Seattle Public Schools: A teachable moment
It’s hard not to reflect carefully upon the Seattle Public School District’s dramatic acknowledgement that a major data point used by parents, educators, school board members and others to highlight the district’s quality is absolutely wrong. I have been thinking long and hard about this issue since it hit the newspaper last week. Without question, I have been one of the elected officials most guilty of perpetuating the (incorrect) data, and it doesn’t feel good.
While there are some who will see a more cynical conspiracy, I see a profoundly troubling mistake that needs to be discussed openly and courageously in all corners of our community.
The real issue is obviously not that a mistake was made. The district’s admission this week that a key piece of data is wildly inaccurate is more than an embarrassing glitch, it’s a symbolic reflection of a more systematic challenge facing many elected boards statewide that have fiduciary obligations to oversee billions in tax dollars and policy but lack access to the professional, independent staff to do the job.
School districts across the state and nation are well versed in the inconsistent arrangement by which part-time, unpaid community leaders (who campaign for the job) are then expected to volunteer thousands of hours without the ability to get the answers to their tough questions that may run counter to professional staff interests. The real issue is that the district’s administration didn’t strive to aggressively correct the inaccuracy from day one. They need to ask themselves why and, hopefully, share the truth with the community.
Perhaps there is not a raging philosophical war between school boards and superintendents, or administrative staff, but we all know there is often a subtle undercurrent of resentment or at least disrespect that runs through the professional ranks about the skillset and abilities of elected school board members. And there is frustration on the part of school board members who feel the professional infrastructure of the district simply waits outs out the board agitators who push and prod for stricter oversight.
I’m exaggerating to make the point. I think.
And yet all of this is not to suggest that the school district disregarded the inquiry that Director Michael DeBell seems to have made, according to the Seattle Times, but that it shows how directors and other board members within education and outside must almost always make substantive tradeoffs in their relationships with the professional staff. Simply, let’s not pretend that it doesn’t take political capital to get staff to do the work you want done because we all know it does.
Why didn’t the district’s administration correct this awful misunderstanding of core data–that is used so frequently by critics and supporters alike–the minute they realized the error?
I’ve written about the broader philosophical issue before here. It is inevitable to a degree but it remains the core of ‘civilian oversight’ that makes democracy tick.
Seattle’s school system, for example, is a 45,000-kid strong, multi-billion enterprise with massive internal politics befitting any large institution. Yet from an objective ‘system’ perspective, the fiduciary, financially independent and technical oversight is conducted by a small board of dedicated community (essentially volunteers) without even so much as an independent staff person to answer their questions free of a superintendent’s oversight.
The larger public policy issue is that we may be setting ourselves up for an unhealthy scenario where the inability of elected officials to provide thorough, truly independent oversight of billions of dollars in our state is virtually inevitable. This is not a blanket condemnation of any one system or structure but merely a recognition that we set ourselves up for unrealistic expectations around oversight that sometimes are difficult to achieve.
Interestingly, in this same category, it’s hard not to think also of the Port of Seattle, another multi-billion entity governed by a handful of elected officials who are paid a small salary (around $8,000 a year but I couldn’t find an exact citation) and yet are charged with oversight of massive sums of public and private dollars, fiduciary contracts and agreements and much more. Again, I’m not suggesting the past, present or future commissioners can’t do the job ably, just that our governance structures are not always conducive to a level of independent auditing and oversight we might hope to see in a multi-billion entity.
Moreover, no one is suggesting that every public board should pay handsomely, work full time and oversee large policy staffs, but there is a legitimate question around the question of whether it makes sense to hold independently elected boards that pay little and provide no independent staff a level of oversight aligned with their fiduciary obligations. Specifically this isn’t a call for a new governance model for the Seattle Public School District or the Port of Seattle. They may work well under the current model. I certainly can’t and won’t judge their internal dynamics.
But I do know that too often government fails to provide a level of independent oversight we need and that is often directly linked to access to independent, professional staff support. And governance models are important.
As a state legislator, I feel I have a public right to independent counsel, advice and policy support to help oversee tens of billions of tax dollars. And in a vast majority of cases I receive that support. The question I’m raising here is whether we are providing sufficient support for smaller, independent agencies to do their job or if we are institutionally and structurally creating models that provide little or no independent staff support–all the while pretending that elected boards automatically provide more aggressive protections for taxpayers and the public.
I fully appreciate that it may be logistically impossible or unwise to create independent staff systems at smaller or local agencies across the state, and I’m not pretending the model of accountability that works for Olympia would work for anyone else.
But I do feel that the public must elevate the level of dialogue about how to ensure independent oversight of billions of dollars–as evidenced in the past few years by disappointing audits of both Seattle Public Schools and the Port of Seattle–when governed by small, part-time, volunteer boards who must conduct their own investigations and research.
As for the topic that generated this issue: I have used the statistic from Seattle schools many, many times that only 17% of Seattle graduates are truly prepared for college. It made my gut wrench in frustration and disappointment when I learned of the lack of immediate efforts to correct this mistake.
Of course, we’re all more than pleased by the good news associated with the real data–the most important teachable moment from this experience.
Still, as a legislator who sits on the Education Appropriation Committee, I do feel a strong sense of personal embarrassment on behalf of our district. This is more than a small omission of data–it goes to the core of the district’s credibility. Personally, I feel uncomfortable guilt around my frequent use of the crushingly inaccurate data with my legislative colleagues in hearing rooms, conferences and other venues including the floor of the House of Representatives.
Finally, I also feel a moral obligation to personally apologize to the teachers, parents, administrators and others whom I may have inadvertently offended in my aggressive criticism of our district’s performance based in large part upon this vital statistic. We must, of course, continue to strive for radical improvements in the quality of our education system. But the first place to start is with the right data and on this one the grownups made a big mistake.
I offer special thanks to Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association, who playfully prodded me on Facebook to help reach out to parents and help correct this misconception built around this key data point.
Your partner in service,