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Seattle Public Schools' maddening 'Blank Stare of Bureaucracy'

Guest Opinion: Seattle Public Schools has a customer service problem.

Two years ago, my son took a battery of tests at the expense of Seattle Public Schools qualifying him for a special program. When we inquired a few weeks ago about enrolling him, we were surprised to be told that he wouldn’t be able to participate because we hadn’t submitted a form back in the fall to apply for another set of testing.

Two months and a long string of email exchanges later, everyone agrees that my son didn’t actually need any additional testing. But he still would not be admitted because there is only one process, and “no exceptions.” There is no appeal or recourse.

As the director of an education think tank focused on national issues, it feels indulgent to write about my own kids’ experiences in the public school system. But there’s no better way to illustrate one of the reasons my organization pursues the work it does on behalf of students.

The ease with which Seattle Public Schools neglects or dismisses the needs of families — through what I call the “blank stare of bureaucracy” — is one of the primary elements driving parents, in this city and throughout the nation, to seek alternatives.

The percentage of children attending private schools in Seattle is more than double the national average. When charter schools come to town, SPS faces even more attrition. If the school system wants to compete — and, more importantly, if it wants to do right by the children who stay — it must adopt a customer service mindset.

There is no SPS form I know of that can be filled out online, and sometimes no dropbox in which to leave forms if you take time off of work to go to the John Stanford Center and find the relevant staff out of the office. There is no way to find out what, say, “Spectrum” means compared to “Advanced Learning Opportunities” without clicking through several schools’ websites and emailing principals — and even then you still might not know.

I know people who are experts in education, but can’t figure out how to make sure their kids can buy milk at lunch.

These are minor inconveniences, though, compared to the flippant way the system responds — or doesn’t — to students’ special needs. No matter how evident it is that your child’s situation merits individual consideration, your inquiries are met by maddening emails that repeat the policy and assert that there are no exceptions.

If, on my first exchange with SPS, I’d been welcomed into the office and told that they couldn’t make an exception to the policy, but wanted to help me find some other way to ensure my son’s learning needs would be met next year, things would have been different. But I wasn't welcomed, and, it turns out, neither were many other parents. Special education services and assignment processes are so opaque (and often illegal) that the Seattle Special Education PTSA recently requested state intervention.

These kind of frustrations underscore why people sometimes turn to charter schools or pay to attend private schools at great cost. Parents want their kids to be in schools and school systems marked by humanity, trust, goodwill and customer service. There are many school districts around the country that have figured out how to be more flexible and responsive, hiring parent advocates and secret shoppers and embracing choice and innovation.

If Seattle Public Schools wants to thrive, and wants its students to thrive, in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it needs to start putting students before bureaucracy.

Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a nonpartisan research center affiliated with the University of Washington Bothell. Though she works in education reform, the views expressed here are her own as a Seattle public school parent.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 8:30 a.m. Inappropriate

First, much of what Ms. Lake says is true. (I do find it disingenuous for her to not mention that her "education think tank" is mostly a charter school think tank but I digress.)

I'm fairly sure she is speaking of the Advanced Learning program at SPS which has been an ill-defined, hard-to-navigate place for years. In fact, it's why I started becoming a public education advocate (and you can see how far I have gotten in creating any change). There is progress underway via two taskforces to address this issue. But the office is underfunded and thus the very strict policies (that and AL parents tend to be a fairly aggressive group).

I have to smile that she is so late to this party. Most of us have been complaining for years that this program is confusing and ill-conceived. Maybe some of that advocacy she has for charters might be handy for this program because if she believes there are charters with great programs for advanced learners, they are few and far between. (And, judging from reading the charter school applications, most of the charters have little in the way of serving advanced learners.)

"There is no SPS form I know of that can be filled out online, and sometimes no dropbox in which to leave forms if you take time off of work to go to the John Stanford Center and find the relevant staff out of the office."

I assume she is still speaking of Advanced Learning because I know what she is saying is false for enrollment which is going on as we speak. There are online forms to enroll and a dropbox to put the enrollment forms in should you want to go to JSCEE.

"No matter how evident it is that your child’s situation merits individual consideration, your inquiries are met by maddening emails that repeat the policy and assert that there are no exceptions."

You can tell that to Special Ed parents who have experienced far worse.

