School Bureaucracy: Behind the Walkout at Garfield High

Summary: The common practice in school districts that adjusts student-teacher ratios a month into school retards the learning process, distracts teachers and counselors from more important work, and in the end simply harms students, some more than others. The practice is a relic of old time school bureaucracy.
Kudos to Garfield High School, Seattle, for its current challenge to a poorly conceived central office decision. This is the school where not so long ago members of the staff refused to administer a district required test on the argument that it was not useful on the high school level, and persuaded the superintendent of the correctness of their stance.
In the latest protest, some staff were joined by students in a walkout over district plans to transfer a teacher. The proposed transfer was a common adjustment to staffing four weeks into the school year, a chronic intrusion to the learning process in many if not most school districts on a yearly basis, and I suspect a smoldering irritant for most school faculties.
First, some background. Each school year in the spring in school districts across the nation, district bean counters make educated guesses about projected enrollments for district schools for the coming fall. How many students will leave a given school to the next level, how many will arrive to the lowest grade, what will be the normal attrition as families move out of the district, what is the expected influx, and so forth. Once the demographics are figured, then projections are made as to how many teachers will be needed in what grades and, for middle and high schools, in what subjects, and so forth. The social science of it will only go so far. In districts large and small, there are serendipitous factors that upset the most careful planning, so some schools end up overstaffed in teachers, some end up understaffed. October 1 is the traditional date for the accounting.
In the published details, the Seattle School District found that Garfield is overstaffed, because it did not reach its projected enrollment for the October 1 measuring date, and so notified Garfield that one of its teachers would be transferred to an understaffed school elsewhere in the district. Garfield staff contests the district’s numbers; hence the walkout, which was not a defense of a particularly popular teacher.
Why such a big deal?
In some ways, it doesn’t matter if a school adds a teacher or two, or loses a teacher or two. Of course, a school adding a teacher would find their class sizes go down modestly so on one hand would welcome the change.
But on the other hand the kids and staff of the impacted school, whether gaining or losing teachers, faces a disruption to classroom environment, to the work of school staff in general, and to student learning. At best the practice erodes progress for some students, while in some cases undermines at risk students whose attachment to the school is tenuous at best.
Under the public’s radar, it is one moderate but telling way in which the hegemony of decision making by the central school district staff implies a bureaucratic deaf ear to the realities in the schools, and to the efforts of teachers to educate their charges.
It pisses people off. It pissed me off, for sure, as a counselor.
Consider the picture. School starts on or about the first week of September. Teachers work hard to establish expectations and routines in their classrooms and are chronically frustrated by students coming and going in the schedule change process, because they have to bring new students up to speed and settled into the classroom culture as late as the second and third week into school; students by the first of October have left vacation behind and are well into the rhythms of their classwork. Counselors will have largely finished the business of completing and correcting schedules and will have turned their attentions to other more important business.
But then, once the district bean counters have completed their review of the October 1 enrollment numbers, the changes in staffing orders come down the pike. As a result, regardless if a teacher is added or transferred, students are wrenched out of their classrooms into that of a new teacher, or wrenched out of a classroom by the transfer of their original teacher. On the middle or high school level, with the intricacies of scheduling, there are cascading effects in which two, three, or more teachers might be exchanged in order to make a new schedule work.
It is bad enough that learning time and energy gets scattered and muted in these transitions, and ultimately shows up in sluggish test scores down the road. Worse, kids whose attachment to school and the learning process are fragile – and there are too many — experience change of teachers from one to whom they may have bonded to an unfamiliar one as the proverbial last straw. At best, the anger blunts their integration into the new classrooms and further inhibits learning. At the worst the long slide to course failure and dropping out is accentuated.
I remember too vividly the plea of one difficult mother of a boy who was three-quarters of the way to dropping out. Out of the blue, the young man had been inspired by a charismatic and youthful male social studies teacher. Suddenly the student had found someone who spoke to him, and who gave him reason to not just show up, but to learn.
Then around came October 1, and the analysis of enrollments. My school gained a social science teacher to alleviate overcrowding in those classes. Unfortunately, my newly attached guy had an easily made schedule change to the new teacher. By the vagaries of existing student schedules at the time, we were hard pressed to find enough other students with schedules that allowed a viable change into the new teacher’s classes. Up against it in these circumstances, I carried the mother’s and the student’s plea to stay in the young Pied Piper’s class to the administrator in charge, who nevertheless directed me to make the change.
I shoulda never asked; I shoulda just left him in there, and run the risk of pissing someone else off.
Too good a soldier that I was, I made the change, with predictable results. Mother and son were incensed, so mother had a difficult time supporting the son’s continuing attention to school, and he was too far gone already to be positive on his own. Nothing dramatic happened in the short run, but a chance to help the student shift gears was lost, and his limited connection to school further withered.
Teachers and counselors who have worked so hard to get a wrap put on the beginning of school and move off into deeper waters, are infuriated by these continuing ruptures to the learning environment; their focus on the business at hand is thrown off center deeply into October.
This is also a story of bureaucratic bones, and of the insulation of the bean counters from the real flesh and blood of the schoolhouse. A cardinal characteristic of life in a dysfunctional bureaucracy is that information flows only one way – down. If ever in these calculations the heartfelt and crucial input from grass roots teachers and counselors and even building principals made a difference, I never saw it, nor was privy to any such question even being asked. There was never a struggle, never a request for input, never a banging on the doors in the central office in frustration. We were just too busy, too inured in our acceptance of the way things were, and adjusting to this bureaucratic idiocy was just part of the job. Sheep, I suppose.
I have no experience as a central office bean counter, though am not unsympathetic to the professional dilemmas of administrators. The bean counters and those in charge of them are charged with fiscal fairness to all buildings, and with a voice in the efficient use of resources. But they lack the familiarity with kids in school, and would do well to listen at least to grass roots input.
Though inefficient from a narrow perspective, perhaps a school district administration could avoid shooting the cause of learning in the foot and leave the overstaffed schools as they are, and on the other hand staff all schools a bit flush so that understaffing and the disruptions to correct it are avoided. Yes, this costs more, but the ultimate measure of counting beans is what bang one gets for the buck. If a practice sets back the purpose of the enterprise – kid learning – as does the class balancing act four to five weeks into school, then it should be re-evaluated and alternatives considered.
In the end, the walkout at Garfield and the turmoil there involves a nascent effort to assert power and determine who gets listened to in a school bureaucracy which, like many – probably most – does not listen credibly to grass roots school building types. The relatively new superintendent has shown restraint when challenged publicly before, in fact seems to have listened. The jury is still out in the present circumstance.
In short, folks, this is in large part the story, I am quite sure, of the walkout by the good folks of Garfield High.

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