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About this blog: Real power doesn't reside with those who make the final decision, but with those who decide what qualifies as the viable choices. I stumbled across this insight as a teenager (in the 1960s). As a grad student, I belonged to an org...  (More)

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In search of better formulated questions on school policy: part 1

Uploaded: May 3, 2015
In the recent discussions of school policy, both online and in person, I have been repeatedly struck by how unproductive they have been. There are multiple causes, including the these issues being intertwined with those of Measure A (parcel tax) and emotions surrounding the suicides. But the biggest factor is that the many people new to these discussions haven't been provided with a structure to express their concerns, thereby making those concerns hard to respond to because they are jumbled together. Subsidiary to this is different underlying assumptions that go unstated?those who have been long involved in the issues don't recognize that the new entrants to the discussions are making different assumptions about what is and what can be.

The intent here is to prime a discussion on formulating policy questions in a manner that provide a better framework for discussions on those policies. Yes, you heard me right: This is a discussion about how to have better discussions in this area. This is the first of two parts, and seeks to focus on the aspects of decision-making on these policies that is different from generic decision-making. The second part will focus on the questions themselves.

The prevalence of bad meetings is testament to how poorly most people have been trained in the elements of good decision-making by groups. So a quick review, based on my training. The components of this process are:
1. Information exchange, both preliminary to and during the meeting.
2. Discussion/interpretation of the data, perspectives, alternatives, consequences, tradeoffs ?
3. Making the decision.
4. Ensuring that participants understand the decision, including the whys of the particular choice.
5. Ensuring "buy-in": That people have confidence in the decision, or at the very least accept it as legitimate, and are willing to support/implement it.

The last two are important in and of themselves, plus they have the side-effect of improving what comes before. Yet they are routinely forgotten (for recent high-profile example: search on "The GM nod"). But the key cause of bad meetings is that too little time and effort is invested in the first two components, both by the meeting organizers and the participants. For complex deliberations, when the various components get jumbled together, no progress is made on any of them, and the next meeting starts from the very same point, and goes nowhere. And the next? There is no substitute for the organizers investing in preparations that provide that structure.

----Urgency/Stakeholder Turnover----
One of the basic problems School District policy-making faces is illustrated by the many angry parents who are in "grin and bear it" mode: They are upset about the current situation, but unwilling to invest time and effort into changing that situation because they don't believe that such changes would come about in time to benefit their own children. They, quite rationally, chose to invest those limited resources where it would make the most difference for their children.

This is one of the basics of decision-making: Understand your window of opportunity and structure your process appropriately. Recognize that part of the process of reaching the decision is building the coalition and support needed to implement it. If the process drags out and that coalition disintegrates, the decision is irrelevant?you are going to need to start over. Recognize that for many of these decisions, the window of opportunity is not in terms of how long a family's children in the PAUSD, but how long those children are at a particular school. This poses an extreme challenge to the normal governmental decision processes.

A slow decision process creates friction between those who "have been working the issue for years" and those who are new to the discussion (for various legitimate reasons). And this friction further slows the decision process. Various members of both these groups make this situation worse. In the former are those that see no need to explain, and expect the newcomers to "just trust us". They are clueless that this arrogance and unwillingness to explain are major red flags that indicate that they should not be trusted. Among the newcomers are those that assume that because there isn't already a solution, those already working on the problem must be incompetent, although this is rarely gets stated explicitly, but is clearly implied. This not only insults those with experience, but signals that those with this attitude are contemptuous of other perspectives and unwilling to try to understand the complexities, and thus they have disqualified themselves from having a role in the decision. Because the Palo Alto political elite puts a high premium on superficial civility, it is extremely rare to hear the leader of the meeting, or prominent participants, utter the slightest peep to try to curtail either of these behaviors.

Another side-effect of a prolonged process is that that those leading the discussions are so removed from the earlier stages that they can no longer see the basic structure?the problem statement, the goals??nor remember what terminology and acronyms they can reasonably expect the audience to understand. For example, at a recent meeting on Measure A (parcel tax), there was an extended digression that resulted from different assumptions about the term "Oversight Committee".(foot#1)

----Roles of the various stakeholders----
One of the basic problems in managing decision-making, especially in government, is keeping the various stakeholder groups from overstepping their bounds and capabilities. Characterizations of decision-making abilities are often broken down into three major categories: knowledge, "smarts" (the ability to access the knowledge they have and manipulate it), and wisdom (good judgment, arising from experience). Back when I was hiring software engineers and computer system administrators, several of my key questions involved asking them about what could go wrong and how to respond. Formal education focuses on how to do things correctly?because that is what it is best at doing?so I wasn't expecting good answers from new and recent graduates. What I was looking for was an awareness of potential problems, a flexibility to cope, and and interest in learning. It never ceased to amaze me how many of these applicants, plus various project leaders, had excessive faith in their ability to anticipate and control events.

