Preface"What's he going to do--make the kids stand at attention, do push-ups, and wear uniforms? That stuff might work in the military but it won't work in the schools."
After two closed interviews, the Seattle School Board asked me to participate in an open-forum interview with parents, teachers, and the general public. The Seattle media had given a lot of coverage to the board's search for a superintendent, and the fact that I came with no background in education but with thirty years in the United States Army and four as a county executive had raised a small tidal wave of curiosity. Not surprisingly, the room was packed.
As the interview began, Icould hear the murmurings of the crowd. Some of the most respected principals sat behind the school board president and whispered adamantly in her ear, "Don't hire the general!" Teachers joked about how they would have to address me, and whether they'd have to salute each other, and polish their shoes. Parents worried that I'd promote excessive discipline, squelch creativity, and transform the schools into boot camps.
I knew, of course, the concerns of the parents and teachers. I knew the stereotype they held of the army general: a Pattonesque commander, inflexible and abrasive, more able to order than to listen, willing to sacrifice our city's children for a questionable cause. But I also knew how far from the mark that was. Thirty years of leading in the military had taught me that most leaders are the antithesis of those traits. Leading means inspiring, not commanding. Leading means loving the people you lead so they will give you their hearts as well as their minds. It means communicating a vision of where you can go together and inviting them to join. The community was right: a TV general could not have led the public schools. They didn't know me, but their stereotypes were different from my reality. Now I had two hours to change their minds.
I felt I was going into the interview unarmed but dangerous. Unarmed because I had no K-12 education experience and I was competing for the job against two experienced superintendents with Ph.Ds. How could I answer questions about Bloom's Taxonomy
or Gardner's multiple intelligences? Some political leaders had already responded to my candidacy by saying "This guy doesn't have a clue about public education," and, in the strictest sense, they were right: I didn't know the specifics of educational practice. But I felt strongly that to be a successful superintendent I didn't need to know those details: There were already 5,000 educators in the district who did! What the district needed was a leader. That's the reason I was "dangerous'--I knew I had the leadership skills to do the job.
Over the next two hours I listened carefully to the audience's concerns. In response I told them confidently that I could lead their schools to success but I could not run the schools alone; I would need their help and I would actively invite their participation. I told them that the academic achievement of every child would be my highest priority, and that I would ask parents, businesses, and community groups to help us to raise the levels of achievement. I told them that, despite the enormous problems the district was facing--aging buildings, declining test scores, a woefully insufficient budget--despite the fact that someone had said, "Why would you want to be a superintendent of schools? Why do you care? It's too late for public education," despite all those things, we can do it. We can reach and teach all children.
This is not a clever slogan, nor simply a rallying cry. It is the schools' responsibility to teach and reach each child. I know this in my heart because I was one of the "unreachable." I failed sixth grade.
This should not have come as a big surprise to my family or me: for years I'd been fooling around in class, not doing my homework. But when Miss Greenstein came to my house at the end of the year for a "private conversation" with my parents, and when I saw my parents' faces as they showed her to the door, I was devastated. I felt ashamed. My parents had never graduated from grade school. They each worked two jobs (my father as a truck driver and train engineer, my mother as a cook) to keep our family together and, more than anything, they wanted better for their children. My two older sisters were diligent; they were the scholars my parents wanted. Now I felt like I was breaking their hearts.
But my mother wasn't about to let her expectations for her only son die. She purchased a set of World Book Encyclopedias
for me. The next school year, and every year after, from wherever she was working, she called me every afternoon--usually two or three times--to make sure I was doing my homework. It was hard for her to check the quality of my schoolwork since she couldn't do the work herself, but she made sure that it was done, and she talked more often with my teachers. I submitted to the discipline and survived the embarrassment of repeating sixth grade; my work became regular, if only average; it wasn't until eighth or ninth grade that I felt any excitement about going to school. But the experience of failing sixth grade was pivotal. Miss Greenstein had recognized that I wasn't ready to move on--I was immature and unmotivated, I needed a kick in the pants--and her justified action provided it. The jolt of letting down my family, the shame I felt as my friends moved on, the embarrassment I felt in front of my neighbors, the message my retention sent to my parents: all forced me to take my schooling, and perhaps my life, more seriously. At the time I was humiliated; I thought my life was ruined. Today I know the truth: I would not be where I am today if Miss Greenstein hadn't had the courage and love to do what she did.
