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Janet Corcoran Senior Consultant Common Good

Posted November 6, 2008, 9:00am

Janet Corcoran: 

Good morning and welcome to this timely discussion. We are coming off an historic election, where voters across the country heeded the call for change and supported candidates committed to fixing government at all levels. So what does the new political landscape bode for public school systems? Over the next two days, let’s share our insights about why schools and school districts have become such bloated bureaucracies, and develop some concrete recommendations for the changes needed at this level of government. To get started, why have schools become so bureaucratic?

Sana Nasser Principal H.S. 455 Harry S Truman High School

Posted November 6, 2008, 9:06am

Sana Nasser: 

Though several initiatives have been put forth toward reducing the bureaucracy that exists in the New York City Department of Education, a major factor contributing to this bureaucracy germinates from the principal's inability to be a true CEO of his or her building. This is a disservice to the students and is neither in line with the corporate model supported by the New York City Department of Education nor Mayor Bloomberg's task force on education. Issues such as contractual restraints with regard to removing ineffective or unnecessary personnel, excessive staff absenteeism, and fractured data collection systems all detract from schools' efficiency and productivity. Through balanced negotiation and investment in our informational infrastructure, we will effectively serve our precious clientele, our students. Though bureaucracy is not unique to public education; management, administration, and labor must all work together to continue the process of reclamation that has already begun in New York City.

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 6, 2008, 9:33am

Jeff Abbott: 

I would suggest first taking a long-term historical perspective which might help understand how schools have become bureaucratic institutions. Our country's founders were wise to not mention public education in the federal constitution. They left that endeavor up to the states.

When states began to form, America was an agrarian economy and society. The common schools developed in these rather simple, but harsh, times. One-room multi-grade schoolhouses dominated for the entire 19th Century. Schools were controlled often by a single trustee. Life and schooling were simple.

But at the turn of the 20th Century, schools and school districts began to consolidate and become larger and more complex. High schools increased in number and size. Curriculum expanded, electives and advanced courses were added. Specialization occurred. Special education programs proliferated and rules were developed to "protect" these children. Society expanded schools' duties to include many non-academic responsibilities.

Employees began to bargain collectively. School boards morphed into politicians as they became elected officials. In the latter half of the twentieth century legislatures and Congress began to pass a plethora of laws to govern public education. Large departments in state departments of education and large school district central offices emerged to administer these many laws passed to govern education. Thus, the birth of bureaucracy emerged in the 20th century. This is the era of public schools which continues today.

What this writer will argue today is that it is time for a new era of schooling—the freedom school era. An era free of bureaucracy and full of freedom.

Ken Royal Senior Editor Scholastic

Posted November 6, 2008, 9:55am

Ken Royal: 

Thank you for this opportunity to comment.

As an educator, I looked at the bureaucracy as another hurdle to proposals for change. I’m certain that if an educator is not tenacious or persistent enough the red tape barrier will not be cut. In my own case, as a district instructional technology specialist—it took me six months of arguing with the district technology director and the assistant superintendent to get simple cameras installed in one of my computer labs. It’s frustrating to say the least. I could have installed them myself in an hour—tops. It’s almost that in education we have been brainwashed to believe that change has to come slowly. My favorite line is that it took about 19 years to get overheads out of the bowling alleys and into classrooms.

I always hated hearing things like “Oh, we don’t do that here!" or "Great idea can you write that in a proposal?” In many cases those short answers from administrators usually mean we’re not doing it, or if it makes you feel better—write it down. A principal friend of mine told me that when others see the importance in what you want to do, then it will happen. The problem is that if bureaucracy is thick, you may never have that happen, in most cases, from the bottom up in education. The worst thing that can happen is that creative education pioneers give up. That happens to the most stubborn, but when it happens to those who are not, it may be their last idea.

Some top-down comments, and what I see as writer and editor seeking education stories later.

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 6, 2008, 10:06am

Marco Petruzzi: 

Why are public school systems so bureaucratic? Several factors:

- The explosions of policies and codes: while taken individually, probably most policies had a kernel of thoughtfulness, on the whole we have created a system so complex with rules, regulations, approvals, checks and balances, that it has sapped whatever spirit of good decision making and common sense is left. Good organizations thrive on good talent and good decision-making, not on greatly codified processes and rules.

