Loving the kids

This week, the Seattle School Board did what all modern school boards love to do: attend a retreat and listen to consultants. In this case, the day and a half shindig—fatuously themed "A High School Diploma Begins in Kindergarten"—featured a half-day with a consultant leading a discussion of the Seattle School District's "beliefs and values," which were then to be applied to a full day of edu-babble on graduation requirements and the "school transformation process." (Says one school staffer, "We've been scratching our heads trying to figure out what that means!") The public, of course, was invited. Inexplicably, few came.

When the public does show up, it is often ignored. At last week's monthly school board meeting, over 100 members of the Coalition to Undo Racism Everywhere (CURE)—an unusually large crowd by board meeting standards—cooled their heels while board members, Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, and assorted sycophants spent the meeting's first 20 minutes praising one another for the previous day's voter approval of $736 million in school levies. The district's inner sanctum cherishes this type of self-referential fondness.

CURE, concerned about disproportionately poor test scores, high dropout rates, and high punishment rates among students of color in Seattle schools, was on hand with two demands: to meet with district Chief Operating Officer Brian Benzel and to put its issues on the next month's agenda. In other words, a frustrated CURE had to mobilize over 100 parents and other community members—for the second time in eight months—simply to beg the board to be heard at a later date.

The board, and the district's administration in general, seems to live in its own cocooned world with its own language (a tonal affair based on variants of phrases like "we love our kids" and "parental involvement"), its own priorities, a truckload of taxpayer cash, an occasionally acute awareness of chronic problems, and a complete determination to extend the happy-faced public momentum of the late John Stanford's regime for as long as possible. Two Februaries ago, Olchefske was promoted from chief financial officer to become permanent head of the district after Stanford's death. At $162,000 a year, Olchefske is paid $40,000 more than the mayor, twice what City Council members make. Last October, along with a 4 percent raise, the board gave Olchefske a $1.4 million life insurance policy. Remarkably, in two years, virtually no critical public examination of his tenure has been undertaken by the school board or the local media.

In many ways, Olchefske has taken the good PR and community relations generated by Stanford and run with it. Largely, he's run all the way to the bank—an unusual achievement for a big city school district. In addition to the levies, the district is benefiting from the good local economy and the largesse of donors like the Gates Foundation; the income enormously boosts efforts to modernize and repair the district's aging facilities. The current building campaign (which last week's levies continued) is far closer to being on budget and on time than the ill-fated Capital Improvement Program 1 of the '80s.

This influx of cash and the long overdue drive to weed out problem principals are Olchefske's primary achievements to date. However, the district is also ignoring a number of other challenges: personnel problems, student assignment battles, creeping commercialism, and the aforementioned racial disparities. The biggest—one with the potential to change the way every student is taught—is the sweeping trend toward testing standards for students.

Teaching to the tests

The infamous Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) tests—four statewide tests of reading, writing, listening, and math skills, administered in the fourth, seventh, and 10th grades—are only the start. The district is also preparing exit exams that students will need to pass, along with maintaining a 2.0 grade point average, to graduate.

The district has a long way to go to meet those standards. At the start of the school year, one in four seniors didn't meet the 2.0 requirement; only one in four fourth graders and one in five 10th graders passed all four WASL exams. By 2008, seniors must pass all four tests and complete a "culminating project" in order to graduate.

The danger is that "standards" will become confused with "standardized," and Seattle schools will begin teaching to the tests. Presently, teachers are largely free to design their own curricula; those days may be ending. If they are, it's also a threat to teachers' ability to adapt their lessons to students who learn in different ways and at different speeds. And the ever more popular tendency to run school districts "like a business" (are students the customers or the product?) begs the question: Should public schools produce young adults with critical thinking skills or compliant fodder for the workforce? The standards movement, with its emphasis on passing tests, threatens to mandate the latter.

While politicians and administrators invoke the gods of standards and accountability—of students and of teachers and principals—who is holding the administration itself to any accountable standard? Olchefske began his reign inheriting the glow of Stanford; he also inherited the $430,000 SPICE embezzlement scandal, enabled by lax accounting practices. The district continues to resist calls for an independent performance audit; like most public school districts, its bureaucracy is large and unresponsive to the public.

And the public apparently doesn't care. Last week's school levy vote got over 70 percent approval in a city where only 25 percent of the voters have children in school. This suggests that the public is largely pleased with the job Olchefske and his staff are doing.

Yet the time bombs tick away: the tests, the new graduation standards, the race problems. Despite some heroically dedicated teachers and principals, the Seattle schools are clearly not working well for quite a few of their students. That is what Olchefske and the board should be worrying about.


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