Friday, March 2, 2012

To all Tacomans who Care about Schools

The Superintendent of Public Instruction this week granted Tacoma Schools the designation Innovative School District.  While some may now start celebrating, this is more a time for wringing hands than shaking them.

In explaining why the district requested the designation, Superintendent Elect (Interim) Carla Santorno said, "[W]e want to provide the opportunity for more of our schools to pursue innovations that offer our community even greater options for academic achievement."  While this sounds good and right, such high-minded, but ultimately political, language is fraught with complicated and debatable assumptions.

As Ms. Santorno implicitly acknowledged in the press release announcing this proposal 6 weeks ago, Tacoma is already trying a variety of new things, without being designated as innovative.  If we are already innovating, what need have we of a bureaucratic designation of such?  What the district's release doesn't say is that this designation comes with a six-year writ of independence from various OSPI oversight mechanisms, granting the autonomy to tinker with not only curriculum, but staffing and the school calendar. 

Without necessarily saying it, the district’s proposal relies on an implicit claim that the district leadership is taking effective steps to transform Tacoma schools.  Practically speaking, the district is telling OSPI, “We’re working everything out,” at the same time as saying to Tacomans, “Trust us.”  But a review of the dubious decisions the district leadership has made in the last year should give us pause before we embrace these claims.

From the strangely cloistered decision last October--just weeks before the election of 2 new board members--to hire Ms. Santorno as, in effect, a temp-to-permanent superintendent, to the job offer (then retraction) to an inadequately vetted principal candidate, with the publicly fickle and dubious consideration of waiving the snow make-up days in between, Tacoma’s school leadership has been less than stellar.
Even more importantly, the innovations tried thus far have been a mixed success.  Stewart, Giaudrone and Jason Lee--the middle schools that revamped with the federal School Improvement Grants--got a lot of money and made a lot of changes, but showed mixed results.  The programs implemented by the new administrative and teaching staff showed some modest successes as well as some losses, according to The News Tribune analysis last summer.  
Now, Baker (which qualified for SIG money last year, but declined to pursue it) and Stewart have been designated innovative even though they are also ranked as ‘low performing’ schools by the state.  Recent innovations have not paid off, or perhaps we have now available a mechanism by which to evaluate future performance at those schools.  If they don’t improve with state-sanctioned innovation plans, then either the innovation plan was not as good as hoped, or there is something deeper at work.
Sometimes the drive to innovate--especially when a fiscal reward awaits--generates innovation for innovation’s sake.  Now the district has the freedom to innovate with one more institutional connection severed.

It doesn’t take PhD in organizational behavior to know the district will assert this independence in the area of staff evaluations and assignment.  These twin bugaboos are the contention of all contentions in Tacoma.  They were at the heart of the strike last fall.  They have been institutionalized as a sticking point by the creation of the Section 83; Displacement/Involuntary Transfer Committee.  And they will likely follow us into the next contract negotiation cycle.   

Their management and conclusion needs resolute commitment to candid and serious engagement by all parties in the process.   But all this is playing out in an environment where trust among school staff, administration and parents is abysmally low.  Unfortunately, no bureaucratic designation will revitalize flagging trust.

This is not to say that OSPI regulatory authority over schools will make them good, or even better-run.  It is to say that granting the proposed autonomy to a district administration that would contemplate such dubious policies is just as bad, or worse, an idea.  Centralized and unaccountable authority in a low trust climate portends disconnection, disengagement and autocratic decision-making.

That’s a dangerous brew.  Don't imbibe, Tacomans!


Anonymous said...

Test the Teachers

The Economic Policy Institute ( found that measuring teachers performance with the value added indicators will negatively reorient teachers and ultimately provide potential harm to our students. Teachers compete rather than cooperatate; flee demanding (high poverty) schools and "play" the system instead of develop a child. Once implemented, these measures find teachers are directed to cheat or the administrator will falsify documents: (this top notch superintendent actually taped shut the mouths of her students to manage her class)

The Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences stated that value added measures (VAM) "estimates of teacher effectiveness should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.

The Educational Testing Service’s Policy Information Center concluded "VAM results should not serve as the sole or principal basis for making consequential decisions about teachers. There are many pitfalls to making causal attributions of teacher effectiveness on the basis of the kinds of data available from typical school districts. We still lack sufficient understanding of how seriously the different technical problems threaten the
validity of such interpretations."

The RAND Corporation researchers reported that: "The estimates from VAM modeling of achievement will often be too imprecise to support some of the desired inferences" and that "The research base is currently insufficient to support the use of VAM for high-stakes decisions about individual teachers or schools."

Anonymous said...

"The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools. These findings underlie the parallel findings of significant state‐by‐state differences in charter school performance and in the national aggregate performance of charter schools. The policy challenge is how to deal constructively with varying levels of performance today and into the future."