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Trustless in Seattle Schools

For years, Seattle's been on an endless search to 'restore trust' in the city's public school system, but we make the same mistakes over and over again.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the ousted superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson, the ousted superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

You think replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct is taking too long? Try other civic fixes, like the Seattle school district.

Restoring trust in our schools has been a major goal for decades, maybe eons.

Are we there yet? No, we're back to zero as the School Board just fired the latest school superintendent who was brought in to, yes, restore trust. Let's look at the recent history.

Maria Goodloe-Johnson was hired to make things right, and got some nice early reviews. She came in with a plan, the purpose of which was "to restore public confidence."

She was "decisive, driven, direct," said The Seattle Times. If nothing else, the paper reported in 2009, she runs "a tight ship." One schools watcher was relieved help had arrived. "I'm glad to see someone take the reins of this runaway horse."

Somewhere along the line, the reins were dropped. 

But is the schools bronco even bustable? 

Public trust has had to be regained over school budgets, busing, race, testing, school closures, school choice, bus-driver background checks, molester teachers, budget crises, achievement gaps, schoolyard bullies, and arsenic in the drinking water, just to name a few.

Everyone remembers Superintendent John Stanford, who arrived in 1995. He was charming, an outsider, a great motivator, and he raised the district's public profile. But even he wasn't completely trusted. He was brought in to "turn around" the district. But, after a couple of years, the grumbling began. He hadn't gained the "trust" of teachers, for one thing. Some said he hadn't made a dent in district culture, or that the good things on his watch came from decisions made before he was on board.

We remember him now in a golden haze, after he died of leukemia while in office. But had Stanford lived, I'm fairly confident that confidence issues would have claimed him, too.

His replacement, Joseph Olchefske, seemed like the heir to the Stanford mantle. But a couple of years in, by 2002, he was getting a "D-minus" in math for losing track of some $34 million in school funding and facing a huge budget hole. Said one parent, "I don't think the public has any trust anymore in the district leadership." Still, the board gave his overall performance a "B-plus." 

In this town, as former mayor Greg Nickels learned, a "B" grade is the kiss of death. 

By 2003, the money pit swallowed Olchefske. Confidence was shaken, and the search for a new supe was on. Three finalists were identified. The Times reported the issues were trust: Could the district management not mis-spend public money? Could the board restore trust in itself? Could the interim supe gain anyone's trust? Who would the teachers trust? How about levy voters?

But the search for trust, again, was a bust. The three candidates didn't pan out and the board hired from within, giving the job to interim superintendent Raj Manhas. That worked until Manhas resigned in 2006, damaged by a bungled school-closure plan which had cost him the trust and confidence of many in the district.

Trust again needed to be restored. Times editorialist Lynne Varner suggested the district tap Norm Rice to "restore confidence."

Nope. Instead the board hired Maria Goodloe-Johnson to do the job. 

Now she's been sacked. In her place is interim superintendent Susan Enfield, who immediately said her priority was to restore trust in the schools.

And so the great cycle of trust-seeking continues.

Is trust a mirage?

No public entity will ever get 100 percent trust. But maybe, if the school district is like the Viaduct, something that's outlived its usefulness, we might be better off making a different set of choices than setting someone up for failure.

Like closing the district and starting a new one from scratch. Tunneling under the old super-structure. Getting a different management system. Turning the district over to the city. Creating a new public entity. Making all schools charter schools with no central school district at all. Going entirely to vouchers. Privatizing the schools. Turning them over to Bill & Melinda Gates.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

The only thing that will restore trust in a school to which a person sends their kids, is to allow that person a choice over which school that is. The current system is corrupted and runs indoctrination academies for our state's Democrat/union/tribe/non-profit cartel. Let those parents who want to send their kids and their money to these institutions continue to do so. Allow those of us who want our kids to learn to think for themselves the ability to send them - and our money - elsewhere.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 8:16 a.m. Inappropriate

Making all schools charter schools with no central school district at all. Going entirely to vouchers. Privatizing the schools. Turning them over to Bill & Melinda Gates.