Welcome to Seattle Public Schools. If you want to learn more about advocating within our district, you might follow my blog, Seattle Schools Community Forum.

westello

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 8:37 a.m. Inappropriate

I did forget to mention - Seattle Schools IS growing and by about 1,000 students a year. It has been for the last three years. It is one of very few urban districts in the country to be growing.

So while Lake is right about the customer service and the Byzantine nature of SPS, the numbers are on their side. While the private school numbers stay steady (and there are several reasons for that), the public school numbers continue to rise. And for areas like advanced learning and special education, charters will NOT fill that gap. Ms. Lake knows that data very well and charters are not the place you go for students with special needs.

westello

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 8:51 a.m. Inappropriate

While I agree with what Ms. Lake says, I will say that she and others like here are the root cause of the problem.

Too many “centers,” studies, forums or whatever you may wish to call them have paralyzed school systems across the nation. Lawyers have brought so many suits against the school system that many fear to teach for fear of what they may be sued for.

The school system is afraid to teach, discipline or violate any procedure set to placate offended parents. Offended parents are the bane of a good school. As a recently retired teacher told me: “When I started teaching 38 years ago, a person considered to be a good teacher had a strong lesson plan. Now, a teacher is considered good when they have a relationship with the parents and students.”

This follows for administration, they are all fearful of loosing their jobs because of some whining parent. It is not just from the left of the political spectrum, or the right, it is from the whole spectrum right left and in the middle. This I believe is a result of thinking that every child is special. They are not; they are just like every other student in their classroom. They may be special to their parents, but we need to have that end at the front door. Once the student walks into school, they are just like every other student.

When this happens, administration and teachers will be free to address the real needs of every student no matter what their needs are.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you honestly in favor of one-size-fits-all, sage-on-the-stage, conveyor-belt learning?

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 6:43 a.m. Inappropriate

In reply to your multitude of "witty" comments, I do not think anybody indicated they favored that.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 8:53 a.m. Inappropriate

No matter the hundreds of press releases telling the world about your innovation, leadership, excellence, tolerance and inclusiveness, no matter how many fancy brochures you print and mail, no matter how many luncheons are hosted with dynamic speakers...

Reality remains.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 10:23 a.m. Inappropriate

The Great Recession forced Seattle Public Schools to close a funding gap of $125M. Special ed. programs were cut to the bone, while Ms. Lake and her colleagues pushed "reforms" that took dollars and supports out of our classrooms.

I am glad Ms. Lake has gotten out of the echo-chamber of her "think tank" and into the real world of education.

I have to wonder if Ms. Lake is referring to advanced learning?

Ms. Lake and her colleagues sit in their "think tanks" and push high stake testing. Perhaps now, Ms. Lake will understand problems with such systems.

Ms. Lake complains about bureaucracy, but she has pushed initiatives that involve high levels of bureaucracy and administration. So much so, that the folks in the John Stanford Center are busy meeting Federal and State Laws.

Ms. Lake complains about bureaucracy and lack of programing. Yet, Ms. Lake pushes charter schools and fails to acknowledge the additional burdens of bureaucracy and the dollars charter schools will take out of an underfunded system.

Regarding private schools, Ms. Lake is out of touch. Seattle is growing at leaps and bounds, and private schools are full.

I find this piece rather amusing.

Watching

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 12:21 p.m. Inappropriate

I have to admit Ms. Lake sounds naive, but what is really amusing is the amount of people willing to challenge and attack her piece anonymously. Do you really think your words have any weight when you won't even claim them? Ms. Lake might be misguided, in your opinion, but she is doing something.

I have an idea. Why don't you attack her children? It's effective, less chance of there being any repercussions, and Ms. Lake will then "get" it.

KarenLee

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 7:30 p.m. Inappropriate

Ms. Lake pushes controversial initiatives that has impacted the lives of tens of thousands of children. These initiatives have stressed an already stressed system. I "get it".

Watching

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

I have to challenge Ms. Lake's assertions of one time process. Seattle Public Schools offers multiple opportunities to get a child into advanced learning. Of course, this involves "high stake testing"; something Ms. Lake promotes! You want to measure student progress? Then, have your child take the MAP test. If they had a bad day, the same test would disqualify them from advanced learning.

There are also multiple opportunities to provide your child with sp. ed. services.

Welcome to reality of your own policies.

Watching

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

What decent parent knowingly and willingly places their child in the middle of an adults' political squabble, if they have other options?

