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Education Opinion

On Holding “The District” Accountable

By Justin Baeder — May 18, 2012 4 min read
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At the end of this school year, I will have served a decade in Seattle Public Schools. I am stepping down to move closer to extended family and pursue professional development work, as well as finish my graduate studies. I will look back fondly on my time in Seattle, but as the district prepares to welcome a new Superintendent, José Banda of Anaheim, I want to share my perspective as both an insider (as a Seattle principal) and a soon-to-be outsider.

Seattle pastor Anthony Robinson wrote more than a year ago that there are too many cooks in the kitchen when it comes to Seattle Public Schools. Looking back on this article today, it’s remarkable how it becomes more and more true as time passes. Robinson writes:

People are interested -- that's great. Parents and other family members have a very personal and surely legitimate concern for their children. But I also notice that there are a lot of other cooks crowding into this kitchen: local political leaders like the mayor and members of City Council, business leaders and corporations, social activists of various stripes and sympathies, philanthropists and charitable foundations, educational theorists and reformers, media, and labor unions. While we are fond of quips like "The more the merrier" and "two heads are better than one," it is not always the case that getting more people involved automatically makes for better outcomes. Yet education seems to be a field where everyone is an expert and many people, if not everyone, have a plan, a proposal, an idea, or a solution. Yes, interest and involvement is good and schools are a common, and critical, community asset. And yet, there are some downsides to what is truly a virtue.

If you’ve been following the history of SPS over the past several years, you may recall that Superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson was fired last year by an indignant school board in the wake of a contracting scandal. She was replaced on an interim basis by Susan Enfield, the district’s highly regarded Chief Academic Officer, who quickly established herself as a competent school chief and a good listener.

Enfield surprised nearly everyone in December by declining to apply for the position on a permanent basis, opting instead to keep her options open. She later accepted the superintendency in Highline Public Schools, a nearby district.

While Dr. Enfield has not made any public statements about her choice to leave Seattle, it’s widely understood in the community that the job of Superintendent is pretty thankless. I’m not sure it’s any easier to be on the school board, at least for more than one term.

If you want evidence that Seattle is a tough place to be in the public eye, look no further than Seattle Times reporter Brian Rosenthal’s Twitter stream. A few recent finds:

And there’s always the Save Seattle Schools blog if the Times’ education coverage isn’t exciting enough for you.

I’m all for holding “the district” accountable to the public, but I have to ask: Who is the district? And how do you hold accountable a large, loosely coupled organization full of people who, for the most part, are doing excellent work?

I’d have to study an org chart carefully to verify this, but I’m pretty sure that after four years, I have been in my position longer than anyone above me in the district. Not a single leader above the level of principal has been in their role for four years (there’s been plenty of promotion and lateral movement, but very little real stability in upper leadership). And of course the school board has turned over too many times to count (see the case study for more).

In practical terms, “the district” is no more specific an entity than “the public.” The Seattle Times comments section (not to mention Save Seattle Schools) is consistently filled with accusations that “the district” is riddled with incompetence, corruption, wastefulness, thickheadedness, and all manner of other surprisingly detailed and sweeping generalizations.

One of the most common suggestions by online commenters: Fire everyone. Right, because it’s worked out so well to replace our school board and Superintendent every few years.

It’s usually not clear at whom this criticism is being directed. Is it the school board? Which member(s)? The Superintendent? Which one? Other, lesser-known administrators within the district? And when there it is criticism of individual administrators, it seems that just about everyone leaving a comment knows how to be a better administrator than any of our administrators. Perhaps we Seattleites don’t watch enough football to get the “armchair quarterback” impulse out of our systems.

Backseat drivers drive away talent, and those looking for blood shouldn’t be surprised when they eventually run dry.

Everyone wants to be involved—deeply involved—in improving Seattle Public Schools. But perhaps the best way to do that is calm down, hire good people, and let them do their jobs. Performance comes from stability over time, not the number of cooks in the kitchen.

As I walk out the door, I have to look back on the past few years and pose the question: Is our approach to holding “the district” accountable really working? As organizational scholar Peter Senge is fond of saying, “Your system is perfectly designed to produce the results you are getting.” Perhaps “the public” should consider a different approach to relating to “the district.”

I wish Mr. Banda and the school board the best as they guide Seattle Public Schools through its next few years (hopefully more than just a few), and I wish all of my colleagues great success in their continued leadership. It has been a pleasure to serve with you.

The opinions expressed in On Performance are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.