What Should the Focus Be for Seattle Schools?

Sadly, I was unable to attend the Work Session today. I hadn't realized that the topic was adjustment of the Superintendent's SMART goals and what the focus of the district should be for 2016-2017.

I know - how to decide?

What is difficult for me is that - operationally - the district still struggles. Some of it is, of course, the funding. There just is not enough for all that needs to get done especially in terms of supporting schools in basics like nurses and counselors as well as supporting Sped/ELL/AL services and programs like IB.

But, no matter the money lacking, the district has a fundamental responsibility for safe buildings that are well-staffed and support the services needed for the students in those schools.

This district will never make much forward progress - in any direction - if the operations are not right. This has been my experience for over 15 years and we still see these problems. It's almost as if every superintendent who comes in just doesn't want to see this issue (or try to address it.)

I think less-than-effective operations affects every thing else or makes it difficult to enact and move forward with initiatives. That former Deputy Superintendent Charles Wright had come to the Board Executive Committee and said that "we can't wrap our arms" around operations and wanted $1M for a consultant to give them a plan forward should tell us something.

There are smart people working in the district. But it is a place with many moving parts and many silos and, as we continually find out, software that makes it near impossible for many departments to communicate work to each other.

So what were they to talk about today? Here's the agenda. The staff narrative starts on page 9 of the PDF (some pages are numbered in different ways than other so I'll be going by the PDF.)

To keep in mind from the narrative:
  1. While urgent issues will be addressed as they arise throughout the year, in order to maintain momentum on the selected 2016-17 Governance Priorities and Superintendent SMART Goals, new large initiatives will need to be considered for the 2017-18 school year. Just because something is not selected as a Governance Priority or SMART Goal does not mean that the work is not important or will not get done. It simply means that those not selected will not be the Board’s focus in 2016-17 and may take longer to implement.
Page 10 has the stated priorities (brainstormed) by each Board member. It makes for interesting reading.


- instead of the year for these goals being Nov to Nov, it is now June to June
- June 4th is the next Board retreat to narrow the goals further
- by June 29th these goals are to be finalized and by August, communicated to principals

There are three broad objectives:

Board Governance Priority 1: Close the Opportunity Gap

Board Governance Priority 2:
Improve Systems & Supports

Board Governance Priority 3:
Create Culturally Inclusive School, Family & Community Engagement

These are fine priorities but it's when you get down in the weeds that I find myself questioning the focus.

Page 12 outlines the work for each goal. Frankly, it makes me sad that for some of them - like closing the opportunity gap and customer service - the "strategies" are going to take until May 2017.

For Priority 1, the goals are MTSS, Transforming Attitudes, Beliefs & Actions, SPED Continuum of Service and 24 HS Credits & Increasing K-12 Instructional 20 Minutes.

The last two are absolutes that need to get done. Transforming Attitudes, Beliefs & Actions is, I believe, is the transformational work for adults who work in the district towards closing the opportunity gap.

But MTSS? Sigh. I think I'll let Charlie weigh in but man, that work has been going on a long time and what outcomes have we seen (or have been reported?)

I think MTSS should be dropped. Look at page 12; it sure looks like a lot of headquarters work, not classroom work. Defining language, data collection, etc. And one bullet point is "Develop collaboration amongst teachers to implement standards-based, differentiated instruction" to which I have to wonder how much more time does the district need to get this done?

As well, one of the keys to Goal 2, closing the opportunity gap, includes "relationships" and "positive partnerships." Those are great except that the district has not proven itself to be very good at partnerships. They opened STEM at Cleveland without many good solid partnerships in a city teeming with technology and medical companies. If that couldn't happen for one school, how does the district propose to do this for the entire district?

Goal 4, the 24-credits for high school and increased K-12 instructional time includes this information:
The 24-Credit Task Force recommendations include:

o A five-period daily schedule on a trimester basis. A 3x5 schedule offers students the opportunity to earn 30 credits over four years. The schedule would allow for more credits without adding more to students’ daily course-load.

o More counselors and counseling time for students. The task force recommended a credit-bearing advisory at least two times a week. An advisory period typically means time set aside for small-group work on college and career planning, life skills, and more. Additionally, the task force recommended reducing the counselor caseload from 1:400 (in many high schools) to 1:250.

o An electronic High School and Beyond planning platform. The task force recommended a user friendly electronic platform to improve equity in access and provide a more robust program.

o Extended options for learning. This includes offering online course options with teacher support, as well as expanding Career and Technical Education and summer school.
Naturally, yay to more counselors AND more counseling time.  The district never should have gotten rid of college/career counselors.  

