In Stanford We Trust

The charismatic chief brings vision and energy to Seattle's schools. But has he done what he claims? And will he see the job through?

John Stanford,the superintendent of Seattle schools, sweeps into the parents' meeting at Washington Middle School like a movie star. He's half an hour late. A wave of excitement runs through the crowd as the former general takes a seat and fixes a steely Eastwood gaze on the speaker at the podium. Elegant in a crisp black suit and white shirt, he brings panache to a drab lunchroom filled with cracked plastic chairs.

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When it's Stanford's turn to speak, he switches in a flash from tough Eastwood to earnest Clinton. "I'm so glad to see you here tonight," he says, as though from the depths of his heart. Stanford is here tonight to talk about the new high-stakes standards being phased in for fifth, eighth, and 11th grades. Anxious parents, wondering whether their kids will progress to the next grades, have many questions: When do the standards go into effect? What criteria will be used? What will happen to the kids who fail?

The superintendent bypasses such nitty-gritty matters and riffs on the need for standards in the first place. Echoing the Persian Gulf War, in which he served as a transportation director, Stanford proclaims repeatedly, "We need to draw a line in the sand over standards." He segues unexpectedly into a catalog of societal problems: "When are we going to stop child abuse, spousal abuse, and hunger? Are we powerless to stop these things? No. We just need to come together. That's what we need to do, to come together over standards." After thanking this "great city" for letting him be superintendent, Stanford says he's "got to dash" to his next meeting. And he is gone.

There is no denying Stanford's charisma. "He certainly is a PR man," says one mom in the crowd. "Lots of gloss, little substance." Then she reflects, and adds, "Still, I think the substance is there." Though Stanford leans toward superficial slogans in public, in other words, his administration is shaking up the system.

That's an apt description of Stanford's record—to a point. The substance of his administration is impressive when you consider that the man never had an education job before; he spent 30 years in the military and did a brief stint as a county manager in Georgia. But his accomplishments can't help but fall short of his incredible hype, which casts his two-and-a-half-year tenure as an inspirational turnaround story.

When pressed, Stanford acknowledges that "we have a long way to go." A different message, however, comes across in a public relations packet disseminated by the district. It credits no fewer than 42 initiatives to Stanford, and a number of awesome accomplishments: raising test scores, starting to close the gap between white and minority students, slashing the dropout rate by almost half, reducing security incidents by a third, and considerably increasing the "market share" of public schools. The packet even includes "John Stanford's 13 Steps to Success," for other districts wishing to follow his example.

In person, Stanford naturally tries to convey this message with humility, though he can't help comparing himself to great leaders. "I don't feel like I have turned [the district] around," he said in his office one morning last month, in an almost-hypnotic cadence. "I think that we have turned it around. I'm on a team of teachers, principals, staff members, and the board. You know what is really powerful? The citizens. I mean the citizens and the business community. It is so powerful. The team that we have. It hasn't been me. My job is to be the catalytic agent. My job is to be the person that paints the vision and helps people to get there. Great leaders live backwards. They have a vision of the world as they believe it ought to be and as they believe the people want it to be. And then they return to the present and work inexhaustibly to achieve that vision."

A mostly enchanted press has swallowed Stanford's claims whole, and he is fast turning into a national celebrity— recognizable enough to shill for Windermere Real Estate in TV ads. At a time when education reform tops the political agenda, Stanford represents a new, trendy kind of educator: an outsider with fresh ideas from the military and business worlds, who promises to infuse ailing public schools with discipline and


School Board vice president Don Nielsen hails Stanford, in typical fashion, as a "transformational leader." After Stanford let it be known that he was receiving lucrative job offers last month, two nameless associates from the business-supported Alliance for Education offered him a half-million-dollar bonus to stay. Stanford eventually turned the offer down, after it began to look bad. Not to worry. He'll net a reported $500,000 advance from Bantam for a "how-to" volume on improving schools. And Stanford seems to have caught the eye of federal Secretary of Education Richard Riley, who hailed this city and state as educational models and recently chose Seattle as the site of his annual state of education address.

It's said that turning around a school district is like turning around a battleship—it takes time. Stanford's intimation that he has somehow fixed our district in a very short time bears close examination, not only to judge his tenure but to understand how Seattle's schools are doing. Predictably, Stanford's rhetoric turns out to be steeped in exaggeration and, in a few cases, plain misinformation. The irony is that by claiming the world, Stanford has de-emphasized his most important initiatives—the introduction of meaningful standards and a restructuring of the system along the lines of charter schools—which are turning Seattle schools into a laboratory for ideas that have been talked about in education reform for years.

