School Bureaucracy: More Tales From the Trenches

Summary: A simple tale of a credit retrieval plan provides a thematic setting for structure versus flexibility in school decision making.

Kids fail classes mostly because they simply do not do the work, and thereby reveal the whole panoply of theirs and the culture’s dysfunction – the dearth of accountability for our kids, the breakdown of authority, and the obsession with the gadgets of technology, as well as chronic adolescent traits such as the transfer of allegiance from parent to peer, the illusion that they are now adult and can make their own decisions, and so forth.

As a result, high schools, in order to graduate kids, are inevitably in the business of credit retrieval. In our school, that means if a kid fails an academic class required for graduation, we do not allow them to make it up within the school day, but they (or their family, more to the point) have to pay to make it up in an online program we run. OK so far. Though it is difficult sometimes not to be punitive in our attitude toward the kids who fail, because the failure is usually so unnecessary, thoughts of “I told you so” burble up from time to time. Mea culpa.

In the last school year the online program we and our school district used was poorly designed, too easy, and our delivery system lacked appropriate boundaries. Deadlines were given, but then not enforced, usually in the face of pressure to get laggard kids graduated on time, in June.

From our district HQ emerges an individual with the title of “Director” (a bunch of “directors” at the head shed), someone new to me. He sets out to reform the district credit retrieval program along corrective lines implicit in the failures of the program last year.

But he appears to do so with a heavy hand, and it is not clear on whose authority he operates, other than his own which, as a middle manager on the district level, he in practice would not have the heft of a high school principal.

Yet we seem to jump to his tune, in significant part because the relatively new vice principal in charge of our credit retrieval program is not in a position to challenge his directive, and our principal, who could do so if he chose, apparently wishes to leave the decision making in the vice principal’s hands. That much is fair enough, and understandable.

The upshot is that students enrolled in the program are given a rigid timeline in which to finish a course – that is, by the end of the semester – and will not be allowed to start a course if there is not ample time to finish it by that deadline. The argument is that last year we were too loosey goosey about deadlines, and so kids, being kids without a limit, let their course involvement lag and took overlong to complete their courses, in the meantime holding down one of a limited number of slots that another student might have used. Hence, the deadline. Makes sense.

Here I ride in with another argument predicated on the ultimate goal – graduation. Suppose student John Doe completes a course by Christmas vacation, and has approximately a month before the end of the semester at the end of January, and the beginning of the next, which by the rules will be the first opportunity to begin a second course. Meanwhile, he has lost a month in which he could have made progress on that course, thereby accelerating his run at graduation, and/or clearing up room for another student to take his slot.  By making the current decision, we are using existing space inefficiently, and thereby lowering both our graduation rates, and individual student opportunity to graduate, both modestly but measurably.

In effect, we are using rule making to substitute for sound judgment. I argued, but lost, that John Doe’s track record should determine whether or not he can start a second class before the end of the semester. If he shows due diligence in completing his first class, then he has demonstrated the likelihood that he will do so with the second class, and should be given the opportunity to start a second class, continue it past the January 27 deadline in order to make the run at graduation. If not, and has used his first opportunity sloppily, then he has to wait until the second semester to begin another class, or even give up his slot to another student if he has been particularly laggard.

The administrators in the situation worry that if a student doesn’t complete a course, a parent will want money back, and so find more expedient to use a clear deadline to do the talking. What they forget is that parents of failing students will sometimes blame the school, regardless, and most certainly will blame the school if their student does not graduate on time, so we get burned either way.

We essentially substitute a rigid rule for good judgment, which is one of the founding components of bureaucratic dysfunction. In creating more rigid structure to correct a lackadaisical system, a correct move, the powers that be have lurched in the contrary direction and promoted a new problem in place of the old. The baby is thrown out with the bath water.

There is more. In making my contrary case, I think I was listened to, even made a bit of headway, temporarily, in my advocacy for the few students who will not graduate on time as a result of this new process. But in the end there was little chance of impact, in retrospect, because the ducks were already aligned as I described earlier.

The principal, though sensitive to graduation rates, was not going to buck the more conservative decision making of his novice lieutenant who is not yet experienced enough to counter directives from above her in the hierarchy.

Moreover, decisions were made already up the line prior to my becoming aware of them. Though these prior decisions probably had some useful principal input, they were typical of decisions that don’t acknowledge the existence, let alone the value, of more grass roots input such as mine. God forbid that a lowly counselor who works with credit retrieval more than the district administrator or the building level administrator combined should be consulted. I guarantee a substantial number of teachers would nod their heads in recognition of this sentiment as applied in their own immediate sphere of expertise.

To be continued, with a surprising twist!

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2 Responses to School Bureaucracy: More Tales From the Trenches

  1. Barry Growe says:

    An honest bureaucracy admits that it cannot make rules that are fair to everyone. Good rules cover most cases, but every system must have an appeal process. In this case, hard-working students are being penalized by rules devised to shape up undisciplined students.

    The question for bureaucracies is always: who should have the authority to make exceptions? Often when new rules are first put in place, the powers-that-be don’t want to allow any exceptions. They want to show that they mean business, and they don’t want to be accused of favoritism (‘Why did that student get special treatment while my kid is being told no?’). Secretly the powers-that-be may have a low opinion of middle-level staff, like counsellors: ‘They aren’t strong enough, if they were they’d be at my level making the tough decisions.’

    Schooldog is right. This system of rules needs enough flexibility to ensure fairness to everyone. Designated staff must have the authority to make appropriate exceptions.

    I’m looking forward to the surprising twist.

    • schooldog says:

      Well put. Exercising the authority for exception takes time, and can be wearisome to defend, after the recipient of the exception inevitably talk to others. And who has the time or the desire to defend thoughtful decisions, which took time in itself. The poor administrator gets whacked either way.
      You are correct, I think, that powers that be do have what may even be an unconscious assumption of their own superiority. How else are we to interpret the depositing of new program on unaware staff, without their integral input? I look around me and at the intelligent input I frequently receive from the teaching staff on various problems, and of course at my own fermentation, and wonder how the powers that be could possibly think a better product would be produced solely out of their own administrative ruminations. As odd as it may seem, it is as though they think we do not think, and do not observe their behavior shrewdly, down in the darkness of our caves. And isn’t that the subject of some well known literary efforts? Thanks for the comments. Tomorrow, or maybe Saturday, the twist to the tale. Let me know if you get an email on this

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