Saturday, December 08, 2007

Conversation Recap for December 2, 2007

We opened with introductions, and welcomed three new members. Nice full room.

Today we heard Karen’s story.

The discussion brought out several interesting comparisons. Tacoma has changed rather dramatically over the last forty years—from goat and horse farms in Northeast to its present situation; the sense of community shared among people in the small-town atmosphere, which can cut across class lines; it is important for everyone to feel they are valuable members of a community; AND, the New Orleans Monologues is one of those very best things about Tacoma.

We heard from the education group. The discussion at first centered on the group’s website, which keeps track of issues and events. See it at
We heard that after this last Thursday’s meeting offered a ray of hope. Several additional meetings were scheduled:
• Dec. 6, Student achievement: 4:30-8 p.m. Thursday. A 26-minute video of a student summit on diversity, leadership and learning will be shown at 4:30 p.m. to set the tone for the discussion.
• Leadership and the search for a new superintendent: The week of Dec. 10, with day and time to be determined.
• Planning, including upcoming contract negotiations with teachers: The week of Dec. 17.

An interesting feature of these meetings is that the public is engaging with the Board. This has been an issue the education group has raised with the Board several times.

One member asked about whether the Tacoma school district has been informed of alternative approaches to engaging the public in policy and change. One way to do this is to bring to light the practices of other districts. Maybe we can produce a checklist of best practices, with examples.

We went over some school reforms, and the content of today’s policy discussions seem to be regularly referring to evidence. This is a hopeful sign. The Board also seems to be embracing the idea of opening itself to public participation, and there are signs they are learning how to do this. It might be that school board members are reinterpreting their job descriptions. The norms were rather passive before. And it is rather clear that the participation of groups in Tacoma school politics—the education group of the Conversation, the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance, and others—is making this difference. One way to think about it: the Board becomes a mirror of its community. An engaged community might produce an engaged Board. Remember the Board meetings are not broadcasted in any way, such as the way other meetings are on CTV. So this community influence on the Board occurs only when we walk in the door for the meetings, and they only hear from us if we come before the meeting begins and fill out one of the blue ‘wish to comment’ cards.

One member pointed out there are many opportunities for school board members to be aware of best practices. If board members do not know them, it seems like a sign of not doing the work needed to do the job well.
One member described Board member motivations—that this largely voluntary job is a source of community status for members, the opportunities for public ceremonies of a symbolic nature. We should reconstitute the design of the Board to focus on what it should—what is happening with the kids.

A general point about sloppiness of Board work: an illustration from a report on the achievement gap, presented at a meeting of the group that went to the Harvard program. A very badly constructed graph actually distracted attention to the important questions—and when this was pointed out to District officials they elided the issue. This was presented as an indication of the lack of rigor on the part of administrators.

A book came up in our discussions, David Tyack, The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education (a new edition in paperback from Harvard University Press, ASNB13: 978-0674637825). One reviewer said the book is a very good history, PLUS forcefully makes the point that urban schools were designed, on purpose, to be this way—impersonal, bureaucratic, and unequal. It pays special attention to the pitfalls in looking for One Best Way to address an issue, and cautions about putting too much confidence in lists of Best Practices.

There doesn’t seem to be good mentorship about doing the job of school board member.

We heard about one dismal moment at the School Board meeting last Thursday: one Board member asked if there is agreement on the definition of achievement gap. The administrator being asked the question said, no, and a general hum went through the school board—one said “well, there you are,” another shrugged. The vibe may have been unintentional, but it struck members of the education group that this was an unpleasant exchange, when the Board could have demonstrated a commitment to doing something but instead seemed like an expression of their being off the hook. The format of the meeting was not such that members could say, “baloney” and point to clear state declarations of the term. See the web page,

We ought to look at public schools in Tacoma and say, we are better than what we are doing right now. We want to see it totally transformed. [And we should be willing to televise the revolution….] We will take this vision of thorough change seriously. We will take it forward, advance good candidates for Board elections, raise questions in public forums and keep asking them. When we find people who are raising good questions, who are floating ideas that take us in the right direction, we will encourage them to keep doing it, to lead. We will prepare ourselves for the positions of leadership that will make these changes in education. We will be the ones who bring the experience of other towns and school districts, and show them to people and officials in Tacoma. If Tacoma is going to be the world class city we want to live in, then we are going to have to make it so. We are the people we have been waiting for.

At the end of the meeting, some reminders and announcements.
**don’t forget the deduct box, make a contribution for the group expenses.
**we gave appreciation to the group members who put together last night’s salon and fundraiser for the upcoming MLK day event, reclaiming the vision.