Too many people think they could fix Seattle's schools

The mayor, the council, the business community: Does anybody think about holding off on offering their great ideas? And what about some word of thanks for jobs often well done?

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Seattle School Board

The mayor, the council, the business community: Does anybody think about holding off on offering their great ideas? And what about some word of thanks for jobs often well done?

Perhaps you've noticed the way our virtues can flip over and become vices? Pushed too hard, our single-mindedly good qualities reveal another often less-benign side.

A strong work ethic, for example, can become a one-dimensional life with nothing to it but work. Or being responsible, a good thing, can result in never being able to say “no.” Even a virtue like compassion can morph into being indulgent and unintentionally supporting harmful behaviors.

I find myself wondering if something like this may be true in relation to public education and, in particular, the Seattle Public Schools. The laudable virtue here would be involvement or engagement, as in, “Get involved, make a difference.”

But there is a downside. Call it, “Too many cooks in the kitchen.” Or too much anxiety in the system.

I know this is heretical but I sometimes wonder if the Seattle schools might benefit from a bit less public involvement and diminished levels of scrutiny? Yes, in light of the most recent managerial failures, that may seem completely nuts. Bear with me.

It may be a reflection on the circles I travel in, but often the conversation at a social dinner, in the neighborhood, or at civic settings turns to some version of “What’s wrong with the Seattle schools?” or “What needs to be done about the Seattle School District?” Or, “How can the Seattle schools be fixed?”

People are interested — that’s great. Parents and other family members have a very personal and surely legitimate concern for their children. But I also notice that there are a lot of other cooks crowding into this kitchen: local political leaders like the mayor and members of City Council, business leaders and corporations, social activists of various stripes and sympathies, philanthropists and charitable foundations, educational theorists and reformers, media, and labor unions. While we are fond of quips like "The more the merrier" and "two heads are better than one," it is not always the case that getting more people involved automatically makes for better outcomes.

Yet education seems to be a field where everyone is an expert and many people, if not everyone, have a plan, a proposal, an idea, or a solution. Yes, interest and involvement is good and schools are a common, and critical, community asset. And yet, there are some downsides to what is truly a virtue. Here are three.

Too many cooks in the kitchen makes leadership of Seattle Public Schools not just extremely challenging, but maybe impossible. A superintendent and others in school leadership roles are under constant, intense scrutiny and pressure. She or he works in an environment where there is little room for making a mistake.

Some would say, “Well, that just comes with the territory.” Yes, but leaders, if they are to be effective, do need partners who want them to be successful, who are willing to let them grow, and who are able to forgive an occasional misstep or poorly chosen word. While leaders need to build and earn trust from their partners and constituents, real trust is not, “I’m with you as long as you support my cause or agenda, and repeat mantra-like the precise words I want to hear.”

In recent years, the Seattle School District has not found it easy to attact a wide or strong pool of candidates for the position of superintendent. As a community, at this juncture with an acting superintendent and a new search pending, we might ask, perhaps led by the School Board, what it means to be good partners with our educational leaders. If debating the qualities of a good leadership is important, so too is reflecting on what good “followership” looks like.

A second downside of too many cooks in the kitchen is a constant stream of hot ideas from elsewhere: innovations, the latest programs, current enthusiasms, and an infusion of the newest techniques that have worked somewhere else. To some extent the district is itself complicit in this problem, perhaps embracing too many shifts too rapidly. And again, there’s certainly a place for new ideas and learning from others. But to be successful most innovations need time and careful implementation. When they follow one another too rapidly, nothing grows roots. There’s a kind of desperate quality these days to all the quick-fixes and overnight solutions, the casting about here and there. It taxes an already-overtaxed school system to try to assimilate and incorporate a steady steam of fixes, innovations, and someone’s great ideas.

The third downside of too many cooks in the educational kitchen is demoralization and a loss of confidence for the actual kitchen staff, i.e. the administrators, principals, and teachers who have given their lives to education. Am I saying, “Just butt out and leave it to the experts”? No, that’s not going to happen, nor should it. I am, however, saying to bring a little humility to the table with your interest and ideas. Don’t assume you have the answer. I am also saying that in many Seattle schools there is very high quality education going on. In some cases that education is superior to costly private schools. Don’t undermine it with cheap shots and broad-brush criticism.

If the community is to exhibit greater trust, the School District also needs to merit and earn this trust by being clear about its core mission and staying focused, by listening with interest and respect to parents, and by showing itself managerially competent.

But human organizations and institutions don’t get “fixed.” They aren’t automobile engines or leaky faucets. Human organizations get improved. They can be made better and they should be. But they aren’t going to be made perfect. They aren’t going to be fixed. So let’s aim high and work hard. Let’s cut others some slack, and remember to say “thank you” often.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.