A cursory glance reveals a few obvious successes and failures. Stanford had both the political skills and the credibility, as an African-American, to end a system of busing resented even by the minority communities it was supposed to help most. And his confidence-inspiring stumping has brought the district $5 million from private sources. But he has fared much worse in his attempt to turn Meany Middle School into a flagship magnet. Meany now seems to be stabilizing, but last year was a lesson in chaos, plagued by discipline problems, absent teachers, and unfilled promises. On top of all that, the state auditor is investigating a community complaint of possible misspending. Parents and other observers say they can't see the results of the extra $440,000 in magnet and grant funding pumped into the school.

A closer look at Stanford's tenure begins with his claims about his performance. He has not taken many of his proclaimed "Steps to Success." Recall one step—"Technology to move faster"—around teachers and they'll laugh in your face. Washington Middle School math teacher Gary Pounder illustrates Seattle's technological lag with a visit he paid to a high school gym in Bothell. The football coach was surfing the Net on his laptop. "The [Bothell] weight room is wired for the Net," Pounder exclaims. "Is my room wired for the Net? No. When will it be? Who knows?" Other teachers tell of having to beg computers from their PTSAs.

This is admittedly a financial issue, which Stanford hopes to address through the capital levy passed this month. And technology may not be the panacea many educators think. But it's ludicrous to suggest that Seattle is a leader in it.

The superintendent lists "Strengthen early childhood education" as a step, even though his spokesperson, Dorothy Dubia, admits that "not a lot" has been done in that regard.

"It doesn't say we have completed these things," Stanford replies when questioned about his PR. But Steps to Success leads with this quote from the superintendent: "What we've done will work for you." Note the past tense.

It's the same tense Stanford uses in his enumeration of more specific initiatives, as in "defined student 'exit standards' for grades 5, 8, and 11." In reality, the district so far has only defined exit standards for the fifth grade. It's indicative of the confusion wrought by the PR that even some middle school and high school principals and teachers don't realize their students won't be held to standards this year. "We've got to meet 'em whatever they are," says Meany Middle School principal Robert Radford.

To take another ballyhooed example, Stanford asserts that he is now evaluating both teachers and principals according to "student achievement"—just the kind of change sought by educational reformers who have made "accountability" a buzzword. One way to do this is to judge educators on their students' test scores. Whether and how this will work in Seattle, however, is unclear. The teachers' new contract mentions that student achievement "will be a factor" but leaves it up to individual teachers and principals to negotiate an evaluation process. As for principals, Christi Clark, president of the Principals Association of Seattle Schools, relates that "the same evaluation form that has been used for the last several years" continues; recommendations for a new form are still being drawn up.

With so few changes fully implemented, it's hard to see how the district could have improved as much as Stanford says it has. And in some cases, it hasn't. Take the dropout rate, which a district handout last month claimed dropped from 12.5 percent to 7.7 percent between the 1995-96 and 1996-97 school years. When questioned about that (among other figures), the district revised its material to show the rate dropping insignificantly, to 12.3 percent. Stanford accounts for the discrepancy by saying that the first figure was based on an earlier count that does not reflect students who dropped out later in the year.

Likewise, the district claims its "market share" of school-age kids has risen from 70 percent to 76 percent under Stanford, suggesting that middle-class parents are coming back. A little investigation, however, reveals that the two numbers are from incommensurate sources. The first, from Hebert Research, uses census figures dating to 1990—no help in measuring the Stanford Effect. The second is from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, which each year tabulates students in public and private schools—and finds Seattle's market share holding steady at 76 percent since 1994, just before Stanford arrived.

It's harder to checkStanford's assertion that he has reduced security incidents—from setting off false alarms to bringing weapons to school—by a third, from 3,348 in 1995 to 2,260 in 1997. The number of incidents is probably dropping in Seattle schools, as it is across the state. A big reason seems to be a new "zero tolerance" state law that requires automatic expulsion of students with weapons.

Stanford has shown he is serious about discipline. He hired a former Seattle police captain, Larry Farrar, as district security manager. And he responded firmly when, shortly before Christmas, three rifles and a pellet gun were found in a Nathan Hale High School student's car. The district sent off-duty uniformed police officers into all the high schools for several days. Mind you, Local 609 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, representing school security specialists, frowns upon this use of police officers, both because the officers receive higher pay than its members and because it believes a police presence heightens security anxieties.

But Farrar says he's wary of "hanging my hat on statistical information when we don't have a strong reporting system." Interviewed last month, he acknowledged that school security specialists now report incidents to their principals, who may skirt district policy by deciding that the central security office need not be notified. Under Stanford's predecessor William Kendrick, the security specialists reported directly to the central office. (Farrar later sent out a memo instructing his staff to report everything to the central office as well as the principals.)

The weakness of having reports go to principals, says David Westberg of Local 609, is that "they have a vested interest in not letting incidents out so that the image of their school will not be tarnished." Security specialists at Franklin High School recall that an assistant principal recently refused to divulge information about a student with a gun—information they feel they need to have, since they work unarmed.

