Seattle’s got problems
Not that we don’t here in San Francisco, but reading people talking about another district is both instructive and fascinating. You can find the original article and then the comment stream here.
Here’s the first post that caught my eye:
Both Education Reformers and public school activists agree that the leadership of Seattle Public Schools is perfectly dreadful. In fact, I’m pretty sure that nearly all of the teachers, principals and school staff would agree with that as well.
There’s widespread agreement that the district headquarters is impersonal, political, capricious, dishonest, non-responsive, arrogant, harmful to the district’s mission, and totally unaccountable. The only question is: what can or should be done about it?
The school staff choose to just keep their heads down. All they want from the district is to be left alone. They have learned that any intervention from the district will be a negative experience for the school and the community. Every single public school in the city is trying to fly under the district’s radar. Fortunately, the district headquarters staff are so incompetent and detached that nearly every school is successful in avoiding the district’s notice. This does leave the schools in a sort of anarchy of benign neglect. It makes the selection of the principal an intensely critical decision since that principal will be granted (or will usurp) broad authority essentially without any supervision. With this authority they are free to adopt their own math textbooks (good!) or dismantle programs (bad!).
The public school activists bring their complaints and concerns to the Board – the only people in the District who are accountable to the public. They continue to believe that the solution to the problem is to elect courageous people of integrity to the school board. Then, the idea goes, those people will use their authority to insist on compliance with policy, regulations, and laws, and to require the superintendent and the staff to adhere to the District’s stated values. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t happen. No matter who is elected to the school board, within a year that Board director switches from representing the community to the District to representing the District to the community. Within a year they go from firebrand to branded cattle. Why? Because they want to preserve their working relationships with the superintendent and the staff. That’s why they don’t enforce policy. That’s why they vote to approve crappy ideas that run counter to everything they promised when they campaigned. I don’t know why activists continue to believe that this is a problem that can be solved by courageous people with integrity on the school board.
What do Education Reformers propose? Get rid of the district administration. Replace school districts – with their ineffective bureaucracy and bloated senior staffs – with corporate management companies operating charter schools. The introduction of the private sector brings all kinds of other influences, but an NPO – a true NPO – would only mean liberation from the burden of the district administration.
I have been a public school activist for over 13 years. For all of that time I have done everything I could do to encourage School Board directors to do their jobs – to enforce policy, to require the superintendent and staff to adhere to the District’s stated values, and to confirm compliance with regulations and laws. I have never been successful. After all of this time I have only recently become convinced that this strategy will never be successful. Even if it were, it would not be sustainable because it is dependent on specific personalities. We already have all of the right rules in place. It’s just that nobody follows them. Seattle Public Schools has a culture of lawlessness. It is a sick, dysfunctional culture that creates bad outcomes.
Again, this dysfunction is in the headquarters – not in the schools.
and another one:
Can we move this discussion off the personal (Ms Lake and Mr. Kitchen’s twice exceptional child, the missed deadline, the absent cuppa, etc.) and even move it off the gratifying but ineffective bashing of District headquarters staff and put it where it would move things forward: what can we do to help Seattle Public Schools become more responsive to the needs of the community it serves? What can we do to improve the District’s institutional culture?
A number of things have been tried, without success. We have elected activist board directors who campaigned on a platform of accountability, but they quickly become rubber-stamping lapdogs of the administration. Believe it or not, Harium Martin-Morris started out brilliantly. He had a blog on which he responded to citizens. He tried to get the District to fulfill some of their hundreds of un-fulfilled promises. He voted “no” sometimes. But within a couple years he scolded his board colleague for trying to verify a (false) claim made by a staff member. He told them that they had no business confirming the truth of staff statements and that they should simply accept everything the staff said as true – especially when they knew the statements were false. Other current board members are no better. Director Carr talks about a “culture of compliance” but takes no action against non-compliance. Directors Peaslee and McLaren no longer challenge the staff even when the staff thumbs their nose at policy.
If we can’t make the change we need with school board elections then what can be done?
Attempts to starve the beast only result in accounting tricks (headquarters staff see their jobs re-classified as school-based in the ledgers, but not in reality) and cuts to schools. The District went from having 9% spent on administration to 6% spent on administration by laying off some janitors.
The greatest success I have seen to change the culture came when Dr. Enfield replaced a lot of staff, especially in operations, facilities, and finance. That’s how you change a culture: replace personnel. She reformed the culture through firings in nearly every department, but she left her own department, Teaching and Learning, full of dysfunctional staff infected with the bad culture. And HR. The HR is a solid block of dysfunction comparable only to the VA. You could reform it for a decade without making progress. Unfortunately the culturally infected spread their disease to the new people and the dysfunction is now worse than ever.
I think the solution is out-sourcing. The District should only have staff that work on their core competency and mission: education. Every thing else – property management, accounting, HR, etc. – should be outsourced. The remaining staff could be housed in a much smaller space and the Board, who are overwhelmed with property maanagement issues instead of education issues (look at the history of their votes; 40% are about property management), can finally put their focus where it belongs. Also, the fewer people doing work for the District who are participants in the dysfunctional culture of public K-12 education the better.
The District already outsources transportation. They should outsource everything that isn’t academics, then focus their reform efforts on academics