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25th Anniversary blog series: 1996 – Four scenarios for public education in Seattle

February 13, 2015

This excerpt is based on a case study by Jay Ogilvy published in Scenarios in Public Policy, and related to a project undertaken in 1996 by the teachers’ union, the Seattle Education Association, with the aid of Global Business Network, then a research and consulting company specializing in the development of alternative scenarios for strategic planning. It describes scenarios for the future of education and how they have been used in Seattle. We include it in our series of blogs on the use of futures as it shows the breakthroughs in understanding, leading to action, that can arise through a well-managed scenario project.

Before the scenario project, Seattle’s public schools were something of an embarrassment. With white flight to the suburbs, Seattle got hollowed out. Between 1980 and 1990, enrolment in Seattle’s public schools dropped more than 10 per cent. The voters turned against the schools. School bond issues failed in every election from 1992 to 1996. And, of course, the teachers’ union looked the worse for “the decline in public education”.

The Seattle scenarios project included representatives of many different constituencies on the scenario team. The scenario process itself was part of the process of reform. By joining the representative constituents of the public education system together as a scenario planning team, the project process began to implement one of its eventual strategic options, namely:

Create a team with as much diversity as possible: old/young, male/female, senior/junior, white/black, different constituencies in the public for public schools, from the largest employer in Seattle, Boeing, to someone from City Hall, a successful business- man on the school board, several union leaders, an economist, and ten more selected for the range of their representation.

The team decided on two driving trends: the change in the social fabric and the rate of change. The associated uncertainties were:

  • Will the changes in social fabric” be turbulent” or healthy”?
  • Will rate of change” be slow/resistant” or rapid/embracing”?

The four resulting scenarios for the public education system in Seattle in 2010 were used in a wide consultation process.

As a result:

  • Seattle passed two school bonds. Seattle got a terrific superintendent, ]ohn Stanford, who, precisely as it had been written in one of the scenarios, came out of the military. Enrolment stabilized. Some schools definitely turned round. There was a new can-do spirit, and the union became known nationwide as showing leadership on behalf of education reform.
  • Every citizen cannot be expected to master the latest advances in urban economics and    telecommunications. But people do listen up to stories. Consequences of this set of scenarios were a deeper dialogue about education in Seattle and renewed interest on the part of the business community. People realized, “We have some choices”.
  • While many of the forces operating on education in Seattle may have had remote origins, Seattle’s citizens could develop effective responses to national and global trends.
  • These scenarios suggested that Seattle’s then current system of educational governance was susceptible to administrative gridlock. Partly as a result of these scenarios, the union dropped its insistence on seniority as the main requirement for teacher placement. Schools in poorer neighbourhoods used to get the rookies while older, more experienced teachers went to the better schools. After the scenarios, there was a more even distribution of talent.

The full case study is included in “Scenarios in Public Policy” by Gill Ringland, John Wiley, 2002

Written by Gill Ringland.

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