KarenLee

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 3:51 p.m. Inappropriate

Like what?

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

Ms. Lake. Move or attend private schools if you don't like the public school choices in Seattle. Then write to the School Board, the Mayor and City Council about your decision. Probably that won't help, but the reality is, your child comes first. Quit wasting time complaining, and make a decision that is specific to the kids needs.

Leaving may be your best decision for your kids benefit. Time wasted is not.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 11:21 a.m. Inappropriate

indulgent, ignorant, and icky

eyesopen

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 2:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Let's begin with some disclosure. Robin Lake, the author of this column, is the Director of the Center on Reinventing Education. In that role she has done research which has lent support to a number of Education Reform positions. This has earned her the enmity of public school activists.

The ground that divides them may surprise you.

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.

coolpapa

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 3:49 p.m. Inappropriate

I write from Bainbridge, where I am experiencing almost identical bureaucratic obstacles here.

There are a couple of other interesting similarities. One is the almost knee-jerk response that anyone gets who dares to criticize public schools. It is like criticizing your church. Some things are supposed to be above it all. Most of these defenses are of the "they're doing the best job they can" nature. And naturally it is easier to say that money would fix everything, since this obviously puts a fix beyond management control.

I've come to the belief that only charter schools and other alternatives will get the public schools to change, when those alternatives have reached critical mass. Thirty years ago we thought the best we could do in our public mail service was "special delivery", and then Fedex came along, when you "absolutely, positively" had to have it there the next day. Now, defensively, the postal service has gotten in the overnight business, but still without the absolutely, positively. Unless they have to change to survive, our big public institutions probably won't.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 3:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Are you honestly in favor of one-size-fits-all, sage-on-the-stage, conveyor belt learning?

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 4:17 p.m. Inappropriate

I worked for Seattle Schools for over 20 years. Its bureaucracy was byzantine then; it sounds even worse now. However, most of the people I worked with--in schools and in administrative offices--did give a damn and gave good service.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 5:38 p.m. Inappropriate

Why must she say “special program” if she means APP? Does she know she’d be a thousand times less likely to get readers’ sympathy? Ooh, ouch! Yes, I touched that. But it’s true. A person with a super-smart kid is in a different pickle than a person with a kid with learning disabilities. They’ve both got pickles, but they land on different spots on the sympathy meter and she knows that and so she starts this whole thing off from a point of strategic disingenuousness.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 7:15 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree. We're only getting one side of the story, too.

Watching

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 6:11 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh, and, "But there’s no better way to illustrate one of the reasons my organization pursues the work it does on behalf of students.”

Heck yeah there is, my otherwise "data-driven, evidence-baced” friend. You can’t really believe that AND pursue the line of work and rhetoric you do. An anecdote always comes in handy when the evidence doesn’t quite scratch your itch.

Oh, and, "If, on my first exchange with SPS, I’d been welcomed into the office and told that they couldn’t make an exception to the policy, but wanted to help me find some other way to ensure my son’s learning needs would be met next year, things would have been different. “

Gack! But you push policies that would take even more resources away from already impecunious districts. How are we paying for the employee who would be welcoming you into their office? Welcoming you and every other disgruntled parent for a nice cuppa? And how loudly would you be complaining about those dollars not going “into the classroom?” Waste! This is why we need charters! No one to welcome me at the district! This is why we need charters! I’m mad! This is why we need charters!

Talk to all the parent advocates in this district who have had the same experiences as you and tried to HELP the district get better (yeah, it’s hard, frustrating work, baby - just about everything that matters is) instead of running off to smart bomb it from a “think tank." Really. Welcome all of us into your office to hear our complaints and tell us why, regretfully, you must trash our kids’ schools in order to keep SPS “competitive.” Maybe that would make things different.

You know, upon several re-reads, this piece doesn’t even make sense.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 9:59 p.m. Inappropriate

I hates me a typo! “Evidence-baSed." What are you going to do?

Reflecting, this was kind of a mean, unhelpful comment from me. Robin Lake is a nice person, but she shouldn’t have the bullhorn she does and she makes me super peevish. I don’t like to add to internet bile. And I do think she means well. Just too bad about the conclusions she’s made and the wheel to which she’s decided to put her shoulder.