Please no. Why not look at the schools that are working that parents are already voting for with their children? Schools that oversubscribed, schools that have to turn away kids, why are parents choosing those schools? Why don't they duplicate them elsewhere?

Case in point, Salmon Bay is a very popular school and difficult to get into. Why hasn't Thorton Creek been extended to 8th grade? Why are there no schools like this down south? Why no high school? I am sure there other schools and programs that parents want for their kids.

Rhonwyn

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 8:40 a.m. Inappropriate

The replacement of Maria Goodloe-Johnson with Dr. Enfield (as interim Superintendent) was Seattle's equivalent of the Hobson's Choice - there are lots of potential candidates to choose from, but you have to take the one closest to the stable door. Dr. Enfield is a competent Chief Academic Officer, yet this one qualification will not transform Seattle Schools. Nor will the newfound due diligence predilections of the School Board.

There are three issues that we must face as a community to repair Seattle Public Schools. The two have a common theme, efficiency. The third is about "trust."

First, the Seattle Schools Central office is an extraordinarily inefficient public agency. Operations crawl at a snails pace, oftentimes accompanied by false starts and wasteful duplication. We need outsiders, not insiders, to fix this.

Second, our current education system is resting on the shaky pillars of outmoded 19th and 20th Century pedagogical philosophies. Every indicator suggests that we educate this generation too slowly, yet current reformist trends are to go even slower (while piling on more content). Children are adapting (and adaptable) to much faster information processing. It's the byproduct of our foray into the Information Age.

And finally, the maligning of teaching as a profession has to cease. Yes, we are civil servants, but a unique branch of public workers. We play a key role in insuring the continuity of the entire social and economic fabric of our society. Constantly flogging teachers for doing their jobs in an outmoded and broken system only creates indifference to your pleas for reform. If you want teachers to do more for your children, then the best place to start is by saying, "Can we work together to fix this problem?" That's what Maria Goodloe-Johnson failed to do, and that's why she is gone.

Perhaps Dr. Enfield will be different.

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 9:07 a.m. Inappropriate

There is a common thread in every one of the departures: managerial incompetence. Not academic performance or really anything involving teaching per se. So we don't need a visionary or PR genius, I'd simply like to see a superintendent who is a competent large-organization leader, able to manage budgets, assess performance, find and fix problems... and most importantly, identify good people, give them the tools they need to succeed, and get out of their way.

MagBill

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 9:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Good piece, Skip, thanks. You rightly point how elusive, though much sought after, trust seems to be. And you're right, I think, to suggest that given the nature and multiplicity of issues bearing down on a school superintendent, it's very, very difficult to gain and sustain trust. Is it impossible? I don't know. I have two other questions: Is this phenomenon, the difficulty of establishing and sustaining trust, worse or different in Seattle, or pretty much the same as elsewhere? And, second, what are the responsibilities/ obligations of those on the other side of the leader--constituent equation (in this case, parents, teachers, Board members, voters, and school kids)? Often we only hold "the leader" accountable without also examining constituent behaviors. It does seem to me that the present school board has behaved more responsibly than Boards during recent prior superintendencies.

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 11:56 a.m. Inappropriate


Trust and accountability are the "words of the day." Focusing on past Superintendent's foibles is a reminder that history repeats itself in the SPS system. Bad history. Bad news. But that is only a symptom of what repeatedly leads to these events.

"Culture" and "governance" are at the heart of the problem. Danny Westneat addresses both in his recent Seattle Times column.

With a part time Board lacking an independent staff, the SPS's office need not be overly concerned about full disclosure, especially regarding "bad news." The SPS's office is culturally entrenched in a "don't tell the board, we can handle it" mode. That's understandable, unacceptable, and won't change with the current governance model.

There are other cultural issues endemic to both the Board and the SPS. Political correctness and "the Seattle way" make things even more complicated. And a relatively small, mutually supportive,circle of insiders drinking each other's kool-aid out of the public eye does not help.