Claims of improving test scores also demand healthy skepticism. Those who know the rules, like Dan Koretz, a researcher specializing in educational assessment at the Rand Corp., say that ways can be found to "game the system." Koretz finds it "suspicious" that the district under Stanford has switched from the California Achievement Test to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills as its annual test. As students and teachers adjust to a new test over two to four years, scores generally rise sharply: a ready-made success story. That hasn't happened yet, however; the modest gains on the Iowa test have been slightly outpaced by gains on theComprehensive Test of Basic Skills, administered statewide in certain grades.

To be sure, the improvement is small: mostly between one and six percentile points in the two years since Stanford arrived, excepting an 11-point jump in math by fourth-graders taking the statewide test. Average Seattle scores in the district still hover around the 50th percentile, the state average. But experts say the improvement, small as it is, is significant. (Much less so is the purported narrowing of the gap between white and minority kids. African-Americans score on average between 20 and 25 percentile points below whites, in the high 30th percentile.)

Assuming then that the gains are real, it's interesting to contrast Stanford's attitude toward test scores with that of Tacoma's new superintendent, Jim Shoemake. Shoemake came to the job a year and a half ago on the heels of Rudy Crew, who was snatched up by New York City after he showed a dramatic surge in Tacoma test scores. Any hope that the surge represented real progress was deflated when the scores fell right back down again after Crew left. Shoemake is now in the middle of instituting a number of reforms, including a new curriculum.

Yet given the time it takes to implement such reforms, Shoemake says he wouldn't expect to see significant test score improvement until three or four years down the pike. "If we'd had some massive improvement this year, I don't think I could have taken credit for it. The credit would have to go to my predecessor."

Asked specifically whether the improvement in test scores is due to his efforts, Stanford suggests two reasons: "This is such a complex business. It is so complex. And when you're under siege, I mean when the press is badgering you and every teacher is affected by every word. . . . When you raise the morale of a teacher and work for teachers and believe in teachers, they go into the classroom fired up. And when they do that, that changes their belief in children. That's no. 1.

"No. 2 is that it is so complex, that it takes a simple-minded person like me with a business background that asks the question, what are we about? The answer is we're an academic institution. And if that's the case then we must be about academics first. And when we then started focusing on academics as our primary focus, and student learning, when we started focusing on that, and putting the resources and our talk and our actions around that, that is what has brought about academic achievement. And standards, we have got to draw a line in the sand about standards."

In other words, he does feel like his administration deserves the credit. Yet his explanations are so vague it's hard to grasp how kids would be affected day-to-day. Pushed for specificity beyond the mostly yet-to-be implemented standards, Stanford relates how the district has required teachers to make their syllabi public, and reworked the district's curriculum so that each grade level follows logically from the last—a reform that began under Kendrick.

These explanations also seem less than convincing, because when you talk to teachers, they don't tell of doing anything dramatically different, or of their teaching environment having significantly changed. "The halls still look the same, the kids still look the same," says Washington Middle School's Gary Pounder. Says Washington science teacher Robert Isgur, "Most of us still feel our classes are too large."

Except there is this notable change: Again and again, both teachers and principals speak of Stanford having brought them more "respect" from parents and community members. This is the bright side to the Stanford hype, which has served to cheerlead for the public schools. It is true, as Stanford indicates, that teachers have been "under siege" by a critical public and press that made them a scapegoat for public education's failures. Masterfully, Stanford has been able to tap into this popular resentment—with such lines as "we're interested in the achievement of children, not the employment of adults"—while simultaneously making teachers feel good about themselves.

Franklin High School special education teacher Darrell Balthazor tells of running into Stanford in the school's office while the superintendent was waiting for the principal. They got to talking about a shared interest, international education. When the principal came out, to Balthazor's surprise, Stanford did not immediately rush off with him. Instead, Balthazor recounts, "Mr. Stanford would not let me leave his presence. He took his arm and stuck it around my back and actually included me in the conversation."

It's a nice illustration of Stanford's management savvy, and an illustration as well of the feedback teachers are used to getting from upper administration. You know teachers are downtrodden when they are thrilled at actually being included in a conversation with the boss.

Given this poignant situation and its inevitable effect on kids, Stanford's morale boosting is nothing to sneeze at. Still, his most innovative measures lie elsewhere, even if it is too soon to ask for results from them. First, Stanford's "line in the sand" over standards is truly a consequential change that deserves more attention than it's getting. Even some Stanford fans, not realizing that Seattle's program is more daring, inaccurately dismiss this as nothing more than a mimicking of state standards that also began being phased in at the start of this year. At the state level, there will be no penalty for not meeting state standards until it comes time to graduate high school, at which time students must demonstrate certain skills or be denied a diploma. Students who perform poorly on new fourth- and seventh-grade statewide tests will not be held back. Seattle is taking a much harder line on these so-called "social promotions." Students who fail to meet fifth-grade standards won't move on to middle school until they do (or until they "age out" of elementary school on their 13th birthday); eighth-graders who don't meet standards will be held back from high school until they're 16. (No decision has yet been reached as to whether a student can ago out of the 11th grade.)

