October 22, 2011

Transforming Seattle Public Schools

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.


  1. I hear what you're saying and agree with it. Especially troubling when I know one of the directors you recommend replacing personally but I can't argue with your reasoning.

    But let me expand on this a bit. I have some concerns that nothing will change, at least not substantially or quickly, if the way the board gets its information isn't modified. I would like to see independent financial reporting that takes raw data from the district and generates the reports the directors want/need without going to the district for them. How can we expect them to find rogue operations like the Potter fiasco when the data comes from the people being supervised? I have suggested to the mayor that this function be done by city employees (sure some resources can be found?) or if necessary by contract employees as way of building confidence in the board and to forestall the city having to get involved in district management. A sound school district that graduates strong, confident young people is a benefit to the city and state and should be a priority for the mayor and city council.

    The board has very little administrative support to deal with constituents and I think this is a problem that can be both easily addressed and deliver good returns. At the UW, you have the capacity to create mailing lists for classes, groups, etc. to better communicate with various communities. I have suggested this be made available for the board and for any other group, from schools or classes to PTAs and other school-related groups. The cost is minimal (mostly staffing to setup and run it and some hardware/bandwidth, both negligible costs) and the possible benefits significant. So far one director has taken it upon themselves to get their own (Kay Smith-Blum).

    And to one of your pet peeves, why don't we have a textbook review/approval process that uses university professors, business people, and parents to help guide these decisions? Who better than profs and possible employers to gauge the quality of the graduates and the materials used to educate them?

    Unless we change some of these structural/administrative issues, I don't know that the new board won't be as hamstrung as the others we have had. I agree that curiosity and passion are lacking in the incumbents but maybe that was there at the outset and ground down by the lack of resources and support?

  2. For three+ years, the current school board incumbents seeking reelection showed no interest in supervising the last superintendent. They bought her out on 22 hours of public notice rather than firing her with cause. A deeper public look into MGJ's shortcomings was not desired by the Board.

    The same 22 hours was all the public notice given of the coming vote to make Dr. Enfield the new interim Superintendent. Dr Enfield has now written her own evaluation tool and the Board accepted it at a one meeting slam dunk. ((WOW 2 days for public comment.))

    The Board is continuing its failure to supervise the Superintendent.

    Toss all four of the incumbents. Twenty Goals is hardly a suitable evaluation instrument.

    Somebody needs to be supervising Dr. Enfield ... the currenet board has no interest in doing so.

  3. Former board member Mary Bass was defeated because she asked repeatedly to get information and didn't stop until she received it. Others who also asked too many questions were also defeated. It's astounding to me that our district isn't better, although there are highly skilled and effective people working in administration. Transparency is essential. I'm grateful for your advocacy.

  4. A little off topic for todays blog post, but it's about weather?!

    I was looking at the Weather.gov, Weather Underground and Probcast forcasts for Eastern Washington. The Probcast forcast seems to differ from the other two quite a bit for how some rain will develop over the center of the east side. Weather.gov and Weather Underground seem similar. I'm curious if you have any ideas why the three forcasts look so different. I pulled up forcasts for Vantage, WA in case you were wondering.

    The high temperature also seems to be quite a bit different between the three, 67, 63 and 57.

    Just thought it was interesting and was curious about what might be happening.

  5. Alice said:

    Mary Bass was defeated because she asked repeatedly to get information and didn't stop until she received it.

    How interesting, Peter Maier got information and discarded it.

    Here is Director Maier's statement on video.

    This was on March 2, 2011. The Board then unanimously voted to buyout the Superintendent's contract for around $270,000 and her crony Don Kennedy for $90,000 rather than fired her and him with cause.

    DO NOT REELECT THESE DIRECTORS in this election... they are incapable of supervising any superintendent.

  6. Peter Meier is the most appalling of the incumbents. He got a report about the corruption Potter was committing a full year before the rest of the board. He did not tell the District Attorney. He did not tell the public. He did not tell the Superintendent to do something about it. He did not tell his colleagues on the board. Apparently his only response was to cross his fingers and hope it would never come out. We need Directors who will govern the District, not help corrupt District employees continue bilking the District.

