School Bureaucracy: Lessons from the VA and GM

Summary: The current debacles at the Veterans’ Administration and General Motors, and the parallel inability of upper management to solicit data from grass roots workers, may well mirror the deaf ear of too many senior school administrators to teacher point of view.
The suffocations of work in a bureaucracy and their profound consequences are legion, whether one works in schools, in other public organizations, or in private corporations.
One of my favorite school examples, though admittedly an extreme, occurred in a recent year when our state required each “at risk” student to have an individually tailored Student Learning Plan, or SLP. The task sounds reasonable, even progressive. Why shouldn’t each kid who struggles enjoy singular focus, and a plan created for his or her betterment?
In this case the ideal runs aground on the shore of the real — full implementation was not anywhere near possible at the existing level of staffing.
In the first place, a useful SLP would begin with an assessment of the student’s socioemotional readiness, the strength or otherwise of his support system, and the fit of his level of academic development for the requirements of the current grade in school.
Secondly, the resources would need to be mustered in order to carry out the individual kid’s plan in areas such as substance abuse intervention, or counseling, or tutoring, or clothing, or housing.
Our school district, to its credit fully understanding the impossible nature of the directive, rather than saddle already stretched personnel with still further complex responsibilities, created a template with which we designated counselors could create SLP’s in computerized fashion for each of the thousand or so students in our school who qualified, and thereby satisfy the state requirement for SLP’s for each of the kids.
A day wasted, but the hounds kept off our backs because we produced the letter, but hardly the spirit of the directive.
The key ingredient here is that the state directive was disconnected from the realities on the grass roots school level. Had we been asked, or had we thought our complaint might be viewed as having merit, those who initiated the idea might have not made the mistake in the first place.
In a sense, we did deliver a message, but in a fully dysfunctional manner.
I think of such experiences as I read of the current troubles in the Veterans’ Administration. In another well-meaning directive, Eric Shinseki ordered that all vets seeking medical care be seen within fourteen days. Unfortunately, with the ranks of the baby boom vets reaching an age of increased medical need, and younger vets from the Middle East wars growing in number, the capacity of the VA system to respond in the required timely fashion was stretched well beyond capacity. In a perfect world, this message would have traveled up the ranks to inform and modify the thinking of leadership. Or perhaps might have generated more of the needed funding.
Instead, in this real world, personnel in individual VA centers, responding to incentives to meet the fourteen day goal, falsified records to such an extent that 100,000 vets languished on surreptitiously held secondary waiting lists. Apparently in the VA rank and file most workers felt it a waste of time or dangerous to their careers to communicate to decision makers the impossibility of meeting the Shinseki mandate.
Mr. Shinseki lost his job in the ensuing furor, which he probably should have, though by some accounts he had made some inroads with chronic problems in the VA system that well predated his arrival. One of those problems would be the inability of leadership levels to value and hear the messages of those actually caring for vets.
Lest we think this is a public bureaucracy problem only, consider the recently revealed failure of General Motors to publicize and act on mechanical failures in its cars that have resulted in documented deaths among passengers and drivers.
The salient feature of this mess is that internal GM documents make clear that grass roots employees were fully aware of the defects in GM cars, but somehow that reality either failed to sufficiently reach decision makers or decision makers buried the information. Culpability appears difficult to establish. The fact that some engineering and lower level types were fired, preserving the jobs of upper level types, is somehow neither reassuring nor convincing. Even if upper level types were not aware of the depth of deficiencies in GM cars, are they not responsible for setting a cultural tone in which such messages can rise to the top? Otherwise substantive voices will rightly worry that their information will not be received in any manner that will be rewarded.
Well. I return to the public bureaucracy of schools. We do not have vets declining or dying without access to health care. We do not have customers injured or dying because of faulty machinery.
But we do have millions of students that still flounder in schools that seem unable to sufficiently buoy their skills and prepare them for their future, despite more than a decade of reform, and despite solid models of teaching culture and support structure for at risk kids.
What are the lessons for school reform of the VA and GM debacles? As they have been created in part by the failure of messages from the grass roots employees to arrive on high, does the similar muting of voices of teachers and even principals by bureaucratic imperatives frustrate the mission of schools?
I think so.

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