Consider the recent article Gunn students slam school leaders on zero period, including the comments from (self-identified) Gunn students. What I read was example after example of students lacking the knowledge, experience and perspective to be making the sort of decisions that they wanted for themselves. Even worse, they seemed to have neither the knowledge nor wisdom to recognize how limited was their knowledge and wisdom (the classic problem of "the unknown unknown"). Granted, the arrogance and ignorance of youth can be beneficial in overturning experiences and beliefs that have become obsolete.

Continuing the use of students as an example stakeholder group: For instance, assume their role is seen as providing crucial input in the formulation of policy alternatives and feedback on those alternatives, but not part of the latter stages of the decision-making process. If students are unaware of what their role is seen as being, they are likely to dilute their legitimate impact by wasting effort trying to be decision-makers rather than providing better input.

Of course, for stakeholders to have faith in the benefit of working within the rules requires the leadership to visibly honor, respect and reward that behavior, and to not reward those that try to take advantage. This is going to be a very difficult transition because currently fear of retaliation in a constant presence when parents talk about trying to play their proper role. It is going to take a lot of coordinated pushing from multiple sides to change this (Superintendent McGee is talking about this).

----Diverse beliefs about the relationship between individuals and the community----
In Palo Alto, there is a very wide range of fundamental philosophical beliefs about the relationship between individuals and the community (society). People who are not deeply involved in politics tend to be unaware of how divergent their philosophy can be from others. This creates situations where people incorrectly presume that others largely share, or at least understand, their underlying philosophy and thus they don't understand disagreements that arise from these unstated underlying beliefs. These (divergent) beliefs influence a wide range of policy issues, especially how you allocate resources to the various categories of students and to various categories of activities.

Most participants in the discussions of school policy are not going to be willing to delve into these philosophical differences, and it tends to be unproductive to do so because no amount of discussion is likely to changes people's perspectives on these beliefs. Instead, there needs to be leadership that is aware of these differences and tries to craft (non-publicly) compromises and allocations that satisfy the various philosophies.
Aside: A thumbnail of a sample of these philosophies is provided in (foot#2)

----Blame the parents, the School District?----
A routine part of the discussions of stress on the students is "I blame the ?" and the counter "Don't blame the ?". On blame-the-School-District arguments, there are two subcategories. A valid one where the School District isn't doing what the community wants. And an invalid one where the School District is doing what the community wants, but the critic disagrees with that decision, or its consequences. The problem is that you can't distinguish the two if there isn't a strong sense of what the community wants (being all things to all people doesn't count as a choice).

Blame-the-parents often comes with exaggerated beliefs about how much influence and control parents have over teenagers. You routinely hear "This would be different if only parents would tell their children ?". First, teenagers naturally, and properly, are skeptical of what their parents are telling them. Second, if they are hearing something very different from their peers, students who are a few years ahead of them, adults and the media, that is likely to overwhelm whatever the parents are saying. For example, until recently Google trumpeted that undergrad GPA was the dominant factor in its hiring decisions because it purportedly had data that showed that GPA was the only significant predictor of job performance. And what if, added to that, high schoolers are hearing from highly accomplished professionals throughout the community that they flunked the Google pre-screening (phone) interview on the first question "What was your undergrad GPA?" either because they couldn't immediately remember it, or because it wasn't near-perfect. If their parents tell them that a perfect GPA isn't important, what/who do you think they are going to believe? And would you blame them? (foot#3)
Note: Google's current head of HR Laszlo Bock changed this policy saying that their data showed that GPA was only slightly predictive, and even then only during the first two years after graduation. He also discarded the policy on preferring grads from the very elite universities, acknowledging that Google had so many excellent applicants that that preference had been simply a convenient way to reduce the pool. However, many other companies acknowledge?formally and informally?making heavy use of questionable credentials in their hiring decisions (Credentialism is a major topic in Part 2).

Blame-the-X is often not just finger-pointing, but an attempt to avoid dealing with complex problems by first denying that they are difficult, and then pushing off responsibility onto others.

----Summary Reminder----
The topic of this blog is how to have better discussions and decision-making relative to the specific situation of the School District. The intent and timing is to provide to people who are new to discussions on school policy with a forum to distribute their observations, and for those with longer involvement to make observations triggered by recent discussions. Although many of these discussions?online and face-to-face?were occasioned by Measure A (parcel tax) and the recent suicide cluster, both are off-topic here.
However, to illustrate an on-topic point, a brief "for instance" is perfectly acceptable. If you wish to reference a discussion on the specifics of an issue, recognize that you can include a link to it in your comment here. Don't worry about that link being a long, ugly string?the PAOnline software automatically displays it as the string "Web Link" that readers can click on. If there is no suitable Town Square Forum topic for the details that you think warrant discussion, you can yourself create a new Town Square Forum topic and then include a link to it in your comment here.