As for the "online course options," I am very wary.  There needs to be a lot of discussion around how much online and who makes sure students are staying on-task.  Online learning can be a great tool but it is not for every student (nor might it be possible if there are students who do not have access to a computer at home.) 

But yes to more and better CTE (Career and Technical Training.)

For Priority 2, the goals are Budgeting/ Funding and Building Capacity.  

Bleak, bleak, bleak.  Not only are there few McCleary dollars flowing in but
Current law cuts the district’s levies by $30M in 2018. 
Page 18, about "Building Capacity" - bet you thought it was about actual buildings. It's not.  I believe this appears to be basic operations of a school district.  Which, I guess, is a fine goal.
The work appears to be is more headquarters-based blah, blah on "sequential development and projections."  

For Priority 3, the goals are Customer Service and Professional Practice (Collaboration & Problem Solving).

Page 19 has Customer Service goal:

By May 31, 2017, through established guidelines, protocols and training, Seattle Public Schools will develop a culture of predictable and transparent engagement with stakeholders at all levels, including internal staff, building a foundation of trust and confidence in Seattle Public Schools.

That sounds great but what will the district do differently this time around from previous efforts. I see no real information here.  

Collaboration and Problem-Solving is, again, a lot of good words but what will be the change from what is done presently? There is more evidence someone went to education charm school to learn about "interest-based problem solving structures" and Create structures of support and collaboration that enable problem solving to occur at the lowest levels to ensure that all staff members’ social/emotional needs are attended to. 

I understand that morale is truly important to any job especially one with a large bureaucracy.  But, as an old person in the world, I didn't know that the new idea in the work world was to place a high priority on workers' "social/emotional needs."  I'm not being sarcastic; I truly didn't know this.

The last pages, 23 and 24, discuss what got done on the goals/priorities for 2015-2016.  What would be good to know is -  what the feedback has been from schools on this work? Maybe that got discussed at the Work Session; I'll have to ask.

I do find this one goal has interesting phrasing:

Goal 2 – MTSS-B: Transforming Attitudes, Beliefs, and Belonging to Recognize the Brilliance and Genius of Every Child 
I love my sons and believe them to be bright young men.  I believe all children have gifts to bring out into the world and those gifts need to be nurtured and developed.  But do I think all children, including my own, are brilliant geniuses? I would not use that phrasing and I'm not sure what using it is supposed to do. 

As for Goal 3, which is basically getting off the "bad" list for Special Education from OPSI. Given all that I have heard from parents this year, I think it's basically a lot of checks on a list.  This is not to say I don't think work is being done and effort is being made.  I'm just not sure I believe it is as fulfilled as this page would have you think.

Goal 4 - Early Hiring at SPS -  I don't have enough information or background to know how this is working/will work out.  

Goal 5 - Bell Times Implementation.  Lift the anchor and move with all deliberate speed ahead.  We can all hope for better outcomes based on this decision but it definitely will have growing pains and a learning curve.

Goal 6 - Customer Service.  Again, I don't see much that is different from the past.  I think the district is definitely getting more info out but the website is still not as user-friendly as it should be, I think information gets out late and I don't think the community engagement piece - on many issues - is clear at all.

Personally, I will be advocating to the Board with my thoughts on many of these priorities and goals.  I hope you consider reading thru this document and doing the same especially if you have your own ideas about what the most important work of this district is to be.


Anonymous said…
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Anonymous said…
We should focus on attracting and retaining the best teachers available.

Speaking of retaining teachers, I heard today that 6 4th grade teachers left North Beach elementary not even finishing out the school year. Could this be possible?

NB Parent
NB Parent, anything is possible but that sounds doubtful. (That said, this is the first year in a long time that I have heard of several teachers just walking out of a building during the school day and not coming back.)

Anonymous, next time, give yourself a name.

"Shouldn't priority #1 be capacity?!"
Anonymous said…
I believe that the SPS should reverse its (apparent) policy that teachers are interchangeable cogs capable of teaching any class and any student cohort. This policy is founded in "capacity management" and not teaching. As parents, we've seen this policy increase in the last 10 years to the detriment of teacher morale. Instead, the district should reverse its tack to foster professional specialization. An interesting (to me) article in the recent Atlantic suggested that different teachers have different and often non-overlapping skills (what a surprise!). Sometimes these skills are reflected in test scores - sometimes not.
Fostering and supporting the teaching profession will reap benefits for the students.

