School Bureaucracy: Don’t Think Too Far Ahead

Allen was the vice principal I worked most closely with last school year. He and I shared stewardship of the class of 2012, then juniors, and had since Allen had been hired when the class members were freshman. In his mid to late thirties, he had formerly been a guide in Alaska, and I thought was at once tough with discipline as well as provided an open ear to the realities students faced. I was lucky to be working with him.

There are probably two schools of thought about how to implement change in any organization. One is the carefully planned out method. Get all the details right down to the last fastener, think through all permutations that the process might follow, problem solve potential problems, etc.

The other school of thought takes an idea, sets up some initial parameters, and enters startup without the careful preparation characteristic of the other schema. Along the way, tweaks are made, sometimes big tweaks, as the shortcomings of the plan are revealed in the working of it. The advantage of this type of approach is that one can get going, without becoming bogged down in endless planning. Make a decision, get on with it, improve it.

In my experience, schools pretty much subscribe to the latter line of thought, because of the unwieldiness and the cost of bringing all parties to the table for careful planning, and the tightness of the work schedule of building staff. And also, to some degree, I think due to a plain old lack of professionalism, the legacy of relatively protected jobs and the unconscious knowledge that, whatever the outcome of the new initiative, there would still be a new batch of kids coming in the door the next year. Unlike a miscalculation in the private sector, the business would continue, regardless.

So it was by this latter chain of events some years back our high school entered the early phases of a “Culminating Project” for seniors. Through many ins and outs, the plan persevered, finally becoming enshrined as a state graduation requirement, which our admin had seen coming down the road.

As the plan matured, some of the detail of the Culminating Project was to be entered on a computer data system called “efolio.” Students were to enter records of their best works from different classes, parts of community service and job shadow efforts, and so forth. Though with some fiddling students could manage the system, the truth was that it was overly complicated, abstruse in some spots, and in the end vitally underused by students, who expressed their displeasure by their passive aggressive attitude toward the whole idea.

Allen, who I introduced earlier, knew teachers and other staff who experimented with the system developed the same negative vibe.  Rather than sit on his bureaucratic duff, Allen listened intently to his own experiences with the program, as well as the many negative and specific testimonies of staff and students. With the help of one of our technologically savvy staff members, Marcia, he developed a concept for both simplifying and improving efolio. He then persuaded other administrators and the larger district honchos to meet with the efolio vendors. The upshot was a much simplified “click and drag” environment that still left the kids grousing about the Culminating Project, but finally with much less substance about which to complain.

Note this is another positive story of assertive staff dealing with bureaucracy. Man sees problem, man listens, man networks, man and support build a better mousetrap, progress made. Way to go, Allen.

That is why I am sad to report efolio is no more in our school, and Allen’s entrepreneurship will remain only a memory.

Toward the end of school this year we advisors (the Culminating Project was coordinated through our Advisory system) were abruptly notified by email that we were to create a folder for each one of our advisees on a server drive that students could access. Next, classroom by classroom, students were to log in and transfer the contents of their efolio account to that drive, to save it. The cost of efolio had been judged to be prohibitive in the current budget realities, and our use of the vendor had been terminated. Not entirely clear who made the decision, though rumor had it that other high schools in our district planned to continue with efolio.

It is true that students, already dismayed (mostly whining) by the requirements of the Culminating Project, and alienated by the fits and jerks of its history, have likely been handed a legitimate complaint in their confusion as to which end is up.

More to the point, the initiative taken by my friend Allen to solve a problem has gone to waste, another good idea into the waste bin when its champion moves on, which Allen did at the beginning of the just finished school year. It may be if you and I were privy to the details of the decision, we would have reached the same conclusion — that efolio had to go. But should we blame Allen if in his heart of hearts concludes, “Why try?”

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