A Few Questions About The Seattle Public Schools

Why is it that one of the wealthiest, most highly educated cities on the planet can’t do a better job with its public schools? For fuck’s sake, it’s so completely, despicably infuriating.

Why are the Seattle public schools a never ending saga of budget crises, overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, overworked teachers, cutbacks on the arts and sports, crappy lunch food, teaching to the test, inconsistent leadership, and in the end, mediocre educational results?

Why are so many Seattle families forced to endure massive stress over whether or not their kid will be lucky enough to get into one of the “good” public schools, some pushed to such extreme levels of worry that — like some neighbors of mine did — they’ll rent out the house they own and get an apartment in another part of the city to make sure their kid doesn’t get stuck in an inferior school?

And why are Seattle families being threatened with the trauma of school closings for the second time in two years?

Uh-huh, there are some pretty solid reasons for why nearly one third of Seattle’s children attend private schools, the highest city-only rate in the country as of the 2000 Census.

Is it simply a matter of money? If so, the school district should ask for more. This is city that believes in education, and surely most Seattlites would be willing to pay a little more in taxes to support meaningful improvements in the public schools.

Yes, it is extremely challenging to teach children who come from troubled homes. But does that mean it’s literally impossible to provide high quality public education in urban areas where there are significant numbers of less fortunate kids in the school population?

Why can’t we figure this shit out? Cause it matters. A lot. For so many reasons. We all know it.

And it matters more than ever now, in this era of climate change, peak oil, and ecological breakdown — an era in which channeling growth into our existing large cities has become a critical path to sustainability. Anyone care to guess how many Seattle families have been pushed over the edge by this latest round of closures and have decided to move out to the burbs where they know they can find quality and consistency in the public schools?

Imagine if Seattle had the best public schools in the Puget Sound region. Families with children would be attracted, but to live in Seattle would mean accepting a higher density environment. For many, this would be no sacrifice, while others who might have viewed it as a tradeoff, would discover a surprisingly high overall quality of life. As more families came, it would justify increased investment in the public realm amenities that make high-density livable. In short, exemplary public schools are perhaps the single most potent catalyst there is for promoting the diverse, vibrant, walkable, and socially coherent urban communities of a sustainable future. So get on it, Seattle. Please?

22 Responses to “A Few Questions About The Seattle Public Schools”

  1. dan wong

    Having graduated from Seattle Public Schools, I’d say the problem is rather complex, and while part of it may be due to financial issues, decisions made at the administrative level of the district or even each individual school also play a large role. That said, parents and students also have to assume responsibility for their education as well.

    I was a part of the Accelerated Progress Program, and honestly, I’m happy with the education I received. I was not as well-prepared as I would have liked to have been for the college I eventually attended, but then again, that challenge was part of the whole point of going to college. If I had not been in this program, the education I would have received would have been terrible at best. Despite what I feel is the success of this program, it has been criticized for being elitist, and it appears to me that rather than taking the best parts of this program and bringing it to every school in the district, the administration is slowly killing it.

    The dilemma seems to be, given a finite amount of money that is insufficient to provide an outstanding education to every student, whether to set aside the needs of talented students (clustering of students with similar abilities as in APP, or extracurricular activities) in order to try and catch every student who may “fall through the cracks”, or to provide less support to students who may need extra help in order to ensure that the success and achievement of other students is not limited by the school system’s inadequacies? Clearly, a balance needs to exist between the two, but I’m only highlighting the two extremes I see.

    I learned some valuable lessons and skills in Seattle schools, like how to be resourceful, and to really be pro-active and seize opportunities when they present themselves. These are skills critical to being a student in Seattle, and while there are some systemic problems in the district, parents and students have to work as well. I have known too many people, both in Seattle and elsewhere, who complain about inadequacies in the system, take no responsibility for them, and do nothing to solve them, either for themselves or for the community.

  2. Sabina Pade

    Seems to me that if we want to improve the education of children from less economically and/or intellectually privileged families, we should begin by educating those childrens’ parents.

