Schools and Bureaucracy: Empower Your People; Chrysler Does — Part B

Summary: A fledgling initiative in Washington State with exceeding promise nonetheless demonstrates the pitfalls of hierarchical directives.

Politicians talk about the rising gap between the rich and the poor, the upper economic classes and the lower economic classes. In Washington state, one (fairly expensive) initiative is about to bear its first fruit as a local attempt to address these historic imbalances. The College Bound Scholars program promises full tuition for low income students at Washington State Public Universities and Community Colleges for high school graduates who enter the program in middle school, stay clear of the law, maintain a C cumulative grade point average in high school, get accepted at a Washington public university or community college, and submit a FAFSA, or financial statement, in a timely manner. Though some of these monies would have ended up in the same student hands, anyway, the fund of state money dedicated to low income students was pumped up as well. The real genius of the idea is the hope and incentive it provides for those kids and families for whom the next buck may be way around the corner.

So the program is a good, even excellent idea, which I enthusiastically support as a school professional and as a citizen. Yet, for the episode I will now unfold, I’m gonna start sounding briefly like a Republican.

Of course, a sub bureaucracy gets established and geared up to carry out the mechanics of the program. And of course said sub bureaucracy has to establish rules and procedures. And finally, said bureaucracy has to tell someone what to do. The workers at Chrysler in the old days would understand.

So it has transpired that we lately received a series of emails on behalf of the Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), the generator of the program, which outline a series of ten dates this spring, roughly every other week, on which high schools, and more particularly the “College Bound Scholar” coordinators, are to report whether or not every one of the eligible College Bound Scholars in each senior class (we have eighty) has submitted their FAFSA, whether or not they have applied to college, if so which ones, and/or each students’ current GPA.

Looking down the road in an area of increasingly low income demographics, there are over two hundred eligible individuals coming up in succeeding classes. Each would have to be followed closely within an approximately four week span which is already a high intensity time for counselors due to other reasons.

If I could integrate a sound track into this piece one could hear the moans that emanated from counseling offices in our area. Counselors sit at the crossroads of numerous systems, and often we are nabbed to play a role in someone else’s idea. In this case, we have a competent idea run amuck.

Several points. First of all, the reporting requirement smacks of a bureaucracy checking to see if its minions are dancing to the required tune. This is not my principal talking, nor my asst. superintendent, nor the superintendent, but some custodian of a state program proclaiming from the state capitol. If all such directors of various state programs were to make such demands, we would not get much done of any sequence or consistency.

Second, much of the intent of the program has already been carried out in our building. I know because I have done it. The reporting mechanism wastes my time and takes me away from other more critical priorities.

Third, with a bit of imagination, the information could be gathered electronically via networks already established between the universities and community colleges and the HECB to identify applicants who are College Bound Scholars. The network by its very function could be adapted to identify who has submitted FAFSA’s and who has applied to which university or college. In fact, the people who want to know who has submitted the FAFSA have only a lag time of a week before receiving the information electronically. And much more accurately, I suspect, than the self reports from the students themselves.

The more appropriate use of this technology would be to use it to communicate to building people the names of students who have not submitted their FAFSA so that we might intervene as is appropriate. Doing so in itself would be challenging, but a much more focused use of our time.

Fourth, refer with me to the discussion a couple of weeks ago about muri, the Japanese concept of over work, which leads to inefficiency and waste. Where employees are asked to do more than is humanly possible, workmanship becomes shoddy; in a market system the company bottom line suffers as a result. Similarly with public sector organizations, such as schools, I have argued. The current “HEC Board” imperative was established from on high without an apparent thought about whether or not it could be reasonably carried out on the grass roots level, ultimately the worst characteristic of a hierarchy. Either some of this program, or other activities that carry value, will sink into the tar pit, because not all of value can be sustained at a quality level.

Finally, the appropriate correction of muri is communication between levels, along with an objective evaluation about whether or not the new initiative is sustainable at current staffing levels. Nothing of this sort happened; I grant to do so would have been tedious and a further waster of time, given the distances within the hierarchy that are involved. With that in mind, I have cooperated with the general idea of College Bound Scholars, because it is an excellent idea. But the excellence of the idea becomes corrupted once time is wasted on unnecessary reportage.

In the end, I feel set up to fail, since I cannot do with quality everything I am asked to do, and now I am asked to do more, and some of it makes no sense, yet I am left to rail (bray) at the moon.

Compare this testimony to the apparently more successful experience of the assembly line workers at Fiat/Chrysler, who are invited to create their own work environment to a significant extent, in cooperation with their supervisors.

The good news is that hierarchies can learn to communicate up and down levels, as Fiat/Chrysler has demonstrated. A separate development in our school is a hopeful case in point, though it has foundered from a promising start. Stay tuned for the next episode of “Empower Your People”

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