- Centralization: as Sana Nasser alludes, the Principal controls very little. He is not the true CEO of his school. Most major decisions are made by the central bureaucracy. And thus we've turned Principals into good "followers of the rules" not great managers and instructional leaders.

- Union rules: while I believe in unions, they have fought for contracts that reflect their distrust in management and have tried to further regulate things more (see first point). So they have contributed, unfortunately, to the explosion of regulations and policies.

- Lack of management talent: when you have such a centralized system and such complexity of regulations, coupled with a lack of clear accountability, what suffers is human resource development. Over time, even the most talented individuals, when they don't exercise their decision-making abilities, lose this ability and revert to checking the rule book for everything. Management talent becomes a rarity...

I could go on, but I'll stop here...

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted November 6, 2008, 10:30am

Jean Johnson: 

Thanks for including me. In Public Agenda's surveys and focus groups with superintendents and principals, complaints about bureaucracy and red tape emerge repeatedly. They actually fall into several categories: One is the complexity—near incomprehensibility some tell us—of the major federal mandates—special education and No Child Left Behind. Second is the "nibbled to death by ducks" phenomenon. It’s the accumulation of federal, state, and local mandates (plus contractual obligations) that make "bureaucracy and red tape" overwhelming. Plus, school leaders say, there are often conflicts in what the various mandates call for. Third is the one Ken mentioned—it’s difficult to get relatively simple things done. Fourth is that principals, who are now expected to be "instructional leaders" and working more directly and closely with classroom teachers, still have a lot of minor administrative tasks that fall to them. As one told us, "Give me a break—how am I responsible for a bus driver being rude at a bus stop?”

These various problems may call for very different solutions.

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 6, 2008, 10:51am

Jeff Abbott: 

Sana Nasser identified one of the significant problems in the improvement of public education: school principals in no sense of the word are allowed to serve as the CEO of their schools. They have been de-skilled and serve mainly as their schools' CCOs (chief compliance officers). They must comply with: (1) all state statutes governing public education; (2) all state administrative regulations governing public education; (3) all federal laws governing public education; (4) all federal administrative agency regulations governing public education; (5) all school board policies; (6) all superintendent and central office administrative regulations, rules, and directives; and finally, but not least, (7) all collective bargaining contracts. When is there time or opportunity for the poor principal to courageously lead a school to education reform and improvement?

Ken Royal succinctly points out a prevailing problem in the current bureaucratic environment. It took him six months of arguing to get simple cameras installed in his computer lab when he could have installed them in one hour himself! As he states—it was frustrating.

Another example is my wife—who qualifies as a "principal left behind" as she remains active as a sitting principal after I left the superintendent's chair for the greener and softer pastures of the university. She was involuntarily transferred to the most high risk and most underperforming elementary school in her district. Ostensibly it was because she was the "best elementary principal we have." She was told she would have "full authority" to turn that school around and was directed to do so. However, there is a constant trail of central office administrators, state education department bureaucrats, trainers, consultants and others coming into her building to occupy her time. She is constantly told to go to numerous "training" activities. Meetings, meetings, meetings take up her time. She is out of her building close to half her time for these mandated activities. On top of this, she does not get to pick her own assistant principal (who wanted the principal's job at this school), nor does she get to pick her own staff because of seniority provisions in a variety of union contracts. And the school board expects her to turn around a school in this bureaucratic environment?

School reform and school improvement can occur. Step 1 is to let the principal be the CEO of the building.

Jane Hannaway Director, Education Policy Center Urban Institute

Posted November 6, 2008, 11:02am

Jane Hannaway: 

Let me take a somewhat different tack and try to mix up the conversation a bit. Bureaucracy isn’t bad, in and of itself. Indeed, theoretically anyway, it is good. It is supposed to rationalize the process and generate efficiencies through coordination, encoding learning into procedures, differentiating functions to obtain the benefits of specialized knowledge/skills, promoting reliable work behaviors, creating economies of scale, etc. The problem is when bureaucracy goes awry and the means become the ends rather than serving the ends, in our case student achievement. I suspect we want some procedures (aka bureaucracy) in place. The question is in what areas does it serve school performance well (e.g., food services, facilities, assessment/accountability, etc.), in what areas does it restrict performance, and at what level should they be determined (school vs some higher level). I would really like to hear Marco weigh in on this since I suspect Green Dot has had to think this through with their schools.

