In our latest Seattle Hall Pass episode, we're confronting a critical issue: the focus on kids furthest from educational justice is so far not bearing fruit. More kids than ever are falling below proficiency for math and reading - goals set by the Seattle School Board as part of Student Outcomes Focused Governance. Despite the concerning trends, there's a silver lining: the district and the school board are addressing these challenges with open dialogue.
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Episode 13 — Facing Our Student Outcomes
[00:00:00] Christie Robertson: Welcome to Seattle Hall Pass, a podcast with news and conversations about Seattle public schools. My name is Christie Robertson.
[00:00:08] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. Today we're going to talk about the November 15th school board meeting. This was a jam-packed meeting that lasted almost six and a half hours.
[00:00:18] Christie Robertson: We said goodbye to two directors, Chandra Hampson and Leslie Harris. And we'll link to those goodbyes in the show notes. The board passed the financial policy unamended.
[00:00:30] Jane Tunks Demel: And we're hoping to bring on one of the directors to help us understand what the financial policy means now that it's in effect.
[00:00:37] Christie Robertson: Yep. What else, Jane?
[00:00:39] Jane Tunks Demel: They also introduced a budget resolution, and if you remember, we already scooped ourselves on that item in the last Extras episode.
[00:00:48] Christie Robertson: A lot of it was covered in the episode. The one thing I'll add that was surprising to me was that Art Jarvis said flat-out that our having too many schools is the base problem of our ongoing structural budget deficit. This has led me to really want somebody from SPS to sit down with me and Jane so we can nerd out about the school budget with them. So we would like to invite Kurt Buttleman to come answer budget questions with us.
[00:01:14] Jane Tunks Demel: Who is Kurt Buttleman, christie?
[00:01:16] Christie Robertson: Well, I can look at my brand-new org chart document that I got from Public Records. Kurt Buttleman is the Assistant Superintendent of Finance under Fred Podesta, who is the Chief Operations Officer.
[00:01:28] Jane Tunks Demel: Although Art Jarvis says that it's because we have too many schools, that's the base problem. I'd like to also point out that Seattle Public Schools pays double what the state gives us in special education funding. And we also spend a lot more in transportation. At the same time, of course, I think that the state doesn't give us enough money for those two things, but I think there also might be some issues there.
[00:01:53] Christie Robertson: Yes, I think he just is new to the district and maybe doesn't realize that we spend so much.
[00:01:57] Jane Tunks Demel: Or he just wants to close schools.
[00:01:59] Christie Robertson: You never know.
So that was the budget resolution and then there was progress monitoring. And we decided that we should focus on progress monitoring, which happened last in the meeting. But which has the most impact on students and because it's the whole point of student outcomes-focused governance.
[00:02:15] Jane Tunks Demel: So Christie, what is progress monitoring?
[00:02:19] Christie Robertson: This is the fruits of all of the work that they have done to switch their framework to student outcomes-focused governance. The outcomes are what the superintendent is evaluated on, and by talking about them in board meetings, it's supposed to create a culture of outcomes so that people aren't running around just doing whatever random thing the board is interested in.
[00:02:46] Jane Tunks Demel: So we're gonna start with third-grade reading. That was the first goal that they were monitoring.
[00:02:51] Christie Robertson: They are currently implementing year five of their interventions but we are looking at data from year four, which was last year [2022-23].
[00:03:00] Jane Tunks Demel: Cashel Toner is a lead administrator in charge of the reading goal. She presented the data and then went into describing their strategies.
[00:03:08] Christie Robertson: And this goal, of course, spans the pandemic because they started working on it in 2019. So ... grain of salt, bucket of salt.,
[00:03:19] Jane Tunks Demel: So two years of disrupted learning may have had an effect on these scores.
[00:03:25] Christie Robertson: Maybe a little bit.
[00:03:25] Jane Tunks Demel: I'm just guessing.
[00:03:26] Christie Robertson: And so when she presented it, she said basically last year is when they were all pistons firing. So this is their second year of that.
[00:03:35] Jane Tunks Demel: The third-grade reading goal is for 70 percent of African American males and Students of Color Furthest from Educational Justice to become proficient readers by the end of third grade. And the definition of proficiency is achieving a level 3 or 4 on the English Language Arts portion of the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which is a standardized test.
[00:03:58] Christie Robertson: So 70 percent should be able to proficiently read at the end of grade three.
[00:04:04] Jane Tunks Demel: And how the district is approaching this is that they are targeting 13 early literacy priority schools where African American boys are most likely to attend.