I say courage and love because that's exactly what it took. It took courage and love to look my parents in the eye and tell them--just as it takes courage and love to do the other things a school system must do if it wants to do what's best for its children. It takes courage and love to say to teachers, "You must put aside your adult concerns." It takes courage and love to remove a teacher, secretary, or principal who has been a member of your team. It takes courage and love to say to a child, "You will not graduate unless your work improves." I think back to Miss Greenstein and wonder, "What would have happened to me had my teacher not loved me?" Our school districts need this kind of courage and love because without them, we will never graduate children who are prepared to thrive in the competitive, knowledge-based world they will inherit. If we
can't do what is difficult now, we subject them to far greater difficulties in the future.
I talked that night with parents, teachers, and the community, about achievement, safety, accountability, and fiscal responsibility, and in the 2 1/2 years I've been here, we've been making good on those issues. Our administrators, teachers, and parents are working together to make Seattle a world-class system. We have created unparalleled partnerships with the community to bring additional resources into the schools; we have taken measures to raise the academic achievement of every
child; we have generated tremendous excitement both inside and outside our city about the future of public education.
This book is not designed to denigrate previous administrations. I was handed a fine school district. My observations and changes are the direct result of an effective leadership style applied to a new profession.
We are doing what I told the community we would do that night. We are writing a new future for Seattle's children. We are writing the story of an entire city's collaboration with and excitement about its public schools. We are creating a blueprint for success in education that can transform the lives of all children.
The board made a gutsy choice and we're on our way to greatness!
April 1998Introduction"If you want to transform an institution that has been stagnant for decades, the last place you look for a leader is inside that institution. We needed a noneducator."
--Don Nielsen, Seattle School Board
I am not an educator. I am a leader of educators. That is the reason I was hired. When the Seattle School Board brought me on board in the summer of 1995, I needed to learn as fast as I could about the business of education. So I immediately did what anyone would do if he or she were entering a new field: I asked a million questions. I spent my first three months as superintendent meeting with teachers, staff people, business leaders, and parents, and asking question after question. How are you advancing achievement for all children? What is the most important thing we do? What are the challenges that get in our way? How can we serve our customers better? And what I found as a result of asking all these questions was something very curious. I found that our school system was filled with paradoxes.
We claimed that we wanted every child to learn--but we were promoting children who hadn't.
We claimed that we wanted every child to learn--but we didn't hold teachers and principals accountable for student achievement.
We claimed that we wanted academic achievement from our students -- but we placed teachers in schools based on seniority rather than merit.
I found that our schools were focused on the morale and welfare of adults rather than on the academic, social, and emotional needs of children.
Why, for instance, when we knew it cost more to teach children who were chronically below academic standards, did we spend the same amount of money to educate every child?
Why, if we wanted every child to learn, were we busing children to the other side of town when busing didn't improve academic performance?
Why, if we wanted every child to graduate with a specified set of skills, did we let teachers pick and choose which skills to teach, instead of making them adhere to the district's curriculum?
Why, when we knew that thousands of children were behind, did every school not offer after-school tutoring, summer school, and other kinds of supports to get every child up to grade level?
Why, if teachers were the crucial element in our instructional system, did we give them an average of seventeen minutes of planning time a day and only a few days of training annually in which to strengthen their skills?
What I found as I asked these questions was that there really weren't solid answers. Practices that had developed over the years and were contrary to the goal of educating children had, because of politics, or familiarity, or simply because of tradition, become entrenched. Indeed, in any business, inconsistencies can become so entrenched, so accepted, that people who have been inside the business for a long time simply stop seeing them, or become unwilling to change them. And in Seattle there were glaring discrepancies between what the district said it wanted for its children and what its children were actually getting.
If we were going to turn the district around, it was clear we'd have to root out these inconsistencies. We'd have to make sure that everything we did furthered our number-one goal: raising academic achievement.