-SPS parent
SPS parent, my husband always thought that there should be a math specialist for every elementary school b/c that subject is the one more students struggle with and it might be better to have someone specifically trained for just that one subject.
Carol Simmons said…
Thank you Melissa,

The Goals are laudable but the timeline is tragic for closing the opportunity gap. The Gap was recognized and recommendations for the elimination of Disproportionality were made in 1978 with the formation of the first Disproportionality Task force. Since that time, subsequent DTF's have made the same recommendations. None of these recommendations have been implemented in the schools with the exception of the creation and publication of the Student Data Profile. The Data Profile was discontinued several years ago. Why aren't the Disproportionality Task Forces recommendations listed in the Plan. Rather, it appears that we have gone backwards.
Carol, I frequently ask people at the district why they don't review what work was done in the past for lessons learned.
TechyMom said…
SPS needs to place some focus on this gap too: The achievement gap is a middle class issue
Charlie Mas said…
Ah, never were wiser words ever spoken:

"I frequently ask people at the district why they don't review what work was done in the past for lessons learned."

They don't do it because they believe themselves immune to the obstacles that blocked their predecessors. They believe it is different this time because this time it is THEM and not those losers who were here before. It's hubris, of course. They are no more capable of overcoming the obstacles than the person who had the job before them. They haven't been here long enough to know that they are part of a repeating cycle of "This time it's different. This time it's me."

MTSS is a bureaucrat's fantasy. They sit in their office in the headquarters building and they imagine a model classroom populated by a model teacher and model students working through a model lesson. It has almost no relationship with real life at all.

There are a lot of excellent reasons that we are in year four of the three-year MTSS implementation plan with just six years to go. There are a lot of excellent reasons that the district is completely incapable of implementing any change of this sort.

The first is academic freedom. They cannot compel the teachers to teach what the district wants them to teach nor to teach it in the way that the district wants them to teach it. The teachers refuse to be micromanaged in this way

Second is the fact that the diversity of students make it foolish to try. Each student is an individual and unique human being with non-standard strengths, skills, challenges, and motivators. There is no one thing to teach or one way to teach it that should be imposed on all of them.

The third is the utter absence of supervision. The principals and assistant principals are entirely unable and unwilling to actually supervise the teachers. The administrators not only cannot spend their days in this way, they don't want to, and, truth be told, many of them are not qualified to coach the teachers.

In short, every single person in the system they are relying upon to implement MTSS: the teachers, the students, and the administrators, either cannot or will not do so.

They encountered the exact same problem fifteen years ago when trying to implement Standards-based instruction.
Anonymous said…
Yikes and double yikes. That's an awful lot of gobbledy-gook frankly. To me, if I were in charge of the world (ha!!) I'd want to be sure I had a)budget/funding under control and b)building capacity. Focus on those two things and a LOT of the other stuff falls into line. If you don't have adequate funding and a building for the kids to safely sit in, everything else is toast. Or pipe dreams, or "feel-good-frosting" on a collapsing cake. Not to overuse bad metaphors ;)

I think this everyday, but having served on a government board or two in my time, if someone handed me this document, with all its cutesy clouds and colored boxes, I'd make them go back and give me the grownup version. Where are we RIGHT NOW in terms of making sure each student is getting an equal, adequate (not perfect because that's impossible) and safe education. If it doesn't fit one of those 3 boxes (or clouds or stair steps or whatever) then we don't do it. Period.

Did I mention yikes!!

Anonymous said…
The focus should be on getting the best teachers and also getting the best Principals in each school. Teachers shouldn't be required to teach a new subject every year. They should be able to specialize. Also, it's sad to hear that teachers are leaving mid-year!!! What is the work environment that would cause this? These teachers need support. They need mentoring. Why not start a teacher mentoring program with veteran teachers paired up with a new teacher at each school to be a mentor and advisor. It would help new teachers so much to have support and someone to bounce ideas off of and get feedback from. We need this now!!

Once there is consistency in teachers staying at a school the decrease in achievement gap will follow. But it starts with the teachers!!!
NW Mom
Eric B said…
NB Parent, NB has about 300 or so students, so maybe 12-15 classroom teachers, or about 2 per grade. So there definitely weren't 6 4th grade teachers leaving. It's possible that 6 classroom teachers left, but even that would be half or so of the teaching staff. So that would be extreme but not totally out of the realm of possibility.
Anonymous said…
@ reader47, "equal" and "adequate" are often contradictory in the context of education. An equal education implies that everyone receives the same thing--same classes, same style of instruction, etc.-- but that is clearly inadequate for many. Maybe you meant equitable?

Half Full
NW Mom said…
With two kids at North Beach, that's quite the rumor. Or, it happened before my now 5th grader started there in K.
Allen jeley said…
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