    The Board need people who work for them. The previous superintendent's contract did not allow the Board to get information from lower-level District employees, only through the Superintendent and a couple of her direct reports. That must not be allowed to happen when a new superintendent is hired.

    Yes, the Board need administrative support. We might also get more good candidates by paying them a salary. To do the Director's job well is a full-time job. While I'm pleased with the challengers we have this election, in the long-term there aren't that many families who can afford to have one potential breadwinner earning nothing by donating their time to the District.

  7. Patrick,

    I disagree on paying school directors.

    Before paying Directors I would like to see evidence based decision-making. This job is not nearly as difficult as these incompetent directors make it appear.

    To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data.

    I have little faith that paid directors will be any more likely to make decisions not effected by special interests than unpaid directors are likely to make.

    The Board's duty is to make policy and see that it is carried out. The fact that this Board refuses to enforce policy and often disregards its own policies should not be used as an argument to pay directors.

  8. Paying people for their work is not a reward for the current directors, it's a way of attracting a better group of director candidates in the future. If it were to be done, it should start in four years to avoid voting themselves a pay raise without the voters having the chance to vote them out. This is a long-term help for the problem, short-term being voting for the challengers this election.

    Not paying the directors may give some of them the mistaken impression that the job can be done in a couple of spare hours per week.

  9. Cliff, thanks for your continued work on the state of the Seattle School District. I wish you'd analyze the Bellevue School Board in the same way... I'm actually having a hard time deciding about a few of them. There's only one that's SOLIDLY good (Christine Chew).

    Anyway, how did Probcast get today all wrong? It's POURING out (0.1" at 8:50 am with a calculated hourly rate of 0.5" if it keeps up) and it calls for a 10% chance of precip with a 10% chance of greater than 0". The UW radar mashup shows a band of red precip headed this way so it's not over yet.

    "Thanks" for the surprise sunshine yesterday. I got the hot tub scrubbed and refilled and the deck mostly pressure-washed. I am thrilled to have gotten that done without suffering in cold rain. :-)

  10. Perhaps Mr Mass should consider running for the school board if he is so concerned. He might also want to think about problems with the system itself that may limit individuals from functioning successfully within it. Someone with a science background might be helpful in developing a system which encourages such things as peer review and measurement of how the system is working (successful or not).

  11. I'm a bit confused about the negative comment for teach for america. I would rather have someone with a real college degree teaching my child than a teacher with one of these silly teaching certifications. I heard they are useless from teachers themselves.

    The applications process for teach for america is fairly rigorous and competative because it's a great way to pad your resume right out of college. No, it's not great but it's not like your comment where they are sticking anyone in the classroom.

    But all that said the discovery math texts sound horrible.

  12. More bad SSD news... http://www.komonews.com/news/local/132544383.html.

    I went to Garfield High School in Seattle, which was relatively privileged compared to some of the other schools. I hope the Seattle School District cleans up its act! I will take your recommendations when voting for a new school board!

  13. Anastasia, my understanding is that most teachers get a bachelor's and then get the teaching credential in 2-3 years after that. At least that's the resumes of my daughter's teachers say.

    I, too, have heard negative reports about the value of some of the classes in teaching certificate programs. However, what they get that's very valuable is 2-3 years student teaching in an actual classroom, with real kids and an experienced teacher to guide them. By the time a traditionally certified teacher has a classroom of his/her own, the comparable TFA teacher has moved on to whatever they consider to be their real career. The TFA commitment is for two years, and only a small minority remain classroom teachers after that. That means just about the time they're getting good at teaching, they leave.

    TFA can have a place in school districts that are completely unable to recruit certified teachers. I understand that happens in some places. But in Seattle there are dozens of applicants for every teaching position. Why should we consider a 5-week wonder to be the equivalent of someone with completed coursework, significant student teaching time, and a commitment to the profession?


Please make sure your comments are civil. Name calling and personal attacks are not appropriate.

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