People wondered when I was hired how someone with no background in education could possibly fix the schools. But Seattle didn't need an educator--Seattle needed a professional manager to determine whether or not all functions of the school district were working to promote the goals of the district, to eliminate those that weren't, and to refocus the others onto academic achievement. And Seattle needed a leader
to galvanize the entire city into action--for change of this magnitude required everyone's excitement and energy.
The other reason Seattle needed a noneducator to turn its schools around was that there was a gap of thirty to forty points between white and minority students' test scores, a rising incidence of violence, and a dropout rate of 15 percent. There was so little confidence in the schools that taxpayers often rejected education levies and business groups micromanaged the district's operations. The funding picture was alarming: The budget for the school year that was about to start had expenditures exceeding income by $15 million, over the next two years the state would cut our allocation by $25 million, and the district had an operating reserve of less than a single day, which meant that the slightest unexpected hiccup--a cold snap, snowstorm, fire, backed-up sewer in one of our aging buildings, or a lawsuit from an employee who felt she was unfairly terminated--would require us to cut into programs.
All these problems had a tremendous impact on how we went about educating children--but they were not educational problems. They were business
problems. The district needed someone who was experienced at leading large, complex, heterogeneous organizations and had a track record of turning them around. It needed someone who had managed multimillion-dollar budgets and kept them consistently in the black. It needed someone who had inspired a burned-out workforce and infused them with a vision of what they could achieve. It needed someone who had taken an organization that had lost the confidence of its customers and brought it back on track. The district already had 5,000 dedicated, hardworking, highly skilled educators who knew all about helping children learn. What it lacked was a leader who could focus the organization on its goals, unleash its potential, get the obstacles out of the way, and empower the educators to do their jobs.TEN PHILOSOPHICAL SHIFTS
I had been in the district for about a month when I had a rather revealing conversation with a principal. I'd been meeting with him in his office, discussing the problem of children who were chronically behind, when I asked him what he was doing to help those children learn. The principal thought for a moment, then pointed to a textbook on his bookshelf. "We've switched to the Glencoe math curriculum," he said. "But how does that help individual students?" I asked. "Can you tell me names of students who are behind and what their teachers are doing to help them?" The principal looked at me, confused. "Well, I couldn't tell you all their names," he said, "but I'm sure their teachers are working with them in small groups to help them catch up." "You don't routinely talk to teachers about the academic achievement of their children?" I asked. "You don't ask to see a plan for how they'll help each child improve?" For just a second the principal looked at me as if I'd walked in from outer space (and in a sense I had), then cautiously he answered. "I guess I'd see that as interfering. It would be telling the teacher how to do her job, and that's not part of my philos-ophy."
I left that school and thought to myself, "That's incredible! This principal, the academic leader of his building, doesn't ask his teachers how they're helping all children learn because it isn't part of his philosophy. What is his philosophy? What is his role as a principal? And how does he expect his students to improve?"
Over the next few weeks I met with other principals, as well as with teachers and administrators in the district, and I asked all of them what they were doing to raise academic achievement. To my dismay, I found equally disturbing answers. Throughout the district, people seemed to be guided by "philosophies" that were not in students' best academic interest. There was the philosophy, for instance, that "poor minority children received little education support at home, therefore they shouldn't be expected to achieve at school." There was the philosophy that "poor minority parents wanted less for their children than middle-class parents, so there is little point in expecting them to participate in their children's education." There was the philosophy that "sports and the arts are feel-good frills, expendable in an academic curriculum." There were a host of "philosophies," some voiced consciously, others held just below the surface, that had an enormous impact on how the district educated its students. The philosophies were not meant to be damaging; they were held by people who loved the children they worked with and labored with day and night to help them learn. They were just part of the accepted culture, the result of years of work within a system that had too few resources to deal with increasingly difficult problems.
"The educators were so busy inside the trees looking at all their little programs, they hadn't asked some of those very basic questions that somebody who sees the forest is going to ask."
