Beyond Taylorism, Part III

If you’re like me, you’ve read articles, essays, and books that attempt to explain the root cause of the problems facing the teaching profession. In The Allure of Order, Jal Mehta only needs one paragraph to break it down:

“In the longer term, the success of the reformers in the Progressive Era resulted in a shift from one-room schoolhouses to urban school systems, in which schools were expected to follow the directives of a central manager in a district office. This effectively institutionalized teaching, not as a profession under the control of its frontline practitioners, but as an activity performed within a bureaucratically controlled hierarchy. (emphasis added) Teachers and schools, at the bottom of an implementation chain, were responsible primarily for implementing the ideas of central office managers.

This resonates with me. To be sure, there are examples of leaders and teachers that find a way to thrive in the system as it exists today, but they are by far the exception and not the rule. Teachers – particularly in urban school systems – feel constrained by the system within which they operate.

This actually reminds me of an moment from The Wire when McNulty reacts to a fellow officer issuing tickets for picayune offenses in order to comply with a directive from downtown to boost arrests:

Baker, Let me let you in on a little secret, The patrolling officer on his beat is the one true dictatorship in America, we can lock a guy up on the humble, lock him up for real, or say fuck it and drink ourselves to death under the expressway and our side partners will cover us, No one - I mean no one - tells us how to waste our shift!”

James McNulty, The Wire

To some degree, teachers in many school systems share this mindset. After years and years of reform after reform, many educators (rightfully, I might add) react to new directives from district leadership by thinking “this too shall pass.” The one time most teachers feel their agency is most powerful is when the classroom door closes and their implementation of district/state/federal policies is unsupervised. This is not to say that most teachers shirk these responsibilities, merely that it is when they have the most power to control what they do and how they do it.

The real issue raised by this scene in The Wire and what we see in many school systems today is that the on-the-ground knowledge of those implementing policy don’t have any effective avenues to influence a change in policy if something isn’t working. Treating teachers as implementors without a voice in crafting or evolving policy limits the responsiveness and efficacy of education policy.

As much as this bureaucratic structure constrains educators, attempting to fundamentally transform this system is extraordinarily difficult, with educators often playing a prominent role in resisting such change. Neerav Kingsland thinks this is due to the “ Allure of Safety”:

“…educators seem unable to let go of the institutions and values that protect but ultimately limit them (thousand page collective bargaining agreements and district bureaucracies).

Neerav also looked at how we might move beyond this arrangement, but only one of the four strategies he presents would keep public schools under the control of local school boards. He calls this strategy the “Fight for Finland” – it would involve keeping the current governance structure and focusing efforts on improving the quality of teacher recruitment/development in exchange for loosening accountability. I agree with his assessment that this approach would take decades and and may not even be likely to succeed.

The other strategies he proposes involve relinquishment of public schools to non-profit and potentially some for-profit operators. While I share his optimism with regards to the potential of these strategies to succeed in helping provide better options for students and families, I’m growing more skeptical of the political and social feasibility of these approaches. Americans generally like their schools run by their school board, not their state government, and especially not the federal government. There isn’t much evidence to suggest that communities are ready to dissolve the power of their school board.

Is there a way to maintain local governance of schools without accepting the deeply flawed status quo of a bureaucratized teaching profession? I think so, but it would require adopting the following practices from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book, Team of Teams:

  • District/state administrators moving towards an “eyes on – hands off” approach: Central offices and state departments of education would need to hand off a significant amount of policy authority to principals. McChrystal’s metaphor: act more like gardeners instead of a chess master. Instead of trying to plot every move, seek to empower others with the opportunities, tools, and relationships they need to succeed.
  • More trust and freedom granted to teachers: In addition to providing principals with more power, even more freedom should be granted to educators to make decisions and develop new methods to educate students and collaborate with their peers.

McChrystal doesn’t write much about accountability within a “team of teams” environment, but I’d bet that he’d want to hold teams accountable for outcomes, not processes. To that end, I’d prefer that schools be required to report student outcomes on a variety of metrics (including standardized test results for all students) and that families were empowered to vote with their feet and move their children to a different school if they aren’t satisfied.

This sounds awfully close to the system envisioned in A Democratic Constitution for Public Education, but I’d prefer to maintain school boards instead of developing the “Civic Education Council” that Hill & Jochim describe. I would maintain a governance role for local school boards and an administrative role for the a central district office, but in a very different capacity. School boards would hire superintendents and audit/approve district and school budgets. Superintendents and central office staff within a district would focus on:

  • Collecting and sharing data (academic, financial, etc.) from schools transparently to help all staff understand what’s happening around the district at any given time.
  • Providing principals with the support they need to hire and develop staff,
  • Coordinating logistics (IT, food service, physical plant, etc.) and specialized services for students with IEP’s.

All other aspects of running a school – including hiring staff and educational operations – would be the responsibility of principals and the teachers in each school building. This would involve a complete re-thinking of collective bargaining in non right-to-work states, but it’s a compelling arrangement for all parties involved:

  • School boards would focus on high-level governance and fiscal stewardship instead of academic policy – a much more appropriate role for elected community members that often lack a background in education.
  • District staff would focus on supporting the educational process in schools more from a logistical than an academic perspective.
  • School staff would focus on what they do best: educating children.

It would be a significant shift in governance, but it would maintain important oversight by a locally-elected board. More importantly, it would free educators to operate as true professionals instead of implementors within a bureaucratic machine. I believe that compared to the alternatives, this system has the best chance of scaling to many communities while also creating the best conditions possible to allow educators to thrive and serve students well.