School Bureaucracy: Brief Meditation continued

A follow up to the recent “Meditation”:

Pronouncements from higher levels – district, state, feds – are broad reaching and apply across large numbers of schools and therefore scenarios, and tend to treat them as the same when in fact they are as unique as the individuals who people them and the histories that have formed thousands of different communities. And then the pronouncements arrive from somewhere in the clouds, as it were, without any clear origin, without rationale, but with a remote finality that leaves school people with little recourse but to bend to the dictate. To challenge, or even ask questions, could take valuable time that is urgently needed in the day to day work. If there is any sameness to schools across the land, it is this subjugation to a disembodied remote control.

A couple of minor examples, from recent days:

For graduation in our state a couple of semesters are required of what we call Occupational Education, which basically refers to semi-direct vocational training in business classes, hands on shop classes such as auto tech, and home and family classes. For some years our principal, quite reasonably, had authority to allow also a special waiver of the Occupational Education requirement in isolated circumstances, such as approval for a student intending to be a doctor to use chemistry for occupational education, or a future business person to use AP Economics for the same purpose. With the waiver, the principal was in effect giving credit in Occupational Ed for those subject areas key to future employment, for students who would otherwise have difficulty fitting the regular Occ Ed classes into their schedule. Spirit of the law, it would seem to me.

Slam bang. No more, says someone, I at least do not know who, some auditor I believe. Turns out only “vocationally certified” teachers can teach classes that qualify as Occ Ed, so the chemistry and the AP Econ teacher would have to become certified as a voc teacher in order for students to use their classes for Occupational Education. So far, no one has shown interest in doing so. The rule may have originated to protect someone’s vocational fiefdom, rightly or wrongly, but the point is, who knows? The discretionary flexibility our principal once had, to use good judgment in a few situations, has come a cropper to state rules originating somewhere. Small deal, you say. I say, only small unless replicated many times. Then the principal, the teacher, the staff learn that initiative and good judgment are not valued; we await orders. Given our charge from the state and the feds to improve test scores, it is a bit like having the responsibility without having authority, as though the decisions are too important to trust in our hands.

Another example, admittedly a bit abstruse. For years we have been able to use an online program marketed by Brigham Young University for credit retrieval in cases (the many) where students have failed classes. Not too easy, not too hard, but well organized and responsive, it filled a niche that counselors and parents have found necessary. We have learned recently the state will no longer sanction the use of this particular program, and has set down guidelines regarding what characteristics the state will honor in any alternatives.

The merits of the decision are not the issue, though I would certainly ask some questions and provide my perspective, but troubling is the lack of any coherent process that I can see, as a worker in the schools, that at all recognizes that school people might have a perspective worth incorporating in a decision that affects all students at a time when high school graduation rates are in danger. Therefore I can have little confidence in the decision, and wonder why the hell it was made in such a peremptory fashion. There may in fact be a rationale that I would honor, but I don’t know what it is, nor who so concluded, nor can I have faith that considerations I have from having worked directly with real students been included. My principal, and a district level administrator I contacted, knew nothing of the decision (which arrived in the building via our registrar). To date, I have received no official notification, certainly no explanation, as a person who would authorize the use of the banished program, and would have continued blithely along but for the unofficial communication from a co-worker.

So does my judgment matter? I guess not. Should I bother to think and to take initiative? I don’t know. I could be a mule, I suppose, and plod along waiting for someone to change my path. I could get angry, rebel, take action, and sooner or later incur displeasure that endangers my job. Or I could escape to some other profession. How many ex teachers do you know?

Of course the choices are not so stark. But scratch a school professional, and not far below the surface are these sentiments. Is this what we want in those who educate our kids? Professional eunuchs? OK, OK, so I got carried away.

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