--Linda Harris, former president, Seattle school board
But the trouble with all these philosophies was that they got in the way of academic achievement! Expecting only middle-class children to achieve meant that thousands of minority children were allowed to fall through the cracks. Holding lower expectations for minority parents meant that those parents weren't encouraged to give their children the help they needed at home. Regarding sports and the arts as frills meant that thousands of children for whom those subjects were the only reason to come to school had no gateway to academic learning. These philosophies were perpetuating the district's biggest problems; they were at the heart of its inconsistent behaviors. And as long as they were allowed to continue, they would undermine any effort to turn the district around.
Seattle's first step was to make ten philosophical shifts that would shape all of our thinking as we reengineered our schools.Philosophical Shift #1: We would stop focusing on adults and begin focusing on children.
Every action and every decision would be measured against a single inviolable yardstick: Is this in the best interest of children? Does this promote academic achievement?Philosophical Shift #2: We would stop believing that some children would learn and start believing that all children would learn.
No children, regardless of socioeconomic status, would be written off. We would expect every child to achieve, and every teacher to promote that achievement.Philosophical Shift #3: We would stop believing that students alone were accountable for their performance and start holding students, teachers, principals, parents, and the community accountable.
We would establish measurable goals for student achievement and hold everyone accountable for helping students meet them.Philosophical Shift #4: We would stop believing that we could reach all students with our traditional currciulum and start diversifying our curriculum to meet all students' needs.
We would expand our offerings in the arts, sports, sciences, technology, language, and careers in order to meet all students' needs and interests.Philosophical Shift #5: We would stop abandoning teachers and start giving them total support.
We would aggressively give teachers the support, training, and recognition they needed to achieve victory in the classroom.Philosophical Shift #6: We would stop running schools bureaucratically and start running them entrepreneurially.
We would give our schools control over their budgets, staffing, and instructional methods and expect them to compete in the marketplace through excellence.Philosophical Shift #7: We would stop hiding from the media and begin seeing the media as our partner.
Schools do a million things right every day. Because we needed the support of the public to do our job, we would work proactively with the media to get our positive stories out.Philosophical Shift #8: We would stop embracing the status quo and start embracing change.
We would stop offering programs that were not in the best interest of children even if eliminating those programs angered groups of constituents.Philosophical Shift #9: We would stop serving children out of a sense of duty and start educating them out of a sense of love.
We would love every child entrusted to our care, because children don't learn from adults who don't love them.Philosophical Shift #10: We would not expect the public to support us because they ought to.
We would make a concerted effort to build the public we needed.CHANGE AT THE STRATEGIC LEVEL
Over the past several years, these new ways of thinking have become the cornerstones of our operation. Not surprisingly, as we've made these philosophical shifts, we've found that all sorts of other things had to change. If we really focused on children, for example, we could no longer have a hiring system built on seniority; we had to find ways to put the best
teachers in every school. If we really believed that all children would learn, we could no longer let children play in the back of the classroom or promote children who weren't ready; we had to change the teaching regime to meet each student's needs and provide extra support to those who were having trouble. If we stopped holding students solely responsible for their achievement, we could no longer exonerate teachers when their children didn't reach their potential; we had to develop measurable goals for student performance and then hold teachers accountable for meeting them.
This book is about how we are making these changes. It is about "scaling up" reform so that it affects an entire city's schools. In the past, most school reform has happened at the level of individual schools. By working one school at a time, reformers have created many model programs, many excellent schools. But for true reform to happen, it has to happen at the district level. That's what we are doing in Seattle; this book describes that process. Each chapter describes an old way of thinking that derailed the district from its mission, the philosophical shift we made in order to redirect our efforts toward achievement, and the strategies we are putting in place so that everything
focuses on helping children learn.
We have made a tremendous amount of change in our district--and change is never easy. But if some people are unhappy because we have changed the status quo, thousands more are feeling invigorated! Teachers stop me in the halls to say, "I'm working harder than I ever have, but we're moving in the right direction and I'm excited about what we're doing for the children." Principals who have been educators for twenty or thirty years tell me that the pressure on them to perform is higher than it's ever been, but they feel empowered by the focus on achievement. Parents come up to me on the street to say, "I can feel the excitement of the schools through my children." Change is hard, but when it is focused, when it is in the service of a vision, it is also tremendously exhilarating.