Sana Nasser Principal H.S. 455 Harry S Truman High School

Posted November 6, 2008, 11:06am

Sana Nasser: 

Jeff- Over the past few years, principals have been given greater autonomy with regard to budget, hiring, curriculum, and professional development. We look forward to continuing these reforms in the future.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted November 6, 2008, 12:33pm

Jean Johnson: 

I think Jane's note is helpful in that she's asking us to think through the places where bureaucracy is necessary and useful versus the places where it's just a time-consumer and energy-sapper. For example, most school leaders tell us that some data collection requirements of NCLB are beneficial—especially those that focus on achievement among different groups of students. They've made districts acknowledge and act on problems that were beneath the surface before.

Maybe we could also consider another "how can we solve this" theme, especially since several of us have talked about the "nibbled to death by ducks" syndrome—the accumulation of mandates, rules, etc. that make the situation so bothersome. Who has the power to make the needed changes? What entities, groups, etc. could actually be helpful in cutting the red tape?

Janet Corcoran Senior Consultant Common Good

Posted November 6, 2008, 1:00pm

Janet Corcoran: 

We have quickly come to a consensus that the sheer volume of bureaucratic requirements in schools make it exceedingly difficult for principals and teachers to focus on their core mission, education not compliance. Given tax revenue shortfalls, rising energy and health care costs, and budgetary pressures at all levels of government, the inevitable challenge for school districts in the foreseeable future will be to do more with less. How can we shrink school bureaucracies? Picking up on Jane and Jean’s comments, what functional areas are best performed in a higher level, central bureaucracy? And for those functions which interfere with school performance, who has the power to cut red tape? Can school systems reform themselves or are external forces necessary?

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 6, 2008, 1:36pm

Jeff Abbott: 

Assuming for the moment that Jane Hannaway's definition of bureaucracy is appropriate under certain circumstances, I would offer that the structure of the governance system should be changed in order to eliminate bureaucracy as much as possible, and in order to move the educational bureaucracy from the central office to the building level. Empowerment of teachers and school principals is the key to containing bureaucracy. But with freedom must come responsibility. I suggest the following as an outline for a new vision of public school governance that will diminish the bad effects of bureaucracy:

1. Deregulation of public schools and dismantling the politico-edu-bureaucracy.

2. Create an environment that focuses on students as clients and eliminates politics external to schools.

3. Empower teachers and principals to serve students' academic needs and to operate the school.

4. Assign personal and group accountability for all school staff as well as all stakeholders.

5. Provide free choice of public schools for all parents within a reasonable area.

6. Change school finance to a weighted student-funding formula where state revenue follows the child.

These six changes can serve as the foundation for a new system of governance of public schools. It will place the authority and responsibility for producing academic achievement results at the building level, while the central office supports buildings with the provision of transportation, facilities, maintenance, and food services. Under this new system of governance the academic responsibility for schools would be bid out competitively to principals and their group of senior level teacher leaders. Five year contracts would be issued. This laces responsibility at the building level, provides transparency of results, and eliminates the need for top-down management of individual schools. With this transparency and accountability, there is no need for massive new laws and regulations to be passed every year micro-managing public schools. Giving teachers and principals freedom to use their independent professional judgment, accompanied by real accountability, can elevate the teaching craft to a true professional status.

Ken Royal Senior Editor Scholastic

Posted November 6, 2008, 2:18pm

Ken Royal: 

The hierarchy is a bit sticky, so while the superintendent is looked upon as the district leader/decision-maker, she or he is a rung down the ladder from the board of education, and they in turn are a rung down from the finance board, and all are influenced by the citizens who have hired or elected them. When so many weigh in it’s difficult to figure out a way around what’s Bad in Bureaucracy. And the buck doesn’t stop there—education is so tied to each individual state (which can be very different) and then national regulations and demands—the whole thing becomes very difficult to handle. Bottom line, as was mentioned, kids are the customers here and time isn’t taking a break. Sometimes I wonder if thinking about it as you would a medical emergency might help. We seem to know how to cut the red tape there, for the most part. It’s a good week to bring up politics—it just seems to me, this is a very tough knot to untangle without looking at the top rung.

