review instructional programs (in the old language) to assess their effectiveness. This means a quantitative review of the various special education programs, ELL programs, general education programs, option schools, IB, ALOs, Spectrum sites, APP sites, language immersion programs, International education programs, etc. I suspect it also extends to things like ReadRight, AVID, Project Lead the Way, and that sort of thing as well. Surely there should be, by policy, some sort of review of the effectiveness of these efforts, right? Some may say that the policy covers some of these "programs" but not others. But everyone can certainly agree that the policy clearly requires an annual review of the effectiveness of Spectrum. It is an instructional program, the only one that is still categorized as a program, and we can all agree that the policy requires an annual report that measures its effectiveness.

But there is no annual review of Spectrum. None. So can't we agree that the Board should direct the superintendent to produce and provide such a review? No one is saying it has to be done immediately or anything like that, just that it should be done. Can we get agreement on that?

Now when should the superintendent be ready with that review? The reasonable thing would be to ask the superintendent when he can provide it. Let him set the timetable. That's okay, isn't it? Now we have the superintendent's agreement on the deadline. So now we can all look forward to getting the review on or before that day.

I will, for the moment, pretend to forget that Shauna Heath promised a review of the effectiveness of Spectrum to the board and the public at the work session for the management oversight of Teaching and Learning in April of 2013. Let's forget that promise since no one ever held her to it and move forward with both a new promise and the commitment from the Board that they will hold staff accountable for keeping the new promise. How would that be?

If we could use this path to reach that point it would be the most effective advocacy that I have ever seen.


Anonymous said…
I find it hard to believe SPS has a clue what to do for the SPED C-CAP when I receive emails like this:

Hi Michael,

I’ve finally been able to talk to someone in the SpEd department about this request. Unfortunately, no records could be located. There are no records related to programs or services specific to dyslexia, dysgraphia, or dyscalculia. Additionally, there is no data regarding the effectiveness of services or programs offered for these disabilities.

I’m sorry I can’t help more… but I hope you have a great weekend nonetheless!



So really then how do they intend to serve the 2950 with dyslexia?

The answer is , they are not.

I will have a law suit filed within 30 days.
Charlie and I share a lot of the same experiences.

I can say that my experiences are somewhat flipped.

The ed reformers he names are all nice people. I do believe our common ground is better academic outcomes for all children. How we get there is the big sticking point.

Also, while I think you can find broad-minded ground on what we are all working towards, I find that ed reform people will not cede one inch of space in my direction. I have found myself used by some people BECAUSE I was willing to sit down and talk. I have found reaching mostly does not work.

And that smiling faces sometimes don't tell the truth (with apologies to the Temptations).

I have had all kinds of relationships with people in the district. I believe the majority of people at the district headquarters are people of good faith.

I know for a fact that many toil in real pain because of decisions that are out of their hands.

I know that many see things that make them shake their heads but they fear retribution.

I know many feel as I do every time a new superintendent comes it - will this be the one to change the culture?

I know many keep their heads down and do the best work they can with what they are given.

I feel like I have some real genuine relationships at the district. I could be fooling myself but I appreciate two things from many staff I interact with.

One, polite interactions. It always makes it easier when we find common non-ed ground.

Two, I believe that there are some who just don't like me or my work but give me some respect out of my sheer longevity and the fact that I try - very hard - to do my homework. I appreciate that respect, grudging or not.

I'm sure that some at headquarters believed if everyone - activists, Board members and the general public - would get out of the way and off their backs, they could do better.

But, as Charlie points out, it is time after time of hearing promises that senior staff make to the Board and then ignore. The Board, wanting to maintain relationship and "pick their battles,"let things go. (Of course, we never know for certain what happens behind the scenes but certainly there is not much evidence of the ability of Board members to get staff to follow thru on promises.)

It's kind of like a bad marriage where people overlook issues or get used to them and just take as "that's the way it is"and those issues fester. In the end, it only serves to continue to damage the marriage.