If you consider adding off-topic comments to a discussion about having better discussions as an exercise in humor or irony, don't. I will regard such as demonstrating cluelessness or worse and delete them.

---- Footnotes ----
1. Problems in terminology? : An example: At a recent meeting on Measure A (parcel tax), there were questions about the Oversight Committee. Those asking the questions assumed that this committee oversaw, and reported on, the effectiveness of the spending, when it was actually only involved in financial accounting oversight. The related term "audit" is often used to mean checking financial accounts, but it can also mean process auditing, for example, for the City of Palo Alto, the Office of the City Auditor does only the later, not the former. This ambiguity allows for a double level of confusion (oversight → audit → financial accounting review).

2. Individual and community: These are thumbnails not of how these groups see themselves, but how an outsider might summarize them based on their actions. These are meant as an entry point for thinking about the diversity of these philosophies, but not to be further discussed in here.
The easy starting point is the monarchies/aristocracies of feudal Europe. They had a highly restrictive, stratified society, in which the elite believed that they were crucial for maintaining that society?a strong guiding hand?and thus were entitled to an outsized share of the resources, partly as a reward and partly to maintain their strength so that they could continue to shape and protect society (pf course in a way that continued to benefit that elite). There are many modern versions of this basic scheme that vary somewhat in how the elites constitute and conceive of themselves: Conventional Conservatism, Communism as practiced, oligarchies, dictatorships?

Classical Liberalism was a revolt against these restrictions, and especially the impediments to merit-based advancement. However, in its emphasis on the individual?liberty and equality?it devalued the notion of community and stable relationships (the fraternity part of the slogan falls far short). Aside: This failure is understandable because they had experienced "community" as a mechanism to transfer wealth to the elite, and thus it was hard to break the psychological associations of it being part of an oppressive system.

Some offshoots of Classical Liberalism went from neglecting what the individual owed the community, to holding that the community owed the individual whatever resources were required for that individual to reach his or her full potential. This is often intertwined with religious beliefs of "God will provide", with a local variant here of "God HAS provided" which is commonly expressed as "Palo Altans are so rich that ?"
People with this viewpoint inhibit discussions of tradeoffs because their belief in essentially unlimited resources causes them to see such questions and choices as irrelevant.

There were corresponding offshoots of Conventional Conservatism. One category that is very common here rejects responsibilities to the community?duty, honor, noblesse oblige??believing that the consequences of them pursuing their self-interests automatically and implicitly benefits the community, thereby justifying the privileges and rewards associated with a conventional elite. A side-effect of this is an extreme notion of individual responsibility for what happens to them, for example, if you are defrauded in a commercial transaction, it is your fault for not being more skeptical and diligent. However, most adherents of this belief system apply this only to the less powerful party: When the more powerful party gets defrauded, that is a crime. ("Might makes right" is a cynical version of a belief in various religions that power and wealth are signs of God's favor, and thus who is the more righteous). The belief that an individual's failure to improve his situation is the result of him choosing to not apply the needed time, effort, intelligence? carries an implicit belief that individuals have an unlimited supply of those resources (the flip side of communities having unlimited resources to support individuals). This belief system avoids other belief systems' need to rationalize transferring resources from other individuals and the community by obscuring that such transfers are taking place, typically through cost shifting that economists call "negative externalities". The classic example is pollution, such as a city deciding to dump its raw sewage into a river, thereby profiting from not building a treatment plant, but imposing costs on everyone downstream, both directly?increase cost of water treatment facilities?and indirectly?loss of use of the river and nearby land for various activities.
People with this viewpoint also inhibit discussions of tradeoffs because they view it as irrelevant: The negative consequences on others of the policies they advocate are simply the responsibility of those impacted, not the group.

Remember, each of these groups sees its version of cost-shifting?acknowledged or not?as well-justified, if not necessary for the well-being of society. And being core to their belief system, it is futile to challenge those assumptions. The key to reaching compromises and accommodations is knowing where the "land mines" are so that you don't set them off.