The Seattle Times series is helping the public focus. That's a good beginning.

The next step is for the Board to commit to taking a hard look at "governance" and the "culture" it begets and reinforces. Clearly the current model isn't working. There are many models from which to benchmark how well things are working. Maybe the latest events will encourage this to happen. One can only hope.

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 12:19 p.m. Inappropriate

"Making all schools charter schools with no central school district at all. Going entirely to vouchers. Privatizing the schools. Turning them over to Bill & Melinda Gates."

"No idea is a bad idea, except continuing on the same futile path."

Nonsense. Lots of ideas are terrible ideas, including some you listed.

The problems with today's schools are rooted deep in our culture and arrive at school every day in the form of students who, because of the failures of their parents and the wider society, have little interest and no commitment to genuine learning. That's why we go through one reform movement after another with virtually no success -- none of these reforms come anywhere near the real problem, and they never will unless and until our society as a whole and its members individually radically alter their approach.

Ellis

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 1:27 p.m. Inappropriate

As long as public education remains a monopoly, with no choice, no real competition, and political influence peddling by entrenched union cronyism on state and federal levels, there cannot be any real, meaningful change. That's why the same problems keep resurfacing year-after-year.

Even before John Stanford was hired from out-of-town to come in on his white horse and fix everything, there were calls for system-wide performance audits of our education system. Those calling for performance audits were demonized in the media. Well, here we are again years later, John Stanford is long gone, may he rest in peace, and the system is more screwed up than ever, with millions of dollars unaccounted for. Yet, many will insanely keep insisting that we must keep doing things the same way.

We need to face the fact that the entire system is broken. Performance audits need to happen now. And, taxpaying parents should receive tuition vouchers so that they can afford to send their children to the schools of their choice - public or private. Children should not be forced to attend substandard schools or schools that are crime-ridden or have police officers walking the halls, or schools in a system overseen by corrupt administrators. Without these long-overdue systemic changes, there is no hope of reform.

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Your piece takes the premise that Goodloe-Johnson was the right person for the job, and if she coudn't get it done, then what?

I would say that Goodloe-Johnson was actually a failure in the hiring process. Just the most cursory look of the reporting on her tenure in Charleston would have shown that she had received negative evaluations from the school board for not providing "complete and accurate information" to the school board. More alarmingly, Goodloe-Johnson said she disagreed with this assessment.

This clearly was a red flag for her ability to maintain public trust.

I agree with your main point, however, given our recent history, we need something more than another warm body to fill the Supe's seat. Pledges to add better financial controls are not enough.

I don't think we need drastic measures though. The solution could be as simple as allowing the city to hire and pay for an internal auditor position.

The SPS internal auditor recently proved himself to be incompetent and corrupt, and, who knows, he may have been hired exactly for those reasons.

Let the city hire and fund an auditor and we can be guaranteed his independence and autonomy from the SPS bureaucracy.

Such an auditor wouldn't just help guard against the next financial scandal. He could also work to make sure that all the information provided to the board is accurate and complete, something Goodloe-Johnson had problems providing even beyond the Potter affair.

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 2:26 p.m. Inappropriate

The job of Superintendent of Seattle Public Schools is not an impossible job. Not at all. It is, in fact, a fairly simple job for any competent manager or administrator. Unfortunately, the public K-12 education industry does not develop competent managers or administrators. It is highly unlikely that we will find one now working in a school district. We will have to look elsewhere. I would suggest we look for one in a service or sales industry in which professionals on the front line produce all of the value and the central administration is seen as a cost center and kept intentionally small.

Dr. Goodloe-Johnson did almost everything wrong, but her worst mistake was to expand the size, cost, role, and authority of the central office over the schools. The Central Office should handle the non-academic duties (food, transportation, facilities, human resources, etc.) to free the schools of them. Regarding academics, the District should play a small supporting role and a large quality assurance role.

