Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Another Five Year Plan for the New Soviets

Remember the five year plans popular in the communist government of Russia? Every few years they would roll out another one, ever confident of its success, and never admitting the last one's failure.

A "Soviet" is a local elected council. In Russia, the Soviets were the instrumentalities that implemented their five year plans.

Well, the Portland School Board is trying to replicate the Soviet model. Five years ago, with great fanfare, at great expense, and with unparallelled hours of public volunteer involvement, the district developed its last five year "Strategic Plan."

It failed miserably to meet even one of its goals, so now Vicki Phillips is embarking on the next five year plan.

I'm pretty well versed in the last one. I volunteered to be on one of the seven planning teams whose job it was to develop a strategy to tackle one big challenge facing the district. I knew going in it was an exercise in futility, but I did it anyway.

Here is how they went about developing the Plan: A "Core Planning Team" made up of 25 or so well meaning but gullible education establishment folk and civic leaders met for a few days in a hotel in Vancouver to decide on the the "Core Values" that would be reflected in the plan. The group had a rule that governed the proceedings: "Consensus."

They defined "consensus" to mean that whatever the group decided upon had to be unanimous. In other words, any single person had veto power over any "Core Value" that the group proposed.

Right there I knew the process was doomed. To require unanimous agreement before any position can be taken is a prescription for banality.

Margaret Thatcher once said about consensus:

"the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner "I stand for consensus"?

And that is pretty much what we got out of the "Core Planning Group" after days of meetings. Go take a look at what the group came up with.

"We believe every human being has intrinsic value"
"Everyone has the ability to learn"
"Adult behavior is a powerful teacher for young people"

Bromide after bromide is all they could agree on - which was tragically and utterly predictable.

They also said that by 2005, they would meet the following "Strategic Objectives:"

1) 100% of our students will demonstrate significant growth every year toward achieving rigorous system-wide academic expectations.

Did they meet this goal? Do they even know if they met it? Have they even been trying to track the data?

2) 100% of our students will continually set ambitious learning goals, persist in pursuing those goals, and demonstrate evidence of progress.

I love this one... it is impossible to define or track - the perfect goal! How do you "continually set ambitious learning goals." Is it a third grader's job to set her own learning goals in the first place? Total nonsense.... but that's what you get from consensus.

3) 100% of our students will willingly and regularly contribute to the community.

This one I love. It's got such an Orwellian tone about it. "You WILL contribute, and you will do it WILLINGLY!"

Hard to believe, but it was otherwise intelligent adults who came up with this stuff.

But that was just the beginning. After the "Core Planning Team" crafted this nonsense, they had a big kickoff meeting. More than 600 well meaning citizens came, listened to a lovely presentation and then split themselves into seven groups, each which would hammer out plans and objectives to address one of seven challenges the Core team decided needed to be addressed.

I was on "Team 4 - The Achievement Gap."

The team was comprised of about 60 people. Our first big meeting was on a Saturday, scheduled to go for four hours. The first order of business was for the entire group to sanction the ground rules.

The facilitator sent out a sheet that stated that the group would operate on a basis of consensus, and it defined consensus basically as "Everyone might not agree to every detail of a decision, but commits to support the decision."

I raised my hand. "What it one of us doesn't agree that consensus is how we should operate?"

Hmmm. She thought about that for a minute, kind of stunned. I expanded: "It seems that "consensus" gives a minority of one the ability to veto any decision the group makes. So can a minority of one veto the decision to operate on a basis of consensus?"

Remember that Star Trek episode when the cyborgs were given a logical contradiction "everything I say is a lie" - and it literally blew their minds? That's kinda how the facilitator looked.

Of course all I did was mark myself as a troublemaker. She simply said: "Interesting question... anybody else have something to add?" And consensus was adopted.

It didn't get any better. The group met for a total of about 40 hours over 6 months. All the group-dynamics professional-facilitator garbage was rolled out. We spent time in breakout groups discussing issues and reporting out to the full group. We spent time sticking colored circles on statements written on butcher paper stuck on the walls. We spent time in countless pointless activities avoiding any inconvenient questions.

Here is the sum-total of the output from this charade, as it made its way into the final plan:

"We must increase our capacity to provide intense, immediate and innovative support for low-achieving students. The disparity in achievement has existed for too long, and the number of children at risk is growing. We must develop the capacity to do whatever it takes to help children achieve."

That's all. Just "increase capacity." What on earth does that mean? How will they know when they have done it? Seemed to me strategic objectives should be measureable. You want to narrow the achievement gap, let's measure it, track it, and use teaching methods that are proven to narrow it. Wouldn't that have some meaning?

But no, the group of 60 or so people operating on "consensus" decided we should attack the problem by throwing our hands in the air, and saying let's do "whatever it takes." So, five years later it is fair to ask: was this objective met?

Again - these were othewise intelligent adults, well meaning and trying to do the right thing. Their time was utterly wasted.

So here we are five years later, and Vicki Phillips wants to do it all again? I'm sorry, but that is very disappointing. She was supposed to be a leader. This type of exercise is an excuse not to lead.

The structure for the next five year plan looks an awful lot like the last one.

Well, the Soviets never learned, either. The fundamental flaw of the Soviet model was only apparent after it was piled high on the scrapheap of history.


gus miller said...

I suggest they forget the five year plan and brainstorm a fix for the collective bargaining process as well as the current collective bargaining agreement with the Portland teachers.

There has been token collective bargaining with teachers in Portland since I began watching the process in 1992. The district and the teachers usually allow CBAs to expire in June as the agreements expire and start a new school year on the provisions of the expired agreement. In midyears there are threats of or strike votes taken to stir up a crisis situation. Whereupon city and county politicians broker a new salary increase with temporary funds or a temporary tax increase. Changes to work rules etc. are forgotten in the midyear crisis.

Portland has an inflexible teacher hiring and transfer process in Article 10 of the CBA which can not be fixed in the absence of good faith collective bargaining. Article 17 of the Portland CBA allows decisions of school site councils to be overrided by a vote of 70% of a school's certified teachers.

It will be difficult to deliver on reforms from a five year plan until Articles such as 10 and 17 of the Portland CBA can be amended.

Portland teachers currently have more incentive to continue delaying the collective bargaining process as they have been doing successfully since 1992.

Anonymous said...

Fine piece and fair comparison, Mr. Kremer. Very fine.