[00:04:15] Christie Robertson: Jane, is my school on the list? What are the schools?
[00:04:17] Jane Tunks Demel: So Bailey Gatzert, Broadview Thomson, Emerson, John Muir, Leschi, Martin Luther King, Olympic Hills, Rainier View, Rising Star, South Shore, Thurgood Marshall, West Seattle, and Wing Luke.
The cohort they're looking at now, which is last year's third grade cohort, was in kindergarten when the pandemic hit in 2020. I actually have one of those students at home and their first grade year was full-time remote instruction.
[00:04:47] Christie Robertson: We’ve toyed around with how to present this because there are a lot of numbers and graphs, which you should absolutely go look at. But we are going to try to keep the numbers down to a minimum because it makes it easy to tune out and we're also going to focus in on the main group, which is African American males. But the trend was pretty similar for all other groups except one. Right, Jane?
[00:05:09] Jane Tunks Demel: Yes. Multilingual learners, their scores tended to go up while the other scores tended to be flat or slightly dip or even go down. So, Christy, why is the focus on Black male students?
[00:05:23] Christie Robertson: I think the idea is that when you help the kids that we are failing the most, then it will help all the kids. Let alone that we owe them an incredible debt.
[00:05:35] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, and Superintendent Jones was quoted in the Seattle Times early this year as saying that if the district can get the education system to work for black male students, it will work for everyone. And as we know, those students have been the most ignored systemically in our education culture in this country.
So again, the goal is to reach 70 percent by the end of this school year.
And before this initiative started, 33 percent of African American males were proficient at reading in 3rd grade.
[00:06:07] Christie Robertson: So they were trying to more than double the number of African-American males who were proficient at reading. In third grade. But now the number has actually gone down to 29 percent.
[00:06:22] Jane Tunks Demel: So that's at all schools, right? What about just at the 13 priority schools?
[00:06:28] Christie Robertson: The 13 priority schools dropped, but not as much as the other schools. And in fact, the number of African American males at the non-priority schools that were meeting reading standards dropped 10 percent in one year And that's kind of alarming.
[00:06:44] Jane Tunks Demel: Cashel Toner set the tone saying that in no way are any of these scores the fault of the students. And here's how she explained it at the board meeting.
[00:06:56] Cashel Toner: I just want to say that all of our children have the capacity to learn to read at grade level by third grade. It's our responsibility to think about how do we build the systems and structure so that they can show their brilliance at school. Just like kids do and community as well. So this work isn't about fixing kids. It's not about fixing communities or schools. It's about us. Thinking about how do we build different systems and structures so that all kids can show their brilliance and read at or above grade level by third grade.
[00:07:31] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay. So now that we've gotten that out of the way, the fact that it's not the kids’ faults. Christie. why our scores so low
[00:07:38] Christie Robertson: I don't see an analysis of what those kids or those teachers or those schools are having difficulty with. Something's in their way. What is it? it seems like if you knew that it would help you in picking strategies. They did talk about one impact, which is absenteeism. And that was after a lot of prodding from directors. Just makes me still wonder what else aren't they seeing since they never asked that initial question. So what did they find about absenteeism? You want to talk about that?
[00:08:12] Jane Tunks Demel: Sure. They showed a chart of Title I schools and their longer term absenteeism rates. A Title I school, for those of you who don't know, has a larger percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunch because they're from lower-income families. A lot of times people look at Title I schools when they're trying to improve outcomes or other things in the school district.
The definition they're using for long-term absenteeism is if a student misses at least 10 percent of school days, which is 18 or more school days a year. And since we're looking at third grade reading scores I'm gonna focus on that. The longer-term absenteeism rate is 30 percent for third graders at Title I schools.
[00:08:55] Christie Robertson: Which by itself is shocking, right? Director Rankin asked to confirm this and here's her question and Cashel Toner's answer.
[00:09:04] Liza Rankin: Really quick clarifying.
[00:09:06] Cashel Toner: Sure.
[00:09:07] Liza Rankin: Is this saying that 32 percent of all students in third grade in Title 1 schools in SPS missed 18 or more days.
[00:09:15] Cashel Toner: Yes.
[00:09:16] Liza Rankin: Across all ...
[00:09:17] Cashel Toner: All title I schools
[00:09:18] Liza Rankin: ...races, incomes. So title one schools?
[00:09:20] Cashel Toner: Yes,
[00:09:21] Liza Rankin: Whoa.
[00:09:22] Cashel Toner: Right? Whoa is right.