The first change that needs to be made to make the superintendent job more manageable would be to re-define - more narrowly - the mission of the central administration.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

As for governance in the School District, there can be none until we elect school board directors with vertebrae.

Directors Sundquist and Martin-Morris must go. This fall will do, but sooner would be better. They still don't believe that they have any duty to oversee the District. They still choose to believe everything the staff tells them, even the things they know to be false. Consider Mr. Sundquist's recent stated belief that 90 central administration positions were eliminated - an easily discredited lie. Consider Mr. Martin-Morris scolding his board colleagues on November 17 for not believing a false statement from Dr. Enfield.

Directors Carr and Maier should probably also go. They have shown some signs of awakening of late, but it only comes after far too long. Director Carr's self-hyped "audit response" has now taken nine months but still hasn't made any of the systemic changes that were promised. Her Action Items have a long list of non-action verbs. Director Maier has shown sincere interest in oversight of late, but he is working out of the deepest hole of any of the Board members having never voted against the staff and never critically questioned them even once during the whole first three solid years of his term.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 2:44 p.m. Inappropriate

I am suspicious of Dr. Enfield - she's had about 5 jobs in the last 10 years and one of her most recent employers will not allow anyone to say anything about her... hmmmm...

I think you're right - the schools need to be completely redone. I live in Seattle and don't know one family whose kids go to public school. It's homeschooling, private school OR many parents move to the Eastside when their kids become school age. The thought of Seattle Public Schools is too horrible to entertain for parents who care about their children.

RRM

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 4:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey, Knute, want to know how to get people to trust you? Be trustworthy. Say what you mean and mean what you say. Keep your commitments.

Seattle Public Schools isn't trusted because Seattle Public Schools has proven itself not to be trustworthy. The District almost never keeps its commitments to students or families. The District almost never keeps any commitments at all.

Ask around. Did the District keep its commitments to families in West Seattle? No. Did the District keep its commitment to families in Southeast Seattle? No. Did the District keep its commitments to families in northeast Seattle? No. Did the District keep its commitments to bilingual students? No. Did the District keep its commitments to advanced learners? No. Did the District keep its commitment to students with IEPs? No. Did the District keep its commitment to students who were moved? No. Did the District keep its commitment to alternative schools? No. Did the District keep its commitment to anybody at any time? No.

Want to know why people don't trust Seattle Public Schools? Because Seattle Public Schools isn't trustworthy. Want to know how Seattle Public Schools can gain trust? By earning it. They need to step up and actually keep some of the hundreds of unfulfilled commitments to students and families. Director Martin-Morris has a list of them. He has had it for years but hasn't done anything about it.

coolpapa

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 7:27 p.m. Inappropriate

If you don't know one family whose kids go to public school, RRM, you only know people with money. Neither home-schooling nor private schools are possible only if a family can live on one income while the other parent home-schools, or if they can afford the private school. People who can afford to move to the Eastside (or anywhere) when they have children also have a financial situation that many don't. Which means that public schools are mostly filled with kids whose parents are middle- to low-income and both work, and therefore don't have time or energy to devote to babysitting their kids' teachers and principals. Seattle public schools are "too horrible to entertain"? What an insufferably elitist comment.

sarah90

Posted Fri, Mar 4, 9:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Seattle's public schools are not too different from other major urban school systems. Many have low test scores, high dropout rates, high turnover in teachers, and enrollments mainly from minority and low-income
households. The local system began its downward course in the late 1970s when a well meaning school board voluntarily adopted compulsory citywide busing---at a time when other communities had given up on it. Academic
performance suffered. Many families moved to suburbs and put their kids in better public schools there. Those who could afford it stayed in the city but put their kids in private schools. Seattle now has fewer school-age kids than any big city nationally but San Francisco.

How to fix the local system? Successive school levies won't do it. Several other big cities, notably New York and Los Angeles, have turned away from the usual professional educationists and put their systems in the hands of tough-minded leaders from other professions. The D.C. system made a turnaround under such a tough-minded superintendent but she exited when the mayor who supported her was defeated for reelection.

