Transforming Seattle Public Schools

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Every week there seems to be a new headline revealing a new scandal, a new mistake, a new problem or a new school official forced to leave at Seattle Public Schools.  Student performance lags, particularly of the least advantaged.  One of the high-tech capitals of the U.S., a city with a highly educated and progressive population, possesses a school district that is doing an incredibly poor job in preparing its students for the next century.

It doesn't have to be this way.

Enough is enough.  In this election voter Seattle voters have an opportunity to remove poorly performing incumbent school board members (a.k.a. "Directors") and replace them with individuals with a different vision;  individuals who are willing to ask hard questions and make substantial changes in the district.  And I am convinced that the election of the four challengers offers a real chance to turn this district around.

In this blog I will make the case for voting for four challengers:

 Sharon Peaslee, Marty McLaren, Kate Martin, and Michelle Buetow

What Is Wrong?

  I would need a dozen blogs to properly describe the recent troubles in the Seattle School District, including:

A rogue operation in the district administration (Pottergate) in which school employees were billing the districts for services (training small businesses to work on district projects) that were never done.  Millions wasted.  The superintendent (Maria Goodloe-Johnson, MGJ) and some of her administrators  knew about it and said nothing.   A school board member (Peter Maier) learns about this scandal and does nothing.  MGJ is fired when the media figures learns what is happening, but given a bountiful financial settlement by the school board.  A state audit detailed a rogue contracting operation within district offices, replete with overbilling, ethics violations and intimidation of critics. And the report describes a district administration without sufficient oversight from the School Board.

In fact the State Auditor found a large number of management problems with the school district, including:
  • The Seattle School District overpaid employees due to a lack of adequate
    internal controls during a payroll system conversion.
  • The School Board and District management have not implemented sufficient policies and controls to ensure the District complies with state laws, its own policies, or addresses concerns identified in prior audits.  
  • And many more items I won't list here (read the whole sordid list here).
The district sells an old elementary school school for 3 million dollars to friends of an inside administrator while a private school offers nearly 10 million dollars.  Money that is acutely needed in the classroom. The district decides to sell or re-purpose 6 schools, at substantial cost, and then finds it needs the schools a year later. The school board ignored parent testimony and other evidence that this was a mistake.  Furthermore, it did not occur to the board that their new enrollment plan, guaranteeing that children could go to local schools would encourage enrollment (surprising that parents prefer to have their kids close to home!).

The highly popular and effective principal of Ingraham High School is removed and then rehired based on a huge outpouring of support by the community and school staff.  It turns out the decision was made by a very young and inexperienced administrator (who oversees north-end principals) and the interim superintendent (Susan Enfield, whom the board should never make permanent) was unable to even admit a mistake was made.  The school board says nothing.    And why was such a inexperienced individual placed over experienced principals in the first place?   You won't find this school board asking such questions!

By every objective measure, the performance of less advantaged students (mainly in south-end schools) continue to slide against their north-end counterparts. Check out here  for some data.  And even the district's best students have faired poorly in math and science.

The incumbents voted to support Teach for America (TFA), a scheme whereby students graduating with a non-teaching degrees are put into a classroom WITH ONLY SIX WEEKS OF TRAINING.  Folks, do you want someone that casually decides to teach and then is thrown into the classroom with a a month and a half of training, while there is a huge numbers of trained teachers, who went through a college teaching program and had a year of student teaching under their belt, wanting the same jobs?  Pretty silly and this is what the incumbents are pushing for in Seattle Schools.

But let me get personal here and talk about math education. On May 6, 2009 the school board voted 4-3 to introduce the "Discovering Math" high school math textbook series into Seattle public schools, textbooks that were found "unsound" by the State Board of Education.  I and others testified in front of the board, providing strong evidence of the weaknesses in these "fuzzy math' type books (less emphasis on direct instruction and learning of key math facts, group learning, lots of calculator use, and much more).   Three of those running for election now (Maier, Carr, and Sundquist) ignored the evidence and went with these bad books (Harum Martin-Morris voted against them to his credit, as did current board member Michael DeBell).   The result was predictable:  Seattle School district 10th grade math performance on objective measures has stagnated.  As an aside, Susan Enfield, then academic officer of the district, was provided the information on Discovering Math and went ahead with her recommendation to adopt it.