3. GPA and Google (optional example): Although this is a personal account, and ancient history, it is an interesting example of the different levels of public perceptions, that is, what appears in mass media in contrast to what one hears in small-scale conversations within the community. Don't dismiss these examples as simply "rogue recruiters" because I have encountered enough other computer professionals who had similar experiences, spanning multiple years. Plus Google HR VP Laszlo Bock acknowledges this class of problems: "In contrast to the days when everyone in Silicon Valley seemed to have a story about their miserable Google experience,?" (Here's Google's Secret to Hiring the Best People).
My first phone pre-screening interview with Google occurred late in 2001, and I wasn't expecting it (a friend at Google belated told me that he had recommended Google recruit me). I had been in a successful startup that had contracted because of the recession and my product had been cancelled. My work involved taking fragmentary and ambiguous information from across a network of computers to get enough data to diagnose problems. The immediate application was Computer Security because the "problems" were attacks that the bad guys were largely successful in hiding, but the techniques were likely applicable to the non-malicious problems that arise in large server farms. No matter?I didn't get past that initial question of "What was your undergrad GPA?" because I couldn't immediately remember the numerical value: "A couple of B's and the rest A's" was not good enough (my undergrad was at MIT, majoring in computer science).
Nor was it acceptable for me to look it up and send it to the recruiter, which suggests that this question wasn't just about qualifications and abilities, but may have involved an element of ageism, if not age discrimination ("Are you still young enough that your undergrad GPA is still one of your most memorable achievements?").
The second phone interview came several years later, and I suspect it was triggered by the issuance of a patent for one of the core technologies of what became Apple's Siri (I had left the project after leading it in the early stages (mid 1990s), so its success is due to many other people working over many years). Same result: The recruiter seemed to not to be able to believe that I couldn't immediately remember. I attempted to talk about my experience that I thought relevant to Google: in startups, research history (Ph.D. and corporate) and patents, projects led ? But as with others I have talked with, this was of absolutely no interest to the Google recruiter.
Take-away: One of the most important educational lessons for a child is to be highly skeptical of idealized versions of the world and to look for experience/data on how it actually works. And to reject the notion of an unchanging world. And to understand that even when old experiences/data are no longer directly applicable, they may be instructive ("Everything old is new again"; "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss").

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particular strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", don't be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, don't waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Bob Wenzlau, a resident of Crescent Park,
on May 3, 2015 at 9:56 am

Hard to know if I am on your point, but here are a few thoughts.

1) Use the school board not the mob. The dampens the unfortunate impact of a minority that holds a very strong point on a topic (e.g. zero hour) to drive a policy switch that should likely be more nuanced. The board is elected by the body of the people, and can balance intense opinions against the broader good.
2) Participation is not anonymous. Having recently been accused of fraud by an anonymous troll on the T&C forum, and then watching the impact of anonymity, I would ask that it be thrown out. With names being said, the voice must self regulate as they are shown with their community of peers.
3) Staff should be staff. I have watched the damage as staff becomes advocates in the process. While helpful in some respect, the consideration of the politics should be left to the Board. One can work a policy topic only to discover that at your backend staff is generating the policy positions, so the process becomes more complicated.
4) Use Quick Turn Around Task Groups. When a topic of concern exists, the stakeholders of the issue should be assembled, and develop agreement/disagreement issues that can inform the Board. When I participate on these in the past they are often too long. Perhaps consider a 4-hour facilitated discussion to assemble the points for the board.

Ultimately, I have viewed our circumstance as a half full view rather than empty. Working on the Nepalese earthquake where 5,000 schools were destroyed and perhaps 16,000 damaged, it brings perspective to our circumstance. Equally, looking at Baltimore's circumstance also should balance our view. We are a fortunate community, and can bring some new skills to hone some great educational programs.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: Bob Wenzlau

> "1) Use the school board not the mob"
I don't understand this point since it already is the School Board making the decisions, although it may be perceived as responding to "the mob". To move the discussion along, I am going to respond to a common point of view I have heard from others, although this doesn't seem to be Wenzlau's (see his #4 "Use Quick Turn Around Groups").

"Use the School Board" often means that those who have problems that are not being dealt with by the hierarchy should take their problems to the Board as individuals. Because the Board has very limited bandwidth, this scheme tends to disenfranchise the majority and work only for insiders. The typical parent typically doesn't do this because the uncertainties are too daunting. They are uncertain if there are enough other families in their situation to warrant bring it to the attention of the Board. They are uncertain that they know enough to be able to use the right terminology and structure to be effective, or to at least not embarrass themselves. And they are similarly uncertain about the proper process. While "the mob" may be "a minority that holds a very strong point" of view, it may alternatively be the most visible portion of a substantial stakeholder group that feels it is being frozen out. For example, in the 2013 Measure D (Maybell Up-zoning), the political elite dismissed the opponents as a negligible minority.

For the readers/future commenters: Are the existing mechanisms, such as the "Quick Turn Around Groups" cited by Wenzlau, effective? Do they provide enough coverage of the problems that occur?


> "2) Participation is not anonymous":
Bad behavior is not restricted to anonymous posters, but is routinely engaged in by prominent people. I hear from many ordinary residents that they have dropped out of participation in public hearings because they were being bullied or they saw others being bullied and didn't even try to participate. For example, affordable housing advocates quickly turn to terminology implying racism in talking about those that disagree with their demands. Similarly, bicycle advocates are quick to demonize any dissent.

I can certainly sympathize with Wenzlau about false accusations, having been there many, many times myself. However, I strongly disagree with his expectation of "self regulation" -- there is too much experience locally to the contrary.