[00:09:26] Christie Robertson: Last time a director asked if there's a correlation between absenteeism and reading scores. And so Cashel Toner made an amazing chart that I think should be published, grouped into five categories of how many days of school students missed compared to the number that met growth norms for reading. And it's like a direct correlation. The more days missed, the fewer are meeting standards.
[00:09:57] Jane Tunks Demel: Christie, when they're talking about absenteeism, what kind of absenteeism is it? What do you think is happening there?
[00:10:03] Christie Robertson: Director Hampson asked about this and here was her question and the answer.
[00:10:08] Chandra Hampson: Excused, absences, unexcused absences. Are we seeing school refusal? School avoidance?
[00:10:21] Cashel Toner: All those things. Yes. And, the school-based teams are grappling with those questions for sure. And for the purposes of instruction. Because if you're not at school, we need to figure out why that is, right? And we have to come up with an instructional response to fill that gap.
[00:10:48] Christie Robertson: My thought when they were presenting this was if you want to know why the kids are absent, ask the kids, because so often I feel like everybody just sort of guesses. It could be anything, like you might be focusing on reading instruction and they might have a teacher who's mean to them or something. You could sit a bunch of kids down and have a long conversation with them and see what kind of trends emerge.
I actually asked one of the directors why aren't they asking the kids and they said that they are actually asking the kids, but they didn't have time to present that. I would love to see the data.
If anybody's interested, That concept came from a book called Street Data, by Jamila Dugan and Shane Safir. I call it Ask the Kid, they call it Street Data.
[00:11:34] Jane Tunks Demel: Okay, so the reading scores are depressing.
[00:11:37] Christie Robertson: Yeah.
[00:11:38] Jane Tunks Demel: What are they doing about it?
[00:11:39] Christie Robertson: Cashel Toner talked a lot about what they've learned over the years and one of the biggest things was that they need to really narrow in and make clear exactly what their strategies are. So they've narrowed it down to four things. Again, I wish that I could say that they picked them by answering one or both of what do the kids tell them is in their way of learning to read, or what's the most effective, but my best guess is that they picked them by looking at the literature and picking things that seem to be well regarded to help kids learn to read. That's my impression.
So what strategies did they pick then? Jane?
[00:12:20] Jane Tunks Demel: One was a principal improvement network. which I believe the principals meet on a regular basis to talk about how they can remove obstacles to children reading. There's also a monthly one-hour professional learning community for teachers. The district has also hired 10 coaches to help teachers.
[00:12:42] Christie Robertson: Yeah, this is the one that struck me the most as useful. They actually recorded the teacher's teaching and then sit down with the teachers and go through it. And the teachers talk about what worked and what didn't.
[00:12:53] Jane Tunks Demel: And actually, was it Cashel Toner who talked about this? Let's listen to what she says.
[00:12:59] Cashel Toner: They're standing up just monumental strategies in their classrooms, internalizing new practice. They're engaged in tight coaching cycles, where they have a coach come into their classroom, videotape their instruction, go back together in a PLC [professional learning community] together, look at student work, watch the video, give each other feedback, and repeat that cycle over time. That's significant. That's brave work that our teachers are doing in our 13 schools. It's pretty amazing.
[00:13:27] Christie Robertson: And then the fourth thing is family literacy connectors, right? What are those?
[00:13:32] Jane Tunks Demel: I don't know.
[00:13:33] Christie Robertson: Me neither.
[00:13:34] Jane Tunks Demel: We'd love to learn more.
[00:13:36] Christie Robertson: One thing we were glad to hear is that Superintendent Jones said.
[00:13:41] Brent Jones: So the reading wars have are done. And the science of reading is the direction that we're going.
[00:13:49] Jane Tunks Demel: So there you go folks. Science of reading. It's happening in Seattle Public Schools.
[00:13:54] Christie Robertson: Cashel Toner then did a dive in about one of the strategies that they're focusing on with the teachers. And it's called Writing to Read. How does this work, Jane? What does that mean, writing to read?
[00:14:12] Jane Tunks Demel: They showed us an example of one of the exercises that students do in class. And the book they were talking about was called Cherries and the Cherry Pits. It's about a young black girl and the story she writes. They have the students read it, and then they want them to write about the story. And the idea is, that if they write about it, it just helps them process the information and be able to explain it to other people. Is that right?
[00:14:39] Christie Robertson: I think so. And it sounds like part of the idea is that if kids are behind, you need to engage in strategies that are going to bring accelerated learning. But yeah, like me, a lot of the directors were skeptical. So here's an example of an interaction between president Brendan Hersey and Cashel Toner about this.