Many times over the years I have heard Board members say that "you just don't know." And they are right. I have to say that just the experience of serving on a very high-profile, high-level committee really opened my eyes. I can only imagine what it looks like thru a Board member's eyes.

But, they are not elected to look away. They are elected - at the very least - for oversight.
It isn't the work that Charlie and I do that is holding this district back. It isn't day-lighting issues that is holding this district back.

Look at our great city. We have a very good economy (and compared to other cities, weathered the recession better than many).

We have tons of smart people in this city.

We have tons of voters - even those without children or without children in SPS - who consistently vote in more money for our schools, either through district initiatives or city initiatives. I can tell you this does NOT happen in other cities. (When I attended the Network for Public Education conference earlier this year and told others about this, especially about the F&E levy and what it brings to our district, their jaws dropped.)

This is exactly what has ed reformers, parents, elected officials (beyond the Board), businesses and the general public wringing their hands.

Why can't we get ahead? Why is it lurching from crisis to crisis?

Imagine for a moment that our Sped house was mostly in order (I say mostly because it is tremendously complex issue). That we didn't have a capacity issue. That senior staff wasn't pushing more data collection, more assessments, and more executive directors and consultants.

What if we used the money on arts, reducing class size and later bell times for secondary students?

What if we had fewer people in positions of responsibility who appear - from their actions and inactions - to care more about their careers than our district?

What if the trains ran on time?

Our district is simply not well-managed. Our schools do well, in spite of most of what comes out of headquarters. (I think that many schools with strong principals tend to try to strong-arm off headquarters and/or ignore them if they can get away with it.)

I get to say the district is not well-managed just because of the trail just littered with broken promises, crisis situations and financial mismanagement.

So yes to Charlie's belief that the ONLY way forward is to get the Board to enforce accountability. If the staff says make a promise, hold them to it. If not, then a Board member gets to say, "I am disappointed this did not happen as promised. It makes my job harder to do as I am accountable for the dollars from taxpayers and trust of the parents who send their children to Seattle schools."
Eric B said…
I think Joe Wolf is the poster child for positive interactions, particularly on this blog. I have had good conversations with other people, but not necessarily resulting in action.
Benjamin Leis said…
Is process really our number one issue in the district?

I've read your series of posts over the last few days and I've been thinking a
bit about your argument. Adherence to policy is a problem for the district,
but is it really the fundamental and most pressing problem? In a perfect
bureaucracy, you tend to want very little policy and instead set coherent goals
and then rely on the chain of people to implement them in a proper and
efficient manner. The introduction of lots of policy tends to indicate a lack
of trust in the people in the organization, its ability to oversee itself or
a set of inconsistent or unachievable goals. In other words, good oversight
doesn't really mean enforcing policy above all else and instead is some blend
of setting good priorities, monitoring them, and tending to the organizational
health so its able to actually deliver on them.

But more fundamentally, I think implicit in your argument is the idea that
we all share the same goals and our main problem as a district is implementing
them. To paraphrase, If we just managed the central staff better, the district
would improve. In some sense, that is true but it ignores the real divisions
in the community and the deep problems that it still has to overcome. There
is no widespread consensus about how to deal with everything from the
lack of resources (buildings/teachers), to educational equity, to how to
provide differentiation to which curriculum to use and the list goes on. Even
a perfect staff would not be able to thread the needle here and satisfy
everyone. I think the various agendas different groups are pursuing and the
district's troubles reaching a consistent resolution drives the "policy"
implementation issues that you decry rather the other way around.

Leaving that aside though what would the fix be according to your thinking and
is it realistic? An organization is ultimately its people and not the set
of printed policies. The quickest way to change how its behaves is not to
create more top-down instructions but to actually change the personel. At the
same time, the district needs to continue functioning and if we just fired a
bunch of folks all at once we'd risk a total meltdown. Likewise, a group
of 7 part time volunteers cannot micro-manage all the decisions made by a large
full time staff. There isn't time or energy to make that happen. Any direct
oversight has to be strategically done and most of it needs to be delegated.
Realistically, the board's best lever is hiring a superintendent that's good
at organisational reform (a very non-trivial skill to find) and being
consistent and realistic about what it wants from the staff. Setting the high
level direction of the district and not letting major initiatives occur
without reflection about their cost is the key in my mind. Likewise, I'd
prefer more transparency over more direct oversight in the theory that we need
more eyes on decision making and that that will lead to better execution.

