Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Community Engagement Update – Youth Focus Group

We feel that the student voice is one that is too often missed. Part of our community engagement effort focuses on expressing student’s insights and interests. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet with Youth Ambassadors*, a group of youth from the Seattle area. They ranged in age from 6th grade to university students and represent a diverse community of committed and inspiring teens. These young people strive to influence others with the powers of peace, love and compassion.

I was personally impressed with their honesty, and found them to be bright and courageous young people with brilliant ideas about the meaning of quality education. They represent many public and private schools such as Garfield, Madrona K-8, Washington Middle School, Holly Names, and Lakeside. Take a good look at their comments and give us your feedback.

Youth Ambassadors' Comments:

1) “There is a gap between what teachers say they will teach and what they actually teach you. They say they are going to enhance your understanding of the culture of the language you are trying to learn and then all they teach you is a cultural song or dance. It gives you a false impression of what you are actually supposed to learn. Don’t have inflated goals; it you are going to do it [teach], do it.”

2) “School leadership should raise teachers' salary. Teaching is a profession that many people cannot do well because it does not have high pay. If we want our society to be more educated and get more teachers, then the best thing we can do to attract them is offer a higher salary.”

3) “I have been in the lowest math classes possible during school because I’m just not good at math. I was in Integrated Math II last year. I was like the “white person” in my class because I’m half Asian and everyone else was East Asian or African American. The teacher that I had also had AP classes that she treated differently than our class. She was really happy and polite and nice [to the AP class]; she brought them cookies, she had a really good attitude and she really helpful. And then with our class it was the complete opposite. She called my friend Kevin a ninja. I don’t know what that was about, but it was bad. She would talk back to students and snap her fingers at them. I don’t know if that was her idea of getting through to those kids. It was just interesting seeing the difference in how she treated them. She was like the least helpful teacher of all. She never ever would help a kid [in my class] out. The other Asians would be dispersed among the other student’s tables. I guess she expected us to be the smart ones. It was pretty shocking; the way she taught. It disturbed me and made me really angry. It’s just interesting seeing the difference in how AP and regular classes can be taught by the same teacher. “

4) “To be honest, I have never been at risk of not graduating just because of how I was raised. My parents always pushed me to take harder classes and go to college, but still I can think of three or four teachers that have had the biggest impact on me and I’m still in touch with all of them. Because they ask me how I am doing; they know what is going on in my life and they will share parts [stories] of themselves with me too. And so, I actually feel like I have a relationship with them. I feel like I have someone who makes me want to come to school and go to class. I feel like if there were more teachers like that then there would be more students who actually want to go to school.”

5) “Teaching is not always engaging. A lot of what we do is a lot of textbook work and reading the answers back. There is a not hands on learning and that means a lot of students are not successful. A very small part of the [student] population is good at that. The people who are good at SAT’s and good at WASL and good at tests can learn like that. We need more hands on things in the class. Make it relevant to our lives now.”

6) “I went to Washington Middle School and I felt fortunate to be able to go to one of the better schools. With all of the budget cuts and kids being relocated, even if students are at a higher level, it [quality learning] is not accessible to them because they are forced into a school they don’t really want to go to. I think that if they [school district] are going to have this whole geographical thing it’s not really fare to have a separation between good and bad schools. At Washington, I had some really good teachers that affected me and wanted to make me do better and I think that those kinds of teacher are really needed at the schools that are considered “bad schools”. Without teacher motivation there is no student motivation.”

7) “Counselors; there need to be more of them. At my school, we have 1600 students and like three or four counselors. That’s like 400 kids per counselor; they can’t possibly cater to each student’s needs and be accessible to them to really help guide them. People [students] have to be self motivated to get all the credits they need. Accountability [for students] is one thing, but for counselors that’s their job.”

8) "I think there should be a better system of getting students to know what classes they need to take. I know that there is counselor night, and my mom was about to not go to that, but at the last minute she did and figured out that I have an occupational ed issue. If she hadn’t of gone I wouldn’t have been able to graduate on time. That would have been horrible if she had not have gone and a lot of people deal with that [same issue]."

9) “Stuff like gang violence and drama make it hard for some of us. Me and my friends get a lot of threats from other kids. They say they’re gonna’ kill us or blow up the school and stuff like that. They [gangs] just don’t care about finishing school. One of my friends said he is going to get a job working for his uncle and make money that way. He thinks, 'why go to school if it doesn’t make adifference?'”

10) “I really like how you came out here to ask us about what we think. I would really like it if school leaders [principals, the superintendent, school board] took the time to talk to us. I think that would make a difference.”

-Solynn McCurdy, Community Engagement Manager

*Learn more about Youth Ambassadors at http://youthambassadors.net/


  1. Dear Solynn,

    I feel these student comments are well worth having a discussion about. These questions get to the heart of many of my concerns about reform.

    I suggest that for each problem directly or indirectly cited by the Youth Ambassadors, we ask this question:

    "Will this problem likely be solved or made worse by full implementation of the SPS' Excellence for All (E4A) plan?"

