School Reform and the Demise of the Bureaucrat

Summary: The transformation of Foster High School into a functioning academy for a largely immigrant multicultural population, with improved graduation rates, strong math scores, and a peaceful campus is a study in how communication and respect can melt away the bureaucratic byways that bind us, and solve difficult school problems collaboratively, one by one. These stories are not uncommon, though seem to replicate with difficulty.

It’s bewildering to read, and read frequently, of success stories in individual schools or classrooms; against a vast sea of stagnant national test scores, these accounts are like islands whose isolation begs commerce with the main population, but instead remain outliers with little apparent impact beyond their immediate boundaries. What their success demonstrates simply does not replicate to scale, at least not yet.

I recently had this same sense reading in the Seattle Times of improvement in graduation rates and math test scores at Foster High School in Tukwila, Washington. The draw of relatively cheap rents in the Seattle area’s otherwise escalating housing market transformed Foster in the mid 90’s to a first landing zone for immigrant kids seeking refuge from conflict in their homeland, or simply a better life. Bosnians and Serbs, Vietnamese and East Africans, Iranians and Iraqis and so on. An American story.

The school and the district did not for a lengthy period rise to the challenge, having previously served a white and non-immigrant population. Strife became the norm in the hallways, as well as crippling turnover in both the teacher and administrator ranks, where anger and dysfunction reigned. You can guess what happened to test scores and graduation rates.

The good news is that a new administration with the right tools for the job has remained beyond the stay of many predecessors, and has invigorated a teaching staff that in some senses lay dormant on the wait for these newly fertile conditions. Staff turnover has stabilized, suspensions have declined, peace in the hallways is the norm, and the long march to academic normalcy seems embraced by much of the student body.

No doubt there are numerous lessons to learn from this tale. To my idiosyncratic eye change agents at Foster dissipated the bureaucratic rigidity that in many school districts stymie reform. Though I have no better idea how the differences at Foster might be exported elsewhere, I am confident others will identify with the story line.

Let’s start with four interrelated characteristics of bureaucracies that I overstate for the sake of illustration. Others may add their own favorite corollaries. Recognize that few school bureaucracies are as retrograde as the pure form depicted here, but even in relatively well functioning schools the bureaucratic despot extracts its tax.

Bureaucracies are inflexible and bound by rules both formal and informal that remain unquestioned, at least not publicly. They have not a creative bone, and are maladaptive and passive in the face of real ongoing problems. They are the embodiment of dysfunctional stasis.

In bureaucracies information flows primarily downhill, from those with power in the organization toward the minions; it seems not to occur to bureaucratic superiors that teachers, for example, might have a perspective valuable in decisions to be made, and so choices are made insulated from realities which the students inhabit and which teachers know best, in the day to day interactions of a classroom.

Bureaucracy is an architecture of boxes. Individuals and small groups banded together inhabit isolated cells walled by limited communication with the neighbor. Schools in thrall of bureaucracy in turn are a collection of small universes of stand-alone processes. A teacher closes her classroom door and gives it her best shot in isolation.

Grey is the color of bureaucracy. Depression is the tone. Emotion, passion, and overt caring are suspect and dangerous if unmodulated. The cap on anger is enervating; simmering and subtle anger is a sign of life, however subverted. The native vitality of kids’ lives is checked at the door rather than channeled.

No one designs a bureaucracy and then sets out to implement it. It’s in large part a dysfunction in communication, arrived at over time from many small surrenders of responsibility. When district and school administrators, staff and students begin to converse effectively and multi-dimensionally across boundaries, then change is possible.

According to the account in the Times, a hard core of math teachers was first to the barricades at Foster. Initially working among themselves (with the bravado of us against the world?) they took good stock of who their students were. Mostly English language learners (ELL), their charges were ill fitted to a curriculum at the time that emphasized language skills and small group work. For these kids, a more traditional math text and culturally attuned approaches (good luck – kids from 51 different nations and speaking 44 different languages) made more sense.

Implicitly, these teachers listened to their students and responded appropriately. Because the changes radically went against the grain of trends in math instruction, the math instructors also must have advocated for the retro techniques with supervisory and district administrators who had skin in the math game. Someone with a finger on the budget found money for the new texts. Very un-bureaucratic to first have an idea and then be given concrete support for it from supervisors.

When the now principal Pat Larson arrived in 2013, one of her early moves was to host a series of listening sessions in which staff could speak to the successes and failures of Foster, and in order to take the temperature of the administrative relationship with the staff. Not surprisingly, anger was a common theme, and I’m guessing failure of prior administrations to communicate clearly and with respect. In short order, a common calendar and a master schedule were published and a staff newsletter initiated. The sub-text: “I hear you, you’re right, and I need to communicate clearly so we are all on the same page.”

Being heard does wonders for imprisoned energies.

The good news – another takeaway for Larson — was that the staff was fully committed to the students’ welfare.

From these beginnings the collaborative problem solving proceeded.

District administrators had to be convinced that the old policy of prohibiting make up work from suspended students was counter-productive and directly related to the dismal graduation rate.

A new staff member was added exclusively to help students find and work through online credit recovery courses, which is normally a counselor responsibility. Implicitly, this additional staff member is acknowledgment of the burdens of counselors who are immersed in student emotional issues stemming from traumatic histories or the needs of simple poverty in a new land. A Tukwila school board member notes in a letter to the Times that a social worker also serves Foster for these reasons.

In each of these hires, administrators had to recognize the pivotal systemic dysfunction of reliance on overstretched counselors, and fund reinforcements out of scarce dollars, with student function in mind.

New AP math classes together with effective teaching broadcasted a universe of achievable high expectations.

In the context of the math rebound, as well as in separate lagging reading scores, I am surprised that there isn’t in the Times report more evidence of the use of tutors, or perhaps extra pay for pivotal teachers to arrive early or to stay late to provide extra help. Clearly teachers do so on their own time, but the need appears broader than the intensely most dedicated can provide without the help of financial incentive, or that of new staff dedicated to a tutoring purpose. Cue once again to the Legislature for enhanced school funding. And cut Foster some slack; they’ve only really been at this a few years.

In this tale, I find the most powerful communications are those from students about what they need to teachers they trust, then from teachers to administrators who have enabled the critical changes. Maybe the key to disabling bureaucratic rigidity is simple listening and respect for the message as the stuff of good decisions up and down the chain of command. Were it so simple, were it easily replicable.

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