Posted by StepZero, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 3, 2015 at 8:15 pm

Doug:"requires the leadership to visibly honor, respect and reward that behavior, and to not reward those that try to take advantage. This is going to be a very difficult transition because currently fear of retaliation"

@Bob: " Participation is not anonymous. "

There is an interesting assumption here that differs among community members - some believe that anonymous participation is a fraud and should be disallowed. Others believe ( experienced) retaliation and feel they have to protect their children from the effects of publicly speaking in dissent of current policies and teacher violations of existing policies.

This is an area where we lack leadership, and will unlikely reach buy in as long as populations are disenfranchised by retaliation. Bob's approach of dismissing such community members will NOT engage them, or earn their but-in.

Many others share his disregard, and immediately force an early-terminate to any decision.

The current board has shown little appetite to go after those who use grades, homework, classroom authority or district authority to bully our kids.

Even though these actions are in violation of policy or in violation of 'in loco parentis'.

As long as the board continues to allow local teachers, principals and staff to abuse the authority given by the board, these parents will remain outside the system, disenfranchised, and without buy-in to any decisions.

Remaining outside the current system also means they don't have to play by any rules.

It is the Boards responsibility to provide oversight that extends down to the district, site, department, and classroom. Until the retaliation is visibly and forcibly ended, executed with publicly clear consequences, this disenfranchised crowd has no interest or incentive to sit at the table.

Only strong leadership, willing to turn on their own misbehaving staff will gradually overturn the current environment.

None of the previous board members are interested in confronting this problem, or have the credibility to do so. Ken may, but is still very much in the minority. Max seems unaware, and probably unwilling to face his staff and say "Knock it off. What the hell are you doing to these children"

So your Decision process stopped at step Zero: deciding who has a seat at the table.

Posted by Not under the lamp post with a flashlight, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 3, 2015 at 8:21 pm

Hi Doug,
Thoughtful post, as always, glad to see you willing to wade into the school issues.

I too am unsure whether I am on point, but in reviewing your intro, I am struck by your first sentence, which can be boiled down to: ""

1. What must be done to restore Trust and Good faith?
This is the fundamental issue upon which the success of all others is predicated. Formulating policy questions implies a process in which the stakeholders in the organization are even interested in hearing or engaging in answering them, or that they even prioritize children's interests above others, even petty personal ones, or, what's called "acting in good faith". The retaliation problem stems from this.

As an example, when McGee arrived, the board had a retreat. Public comment was listed on the agenda, but the secretary told those who inquired about making public comment that it wasn't appropriate for the retreat. Grace Ma was able to get at least one issue into the papers by knowing her rights and going anyway.

2. What must be done to give the community checks and balances?
Districts are completely insular governmentally from above and below. Voting for school board members after many years doesn't seem to work very well. Those who want to hold on simply have to make a good excuse to move an election to an even/odd year to get two more years as recently happened, with exactly the same justification that should have precluded the district putting Measure A to an expensive special election.

The district can make its own rules and adopt them. It turns out, that's the only practical way. A challenge to you, Doug: find a good template for such a change in rules. It wouldn't necessarily make it easy for the public to bring about change, but it should be possible, and it should be more possible for the public to demand transparency and (true) oversight.

Do we need an ombudsman who works outside the district office and who answers only to the families and the board?

3) How do we enable parent connectedness and advocacy so that the ship takes course corrections along the way and we're not all stuck arguing about the iceberg when it's too late? (See #1 & #2) Possibly because of their essential fundraising role, PTA and PiE have not only lost interest in advocacy, they have often become anti-advocacy, which further disenfranchises those in the parent community who might change things.

A parent advocacy organization, CAC, has developed to help special ed families, but some families have justifiably pointed out that an equivalent organization is need to support families of kids with 504s. What we really need is a parent advocacy organization equivalent to what the PTA used to be, since the PTA will be needed in it fundraising and community-building roles basically forever going forward. (see #2)

4) How do we improve communication between stakeholders and the district? This of course is predicated on #1.

One example: The Uniform Complaint Procedure form is completely indecipherable and seems to apply to nothing. And to those things it might apply, it seems to require a law degree to understand. It is de facto evidence of a district office completely disinterested in hearing where anything might need fixing. This is of course assuming anyone would even bother to take the time to complain if they have good reason to believe the district will not only fail to respond in good faith but might even retaliate against people who complain rather than fix problems.

When families give up because they see the handwriting on the wall, our district loses opportunities to solve problems until they are so bad they can't be ignored. (see #3) Innovation comes from people with "lead user" characteristics -- necessity is the mother of invention, i.e., innovation will not be sprouting well-formed (or at all) from anyone in the district office, but it will come from families working with the district if the district has a culture of working with and capitalizing on the experiences of and communication from families. (See the foreword of Esther Wojcicki's book.)