Unlike the state, Seattle won't evaluate kids with one big test; it will consider achievement tests and classroom performance. At the end of this year, for example, fifth-graders must demonstrate at least three times in class that they can read and comprehend at grade level.

The potential ramifications for the schools are enormous. Speaking at the Washington Middle School parents' night, Gary Tubbs, district director of academic achievement, discloses that the elementary schools have identified a total of 400 fifth-graders at risk of being held back. Might this mean that elementary schools will swell to the bursting point with repeating students as well as new ones? Tubbs says many of these 400 can be brought up to speed in time.

But some parents and teachers wonder how. "If we know children are struggling, what I want to know is where are the resources to help them?" asks DaZanne Porter, a teacher at the African American Academy who also worries that minorities will be the ones most affected. Tubbs responds vaguely. He talks about "double dosing" failing students, but notes that after losing $25 million in expected state and federal funding, the district is in no position to pour money into remedial help.

"This is an experiment," says School Board member Scott Barnhardt. "We have to see how this will be looked at in five or 10 years."

Likewise Stanford's other major reform: restructuring the system on the model of charter schools This is really a series of incremental reforms that the district has not articulated well, and almost no one understands it. Even Paul Hill, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Public Affairs and prominent charter advocate, says, "It's not clear to me what [Stanford's] strategy is."

The charter strategy is two-pronged. First, Stanford has shaken up the way schools are financed. Board vice president Nielsen explains what people have been missing about the new "weighted formula": "Traditionally, funding for schools has been based on adults," he says, meaning that each school would get a certain amount to pay for every teacher it deemed necessary. "Now it's based on students. If you're a principal of a school, your financial posture is decided by the number of students you have. If nobody comes, you don't get anything."

This is precisely the kind of competition among schools that charters, with the same per-student funding mechanism, are meant to instill (though charters by definition are run by independent entities like nonprofits, putting pressure on district-run schools from the outside). "What we've done is we've created a free-market economy inside the school system," Nielsen declares. "We will end up with 97 charter schools."

The change might not be as dramatic as Nielsen suggests. Surely, schools always lost faculty, and therefore financing, when enrollment dipped. Nonetheless, schools now cannot get around the problem by, say, assigning teachers to smaller classes.

Similarly, there's a familiar sound to the second piece of the charter strategy: in Stanford's terminology, having principals become the "CEOs" of their schools. The district has "reformed" along these lines before, pledging site-based control—to little effect. Still, Stanford seems to have made some real changes in financing and teacher hiring. Where in the past the district managed all but a token amount of schools' funding, now schools decide for themselves how to spend about half of the per-student budget they are allocated. The locally controlled chunk adds up to some $3,200 for each student, with more funding assigned to bilingual and other students with greater needs. "I'll show you what the difference is," Stanford says. "Before, Franklin High School had $17,000 to spend. Now it controls $10 million."

Moreover, whereas the new teachers' contract may be hazy on evaluations, it does make clear that schools may hire and fire regardless of seniority—a hard-won concession meaning bad teachers can at last be forced out. "Teachers who are fired from one school can choose to apply to another school," Nielsen says, but that school is under no obligation to hire them. And, he says, "If there's no job available, we can't pay 'em."

Stanford is up front about modeling his reforms partly onpending state charter legislation. In case a bill passes, he says, "we've prepared ourselves to be competitive." But he also recognizes charter schools' bigadvantage: They are almost always small, and their students benefit from individual attention.

Yet his funding mechanism pushes schools in precisely the other direction: They get more money for attracting more students.

How schools cope with this pressure is one of the big questions about Stanford's reforms. Another is whether principals and teachers will put these structural changes into practice. "Basically, everything depends on how it's done," says UW's Hill. "Is Stanford going to be able to stay here and truly supervise principals and staff?"

Don't bet on it. Stanford has pledged to stay only until the summer of 1999. After that? He says he would probably enter politics if his wife weren't adamantly opposed. Something else makes his eyes gleam: "I've always had a dream of being a CEO of a major corporation in America. I believe that I could run any corporation in America. I'm a strategic planner. I'm a program and budget manager, an organizational developer, a leader.... But most of all I'm about achievement. I'd like somebody to offer me a challenge."

You can almost hear him asking, "Any takers?" It seems unlikely that John Stanford will even be working in education five to 10 years from now, much less here, when the results, if any, of his Seattle experiment become apparent.

Related Links:

Seattle school district web site

The site of a self-appointed schools watchdog

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