So where does that leave me? My list of concerns is not much different than
yours I believe. I share your disgust over the recent Garfield
incident and how it was handled. I'd like the staff to be able to reliably file
and retrieve paperwork. I'm worried that we're not handling our long range
capacity issues well etc. I don't claim to know the most effective cure to all
our problems but at the same time given the way large organizations function I
don't see this focus as a realistic answer.

Reader47 said…
Very interesting take Ben.
For me, the core of the issue is the overall atmosphere of dysfunction. It always seems that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, which ultimately leads to poor decisions. For example - Enrollment says X while Transportation says Y but neither knows what the other is saying. Is this due to:
incompetent staff? (sometimes)
bad management/policy (sometimes)
poor communication? (most often)

I truly think if SPS could reduce the number of times these kind of crazy-making dichotomies happen, then 50% of the problems people have with them would disappear.

Not that I have a clue how to make that happen ;)
Charlie Mas said…
Ben, You're right. I don't trust the staff. Why should I? Have they earned my trust? I don't think so.

In an ideal world we would only need one policy: "Do what's right for the students." But we don't live in that world so we need a few more.

If we have policies, doesn't it make sense to follow them? If we're not going to follow them, then why even have them?

I'm not asking or expecting the Board to micro-manage the district staff. That isn't possible or desirable. But policy work isn't micro-management, and I do expect them to do policy work, which includes enforcing policy.

If the policies are badly written or too constraining then the superintendent should have them amended, not simply ignore them.

If the Board doesn't think the policy should be enforced then they should vote to repeal it. Turning a blind eye to violations is no way to run a school district.

Every policy is a promise to the community in which the District says "This is how we will operate." Every policy violation is a broken promise. Routine policy violations, as we see in Seattle Public Schools fosters a disrespect for all of the rules and for the authority of the Board. Routine policy violations fosters a political culture in which the rules apply to some people but not others. Transparency not only means that the processes are known; it also means that the same rules apply to everyone.
Ben, good comments.

I think you are right; the superintendent sets the tone. I actually think most of senior management is very bright and qualified. They just need direction, clear marching orders and possibly, some reining in. I don't think there are many I would think need to be fired.

"Setting the high level direction of the district and not letting major initiatives occur
without reflection about their cost is the key in my mind."

Spot on.

Reader 37, silos are always an issue as to why some of these issues are occurring. But the district has been told this, over and over.

And again, Charlie is right. It's the same with kids - you let the little things go and it emboldens them. Ignoring policies and deadlines means staff doesn't take any Board member all that seriously.
Eric B said…
Ben, I appreciate your argument, but I don't agree that the ideal bureaucratic approach is a small number of policies. Rather than looking at policies as a lack of trust in the organization, I see them as a lack of trust in humans in general. A small example, when people at our company are taking measurements in the field and the total measurement is 15" + 3" more, we always write down the 15+3 rather than 18". It's not that we don't trust people with two years of college math not to know that 15+3=18, it's that sometimes people make mistakes and we don't want the data to be lost. Similarly, a preflight checklist for a pilot doesn't imply lack of trust in the pilot, but that sometimes people miss things that could result in catastrophic consequences.

Getting back to SPS, I don't see the number of policies as being a problem, but that they are either the wrong policies or they're not followed. Something as simple as "You have to follow an approved IEP" is a valuable policy, because the principal/teacher shouldn't be able to make unilateral changes.

That said, there are policies that you can't follow in the real world. If that's true, the policies should be changed, with justification and an eye toward correcting the problem and complying with law.

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