School Bureaucracy: More Tales from the Trenches, Some Retrenchment

Last week I posted a tale in which rigid administrative decisions conflicted with what seemed to be a more flexible idea to give more students a chance to make up credits they had previously failed, and so have a better chance to graduate on time. You may want to peruse the previous post for background to what follows. (11/11/11 School Bureaucracy: More Tales from the Trenches)

Though I stand by those previous arguments in principle, I have to confess that my enthusiasm for the occasional kid who would make good use of the additional opportunity to retrieve credits turned out to be pointless. In fact, all (yes, I said all) fifty of the kids enrolled in the credit retrieval program are behind the necessary pace to finish not two, but only one class before the end of the semester! Egad.

This development provides both a chuckle at my apparently quixotic, earlier advocacy and a testament to the immaturity of the students who nonetheless insist they will still graduate in June. Apparently I am arguing for systems in an ideal world rather than the one I inhabit. For these current kids, apparently the lockstep bureaucratic method is quite sufficient. Ouch.

In fact, the counter to my argument last week is that the pathos of kids who can’t seem to get it together to pass classes is best met by a structured school that provides the fiber, and teaches the fiber, that students lack in their own lives and personality. From this point of view, well meaning critics such as moi, by arguing for some flexibility, undermine the very structure that the kids need. Ambiguity is the enemy, structure is the friend. The ability of a military regimen to mature wayward youth comes to mind, frequently, to be honest.

I am also reminded of lessons from other stories that an attempt to change one system is so difficult because the one system intersects with other systems which have already established an interlocking stasis. So change in one system either requires changes in other systems or the changed system is forced to revert to the earlier order. Thus it is not enough just to limit the size of the school unit, or to reform the bureaucracy, or to reformulate curriculum, but also something profound in the culture in which we raise our kids also must be addressed. Not to mention other dimensions, such as rethinking teacher and principal training, etc.

Despite this comeuppance at the hands of my students who lag behind in their progress toward their credit retrieval, I perseverate in my insistence that flexibility has to accompany structure. Another example: In the rush to get kids signed up for the credit retrieval classes, one girl, call her Yvonne, signed up for an English class at a counselor’s direction. A subsequent and more thorough evaluation of the sequence in which she would most efficiently make up classes suggested she take a different class, a biology class, so I attempted to make the case for a change in class assignment with the powers that be, the intern and the newly minted assistant principal, both good folks, if I haven’t made that clear before. But newness seeks structure, and in this specific case the principal reinforced it. I was told to change the class would set a bad precedent, it would cost money to make the change, and there was fear she wouldn’t be able to finish the class in time, though she still has three months to finish even the original English class.

Though arguably the girl was an innocent in the situation, and though I did catch a bit of blame in my overworked position that I should have seen down the road and made sure she was properly guided (I had not been the one to give the original release), my entreaties were swept aside by the juggernaut of inflexible structure. No, was the answer, she stays with the English class. A school that remains rigid in this manner may be good, because structure has a role for sure, but structure without flexibility and good judgment, particularly when an individual kid’s situation is being scrutinized, will never be more than a clean, well lighted place.

Meanwhile, I am in the familiar bureaucratic position of having to support a decision that could have been made better by adjusting to the complex of realities in a more nuanced fashion, and am visited with an echo of many such small battles, successful ones here and there, but more often battles with frustrating results.

Still, it’s hard to shut up and accept my place in life. I throw my thoughts out there into the marketplace of ideas, in hopes they will echo true with other folks’ experience. No doubt I should thank my circumstances. At least they give me something to write about.

Numerous commentators lament the scarcity of prime graduates of our universities going into teaching. How well will such Type A’s, educated into intellectual privilege, fit into the kind of hierarchical decision making just described? Not well, I tell you. Not for long, I tell you.

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Post script, a bit later. Though I made no headway in Yvonne’s case and with the credit retrieval program in general, it turns out the administrative intern who has been managing it was listening to the outlines of my assorted arguments. Without my prompting, he recognized that the program was set for 80% to be passing, and began to wonder why the quizzes and tests were set at that bar, when 60% is passing in a normal class. The higher bar partly explained why the kids were lagging in their progress, which also concerned him. He lobbied the principal and district director of the program to rethink the passing mark. In the end, if the student proved to have difficulty with a particular section, though had given effort, and after a couple of tries at the quiz ending that section, the instructor was given the authority to lower the standard on a case by case basis, particularly for kids with reading problems, or who otherwise struggled in school. Meet the kids where they are at, bring them along from there – that’s good stewardship, good teaching.

Then the administrative intern starred again. For the second semester version of our credit retrieval program, I urged that we open the credit retrieval doors as widely as we needed to let in all students who roused themselves enough to pay their fee by the deadline. On one hand, if we limited enrollment as we did first semester, some seniors who needed to retrieve credits might lose the opportunity. Further, if underclass men and women had to wait until senior year to retrieve credits, we would be building a bubble of need that would be worse than the need this year. Admin intern goes to the principal, who bought the argument from him that he wouldn’t buy from me (maybe he’d had time to think about it?), and the doors have been opened to all comers. Thank you for listening, admin intern and principal alike.

I fight a flip and cynical urge to say that the listening behavior of the administrative intern disqualifies him from being an administrator – there, I said it – and of course in practice there are multiple examples of administrators listening in the give and take around working with kids. But there is precious little evidence in what I have experienced where significant alterations are made in contemplated plans based on subordinate input. More normally, the input is simply not invited before the implementation of the new idea. No matter that the initiative often involves processes and knowledge about students that teachers and line staff are more intimate with than building or district administrators.

You may feel I am cataloging what amounts to small things, and by themselves these are small things. But remember that day after day of variations on similar small time themes either can transform the spirit into death by a thousand cuts, or buoy workaday energies as the administrative intern’s action and a more flexible credit retrieval plan did for me.


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