    Where we agree the problems will likely be made worse, we can then think collectively about this question:

    "How can the plan be modified to reduce or eliminate this problem?"

    Do you like the idea of organizing a discussion of the YA comments around these two questions?

    If so, then I would argue that that for such discussion we must first write out a common understanding of what an ideal SPS school will look like once the Excellence for All (E4A) plan is fully implemented.

    Do you agree with this point?

    At this point, I am not asking for you to answer the specific questions, but just asking you to answer whether you like my suggestions for how to frame a discussion of the YA comments that you shared here.

    I will watch for your answer.

    Thank you.

  2. Hi Joan,

    Thank you for your feedback. I really value your input and think you made some great points.

    I agree with you, in that we need to explore whether these problems (voiced by YA) may be affected in the long term by the Excellence for All Plan. To your question, “Will this problem be solved or made worse by full implementation of the SPS Excellence for All plan?”, for example. When you consider the following statement of YA, “There is a gap between what teachers say they will teach and what they actually teach you,” that is definitely an issue of teacher quality.

    We can cite that the plan aims to address this issue through strategies such as curriculum alignment, professional development, performance evaluation, and a district wide approach to the redesign of the teacher hiring process. But, I’m not sure that we can limit the YA conversation to the two questions about the Excellence for All plan.

    As a community, we should ask ourselves “What can we do to ensure that student concerns and challenges are actively addressed through our collective support?” I think we should focus on possibility and opportunity for academic success, rather than the problems or deficiencies of the strategic plan.

    It is also my belief that strategic plans of this nature take time in their implementation to show quality outcomes and progress. And often they need to be tweaked and modified along the way. It may be a little premature for us to judge whether the plan can solve or make these issues worse.

    Best regards.

  3. Solynn,

    Thank you your interest in talking about theses "YA" comments in the context of Excellence for All (E4A).

    First, though, I want to reiterate to you what I wrote to Karen this morning on another strand:


    Please know that any reservations I express about reform is not a personal attack.

    When I refer to "reformers" in a critical context, I am not referring to you or the typical Broad Resident.

    I am referring to

    the "masterminds" and chief advocates for school reform-- e.g. Eli Broad, Bill Gates- the major funders of reform,

    the major enablers of reform --e.g., U.S Presidents and their pro-reform Dept. of Education appointees, Broad Fellow superintendents --

    and to individuals who either look to "free-market education" for direct or indirect business opportunity, or who work in libertarian think tanks (such as Lisa Snell, at the Reason Foundation).

    I have read the personal statements of some of the Broad Residents.

    My impression is that these are people who genuinely want to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged and minority children, and believe that their business perspective can be put to good use through the opportunities provided by a Broad Residency training and placement.

    As for you, Solynn, and Patrick, I really appreciate your efforts to engage the public through this blog, and the professionalism of your comments and responses to the community imput and questions.

    You are comments are thoughtful and genuine.

    I sense that the three of you - and, by extension, the whole staff of Alliance for Education - are committed to genuinely helping the students of SPS.

    I worry, though, that reformists are using people such as yourselves to advance an agenda that does not constitute the best means for achieving a most worthy end, which is, as you eloquently put it, this:

    "At the Alliance for Education our agenda is about supporting a public school system in Seattle that can effectively address the needs of a diverse population and help all students graduate ready for college, career and life.

    "It’s that simple. "

  4. I hope to attend the meeting with Ron Dorn at the African American Academy buiding tonight. Perhaps you and/or your A4E colleagues will be there? It would be my pleasure to meet you in person.

    You wrote: "It may be a little premature for us to judge whether the plan can solve or make these issues worse."

    Isn't it the purpose of E4A reform to improve Seattle's public schools--specifically to improve the chances for graduation and post-graduation life success of SPS students?

    Doesn't improvement mean in part to solve perceived problems?

    This list of comments from the Youth Ambassadors is quite a good list of real and important problems that our students experience, and that negatively affect the chances for future success of some of SPS students.

    Are these not problems that are worthy of the District's attention, and that all stakeholders would hope would be solved by the E4A?

    Within this strand, if you don't mind, I would like to adhere to discussing several of the comments of the Youth Ambassadors.

    If you agree to this, then I would first agree with your answer to this comment:

    “There is a gap between what teachers say they will teach and what they actually teach you.”

    I agree that this comment is pertinent to "Teacher Quality."

    I also agree that at least the first three of the E4A strategies that you cite [curriculum alignment, professional development, performance evaluation] will address this problem. I don't know if "district-wide redesign of the teacher hiring process" will help because I don't know what this means.

    I don't know, however, that the E4A strategies speaking to this problem constitute the BEST way to solve this problem.

    I suggest that we proceed by first separating out the problems that will likely be solved by E4A, and then talking about each of the remaining problems.

    Maybe we will agree they aren't really problems at all!

    For those Y-A comments that we agree are real problems that ought to be solved, we can together think about how to modify the E4A so that it can effectively solve these prolems.

    Does you feel this suggestion could lead to a constructive discussion? Shall we proceed? If so, this is my next question:

    Are there any more of the problems cited by the Youth Ambassadors that you feel will be ameliorated by E4A?