I don't mean to suggest, in writing this book, that we have all the answers, or even that everything we're doing is right. It is way too early to declare victory in public education. But we have
made significant improvements in the way we run our schools, and we've removed many of those damaging inconsistencies from our operation.
We have negotiated a radical new contract with our teachers' union, one of the first in the nation in which teachers have agreed to be held accountable for student performance.
We have changed seniority as a factor in assigning teachers to schools and given schools the ability to hire the most qualified, rather than the most senior, teachers.
We have stopped mandatory race-based busing at the elementary level and enabled all children to choose a school close to home.
We have changed the way we finance our schools so that children with greater educational needs receive additional dollars.
We have developed a training program for principals that teaches them academic leadership, organizational development, financial management, and other business and leadership skills.
We have created "individual learning plans" that tailor academic instruction to the needs of every child performing below grade level.
We have raised over $15 million in private investments, which is targeted to programs focused on academic achievement.
We have doubled the number of community volunteers who tutor in the schools.
We are bringing the arts, the environment, foreign languages, technology, and school-to-work experiences into our curriculum through partnerships with business and nonprofit groups so that we can meet the interests and needs of every student.
We have rekindled the community's faith in and excitement about the public schools:
voters have approved three operations and capital tax levies in the last two years;
the state legislature sustained the amount of money school districts could raise through local tax levies;
the middle class is returning to our schools: for the first time in a decade, Seattle has outpaced the suburbs in the sale of homes, a change realtors attribute to excitement about the schools.
We have also seen an improvement in student performance. Since 1995 our standardized test scores have risen from one to four percentile points in every subject for every group of students; the gap between minority and white students' test scores has begun to close; the number of violent incidents has reached a ten-year low; and the dropout rate has slid, for the first time in five years, to under 12 percent. Will long-term trends bear out these improvements? It's too soon to know for sure, but we believe they will. We believe they are the logical consequence of focusing everything we do on getting achievement in the classroom.
I am writing this book because, while Seattle, with 47,500 students, is smaller than some of our nation's urban school districts, its problems are the same, and I believe that the solutions we are creating here will work in every community. If, in every community, outsiders--whether a business-trained superintendent, or simply parents, business leaders, and other concerned citizens--push their districts to change, then they, too, can begin the transformation required. We all must realize, however, that change is a two-pronged process. Schools cannot
educate their children alone. They need partnerships with parents; they need financial and curriculum support from businesses; they need tutoring and volunteer time from retirees, religious congregations, ethnic organizations, and social-service groups. They need their communities to understand that the "war" in public education is not a war about test scores or curriculum standards. It is a war about the future of our children and our communities, for nothing shapes the future of a city as much as its children. Our children will be our future employers and employees; they will choose our elected officials; they will determine our social, environmental, and economic policies. If our schoolchildren cannot read or think clearly, if they cannot use technology, if they cannot value the differences in our many cultures or the environment they will inherit, what kind of future will we have? The public schools are everyone's schools--and it is everyone's job to keep them vital.
Fortunately, when communities rally to support their schools, they can be a tremendous force for change! Seattle's citizens are extraordinary in that regard. Seattle wants its public schools to succeed. If parents everywhere read to their children at night, if they request a syllabus from their teachers and discuss their children's schoolwork daily, if they hold their children to the highest standards and demand that their schools do the same, they will be boosting their school's academic program. If business leaders ask their schools, "What can we do for you?", if they contribute money and resources to enhance school programs, if they give employees an hour off each week to tutor children who would otherwise fail, they will help create schools that meet the needs of all students and enable all students to pass. If concerned citizens--artists and grandparents, laborers and clergy, athletes and social workers--vote for school levies; if they "adopt" a student whose grades are falling; if they ask every child how he or she is doing in school, they can help ensure that our schools are adequately funded and that all children go to school ready to learn.
Education is not just a matter for the politicians and professionals; it is a matter for all of us. For we are the public in public education. When we work together, we can do it. We can
make public education work.
Excerpted from Victory in Our Schools by John Stanford. Copyright © 1998 by John Stanford. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.