[00:15:02] Brandon Hersey: As a teacher, I'm a little confused, right? So for me, I'm looking at this, and I'm asking myself, if we have a goal for third-grade reading and we want the majority of our students to be. Reading on level. Can you give me. An explicit, like explanation of like how producing this writing, which is great, right? Fantastic. Is actually supporting them in the ability to read on grade level. Because if I were sitting at home. I would likely be thinking — actually I don't even need all of that follow-up. Can you give me a very clear explanation about the link between this type of exercise and writing and how it gets us to reading on grade level?
[00:15:53] Cashel Toner: Yep. We had to skip that slide. So if you want to go back to slide 15.
[00:15:57] Brandon Hersey: That's a critical piece. So if we could go back to slide 15, that'd be awesome.
[00:16:01] Cashel Toner: And there's a whole research base that talks about —actually, I was planning to have someone read this aloud to make that link, to get at what you're asking about. Go for it.
[00:16:11] Brandon Hersey: "Having students write about texts enhances reading comprehension because it affords greater opportunities to think about ideas and texts, requires them to organize and integrate those ideas into coherent whole, fosters explicitness, facilitates reflection, encourages personal involvement with texts, and involve students transforming ideas into their own words. In short, writing about a text should enhance comprehension because it provides students with a tool for visibly and permanently recording, connecting, analyzing, personalizing, manipulating key ideas in text."
I totally get that. What I am wondering, given that writing is a very high-level skill, are we also incorporating drawing and other representations into this framework?
[00:16:57] Cashel Toner: Yes.
[00:16:58] Brandon Hersey: Okay, cool. Thank you.
[00:16:59] Cashel Toner: And to get to the... you're right. This is a high-level complex skill, and that's why the instructional priorities all build on each other. Right? We've got to start with a systematic phonics and then we got to build on the fluency. So in second and third grade, we're working really hard on fluency routines, and then you have to be able to synthesize your thinking. Yup. Make meaning of the text, and actually produce
[00:17:25] Brandon Hersey: That sounds great to me. I have one last question. This is a great strategy in an environment where students are on a trajectory that is more typical of what people would think about. Given that we are behind where our goals are, do you feel as though this is the most efficient and effective strategy wholesale?
[00:17:57] Cashel Toner: I love that question. And yes. Because we need to have some literacy accelerators involved in our strategy, right? And a fluency protocol can actually cut across content. And we're getting in the weeds here for a second —I can't help it. But because, for example, we've been working on some fluency protocols that can go inside of our science time.
Because we know that literacy accelerators are vocabulary and background knowledge. And so having that kind of a fluency protocol that cuts across saves teachers time, it's super effective, and it helps kids internalize those routines. So that way, when I'm working on it, first we'll work on it all together as the choral read, maybe, and then maybe as the time goes on, then I get to internalize that myself and be able to do that myself.
And that gets to what you're talking about as, like in a more typical trajectory of learning to read. Not all our kids are there for a whole kinds of different reasons, right? So we have to think about how do we provide access points to all the learners, right?
[00:19:04] Christie Robertson: Back to you, Jane.
[00:19:07] Jane Tunks Demel: I think some of the directors have personal experience with students having difficulty reading. Of course, Brandon Hersey was a teacher and it sounded from the comments with Chandra Hampson and Liza Rankin that they have known in their personal life students who had difficulty with reading. And they both pointed out that some of these techniques or strategies might not be accessible for kids with disabilities or with kids still learning English.
[00:19:35] Christie Robertson: Yes. So, I guess given that I don't see that they did a clear assessment of what's wrong, and given that I don't understand how they picked their tactics, and given that these are measurements from the fourth out of five years, even though some of those years were pandemic, I guess to me, just coming with these downward trending data and saying, we just need more time. It's pretty close to where you want to stop just keeping going down the same rabbit hole. It's time to really ask questions about how did you pick this and where are the kids and what is going to help them the most?
[00:20:21] Jane Tunks Demel: But you know, Christie, I didn't hear that, did you? They've had two previous progress monitoring sessions in this calendar year, and they had said that in at least one previous one that I heard. And this time they actually didn't say that: give us time.
[00:20:36] Christie Robertson: They didn't say give us time, per se, but they presented these data, and then they said, “We're going to keep doing what we're doing.”
[00:20:42] Jane Tunks Demel: But now they're diving into things like longer-term absenteeism, because they're realizing there might be other things that are keeping kids from learning to read. I agree with you, but I think they are making adjustments. Perhaps it's not enough, but they are adjusting.
