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By Douglas Moran

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.

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