5) The school board is clearly an inadequate mechanism for ensuring our district office works well and efficiently. (" unproductive...." as you say) What can be done to create efficiencies, checks and balances, and ways to ensure the integrity of the organization and people? When, as parent, I hear the same truly disturbing stories from family after family, of absolutely illegal behavior by the same persons, over years, and it goes unaddressed, despite monumental efforts by families -- the public isn't being served, children are losing out, and we never develop ways to get the information to people who can and will work in good faith to solve problems.

6) How do we move to a grow mindset and a (pre-recalls) "Toyota improvement mindset"? (See #1-5) One in which being honest about problems is one step to fixing them rather than covering them up?

As a long-time parent, I'm really tired of every interaction with the district being one thing, while a whole completely different thing happens behind the scenes. The intrigue, drama, and dishonesty have thwarted beneficial change. And they are just so relentlessly stressful and demoralizing.

Doug: Perhaps you would consider a serious look at characteristics of highly effective organizations, and how we might realistically realize them here, especially when it comes to personnel.

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community,
on May 4, 2015 at 12:22 am

@'Not under the lamp post with a flashlight' and 'StepZero' -

I think that Step Zero should actually be gathering better, reliable information/knowledge. That would be also Step Zero in trying to regain trust.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that currently such information can be produced only by an outside independent, trusted entity.

Civil Grand Jury?
I suggested to check this option back on March 2013, and June 2013: Web Link A thread I started calling Ken Dauber to form a Shadow PAUSD board in the hopes of creating some Checks & Balances.

I believe that a better discussion will emerge from better, reliable information, from a clear and real 'State of the PAUSD'.

Posted by Not under the lamp post, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 4, 2015 at 9:05 am

@village fool,
The best checks and balances happen right at the point of interaction -- they work best if the people who need the systems to work right are able to enforce what's right without anything having to go wrong first.

There is so much wrong here because we need policy/systemic change so that problems aren't allowed to fester unaddressed. Every one is a life altered, an education interrupted, a child hurt. The power dynamic is too uneven. This inevitably leads to greater conflict.

That's why I think that focusing on restoring trust first is the most important step of all. Usually, that kind of honest soul-searching is the best way to both find, apologize for, and correct past wrongs while figuring out better ways forward.

Posted by StepZero, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 4, 2015 at 9:47 am

I agree with lamppost â?? and I like the suggestion of an Ombudsman that reports into the board.

But there needs to be something further â?? the Board currently does not exert any oversight on levels below Superintendent. Nor do they expect him to exert any oversight on the individual sites. There is no structural reporting mechanism to enforce policy on the sites. For example, the Board does not require sites to provide status on policy implementation, or status on OCR, bullying, or other matters of student safety. It seems that the Board is uninterested in student well-being at the site level, or engagement at the classroom level. Nor does the board encourage sites to take such an interest either.

The best example was the recent surprise when the Board found how many children were hospitalized due to mental-health issues. They should not be surprised â?? there should be systematic processes in place to inform the board on all matters of student well-being. Monthly or quarterly. If I were a board member and my employees left me hanging out to dry with no information, I would be furious. Our board, so far, seems willing to accept any lack of information from the site-based approach. They have abdicated responsibility, and implement it through willful ignorance.

So I believe we need both:

- Board oversight of individual schools, with structured reporting processes.

- Ombudsman who reports ONLY to the board, and provides an independent means for parents to confidentially report issues. With some assurance that issues will be addressed. Particular attention needs to be paid to retaliation and other malfeasance which disenfranchises families.

Using a Grand Jury is probably not the most effective solution, in my opinion, fixing the classroom experience or site level is better. I hope we are not THAT broken.

To Doug's point about decision making - this is relevant: we don't have structures in place that bring everyone to the table. So we are perpetually stuck with low buy-in.

Posted by Not under the lamp post, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 4, 2015 at 12:29 pm

Effective checks and balances do usually allow for bringing in a 3rd party or higher authority. It's too bad that frankly the OCR settlement agreements didn't involve having a federal monitor to whom families could go so that the district had incentive to clean up rather than cover up. The board supported full throttle going into cover up.

The trouble with a grand jury is it's unlikely to delve deep or long enough, and the recourse mechanisms aren't there to fix problems they unearth. It's very different than in the civil law arena.

Posted by Peter Carpenter, a resident of Atherton,
on May 4, 2015 at 12:45 pm

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

Thank you for your careful restructuring of this issue. Hopefully the comments will build on your excellent base.

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community,
on May 4, 2015 at 11:26 pm

[[Blogger: For subsequent comments: This is venturing too far away from a practical consideration.]]

@'Not under the lamp post with a flashlight' and 'StepZero' -

Once upon a time, many many years ago, 'The State of the Nixon' was identified...
Identifying the situation as it was, created the domino affect.

