Thursday, July 16, 2009

Market Share for Seattle Public Schools

A reader has asked for a discussion of the market share of Seattle Public Schools.

Seattle has one of the lowest market shares of any major city in the US. From the Seattle Weekly:
The school district estimates that only 68 percent of school-age children in Seattle attend public school. "If we were an average U.S. district," says schools Finance Director Steve Nielsen, "we would have 90 percent market share." Among big cities, he says, the average figure is around 80 percent. That leaves a share of poor students in Seattle's public system that is inconsistent with the actual demographics of one of America's most affluent cities.

A 2001 U.S. Census survey, sampling residents from big cities across the country, suggested that Seattle might have the largest rate of private school attendance in the country.

Market share may be aggravating many of our other issues with our Seattle Public Schools. High market share is critical to have community support for public schools, to be able to pass taxes that fund the public schools, and to maximize the involvement of parents in helping the schools.

The District's funding from state and federal sources is also directly tied to enrollment. If the District can enroll more students they will get greater revenue. While their variable costs will increase with additional enrollment, their fixed costs will not and therefore they will have more funding for things that aren't funded now. In addition, private school students typically have involved families who value education, so they bring more to the District than just the additional funding from the state and federal government.

While these are all good reasons for the District to work to increase enrollment and market share, there is a more fundamental issue. The District is not responsive to the needs of the community it serves, and this is the flaw at the root of many of the District's problems. The District should do a little work to find out why families make other education choices. Why do they choose private school or home school or another district? The District doesn't even think to ask. It would be another leap for them to take some action to address the perceived deficiency.

In some cases, it is a simple matter of capacity. Families living north of 85th often choose Shoreline schools because the Seattle schools are full. Families on Capitol Hill or in Eastlake choose private schools because their neighborhood schools are full. There are some families that want an alternative academic experience for their child but cannot gain access to our alternative schools because they are full. Real capacity management would address those problems and add enrollment in Seattle Public Schools.

In some cases, the reasons are programmatic. In Madrona, the neighborhood school has chosen not to address the needs of local families. In Southeast Seattle middle-class Black families don't trust the District to set and maintain high academic expectations for their children. Again, there are steps the District can take to address these problems.

In some cases it is simply a matter of security. There are families in all parts of the District who do not believe that the public school is safe for their child. The District must address this issue as well.

In all of these cases, however, the District cannot address the problems unless the District knows about it, cares about it, and wants to address it. I don't think any of those elements are currently in place. They would be in place if the District believed that it was their mission to be responsive to the needs of the community they serve.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Curriculum Alignment

The District is moving forward aggressively with curriculum alignment. Too aggressively.

Curriculum alignment is a good thing and we all want it. It means that the same core set of knowledge and skills is being taught (at a minimum) in every school in the same class or grade level. That's as it should be. Every third grader, regardless of their school or teacher, should be taught the same core curriculum. We expect there will be more but at least this.

Moreover, when curriculum is aligned every student will be held to the same high academic expectations (at a minimum). So a paper that gets a "B" at any school would also get a "B" at any other school. When people speak of a "quality school" or talk about which schools are good schools or bad schools, the real measure of quality is often whether the school sets and maintains high expectations for students.

At a quality school, students who are struggling to meet the expectations get the support they need to get over the bar, but the bar is not lowered for them. Similarly, curricular alignment is supposed to be a floor, not a ceiling. Students who are ready and able to succeed with greater challenge should get it. Support for stuggling students and additional challenge for advanced students is another measure of a quality school.

These elements of curriculum alignment are welcome and needed. When they are in place we will take great strides towards making every one of our schools a quality school.

Curricular alignment, however, does not require standardized texts. High school students can learn about allegory from any number of books; they don't have to all read the same one. So why is the District Central Staff pushing for standardized texts? They say that the texts need to be standardized because they cannot script lessons for a wide variety of books.

WHAT!?! Why are they scripting lessons? That is not warranted, wanted or welcome. Our teachers do not need lessons scripted for them, thank you very much.

We have also heard that the District needs to standardize texts so they can conduct the same professional development for all teachers. But why is the professional development material specific? Shouldn't the continuing education for the teachers be more versitile than that?

Community Engagement

Seattle Public Schools has an acknowledged problem with community engagement.

The District has made a number of commitments to community engagement that have not been met. There is a Community Engagement Protocol for each project of the Strategic Plan, but none of them are following it.

The Board's community engagement practices are particularly bad. They don't actually engage. The people who take time and effort to speak to the Board at Board meetings should get a response.

The public is going to have their say. If the public gets to speak before the decision is made, then their are giving input. If they speak after the decision is made then they are making complaints. The District gets to choose whether they get input or complaints by setting the timing of public input. Oddly, they appear to prefer complaints to input. That needs to stop.

Every motion brought before the Board has a Board Action Report. There is a place on the Board Action Report form for Community Engagement. The Board should insist on authentic community engagement for every motion that is brought before them just as the Board should insist that the staff collect data to support the motion and consider the fiscal consequences of each motion.

Student Assignment Plan

The Student Assignment Plan should provide equitable access to programs and services. But where is the effort to provide equitable access to CTE programs and academies? How will the District assure equitable quality among similar programs?

The District needs to fulfill their longstanding promise to assure the quality and effectiveness of advanced learning programs.

The District needs to make sure that the capacity of CTE programs and academies matches the demand for those programs and that the programs are equitably distributed around the District. Students cannot have equitable access a bio-tech academy if the only one is at Ballard High School. The same is true for a number of other popular and successful CTE programs and academies.

There is real concern that when students living in Queen Anne and Magnolia are assured of access to a nearby high school it will be Ballard High School and, as a result, students living in Ballard north of 80th Street will be assigned to Ingraham and will not have access to Ballard High School. I think that high school enrollment north of downtown is sufficient to support an additional 1,000 seat comprehensive high school at Lincoln. This can be the neighborhood high school for students living in Magnolia, Queen Anne, Fremont, Wallingford, and the University District. It can also be the destination high school for students coming out of international schools and language immersion programs.

The addition of high school capacity will improve students' opportunities to gain access to a high school they choose based on culture and programs rather than one chosen for them by the District based on zip codes.

Strategic Plan, “Excellence for All”

The Board has a duty to oversee the implementation of the Strategic Plan. But the quarterly reviews on the Plan that staff has presented to the Board have not been comprehensive. The Board has been a passive audience at these presentations. The updates have consisted entirely of highlights selected by the staff in which they list their achievements over the previous quarter.

Instead, the Board should run these meetings and the Board should dictate the content of the updates. That content should include, at a minimum, a status update on every one of the 36 projects in the Plan and an update on the timeline for each of the 36 projects in the Plan.

The Board last received a quarterly review of the Strategic Plan in March. There was no quarterly update in June, nor will it come in July as the Board has no meetings scheduled for July other than the Board meeting on the first. There is no strategic plan update on the Board calendar for August. The next update may come in September at the Board Retreat, or it may not. The staff didn't provide the update and the Board didn't ask for it.