School Bureaucracy: Beating the System

The multitudes of you reading out there may start to weary of my apparently incessant whining about bureaucracy, politics, and the inadequacies of our youth. Me, too. It is well enough to identify problems – if we do not clarify the nature of the problem, how are we to craft solutions? But we do need to move toward solution, whether in reality, or in written speculation such as these postings, so will follow over the next weeks a few anecdotes that illustrate organizational communications and decisions that energize, rather than enervate.

First instance, the case of the Student Learning Plans (SLP). Student Learning Plans, now required by our state, are designed to “IEP” all students who have failed one or more sections of the HSPE, our state graduation assessment mandated by No Child Left Behind. (IEP refers to Individual Educational Plan, the term applied for similar plans for Special Education students.)

By the SLP initiative, schools are required to design an individual plan that will address the student’s failure on the pertinent test, and bring each up to standard. Decent idea in the abstract, conceived no doubt in an office well removed from real schools. If done properly, SLP’s could be useful, but created well and carried out would require staff time not in surplus in schools. Because the legislative/bureaucratic order does not take into account the dearth of grass roots resources, the act transforms what would otherwise be a reasonable idea into compliance in fact only to the letter, not the spirit, of the law.

When SLP’s were first announced we counselors felt our morale sink appreciably, since we were to be the unfortunate prosecutors of this brilliant idea. Another task added, nothing taken off our plates, without one scintilla or our input, an old story on the road to mediocre performance inevitable under the load of too many things to do, too little time, too little money.

The final straw is that this charade, pointless because the state’s unrealistic prescription simply could not be carried out, would have absolutely no impact on student success, other than to negatively impact it by pulling us from real contact with our charges.

All parties, district, principal, and counselor, could get censored for refusal to carry out the legislative dictate, regardless that the time could be far better spent elsewhere. I, for instance, crushed by senior administrivia, could have used a good deal of the time otherwise reserved for SLP’s on senior credit issues, and work to get my senior charges to graduation.

Why do I think of Kafka?

In this case the story turns to the positive. Our principal sees this waste for what it is, as does some perceptive district administrative types, particularly the refreshingly irreverent district testing director. The latter individual, anticipating the moans around the counselor ranks, and perhaps egged on by district high school principals, puts in a technological fix! (I get excited even telling this story some years later!) His office creates a template upon which we counselors will select from a list of interventions for each of the thousand or so students who have yet to pass one or more of the state tests. Doing so will take a half a day of our time, but much less than it might have taken had we had to design something from scratch

So we go into computerized checklists, add this, that, or the other intervention to “individual” plans based upon what program or other they might be in – targeted reading or math support classes, Special Education, 504 accommodations, etc. Of course, these programs are genuinely supportive, but the plans themselves reflect interventions already under way, and do not design unique initiatives for the individual, as intended by the state directive. Our SLP’s are merely catalogs of what we are already doing, by program.

As the final absurdity, we trot the SLP’s out to parents at parent conferences, as though a pat on our own back how we are helping their kid. Mostly we seemed to confuse parents with the document. Some commented to me, “What’s the point?” Exactly.

But I digress, as we writers say. In this tale are efforts of support on the part of our principals and district personnel to lighten our load, and implicit acknowledgment of the absurdity of the task put on our plate. We feel we are not left out to dry, nor made sacrifices on the edge of the world, but are part of a larger, supportive, communicative body to which we can feel we will give good energy. Compare with the dismay and the drain of energy cited earlier above, and in other tales I have told.

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