School Bureaucracy: Brief meditation

Let’s start with assumptions.

Bureaucracies need to measure in order to report. Reports are often quantified. Test scores, in particular. No Child Left Behind does exactly that. Scores on previous years divide real students into boxes. Passed this test. Did not pass that test. Did not pass that test narrowly. Did not pass that test by a large margin. The narrowly box gets one kind of class. The large margin box gets another kind of class. Each box school is given a number goal to reach, called annual yearly progress (isn’t “annual yearly” redundant?), based upon its scores in previous years. Land in the wrong box for one year, then two, and the consequences mount. Is it any wonder that admin types have to focus on numbers?

Given these realities, it isn’t hard to imagine how real people, and the accumulation of the daily interactions between students, teachers, and administrators get lost behind the veil of numbers. Yet it is the myriad of these interactions that determine whether change really does happen, whether kids learn what we know they need to learn, and whether kids really care or not.

So a second assumption. For want of a better metaphor, there is a curvilinear quality, an Alice in Wonderland reality of learning that defies the quantification of boxes and of pedestrian statistical analysis. Though we would infer that a kid who likes a teacher and an administrator who deals with teachers as professional colleagues will affect the bottom line quantification, it would be difficult to trace the relationship in numbers, short perhaps of a complex calculus.

Computer programmers, do they not, use mathematics to create animated visual images? Several dimensions beyond may be a calculus capable of imaging the ground level realities of learning and of change.

But for now we have linear boxes and curvilinear realities, and the twain do not meet on simple ground. We focus on the former to the detriment of navigating the latter. While our schools seem to be progressing somewhat in the boxes, the question remains whether or not we are progressing satisfactorily on more fundamental levels, albeit those defiant of measurement. Are students more focused, are teachers and prospective entrants excited about what they are engaged in? Are teachers and administrators broadly collaborative? I suspect in most schools the answer is not really, or at least far from the ideal. Yet these are the engines that must engage if we are truly to become our own masters, and achieve this elusive goal of sustainable educational progress. To be continued.

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