Janet Corcoran Senior Consultant Common Good

Posted November 6, 2008, 2:58pm

Janet Corcoran: 

Ken, you raise a couple of interesting points. Education leaders are part of the problem and have to be part of the solution. How can we make the “top rung” occupants, superintendents, local education and finance board members, and education commissioners more accountable for the size and effectiveness of the bureaucracies which they oversee? Would more transparency help? A new Fordham Institute pilot study, The Red Tape Report, shines a spotlight on key state regulations that impede the autonomy of principals and grades five states on the degree to which they micromanage schools. And why are most parents and voters so complacent about school bureaucracy? How bad does the problem have to get before we declare an emergency?

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 6, 2008, 3:29pm

Marco Petruzzi: 

I would like to make the distinction between bureaucracy and overhead. While both terms have a negative connotation, I think that what Jane Hannaway was referring to is that you do need some overhead to coordinate the system, standardize processes, prioritize investments, and focus resources. Every industry has overhead: in the for-profit world, the average overhead is 25% of all costs (as defined by the percentage of costs that are sales, general and administrative). The most efficient industries go as low as 13% (utilities if you care to know) while others, like the pharmaceutical industry, spend close to 50%. The fact is, not all overhead is bad.

At Green Dot, we have an ambitious goal to have overhead represent only 5-10% of all costs. Meaning all other costs are incurred at schools. We are not there yet, although we are clearly very efficient when compared to a regular district. Our approach is to define as clearly as possible the accountability framework, then decentralize decision-making to schools as much as possible, and intervene promptly when data shows things are not going well. The center (the “overhead”) is responsible for: a) codification of best practices, and then training principals and assistant principals on those best practices; b) managing some services that make more sense to be centralized because they do not need to be personalized for a specific student or school to get better; c) managing growth (real estate, fundraising, etc.); and d) holding people accountable, including ourselves in the "overhead."

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 6, 2008, 3:33pm

Marco Petruzzi: 

We already have the tools to keep superintendents accountable, but we just don't use them. While NCLB has many flaws, it does offer a fairly clear perspective of what should happen to schools and Districts that fail. But, at least in California, there has been very little "bite" to the law. The Los Angeles Unified School District probably has 70 to 80 schools in Performance Improvement 5+ (most over 6-7 years) and they're just allowed to continue. All they had to do at year 4 of PI is submit a plan that was approved by the District itself and voila, you're off the hook. Who cares that you continue to fail—you've checked the box. I'd like to see real accountability in terms of schools being either shut down, or taken away and given to new administrators like charters. Without consequences, there is no accountability.

Ken Royal Senior Editor Scholastic

Posted November 6, 2008, 4:04pm

Ken Royal: 

Whoa, Marco, you can’t go shutting down schools. Well, you could, but that would just add another mess. In Connecticut they have had takeovers of schools—in a corporate way—and threats to take over schools, as well as big turnover at the top admin levels. The corporate-like takeovers don’t work, and I can’t see switching out superintendents like baseball managers either. You have to remember, too, that districts are trying to meet NCLB with all students. It’s just not that easy—and will get more difficult, but that’s another discussion. The answer can’t be closing schools, or superintendents running scared. It’s not that simple—back to red tape.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted November 6, 2008, 5:02pm

Jean Johnson: 

Here's the list of mandates one state superintendent we interviewed reeled off:

• All children must receive oral health instruction and information about organ donation;
• All schools must have an "anti-bullying" policy;
• Everyone must say the Pledge of Allegiance;
• Social studies classes must celebrate "Freedom Week";
• All schools must have a parent involvement committee;
• Each bus driver must have two paid breaks;
• Districts must have committees on employee policies and committees on "closing the gap";
• Each teacher must have a set amount of money for supplies;
• Every child's body mass index must be listed on the report card.

