I understand the concerns of people who think ousting one set of board members for another just moves us more in the direction of chaos than good order. Any organization, if it is to flourish, needs stability and consistent leadership, and so, one might reason, we need to keep the current school board incumbents in office to give them more time and the district more stability. According to this line of thinking, Seattle can't afford to put in a new set of board members and suffer through its climbing up yet another learning curve. And as unhappy as one might be with the current board, it's better to work with the devil you know than the devil you don't.
Under normal circumstances, I think that argument would carry a lot of weight. But we're not in normal circumstances. This district has hurtled from crisis to crisis for over a decade now, but I do not believe that these crises are due to unstable leadership or inexperience on the part of the board. They are due, rather, to a mentality that has infected it, as it has infected elite thinking about education in the U.S. in the last decade. I don't know even to what degree the incumbents are consciously aware of it, but their votes reflect this mentality, and until that mentality changes, real stability and flourishing for our school district is not possible. You cannot build anything stable on a foundation that is flawed.
That mentality is called "education reform", and it traces back through No Child Left Behind and before it. It's become the tail wagging the dog, and the dog is dizzy, nauseated, and disoriented from all the shaking, and if we are to restore stability, order, and the well being of the dog, we need to stop the tail that is shaking it.
If people are concerned about restoring good order to SPS, it has to start with a vision for its future that is grounded in reality. In a democratic society, stability is something you build from the bottom up, not from the top down. And so the bias, as I see it, should always be in favor of local decision making. The district has the responsibility to set general guidelines for learning objectives and standards. But standards and standardization are not the same thing. Clear learning objectives and standards need to be identified district-wide, but local schools working as collaborative learning communities need to figure out for themselves how to work together to achieve those objectives and meet those standards. Standardized tests just are not an effective tool to achieve that.
Good order obtains where the principle of subsidiarity reigns. 'Subsidiarity' is a fancy word that describes a common-sense American democratic ideal: local communities should be trusted to organize and govern themselves. The people who make the most important decisions should be the people who are most directly affected by them. Real life is lived by people in their local communities, not in central headquarters. Central authorities are there to support local communities, not to micromanage or impose their centralized agendas. They intervene only when egregious problems arise that the local community hasn't the capability or the will to solve on its own.
"Education reform", as the phrase has been used for the last decade, is among other things a euphemism for imposing a more corporate or military chain-of-command model within our school districts. The impetus for promoting this model derives from thinking that the only way to deal with the "crisis" in our schools is to give autocratic powers to superintendents to knock heads and demand results. In this model, superintendents are not there to support principals, but to micromanage them, and principals are not there to support their teachers, but to make sure they are following a tightly scripted agenda. That agenda, since NCLB, has been all about the test and generating numbers that indicate progress by its narrow metric. And the whole system has been made sick by it.
This sickening process came into view this Spring when interim superintendent Susan Enfield fired Martin Floe at Ingraham H.S. She said it was a data-driven decision based on Ingraham's poor test scores. Nobody who knows anything about Ingraham's learning community could believe what they were hearing from downtown. The entire community of parents, faculty, students, and alums organized a robust protest in response to this decision, and the interim superintendent was forced to back down. In subsequent interviews, Dr. Enfield, in rather patronizing remarks, said that parents and teachers did not understand that this was a well thought-out, calculated decision, but that she would give Principal Floe another chance. She also said that Floe would be monitored with an "improvement plan." If you understand anything about the "education reform" mentality, you know what that means: "Either you do it my way, or you're gone."
The problem at Ingraham is not with Martin Floe and the learning community he has helped to develop there. The problem lies with the downtown mentality that thinks even for a minute that he deserves to be fired.
We need to transform the downtown mentality into one that empowers and supports local learning communities, rather than punishing them when they go off script and seek their own good-faith solutions for problems they understand better than the people downtown. The people downtown do not know better in Ingraham's instance and in most other instances either. The local realities are too complex, and there is no reason not to trust the intelligence of parents, faculty, and administrators to find their own solutions.
And getting standardized test scores up should not be the central problem to be solved in the first place. Everyone wants improved student achievement, but it's wrong to think that there's a significant correlation between higher test scores and higher levels of student achievement. Standardized test scores are a solution to a problem only out-of-touch bureaucats like.
It's up to the board to find the leadership that understands its role in supporting local learning communities rather than dictating to them its top-down agenda. 'Top down' almost never works, and top-down interventiions should only be invoked in emergency situations.
Seattle is a smart town. The city has within it the resources that should enable it to solve the instability and disorder that has followed from its incessant crises in its Public School System. But it can't and won't as long as the "ed. reform" mentality dominates its leadership culture.