In search of rational, productive talk about education

Why is it so hard to talk calmly about improving our children's schools? Despite good intentions and a caring crowd, one recent meeting deteriorated in predictable ways.

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A classroom in the Laotian school in Ban Na Muang.

Why is it so hard to talk calmly about improving our children's schools? Despite good intentions and a caring crowd, one recent meeting deteriorated in predictable ways.

The recent announcement of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s effort to reform the state’s education structure came only a day before an education town-hall meeting in Seattle’s 46th legislative district, hosted by State Sen. Scott White and Seattle School Board members Sherry Carr and Peter Maier. The event was attended by several dozen people including Seattle Education Association leaders, teachers, parents, and reform activists.

A meeting like this, in tight budget times with all the national conversation about the state of our schools, was going to be contentious under any circumstances. But the governor’s action proved a catalyst for the evening’s conversation.

It was clear at the beginning of the meeting that everyone in the room cares deeply about education and kids. Every person in the crowd raised a hand when asked if they supported the recent, failed ballot measure to enact an income tax. Many have volunteered time on school levy campaigns, logging hours of phone calls to strangers and getting people to attend rallies. There was a strong sense of a shared goal and the energy to work for it.

And then the questions started to get specific. Without a doubt, the most heated were directed toward Carr and Maier. Many asked what the district was doing to cut what they perceived to be a top-heavy administration. Some wanted to know how board members could stand up to Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson — implying that she was not doing a good job.

There was concern that when layoffs come, some reclassified administrators will bump active teachers because of seniority rules. No one really had an answer to this but it does highlight the friction between teachers and the administration.

Carr said Seattle's ratio of administrative personnel to teachers is in line with other districts in King County and around the state. This was not the case in 2008-09, she said, when the district was top-heavy compared with others. Last year the district cut 85 administrative positions.

The district also continues to take heat for claiming that only 17 percent of high-school graduates in Seattle are college ready. They later corrected that figure to 46 percent. But the teachers at this small event at Thornton Creek Elementary School were not in a forgiving mood.

And then came a discussion of teacher seniority. One parent asked if factors other than seniority could be considered during reduction-in-force (RIF) decisions, or layoffs. This led to accusations of ageism, corporatism, globalism, and every other "ism" you can imagine. Watching the sides form and the discussion deteriorate in a room where so many share the same goal was truly depressing.

As a parent I have seen the impact of RIFs on young teachers in a vulnerable situation. Many will decide not to come back to teaching. My kids have had great new teachers and great experienced teachers — and there have been a few not-so-good ones, young and old. So why is it so hard to discuss this in a rational way?

There is enough blame to go around.

The reformers (Disclosure: I’m a parent volunteer for Stand For Children) have done a poor job of leading with teacher support and making the case that they are working for more funding for education. The discussion of charter schools has also taken on a life of its own, as some think it’s the Holy Grail and others the stalking horse of privatization. It seems we can take lessons from other states’ experiences and integrate what works into our public schools.

The teachers' union is feeling under attack — as many unions are these days. The focus on teacher accountability has put the burden of our system's failures squarely on their backs. This is unfair. The Seattle Education Association (SEA) is upset that accountability seems to flow only toward them and away from the superintendent and school board. The union made a number of concessions in its recent contract around teacher accountability and student testing. They have not seen much in the way of thanks in the media or town-hall meetings. So, Thank You!

But we must discuss the seniority issue and how we can develop a system where high-performing teachers are rewarded and encouraged, struggling teachers are mentored and supported, and teachers that have lost interest in teaching or just can’t do the job anymore are let go. We all know this makes sense. The issue has more to do with trust and respect than the basic idea that for an organization to function at a high level it needs to attract and retain top talent.

The same goes for the administration side of the house. The school board needs to hold the superintendent accountable for student performance. This means making sure that every dollar is prioritized for the classroom first. Goodloe-Johnson should make an effort to let our teachers know how much they are appreciated for what they do. And she should do it in very public ways. Board members should insist on this and do it themselves.

The people attending the meeting at Thornton Creek Elementary on that rainy Thursday night are united by an idea. We should find a way to discuss and resolve our differences and focus on what really matters: the notion that we’re responsible for making sure every child gets a quality public education.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.