    By the time a child enters school, that child’s character and attitude are already, to a substantial degree, formed for life. Throughout a child’s schooling, the environmental conditioning the child receives at home, and outside of school generally, will be of great significance.

    I agree with Dan Wong, above. Of course we want good schools. And the issues involved are complex. The real key to good schools, however, is good parenting : the source of motivated students that are well supported at home.

    Odd that we should require prospective drivers, lawyers, architects, pilots, doctors, mechanics, etc. to demonstrate their skill and obtain certification while we demand no proof from prospective parents that they be equal to the task of raising children.

    Budget crises, overcrowded classrooms, dilapidated buildings, overworked teachers, cutbacks on the arts and sports, crappy lunch food, teaching to the test, inconsistent leadership, as evoked above by Dan Bertolet do not inevitably lead to mediocre educational results. Poor student attitude and insufficient support at home, however, assuredly do.

  3. Renee

    Thanks, Dan. Great post.

    Great neighborhood schools are a key component of vibrant, walkable, sustainable communities. Until we solve the school issue, we won’t get where we need to be even if we invest billions in things like light rail, bus rapid transit, affordable housing, etc. There are many political and funding issues that need to be worked through.

    A related point: Why doesn’t Seattle have a downtown public school? There are children living in downtown condos and apartments now, but no neighborhood schools. If we want more families to live downtown, we need a school there.

  4. joshuadf

    This may not excuse all your points, but during the 70s to today Seattle like many cities has faced shrinking enrollment in many areas (now reversed on Queen Anne and in Northeast Seattle) as the hump of Baby Boomers moved through the system. This unfortunately was at the same time as suburbanization, which moved education money right out of where it was needed most. In much of the country there were school building programs in suburban cities and counties combined with building closures just a miles away in cities!

    Lastly, I went to a focus group meeting about a downtown school. It’s a chicken and egg problem. The school district will not commit until there is need, and of course fewer people will move into the cities if there are no schools.

  5. John of Humdinger

    Other questions we might want to consider:
    Why do the sheeple think that “government” can/should educate their children?
    Why is the Teachers’ Union deathly afraid of school choice?
    Why do teachers get identical raises just for showing up every Sept.1?
    If more and more funding is the solution, why haven’t our schools improved over the past few decades of untold billions of ed spending increases?
    Is it reasonable to allow our “educators” to claim that they can only teach to a class of roughly identical iq’s?
    Why is a decrease in football worship equated to the demise of public education?
    If the test covers stuff that we want our kids to learn, what’s wrong with “teaching to it”?

  6. joshuadf

    JOH, I think you know the answers to most of your inflammatory “questions”. DanB already pointed out the high private school rates, which by the way makes the public schools the default provider for special needs children, which is very expensive. “School choice” vouchers ignore this would move an average-child worth of funding to schools that cherry-pick students.

    Teachers absolutely want smaller class sizes and personalized education, but funding does not allow. Why do you think professional educators, most in this city with Masters degrees, do not deserve good pay?

  7. GW

    The answer is simple, really: Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. From the author: “…in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.”

    As a parent with children in both public and private schools, I’ve seen this in action so many times it’s not remarkable enough to comment on any more.

  8. John of Humdinger

    Josh:
    Do a little research at the Seattle Times School Guide.
    Seattle Public Schools spends approx $9400 per student (plus a good bit of other stuff “off budget”.)
    There are 23 private schools that charge far less than that, many less than half. How can it be that for several decades parochial schools have been spending much less than public schools, but turning out a far superior product?
    It’s all because of special ed?
    It’s all Bush’s fault?

    Unless you see something I can’t see, I don’t see where I said teachers don’t deserve good pay (in my comments above.) Let me try to explain to you what I did say: When everyone in an organization receives the same raise regardless of their performance the result is mediocrity and frustration… two epithets which seem to be applied frequently to the Seattle Public Schools.