    On a different note: Sometime I would like learn more about this: "district wide approach to the redesign of the teacher hiring process." Would you start a new strand in this blog, outlining this plan?

  5. Solynn,

    I was mistaken that Ron Dorn will be at the Af.Am.Acad. tonight. Ron Dorn at New School tonight. Probably you already know about these meetings, but just in case not, here are the details.

    Senators McAuliffe & Oemig Listening Tour on K-12 Education
    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 6:30pm - 8:00pm
    Van Asselt Elementary Library at African American Academy
    8311 Beacon Ave. South, Seattle 98118 (not the closed old Van Asselt building at 7201 Beacon Ave. S.)

    Please RSVP : Heidi B. Bennett Seattle Council PTSA VP- Legislative 206-781-5566.

    Ron Dorn at Early Learning Plan listening tour event. Details can be found at http://centraldistrictnews.com/events/2009/10/28/stand-up-for-kids-tell-it-like-it-is.

  6. Solynn,
    Not to parse too closely, but you write that:
    "When you consider the following statement of YA, “There is a gap between what teachers say they will teach and what they actually teach you,” that is definitely an issue of teacher quality. "
    Well, not necessarily. A teacher's syllabus ("what they say they will teach you") and the actually education occuring in a classroom over the course of a quarter or a semester WILL vary. Unless teh teacher holds him/herself strictly to a prescribed, scripted (by the teacher or by others) scope and sequence, then other things will likely be taught and some thing likely will not.

    This is close to the heart of the matter: Many would like a lesson, unit, etc to be entirely predictable, with the outcomes stated upfront. It's my opinion that this is not beneficial. While it is good and proper to announce what the hoped-for outcomes are, it is also entirely right and proper for the real outcomes not to match the initial, stated outcomes.

    There are at least three reasons for this:
    1) the teacher has no idea at the beginning of the class what the students' prior knowledge is. So lessons must be adapted, various levels of understanding addressed, different styles of learning met...In other words, outcomes will differ in two ways: a) scope and sequence might be modified on the fly; and b) different students will achieve different outcomes from the same instruction.
    I don't see any way around this, and it's thus inevitable that outcomes will differ.

    2)"teachable moments": During the course of day-to-day teaching, things come up: events, connections, applicable student experience to be drawn from...all the things that can, in the moment, lend important opportunity for lessons. These teachable moments will also modify outcomes: some part of lesson might be lost, but there will also be gain.

    3) Inquiry and socratic learning: For some lessons and some students, learning progresses through asking questions, finding answers, which lead to more questions and answers....This might take a minute or it might take ten. While it is useful and helpful to plan for this sort of learning, it is not always possible to know the outcome before hand: Students are finding answers that might not be listed in the outcomes on the syllabus.

    So while I appreciate the student's comment, "teachers don't teach what they say they will," I don't think it can so easily be attributed to TQ. In fact, I HOPE that there is variability in outcomes in some areas.

    The reason this is at the heart of the matter is that in a rush to sytematize, to quantify, to measure inputs against outcomes, we will lose true teaching and learning, the sometimes amorphous nature of it, the unpredictability. While I understand the scientific mind's need to rationalize the whole dang thing, let's keep in mind that children aren't predictable, even when we quantify them as lexiles, as WASL L2s in Reading, as RIT 196s....they are flighty, imaginative, beautiful creatures of passion and aspiration and these things often wing off in myraid directions. I know this makes planning vertical alignment difficult, but what do we do instead? Script the whole thing and toss out the unpredictable nature of children?

  7. Solynn, do Seattle Citizen's comments ring true for you or not? This commentator sounds like he/she is speaking from experience.

    I would only say that under a strict reformist philosophy of teaching, under which

    --direct instruction is a quite acceptable pedagogical approach,

    --teachers are to teach only what is to be tested on the high stakes exam and nothing more,

    --student achievement is defined soley by score on high stakes tests, and

    --teachers with poor credentials can be just as effective as well-credentialed peers,


    I would agree that this Youth Ambassador's comment is about teacher quality.

  8. Solynn - Is a strongly regressive school - such as I just described - the kind of school you most prefer to have your own children attend? If there were a free Mastery Charter School (ggogle it, and look at the "The Mastery Model")in Seattle near where you live, would you choose that for your child over a progressive private school (assuming you could afford the latter)?

    I doubt it very much. I certainly would not like a regressive education for my children. The E4A would have all non-psuedo-charter public schools be as I described. This is not an improvement over what we have now, except for perhaps the worst performing schools. SPS has some good schools that serve the black and brown skinned kids in south Seattle (to quote Mary Bass). I want all black and brown kids to have access to a good-to-great school. I don't want all the public schools that serve these kids to be made uniformly bad regressive education schools.

    In supporting and helping to further E4A are you not doing a disservice to the children of Seattle? Yes, you will be doing a service to business and the larger community in severalsways, including that graduates of schools like Mastery Charter school should be adequately literate, respectful of law, order, and capitalism, and sufficiently submissive to be good non-union workers.

    But you won't be helping to bring to these children the best education that SPS can possibly offer them.