So that's third-grade reading.
[00:21:04] Christie Robertson: That's third-grade reading. Let's talk about math.
[00:21:07] Jane Tunks Demel: The second goal they went over in this progress monitoring session was seventh-grade math.
Caleb Perkins led this discussion and he opened with saying that he appreciates student outcomes-focused governance because it helps the district on the fact that the numbers are going down. He's actually very good at it saying that the outcomes aren't what the district had hoped. He doesn't try to sugarcoat it.
[00:21:28] Christie Robertson: They have the same goal, right? 70 percent of African American males proficient at math. But this time it's for seventh grade.
Reading by 3rd grade is an important measure of future success and proficient at math by seventh, again, is indicative of high school and long-term success.
[00:21:47] Jane Tunks Demel: They are focusing these efforts on six middle schools, which have 70 percent of the African American seventh graders in the district. And those are Denny, Aki, Mercer, Meany, Washington, and South Shore.
So let's look at the scores. What do they look like?
[00:22:06] Christie Robertson: They're bad. Again, the trend is down. Before the pandemic, 31 percent of African American male seventh graders were meeting math standards. And today it's 20 percent. But even worse than that to me is when they broke it out by who is making progress. 46 percent of African American males are not meeting proficiency in seventh grade, but also are losing ground. 46 percent, Jane, that's almost half are behind and losing ground.
[00:22:42] Jane Tunks Demel: Yeah, that's a challenge.
[00:22:45] Christie Robertson: Caleb Perkins, I don't think he got grilled as much as Cashel Toner did. Because, what time was it at this point?
[00:22:53] Jane Tunks Demel: And so I have the same questions about how do they pick the strategies to help with math.
[00:22:59] Christie Robertson: They're consistently trying to use the same math curriculum, the Envision curriculum, common assessments, and engaging families, a half-time FTE coach at each of the target schools, and a calendar of professional learning led by a coach — these professional learning communities.
[00:23:17] Jane Tunks Demel: So think about that. They're putting extra effort into seventh grade math at these schools, but they only have a half-time coach. It seems like this is why we need more funding.
[00:23:29] Christie Robertson: In both of these, none of these interventions have to do directly with students. It's basically all about professional development. And trying to interact with families more. They talked about getting families to come to math days to get the whole family engaged in math.
And, Caleb Perkins presented a similar graph of a direct correlation between number of days missed and the percentage of students meeting growth norms.
[00:23:55] Jane Tunks Demel: And directors had other questions about possible strategies. What were they, Christie?
[00:24:01] Christie Robertson: Director Song had this question about high-dosage tutoring.
[00:24:04] Vivian Song: One added comment: I have, in the past year, met with a lot of community partners who do high-dosage tutoring. And they have done a lot of data analysis themselves — Reading Partners, TIPS, School Connect, Washington, Math Agency — and their outcomes are very impressive. And so in future conversations, I would love to see what can the board do to really support that? Because they are getting the results. And I would love for us to invest in that, because I think that could kind of address some of the absentee issues as well.
[00:24:43] Christie Robertson: I would love to see a table of here are different methods that have been tried and here's what is shown to be effective.
Director Sarju brought up the belief in the adults around students and their ability to do well, and here's what she said.
[00:25:03] Michelle Sarju: My point is that teachers have to believe that my grandson can achieve. They have to believe that my nephew, who is currently in Seattle Public Schools, can achieve. It starts with the belief and if they don't believe it, go find another job. It's real simple. But don't be making public comments. Don't actually tell children in classrooms, "I don't think you can do this." Beause you know what our kids are telling us? "It's the instruction." I think you alluded to this. We do have teachers who don't believe it and they're telling our kids every day. Those are the people we need to hold accountable.
[00:25:56] Christie Robertson: So that's math. And I want to wrap up with Director Sarju's admonition:
[00:26:03] Michelle Sarju: So I'm not angry about that statistic. You want to know why? Because time after time, you've come in here. You've admitted. You've been authentic. You've been transparent. You have a plan. We're not turning this around. When Kai gets to third grade, Mr. Perkins, it better be turned around. You got nine years. That's reasonable.
[00:26:33] Jane Tunks Demel: That concludes this episode. Our show notes are available at Seattlehallpass.org where you can subscribe or donate to support our podcast.
[00:26:44] Christie Robertson: You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would love to hear from you. I'm Christie Robertson.
[00:26:52] Jane Tunks Demel: And I'm Jane Tunks Demel. We'll be back with more episodes soon, and we hope you'll join us next time on Seattle Hall Pass.