Posted Wed, Mar 5, 7:47 p.m. Inappropriate

I am sure there are exceptions, but from my experience SPS is one of the most extreme examples of an organization where the central administration seems almost uniformly less capable than those delivering the service (both principals and teachers). I think that is the basic reason why efforts to advocate for and improve SPS make slow progress at best. I am pretty sure that the "Blank Stare of Bureaucracy" is in fact a "Blank Stare of Incompetence".

WSDW

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 7:41 a.m. Inappropriate

As noted above it does seem as if Ms.Lake's beef is with Advanced Learning and her desire to circumvent the department's application process.According to the Advanced Learning web pages,nearly 5000 families managed to submit on-time applications. 10% of the District submitted the required paperwork by the published deadline. What she suggests is the equivalent of line jumping -in my case make an exception. How many exceptions would then follow?

Deadlines exist everywhere and at times seem arbitrary and unfair particularly with regards to children. Any bets that charter schools have application deadlines? Do charter schools provide specific exceptions to policies and procedures? If that faceless bureaucracy with its annoying deadlines is a public school, its off with their heads!

Can and should the District be more user friendly -yes. Can and should Advanced Learning build in a little flexibility to their process -probably. But I find it amusing that in this case the District follows their own procedures and is criticized for it. What a world.

Margie

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

I am pretty sure that the point of this piece is not that a specific service is not being rendered but rather that there is little capacity within the district to serve the child rather than simply administer programs.

It happens that in this case our child (yes Robin is my wife) is eligible for both advanced learning services and special education services. In the case of the advanced learning deadline it is a testing deadline and our child has already been tested as was stated in the original opinion piece. No special treatment was requested. For many kids on the Autism spectrum it is a challenge to find the right mix of flexibility and rigor to best meet their development needs. No one program is quite right. We have had the great fortune to have enjoyed the support of many dedicated and creative individuals in the Seattle School District. All of these individuals have made a difference in spite of the systems put in place by the district, not because of them.

But the idea that readers of Robin’s opinion piece would be more sympathetic in the case of a learning disability strikes me as odd. First, it misses entirely the key point, which is that how institutions relate to individuals matters greatly. The fact that the services in question are advanced learning services is beside the point. Second, it makes the common mistake of assuming people with unique challenges require sympathy.

I know a lot of parents and kids out there with much more challenging circumstances than our own. My experience, in fact, is that most kids need some specialized attention at some point in their schooling. No sympathy required, just the willingness to try to address the needs of individual kids.

mkitchen

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 2:52 p.m. Inappropriate

@mkitchen If a signed parent form was submitted by the Fall deadline, then you and Robin certainly have a legitimate issue. It is important to understand that the signed form is a requirement of WAC 392-170-047. The District asks that it be signed and returned early in the school year. It is not a testing deadline. I agree that District customer service can be lacking and procedures need to be rational. But the process for determining eligibility for Advanced Learning programs is already a bit chaotic,and allowing families to apply any old time would be ten times more disorganized than it already is. Sometimes deadlines are necessary to provide some semblance of customer service.

Margie

Posted Thu, Mar 6, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

So she missed a required deadline and blames - yes, the school system. Hmm. Whose fault was that?
Like any big organization it is a tangled bureaucracy - just like most private huge organizations. Sounds like she just needs to a calendar/organizer.

Treker

Posted Fri, Mar 7, 10:02 a.m. Inappropriate

Mr. Kitchen, if you have to write in to explain your wife's piece, I think someone else missed the point,not the readers. (There are a lot of us out there with twice-gifted children.)

westello

Posted Sat, Mar 8, 10:36 a.m. Inappropriate

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

coolpapa

Posted Sun, Mar 9, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

I've often wondered if there's a better way to deliver public education in Washington, better than dividing the state into 295 separate and independent school districts, each one presided over by a small board of elected volunteers.

Hawaii has a single state-wide school system presided over by a board appointed by the governor, a legacy of territorial days and probably the monarchy before that. I wish we would take a look at that model. It can't possibly be any worse than what we're doing now, and it might be a whole lot better. It would at least destroy the incompetent local bureaucracies that coolpapa laments.

Posted Mon, Mar 10, 7:22 a.m. Inappropriate

The problem with this solution lies in the dysfunctional culture of the state education bureaucracy. It's the same or worse than the one we find in the Districts.

The OSPI refuses to fulfill its regulatory function. So does the State Board of Education.

coolpapa

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