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Transparency and Straight Talk
This owl is puzzled. Our new president has been singing the praises of transparency. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has put money on the table for states and districts that can put transparency into action. This owl must ask why transparency, defined by the dictionary as "frankness and openness," is so difficult for those who lead schools and districts.
Other professions have confronted the barriers that block access to their craft knowledge. Doctors, for example, have thirty years of experience working with the increasing power of the patient in taking charge of their own health care. Doctors are now expected to answer patients’ questions and speak in a language they understand. Pill labels, warnings of side effects, and instructions about how to take medicine have all become increasingly clear, candid, and comprehensible.
What have educators done? They have replaced traditional, simple student report cards with complicated, standards-based report cards. In place of A-B-C-D-F, we have a much longer, more complex, and less familiar way for teachers to communicate how their students are doing. The vocabulary is no longer a shared one. However flawed the old-fashioned report card, parents knew what it meant.
THE EXCESSES OF EDSPEAK
The vocabulary of schooling is harder still to understand. The impenetrability of "edspeak" is baffling to Martin Kozloff, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. He once referred to edspeak as "...unmatched twaddle. Unbelievable bilge. Absolutely staggering nonsense." In a Los Angeles Times news article, reporter Duke Helfand wrote, "This is Edspeaka language so bewildering that even teachers need glossaries to figure out what's being said. In the insular world of education, words morph and multiply almost daily as schools dream up new programs and chase new reforms."
The accountability era has given birth to a fuzzy vocabulary of its own. Test results rely on terms like "proficiency," already a vague concept, but its meaning in California differs from its meaning in Nevada, only compounding the problem. The federal system has chosen the name "Adequate Yearly Progress" to mean a threshold that a school either meets or doesn’t meet. It doesn’t measure progress at all. To maximize misunderstanding, this threshold now changes every year. When a parent asks you how to decode her children’s CST results to learn whether they made one year’s progress last year, those CST results offer not one shred of evidence to answer that question.
TONGUE-TIED BY MONEY MATTERS
However, when superintendents try to explain the condition of their district’s finances, they suffer under two handicaps. First, the terminology leaves many superintendents tongue-tied. Words like "revenue limit funds," "restricted funds," "encroachment," and "statutory COLA" leave earnest listeners in a trail of linguistic dust. Second, the complexity of the laws, policies, and the SACS accounting code structure make it tough for even the best-intended superintendents to talk straight about money.
The importance of straight talk increases as the financial squeeze leads to a more skeptical general outlook. The skeptics’ questions are based on doubt. Take one more step, and you’re looking at an adversary with an accusation. It’s not unusual for leadership to face adversaries across the table in negotiations with their teachers association. "Why is that reserve so big?" "Where are you hiding the money we gave up last year?" Skepticism can also lead to local citizens accusing superintendents of earning too much and questioning whether the existence of small districts is a luxury they can no longer afford.
This happened recently in Santa Clara County, where the grand jury took a harsh look at the annual compensation for school district superintendents in Santa Clara County. The grand jury's report looked at the cost of salary plus benefits and divided it by enrollment. They did this for all 34 school districts and four community college districts in the county, including the county office of education, whose 3,854 students left the superintendent looking like one very expensive leader. Of course, the smaller the district’s enrollment, the higher the cost of the superintendent on a per-ADA basis.
This owl believes the Santa Clara County grand jury report is a bellwether. There will be more questioning ahead. Brace for skeptics, critics, and adversaries. Summon your board members. Put Will Rogers on the record player and start practicing straight talk.
TWO SUPERINTENDENTS WHO COMMUNICATE ABOUT MONEY THEIR WAY
Some superintendents are stepping ahead of the crowd in communicating effectively about their district’s financial vital signs. This owl found two notable souls. Certainly, there are others. If you know someone who belongs in this gallery of notable communicators, this owl wants to hear from you.
Joel Shawn is the bloggingest superintendent in California. He runs Arcadia USD in Los Angeles County with a clear vision, open ears, and a commitment to two-way communication. His public is a demanding one, and they have shown their appreciation for Supt. Shawn’s responsiveness. Their questions are well intended, smart, and often laced with a measured "thanks" to Supt. Shawn for taking them seriously. He answers their questions quickly and candidly. This owl covered Supt. Shawn’s blogging bravery in an earlier edition of this newsletter.
Marilyn Shepherd is the energetic, talented leader of Monterey Peninsula USD. She’s spoken at over thirty meetings in six months. As the state’s budget has imposed rapidly changing demands on her district, she’s been ready, willing, and able to saddle up and explain it all. With 23 schools, she has a lot of ground to cover.
With the help of a couple of cabinet members, she and her team have produced nearly 80 pages of high quality communications. This includes a staff newsletter, the MPUSD Connector. They have issued occasional press releases to brief media on significant budget changes. She has also convened a superintendent’s budget council to make recommendations on cuts.
Transparency is the direction that Supt. Shepherd and her team are taking in Monterey. Debates are open. Everyone has equal access to information, including lists of all independent contractors and their compensation, all staff salaries, and more. With a public process for shaping recommendations and information available to all, rumors get squelched quickly and trust is high.
You can follow the transparency trail these two superintendents have taken. A little straight talk now will help you avoid curveball questions tomorrow. The values they share, such as responsiveness, openness, and a willingness to meet their public’s questions directly, are the keys to their success. You may not be up for the rapid response that Supt. Shawn’s blogging requires, but you can take a few steps like these to get started.
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