As far as I recall, it was not the dirty tricks brought him down, but the fact that those tricks were revealed by The Washington Post. I am assuming that the practice of dirty tricks was not invented in Watergate. I think it is reasonable to assume that those in power used those tricks, knowing that nobody would step forward.

Luckily - the Washington Post paid attention to Deep Throat, one single source.

I think it is interesting to note that the lack of simple best practices, lack of transparency etc. created the grounds for those in charge to do as they wish.

Just recalling.

Web Link

Posted by gunn father, a resident of Gunn High School,
on May 5, 2015 at 10:27 am

Quite the tome, but the crux of the matter is not blame but action. When a Gunn Principal tries to put in practice a 2010 homework reducing rule and is SUED by the teacher's union, hope is all but lost. With kids dying, some teachers standby and object to using schoology so kids can have a consistent medium to understand their homework , etc. So the actions of certain teachers boarders on criminal and with their holy tenure, they are untouchable. Totally dysfunctional . Parents have plenty to soul search about as well , but that is not the point for this topic. It will be very interesting to see how many children are no longer in the PAUSD. I know of a dozen families that have said 'enough' to this dangerous , pathetic game. Look how many kids applied , and were denied, for acceptance to PALY coming from Gunn feeding Middle Schools. The numbers dont lie. The process is broken and PAUSD has done little to fix it --- patrolling the tracks is not the answer. Working on stress with teachers and parents is ... would you send your 8th grader to Gunn if you had the choice ?

Posted by double trouble, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 5, 2015 at 11:08 am

[[Blogger: off-topic]]

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2015 at 3:13 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "gunn father"

Calls for "action" routinely lead to nothing. What is needed is concerted action, which requires a level of organization of the concerned people, which requires a framework for them to organize themselves.

The classic example of the difference comes from the classic comedy sketch where two/three people all try to go through a door at the same time, creating a jam that prevents any of them from getting through. The typical sketch involves multiple iterations of this.

In politics, disorganized calls for action often produce paralysis in the governing body. Sometimes this is the result of the officials being diligent and trying to have an open, fair and equitable process. Sometimes the officials use this disorganization as an excuse to block action. Whichever case it is, the ultimate responsibility for the failure is on those who refused to work within some structure and to create some momentum for change -- they provided the officials with a reason/excuse for inaction. Expressing anger and outrage is an important and valuable first step. But there needs to be more (in the case of the suicides and stress, there is more, but I am not in a position to make assessments of what is being done).

Remember the admonition: "Don't get mad, get even. No, don't get even, get ahead!"

Posted by Must anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 5, 2015 at 5:12 pm


I have a question. Have you ever been in an organization that was imploding because of a particular poisonous kind of personality, the type that is very self-focused, feeds on drama sewn in colleagues, maybe even has the traits of a sociopath, but knows how to come out of it sweet-smelling, even enjoys getting away with pulling the wool over people's eyes? I have thankfully only known those kinds of people (speaking on the extreme) a handful of times in my life. Well, I can't say more or be deleted.

How is it possible to root that kind of damaging influence out of an organization before it is destroyed? When I have seen it in the past, either the person left for their own reasons and things cleared so fast, or the person destroyed the organization, usually after a long, slow decline and much argument and suffering on all sides, while that person worked their way up, cool as a cucumber.

Most people don't have contact with the district office and wouldn't know. Start asking special ed parents. You'll get 3 or 4 names over and over again, but one will emerge.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2015 at 5:13 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

On calls for outside intervention (Civil Grand Jury...)

Depending outside intervention is to accept defeat -- deciding that nothing could be worse than the current situation and hoping for something a bit better.

The outsider is unlikely to acquire the expertise needed to make a good decision, for example, after arbitration you often hear both sides legitimately complaining that the arbitrator misunderstood or ignored important facts (e.g., factual errors in the decision). And after rendering the decision, the outsider often disengages, resulting in either the decision not being implemented or yet another outsider being brought in to make a decision about how to handle that (ad infinitum).

Bringing in an outsider often seems to be a cheap, easy, fast solution, but it usually turns out very badly.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 5, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

RE: "Must anonymous"

The management/leadership literature is full of advice on how to deal with toxic people. One of the key elements, if not the key element, is leadership and anonymity is a major barrier to establishing leadership -- one needs to be a known quantity to have the credibility, confidence, respect... necessary to be a leader.

But the need to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation speaks to another aspect: You can't be a leader unless you have supporters. My sense is that the people who might shed anonymity to become leaders are unwilling to do so because they don't see enough supporters "showing up" when needed, resulting in their sacrifice having been in vain. So it is a problem of "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" (or deadlock).

I empathize with the problem because I have had to walk away from several organizations because I couldn't get the support to take on the toxic individuals. In Palo Alto, there are a surprising number of people who are adverse to conflict. Similarly for those seek to avoid dealing with toxic individuals by denying that they are toxic: "We are all reasonable, intelligent people, so this is simply a misunderstanding and you should accommodate him."