A number of studies have shown that student performance rises when
there is accountability---both by teachers and students. Teachers unions
have resisted testing of teachers for competence in their subject.
(We all are familiar with the fact that an education major generally is regarded as an easy, nondemanding major on any college campus and that
education-school graduates typically are long on method, short on substance
when they enter the classroom). Teachers in this state, as elsewhere,
keep pushing smaller class size as a panacea. Yet there seems to be little correlation between class size and student performance. This leads
to the widespread belief that teachers want smaller class size because that means they have less work to do.

Trust in the system will come when school board members and parents push administrators hard on all aspects of the system's operations; when
a tough, motivated superintendent demands high professional performance from principals and teachers (and dumps non-performers); and when
the mission of the system is clearly understood to be the improvement
of academic standards in every school. Any institution becomes trusted to the degree that its leaders are observed to be proceeding with integrity and professionalism. Those are things we must demand; if we don't, we will keep getting less.

Posted Sat, Mar 5, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

Ted, please provide citations if you are going to spout the same-ol-same-ol. For every study supporting your claims ("accountability" matters, class size doesn't), there exists a study finding the opposite, or a later revelation of test-score fraud. The jury is still out on these matters.

Knute, I'm curious why you think charters would be better than the bad-ol' site-based management/school choice thing. Is it because we will have franchises (KIPP, Green Dot) rather than unions? Is it because charters are more "accountable?" Have you followed the outcomes of charters? (CREDO study: 1 in 5 are better than a public school. We can say that now.)

If you are going to talk about education, I suggest you get up to speed, and here is a great place to start: http://seattleducation2010.wordpress.com/

eyesopen

Posted Sat, Mar 5, 3:48 p.m. Inappropriate

There was an interesting study written up in the New Yorker a few years ago. The study looked at students who had been admitted to Harvard, comparing those who accepted the offer with those who declined and ended up attending public universities instead. For every measure of success they looked at - income, divorce rates, mental health, etc. - they found no difference between these groups except for those who grew up in poverty. Only for the poorest kids did actually attending Harvard seem to make a difference.

Perhaps the quality of education isn't nearly as important to achievement as the quality of the student and/or their families.

Sean

Posted Sat, Mar 5, 5:20 p.m. Inappropriate

"The D.C. system made a turnaround under such a tough-minded superintendent but she exited when the mayor who supported her was defeated for reelection."

Oy vey, you mean Michelle Rhee? C'mon, she just lost a court case on her summary dismissal of teachers. (It's a good idea to give them a reason but Ms. Rhee is nothing if not the school of "large and in charge." A judge saw it another way.) Michelle Rhee, who's own performance as a teacher is now called into question (someone went back and looked at HER students' test scores.) Michelle Rhee who, as a first-year teacher, taped some students mouths shut in an effort to gain control of her class?

Small class size means less work? Where do you get this stuff? No, it means a teacher can do more differentiation which is what is needed to meet the needs of every student. Get over 25 students in a classroom and then tell any teacher "class size doesn't matter." (Trying to remember who kept spouting that line - oh right, Maria Goodloe-Johnson.)

(We all are familiar with the fact that an education major generally is regarded as an easy, nondemanding major on any college campus and that
education-school graduates typically are long on method, short on substance
when they enter the classroom).

One of the most singularly disrespectful lines I have ever seen written. I suppose journalism schools everywhere are really rigorous.

That's who we should bring in and duplicate? Not so much.

westello

Posted Sun, Mar 6, 2:49 p.m. Inappropriate

"Teachers unions have resisted testing of teachers for competence in their subject."

And yet we still have the WEST-E, the WEST-B, and Lord only knows what other tests that teachers have to go through to get their certificates.

This was one of your sillier comments.

Ryan

Posted Mon, Mar 7, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Cued by Knute, the Seattle Times intoned the "trust" issue yet again.

kieth

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