Courtesy of Seattle Public Schools

SEVEN YEARS AGO, Maria Goodloe-Johnson declined to apply for the job as superintendent of Seattle Public Schools and instead took the same job with the Charleston County School District in South Carolina. “The [Seattle] school board was very confused,” she says. “And I wasn’t interested in confusion.” She won’t get more specific than that when describing the district circa 2003, but it couldn’t have been drastically different than the situation she inherited when she accepted the Seattle school district’s top spot in 2007.

Attendance at South Seattle schools was sinking. The school board had adopted a new student assignment plan without any idea of how to implement it. Schools were teaching to vastly different standards. Heck, the district’s computer system was so outdated, prospective teachers had no means for applying online for jobs at multiple schools at once. SPS lacked accountability and administrative oversight, and Goodloe-Johnson whipped out her ruler and started rapping knuckles almost immediately.

A firm hand may have been just what Seattle schools needed, and administrators aren’t paid to give warm fuzzies. But in three years, Goodloe-Johnson has—fairly or unfairly—developed a reputation as a prickly leader who favors top-down rule over democratic collaboration. As one SPS parent who worked for years in the tech industry put it, “The district would rather just shove the answer down everyone’s throat: ‘This is what we’re doing. This is what the best practice says to do.’ And you know what? It might even be the right answer. But if you don’t convince parents and teachers that it’s the right answer, you’re going to have a hard time succeeding.”

Many parents and teachers have been left cold by Goodloe-Johnson’s seemingly distant demeanor. But they’re more concerned by what she’s done as they are by how she’s done it. They question her commitment to accountability in the wake of a 2010 state audit that found school employees were overpaid by more than $335,000 between September 2008 and August 2009. And when they learned last winter that she sat on the board of the Northwest Evaluation Association (whose Measures of Academic Progress test the school board agreed to use in Seattle schools, at a cost of $370,000 for the 2009–10 school year and $453,000 for the 2010–11 school year) their faith in her leadership abilities plummeted. She’s made efforts to reach out to teachers and parents, promised to correct the district’s fiscal miscues, and stepped down from the NWEA board, but the damage may already have been done: The teachers’ union, Seattle Education Association, voted no confidence in Goodloe-Johnson in September and declared that “students deserve a district where educators work collaboratively and seek solutions based on the best evidence available. It has become increasingly evident…that Seattle superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson does not represent these ideals.”

Six weeks after the vote, she addressed some of those criticisms.

Your management style has been described as autocratic, that there’s an aloofness, that there’s an unwillingness to listen.
Aloof? I’ve never been described as aloof. What does that mean, and where was that observed? I listen to people all the time, in various settings. I’ve done teacher chats since I’ve been here. I’m at community events. I’m at PTAs. There’s a very clear difference between not liking what I say or disagreeing with what I say and calling me aloof. So it would be interesting to know what that example is.

They say you spend more time using your BlackBerry during school board meetings than engaging the public.
I use my BlackBerry all the time. I had one person who was offended that I use my BlackBerry. Okay, so I won’t use my BlackBerry. How is that interacting with people?

I guess it would be a lack of interacting. There’s concern that you’re not receptive to input from parents. People say you’ve said, “If I’ve heard a complaint from one person, I don’t need to hear it from anyone else.”
That’s an absolute misrepresentation of the truth. I’ve never said that.

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Do you need the teachers’ confidence to do this job?
We need everybody’s confidence for our children. It was a very fast pace of change, lots of things had to change, lots of things went into place, so it’s hard. Change is very difficult. So I believe that we have to continue to determine how to integrate what teachers are concerned about. And it’s not just me, it’s the entire system. It’s unrealistic to think that I’m the only person that needs to hear it. Because it takes lots of us to get the work done. I can’t do this work by myself.

What do you hope to do to regain the confidence of those teachers?
Hope’s not a strategy. This year when I do teacher visits, I also have brown bag lunches. So I give teachers an opportunity to talk. And I’ve actually done it in three schools. No agenda. Just [an opportunity] for them to ask questions [and address] concerns and rumors. That’s a strategy that I’m using this year when I go out to visit schools. We also did a newsletter that will go out to talk about the things that I hear. I’m going to do that again.

What do you think when you hear—
When I hear that, I ask the question, What is it based on? Instead of playing a guessing game, there have to be things that are happening that they feel like need to change or they’re frustrated with. So what I did was look at what the vote of no confidence was about to get some kind of context of what our teachers are concerned about. If you don’t have any context for what they’re concerned about, then any road will get you there or won’t get you there.

"Aloof? I’ve never been described as aloof. What does that mean, and where was that observed?"

What did you find when you looked into what the vote was about?
The interesting thing that I found in talking to SEA leadership is that they had a concern about MAP, Measures of Academic Progress. People interpret the fact that I sat on the board for NWEA—which is a governance, not a paid position—as the reason that we’re doing MAP. So I no longer sit on the board because it’s a distraction. It’s not true.

What’s not true?
That we did MAP because I sat on the board. There was no financial connection at all. I forget how many districts in Washington use MAP. It’s a formative assessment that gives real-time data and information to teachers. They thought it was a conflict of interest. It wasn’t a conflict of interest. It continued to be a concern, and I thought that if that’s the biggest issue, it’s not worth the distraction.

I think the concern came from the fact that you didn’t disclose your position on the NWEA board before the school board decided to implement MAP. Do you wish you had disclosed that sooner?
Sure, absolutely, because it’s not worth the confusion. But when the confusion is corrected, then how long do we hang onto it? I didn’t think about it at the time because I wasn’t involved in the RFP. I wasn’t involved in looking at all of the different assessments that could be chosen. I wasn’t involved in any of that—just in taking the recommendation to the board.

So what’s next on the agenda? What’s the next big thing?
Continuing to implement the strategic plan. We need the levy to pass so we can continue with the curriculum alignment. We still have a lot of work to do. Bottom line: Close the achievement gap and improve academic achievement.

You bring up the levy, so I have to ask: There are teachers who are rallying against it, because they don’t have the faith that the funds would be used for what the district says they would be used for.
You clearly have to say what you’re going to use the levy for.

I understand, but what is your response to the fact that you have teachers in your district who plan to vote against a levy for the schools?
That’s unfortunate, because if teachers vote against the levy, then they won’t have textbooks, they won’t have curriculum alignment, there will be huge cuts that will impact schools and teachers. And there won’t be the support for the new contract that rewards teachers through career ladders, which is really treating teachers like professionals. So they’ll be hurting themselves and kids to vote against the levy. But of course, everybody has a choice.

[And they exercised that choice November 2, when they overwhelmingly voted to approve the levy.]

This article appeared in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Met.
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