The incumbents, particularly Maier, Carr, and Sunquist, have been characterized by their rubber-stamping of administration requests, a lack of curiosity, and a lack of vision.  They react to problems and never seem to get ahead of them.  If they remain in office, the depressing headlines will continue.  The challengers are a different sort--these are folks that will ask questions and not assume that the administration is giving them the straight facts.

And there is another issue...the philosophy of many of the current board members and the MGJ and Enfield administrations, one in keeping with the current "education reform" movement that blames the teachers for much of the current problems and pushes "objective" exams as measures of teacher performance.  Folks, teachers don't change demographics and they are crippled when forced to use weak textbooks and curricula as in Seattle. 

So my recommendations for each race:

Sharon Peaslee versus Peter Maier.   An easy one.   Peter is clearly the weakest of the board members and was the member who knew about the financial problems and kept quiet about it.  Didn't seem to care about math education.  Rubber-stamper.  I have known Sharon Peaslee for years.  She has a real background in education, has kids in the schools, and has worked actively for improved math education.   Sharon is strong-willed and will ask the hard questions.   She is supported by the Stranger and most of the local democratic organizations, as well as Seattle teachers.  Peter has a huge financial war chest and is running a huge number of advertisements.  Lets hope that money doesn't decide this race.

Kate Martin versus Sherry Carr.   Another clear choice.  Kate Martin is extraordinarily knowledgeable and articulate about Seattle schools. She is a fire-cracker that calls a spade a spade.  For some she is a bit sharp, but I believe Kate is EXACTLY what the district needs.   Sherry Carr has rubber-stamped virtually every administration request, is bad on math education, and failed to show leadership.

Marty McLaren versus Steve Sundquist.   Very straightforward decision for Marty.   A trained teacher that has deep experience in middle schools, Marty has a vision in which the school board actively listens to the community.  Marty has a deep commitment to improving math education and was the prime-mover and funding source of our lawsuit to stop the Discovering Math textbooks series (we initially won this case when Judge Spector found that the School Board decision was "arbitrary and capricious.").  Steve, now chairman of the school board, has been a weak leader that spends much of his time explaining away their many mistakes.  Big supporter of Teach for America. Marty has strong support and many endorsements from community organizations and teachers.

Michelle Buetow versus Harium Martin-Morris.   Michelle Buetow is energetic, asks good questions, and is a parent of two elementary school students in the district.  She would be a very good board member. Martin-Morris is a mixed bag:  one on hand he was a sustained supporter of the MGJ administration, even when it was obviously failing.  But he did vote against the Discovering math books and the selling off of the schools.  Martin-Morris has been head of the curriculum committee and all reports indicate that he has not provide energetic leadership.  For example, the allowance of waivers for individual schools to experiment with different curricula or teaching approaches has been buried.  On math Buetow is a strong supporter of direct instruction and good textbooks.  My recommendation: vote for Michelle Buetow.

What really makes change possible is that the remaining board members are far better than the incumbents up for election--Michael DeBell, Betty Patu, and Kate Smith Blum have shown independence and an inquiring mind on a number of topics.  Replace the incumbents up for election and this district will finally have a board able to move the district forward.  Leave them in place and expect more headlines.

PS:   I have some suggestions to the new board members--such as hiring more staff to serve the board--insuring that they get good information.  Interim Superintendent Enfield has proven to be a weak, ineffective administrator and has a poor track record; she should be replaced. And it is probably time for the Mayor and city leaders to get involved.  You can't have a great city, and particularly a leader in technology, and have a second class school district.  Or third-class math and science education.
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