  9. mike

    it was explained to me that part of the problem stems for financial disparity between schools. some neighborhoods have extremely wealthy tax base and some don’t, and as it’s not divied up fairly, certain schools suffer greatly.

    having attended public schools in belgium and germany before my parents moved back to the states, i was shocked at how dumb my american classmates were.

    but i’d chalk it up to mostly negligence, teacher unions that are never held to account but keep getting more and more for less and less, and some good ol’ fashioned embezzling.

    strangely, the same problems that plague SPD. who’da thunk it?!?

  10. dan bertolet

    OK JOH, regarding public vs. private:

    1. To state the obvious, public schools get all the kids who can’t afford private schools, and on average these kids will be harder to teach than those who can afford private schools. It’s determined by the family environment they’ve grown up in, not IQ.

    2. I would assume that in many cases tuition costs at private schools are reduced by endowments and perhaps other sources of funding besides tuition. You’d need to get the private school total budget to compare to the public school expenditures.

    3. The answer to your question about parochial schools is not: “because they are driven by the profit motive.” And to me, this gets at the heart of it. The free market is not a panacea for education, and is likely to do more harm than good. This is because the free market requires a product that can be quantitatively assessed, and the well-rounded education of a child is not such a product.

    Parochial schools succeed because they tend to be small, tightly knit communities with strongly held common values, and their desire to educate is rooted in moral obligation, not the profit motive.

    And this points to the overarching answer to all my questions in the original post: our public schools are failing because our culture is failing.

  11. Matt the Engineer

    For what it’s worth, my niece told me last week that two of her classmates are pregnant in her suburban junior high school. Do we have any real data that Seattle schools are worse than those out in the suburbs? (not that I’d be surprised either way, I just haven’t seen it)

    I think both the discussion about unions and free market go to finance, not quality. If the problem’s really that we don’t pump enough money into education, then that’s a simple one to solve.

    The discussion about parental responsibility seems irrelevant, unless we feel that Seattle is disproportionately filled with slacker parents (I’ve observed the opposite).

    I completely agree about having a downtown school. Perhaps in the new Civic Square?

    I’m not sure what makes a good school, but I’ve seen excellent schools right next to terrible schools. Maybe it’s money, in this case the good school is given huge amounts of donations from parents, but I’m sure there are other factors. Being a good school almost seems to be self-reinforcing – good schools draw good teachers, encourage teachers and students, and bring in more donations.

  12. Dan Staley

    I largely agree with Matt, with the exception of indicators of quality parents. I had an old roommate for several years who was a teacher in a decent District in Sacramento. You could always tell when parent-teacher conferences were happening – he was tired, down, and didn’t say much. His favorite phrase during these times was: ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree’. Meaning: nice house doesn’t mean quality parenting. Our school here has wonderful teachers and an award-winning principal, but the parents…whew. When I go in the afternoons I try to calculate the %age of cars sitting there, idling. Always high. And the number of fat brats getting their *sses hauled home instead of walking…astronomical. And this is a ‘nice’ neighborhood.

  13. michael

    require all teachers to meet higher performance criteria – those that don’t get axed, those that do get raises. pay them well! talented teachers and administrators are what is needed in all situations, especially where parental involvement is not high. while controversial in her approach, Michelle Rhee has focused on attracting talent to the Washington DC school system. She has also been all about trimming the fat. The Mayor of DC effectively transferred all power from the school board to the Chancellor of Education position that Rhee now fills…school boards, in general have proven themselves to be an outdated, inefficient, and ineffective approach to making the decisions that are critical to moving our education system forward – on average, the U.S. spends more money per pupil than any other industrialized nation!!! where is all that money going?
    http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1862444-1,00.html

  14. Helen

    John of Humdinger writes: “Seattle Public Schools spends approx $9400 per student (plus a good bit of other stuff “off budget”.)
    There are 23 private schools that charge far less than that, many less than half.”

    I just looked at the Seattle Times School Guide, and could not find a single non-religious school that was charging anything like that little. $10,000 is a rock-bottom price in the secular school market.

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