Writings and observations

Danny Westneat’s Seattle Times column today ended with this: “This is the mood of the city. Joggers are packing heat. Moms of toddlers are contemplating arming up or heading out of town. It’s insane, yes. We are losing it. Can you blame us?”

Well, yes.

That’s not to dismiss the tragic events of the last week. A week ago: A man shot at the Northwest Folklife Festival. Shortly after: Four drive-by shooting incidents in South Seattle. Wednesday: Four killed in a cafe in the University District, a woman shot to death in another neighborhood – by, it turns out, the same man, who then shot himself.

Westneat’s column reflects the attitude of a lot of Seattlites, to either arm up (he writes about a jogger visibly carrying a firearm) or get out of Dodge. (You can imagine how local TV news has been dealing with this – scaring the bejeebers out of everybody.)

Some blame the police. Some blame the Department of Justice, which has been leaning on the police over civil rights issues. There’s a lot of blame being spread around elsewhere, too.

Consider it this way:

The meshing of these events into a short span is a fluke of timing. Nothing has changed. Seattle, in large part, is a safe large city, a fact true two weeks ago and true today.

The shootings reflect two trends contributing to violence especially in larger cities: gangs and mental illness. Both are challenging for police to deal with, but better approaches do seem to be coming along. (Seattle might cast a glance southward to Portland, for example, which is working on some innovative approaches in dealing with potentially hazardous mental illness cases.)

There’s nothing really new here. The mass of bullets is just, simply, drawing our attention to what’s already there: Problems that will take hard, slogging work to resolve. Seattle will probably figure that out before long.

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Rudy Crew

Oregon has never had a chief education officer; newly-hired Rudy Crew will be the first. He may have a big effect on Oregon education – certainly, that’s the hope – and while a number of the policy points inherent in overhauling the state’s education system are already in place, many will have to be devised on the fly. Crew will the guy in charge, more than anyone else, of doing that.

The immediate news reports have noted that he’s been a major figure in national education circles: Head of public schools in New York and Miami, executive director of the University of Washington’s Institute for K-12 Leadership, and an academic more rcently. His tenure at these spots has been described as “contentious,” and there’s some acknowledgement that he has both fans and detractors, but we haven’t been given much sense of what that translates to. Being controversial could be a good thing or bad, depending on how you assess it. Governor John Kitzhaber and other Oregonians clearly, as the Oregonian pointed out, want someone who will shake things up. They seem likely to get that with Crew.

But what sort of shakeup?

Here are two paragraphs from the (heavily footnoted) Wikipedia entry on him:

Crew’s leadership in Miami was reflected in recognition as a finalist for the prestigious Broad Prize for three consecutive years (2006–08),[4] and in School Improvement Zone being named a Top 50 Innovation by Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Institute,[5] 12 high schools being named among the best by Newsweek,[6] Crew was named the 2008 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), topping the 50 state winners.[7] His initiatives have led the District to be viewed nationally as a model of success,[8] with the secondary-school reform program being credited with Miami’s graduation-rate boost.[9]

Crew has also garnered controversy. At a June 2008 school board meeting, Crew said the district had overspent millions of dollars during the past two years because it had hired more teachers than budgeted, lost state funding, and encountered rising costs.[10] School Board member Renier Diaz De La Portilla called for Crew’s ouster, criticizing the way he has managed the schools’ budget.[11][12] Ana Rivas Logan, another board member, called Crew “insubordinate.”[11] At an August 4, 2008 school board meeting, the item to terminate Crew’s contract failed. Despite Crew’s strong support from business and community leaders,[13] the School Board bought out his contract at its September 10, 2008 meeting.

Is there a way to characterize what sorts of change Crew might want to push toward?

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Probably: He has written a book about school reform, “Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007). This is from the Publishers Weekly review of the book, giving a general sense of what Crew is contending:

“Deeply concerned about the failure of America’s educational system, Crew (former chancellor of the New York City schools and currently superintendent of the Miami-Dade County schools) has a vision of what must be done. In spite of the billions we spend on education, six years after No Child Left Behind (NCLB), one-third of our eighth-graders can’t do basic math, and only 60% of our 10-year-olds can read, he argues. Furthermore, NCLB’s focus on testing has pre-empted attention from other important dimensions of education—building character, citizenship and workplace literacy. Crew proposes a new strategy. First, school systems need to be run like businesses, with explicit goals, implementation plans and budgets. The school must become the nucleus of the community, the center of a web connecting business, the arts, health services and any other social institutions that can be drawn into the school’s orbit. Connected Schools, as Crew calls them, bring outside resources in and give students workplace literacy, i.e., a better sense of what is going on in the larger world. But it’s the personal anecdotes that stand out: when Crew describes how his hardworking father put him through school, readers can almost believe that Crew has the grit and determination to make his reform plan work.”

He may have the chance: The kind of change this speaks about delivery of education is an analogue to the kind of systemic change Oregon officials are hoping to develop in health care. It’s an intriguing idea that, together with closer links between the pieces of the education system, could make the whole work at much higher practical efficiency.

Assuming that the various parties work together. There was this, too, in Wikipedia, summarizing a couple of news reports: “In both New York and Miami, Crew was blamed for organizing efforts to remove independent oversight during his tenure. Crew engaged in a campaign to have New York’s independent investigator Edward F. Stancik removed by accusing him of exaggerating his reports saying they were overly dramatic and adversely affected the school system.[22] In Miami, a civil suit was brought against Crew by the former Miami-Dade County Public Schools Inspector General, Herbert Cousins, a former FBI agent who alleges Crew and his staff slandered and defamed him to obstruct his investigation and disclosure of illegal activities by Crew and some board members.” (The original reports on this are available at the New York Times and the Miami New Times).

Bottom line is hard to reach here. The potential seems great; the risks seem substantial. A close watch will be warranted.

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