School Bureaucracy: Tricia’s Testimonial

My sister-in-law, Tricia, who is an elementary teacher in another state, tells a tale in which administrators require that teachers post objectives each day in the classroom and advise students why they are doing what they are doing. Makes sense, good practice. Teachers in my school do similarly, I believe. The idea is to create a cognitive set as to where the lesson is going, and thereby enhance student engagement in the learning process. Unfortunately, in Tricia’s tale the motions of the requirement gain primacy over the spirit of the idea, not unlike in the Student Learning Plan example I posted earlier (“School Bureaucracy: Beating the System 6/21/11), but more subtly so.

Yes, teachers in Tricia’s school post their objectives dutifully for the occasional administrative visitor to observe. Some will have their three or four objectives to rotate, “because they don’t come in often enough to recognize a given objective has been recycled.” Others will have objectives so general as to cover just about any circumstance of learning.

The administrative requirement to “show me”, and to monitor the forms rather than the substance, has at least two deleterious effects. The first of course is that form triumphs over substance, and a legitimate idea is subverted. Teachers focus more on pleasing the principal than doing the disciplined work of being intentional and clear about each lesson.

The second consequence is the separation of what should be an administrative/teacher team into separate camps, into the predator and the prey. Just as students hide behind a remarkable veil from teachers, who thereby don’t see all the comings and goings of drugs, alcohol, gang activity, love worries, and all the myriad things that really occur in kids’ lives, teachers also hide behind the veil of the forms expected, cat and mouse. What should involve trust and true teamwork between administrator and teacher — that is, the work to improve kid learning and kid motivation — ends up being clogged with bureaucratic rigidities. The chain begins up the line with state, or even federal requirements, and is passed down to superintendents and the district level. Principals then must respond in forms to their superiors, which brings us fully down to the grass roots school level and stories such as Tricia’s about objectives. That which is the reality up the chain becomes the reality down the chain.

Clarity of purpose linked to revolving data is a powerful process via which to attack weaknesses in both individual students and in a classroom as a group. Without such intellectual discipline, which typifies a legitimately professional approach, the wandering prevalent in educational things as they are is itself poorly challenged. Clear and respectful communication between teachers and administrators, in some important sense as equals, is essential to such professional discipline. This ideal, difficult to put into practice in the best of circumstances, is a casualty in Tricia’s example.

In my own school, teachers have to track how that they have provided accommodations to special education and 504 students. The tracking is done as much to supervise as to provide documentation in case of lawsuits, from which our district has suffered. But in this particular case my impression is that admin and teachers travel on adjacent pages. Good work has been done by admin types to make the task as little onerous as possible. I have overheard admins telling teachers to make sure they document at least once a month, rather than the daily documentation which would make the action ludicrously burdensome.

Moreover, teachers have also altered their classroom management to provide common accommodations, such as extra time on tests, and complex assignments broken down to component parts, to all students, regardless of legal requirements, thereby simplifying compliance, and perhaps even shifting instruction in generally positive directions. It is tempting, if overly enthusiastic, to wonder if the original point of all the enabling legislation was not just to level the playing field for individual students, but to force general change in classroom practice.

Though I would not say that this latter example indicates all is well in our particular school house, it does demonstrate what can happen when teachers and administrators collaborate on solutions to the kinds of sticky problems we face.

Still, I do not want the original point to be lost. In this era of federal and state intervention, and therefore of reporting, at what juncture does all this emphasis on reportage to the level above detract from the real non linear business at hand, namely change, true teamwork, and focus on the substance?

I do grudgingly agree that the requirements of No Child Left Behind have prodded change is a bludgeoning kind of way, which may be the only means to induce accountability from the federal level. My point is simply that there is a cost to this attempt at control that unintentionally subverts the goal, and may even prevent the kind of professionalization of teachers and respect given them that seems to be the bedrock of the relative success of other nations’ schools.

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