When people with legitimate complaints feel the need to remain anonymous, their cumulative complaints eventually start to strip away the legitimacy of the official leadership. Officials are usually slow to recognize this, but they often belatedly respond by dealing with the toxic person (but at substantial cost). I don't know of ways to accelerate this.

Posted by Will Measure A Crater?, a resident of Adobe-Meadow,
on May 5, 2015 at 6:57 pm

Dauber is a first-rate board member. He is absolutely ethical, absolutely committed, and absolutely and single-mindedly focused on the public good. He is transparent. He pushes for the right issues and in the right way. However, he is one person. We need more people of the caliber of Dauber, which if you haven't noticed is unusually high for a PA local elected official. Pat Burt would make an excellent school board member, as would Lydia Kou. Neither is from the normal PTAC/PIE power base of the school board and so would be relatively independent and able to join with Ken to turn this boat around.

One threat I see to the school district is that Max McGee is a horrible manager. [[deleted by blogger: too personal of an attack.]]

Posted by a teacher not in the district, a resident of another community,
on May 5, 2015 at 8:42 pm

Point of clarification. PAEA didn't "sue" the principal. They filed a grievance. A grievance which was resolved in December 2014 at the lowest level of a formal grievance.

It's kind of funny to me that this paper thought a grievance was so newsworthy.

1. The distinction between "sued" and "filed a grievance" is irrelevant for the discussion here.
2. As a grad student (The U. of Michigan), I was president of a teachers' union (AFT 3550) and we carefully reviewed and considered potential grievances before filing them. I thought that this grievance was highly newsworthy.

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community,
on May 6, 2015 at 12:22 am

@Will Measure A Crater?-

Kids do not have time.

While I agree with your take of Ken Dauber, I believe that kids cannot wait for the boat to turn.

The urgency I felt more than two years ago was the trigger to my very unusual open address, calling Ken Dauber to form a PAUSD Shadow board -Web Link

I noted the trust - easy to lose, very hard to regain.
The issues of culture/retaliation/first amendment etc were discussed, and silenced, especially after the report about the secret PAUSD board meetings.

At this point it seems that the president has more checks & balances. And then, again - Shadow government is used in other countries as a mechanism of checks & Balances. Even Churchill led one.
I believe that changing the culture of speech, striving for free speech, is within reach. Dynamics of tipping points.
Having said that, at this point it seems that the issues we discuss here are not of interest to the majority. that was the reason I mentioned Watergate, above - the majority was irrelevant to the issues at stake.

And the "issues" here are the kids. They do not have time. Too much time have passed, already.

Posted by Lamppost, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 6, 2015 at 12:37 am

[[Blogger: off-topic (Measure A)]]

Posted by village fool, a resident of another community,
on May 6, 2015 at 6:25 pm

Off the measure A topic.
Another comment about kids' well being and the majority. If I may.

The following is part of a comment I posted on TS back on June 2013 here - Web Link
(The thread does not reflect the actual discussion going on, then. Comments vanished etc.). :

"... I am wondering how the education system will reflect to the students the perspective that have emerged from these threads, laud and clear - if the majority have "spoken", accepting some outcomes that others do not, the "others" should be quiet/silent. It seems to me now that being persistent can be viewed as - relentless, and asking questions can be viewed as "vicious". I do hope the children know that it is OK to ask a question, even if it is one student in a forum, and that it is OK not to identify with the majority, or at least SHOULD be OK (unless illegal) not to identify with the majority in the biggest democracy on earth.

Dear Student - it is by FAR better for your well being not to be the "other". You know that. I know that many times you do not have the choice. I am so sorry.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a Palo Alto Online blogger,
on May 8, 2015 at 1:56 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

[[Blogger: below comment has been moved from Part 2 to here because it is more appropriate for this discussion.

Posted by Lamppost, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,

How do we create an environment in which dissent and disagreement are valued as essential to solving problems, and in which the parent community has effective input?

The culture of the district is very heavily focused on NOT identifying problems, not accepting responsibility for mistakes and apologizing, not developing any mechanisms for hearing and incorporating concerns and input, but rather of deflecting, minimizing, and covering mistakes. As was predicted, the passing of Measure A is being used in service of that end. Witness this conversation about the departure of the assistant superintendent:
Web Link

That employee has been regarded by many as one of two or three (the others still here) most responsible for retaliations and unhealthy relationship with the community. TS was the only place people could even begin to discuss their concerns, and now this funding Measure is being used as a way to squash even that.

How do we get to a place where we value disagreement and can work together in good faith? Where does the ethos that it's better to look good than to be good (paraphrasing SNL) come from, and how does one reconcile that with an ethos that sees that as fundamentally dishonest and a barrier to improvement? And how will this conversation be affected by this overreaching in the interpretation of Measure A (which was really inevitable)?

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