That's on top of NCLB, special ed, and actually running the school system of course. How many of these are appropriate, useful mandates? Is there any way to get state legislatures to curtail what seems to me to be a lot of "window dressing" legislation?

Ken Royal Senior Editor Scholastic

Posted November 6, 2008, 5:45pm

Ken Royal: 

Jean, this is the stuff that fills faculty-meeting agendas these days. I remember training on how to restrain students, avoiding cupcakes and birthdays before 2:30 PM, recess or not to recess, and lock down practice. A great deal of time was spent on how to practice for the standardized test, and how to avoid infractions when delivering those tests to students. In the old days we discussed kids and teaching after an opener by the principal. At more recent meetings, it was not uncommon for me to hear frustrated teachers ask if they could also have some time to actually teach the curriculum. In most cases, the last five minutes was devoted to new technology presented in a quick fire Robin Williams’ delivery. By the way, two breaks a day sounds wonderful. ;>)

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 6, 2008, 5:50pm

Marco Petruzzi: 

Ken, I think you're misinterpreting what I'm saying. Several school districts (like NYC and Chicago) have taken the bold steps to shut down chronically underperforming schools and either reopened new ones in their place or contracted them out to third parties. I'm not talking about corporate raiders doing it. I am talking about the lack of urgency and lack of aggressive action that happens when people hide behind phrases like “it is not that easy.” It might not be easy, but in my view, transforming districts will require some boldness. Shutting down underperforming schools, reconstituting them or doing charter conversions would be a healthy shock therapy to the bureaucracy.

Janet Corcoran Senior Consultant Common Good

Posted November 6, 2008, 6:00pm

Janet Corcoran: 

As we wind down our first day of conversation, the weight and intransigence of school bureaucracies is apparent. Marco and Ken highlight an important tension. What should be done about chronic underperformance? Marco thinks it’s time for bold, aggressive action. Ken says we can’t just shut down schools, and that corporate-style takeovers aren’t the way to fix schools or motivate superintendents. And in the midst of this struggle, Jean gives us a magnificent, but troubling list of the endless mandated minutiae schools are drowning in every day. Tomorrow I hope we can turn to practical recommendations and concrete solutions. How do we clean house in school bureaucracy? Indiana has just elected a new State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Anthony Bennett, who will manage the Department of Education and lead the state Board of Education. Bennett wants the Department to run as efficiently as possible and believes regulation handcuffs schools from pursuing their agendas. What advice do we have for him and other newly elected officials about how to translate campaign aspirations into policy realities?

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 6, 2008, 7:09pm

Jeff Abbott: 

There has been a lot of talk so far about punitive measures for schools, such as takeovers or school closings, as a way to deal with bureaucracy. Punitive measures seem to smack of Taylorism top-down management as well as Theory X management. But are punitive measures the best way to deal with bureaucracy? I would not argue that punitive measures are never appropriate, but would suggest they be used after positive measures have failed. In over thirty years of involvement in public education, I have never known a teacher or school principal who did not want a kid to learn. But I have known scores who are browned out, burned out, and dispirited because of so many rules and mandates. All too many teachers and school principals have expressed to me that they think that legislators, school boards, and sometimes superintendents do not trust them. The bureaucracy has robbed teachers and principals of the opportunity to be creative and innovative, and to use their professional talents to the fullest. I think it is time to try Ouchi's Theory Z and apply it to teachers and school principals. Why don't legislatures accord them a little professional respect and trust? Why must they be micro-managed by the bureaucracy? With more freedom to use their professional judgment, coupled with accountability for their actions, teachers and principals will be empowered and become enthused to act in the best interests of students.

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 7, 2008, 9:47am

Marco Petruzzi: 

Well, now I have the need to defend myself, because clearly I must be that ‘punitive measure Taylorism’ guy. :)

Jeff, I think you've just defined Green Dot. We are actually the exact definition of a middle of a road approach. Contrary to most charter organizations, we have embraced unions and have put students (first, as always) teachers and principals at the center of a reform platform. Our model is one of decentralization and site-based decision-making. We treat teachers and principals as professionals, giving them autonomy over their budgets, their hiring and retention of staff. We allow teachers to teach their own lesson plans, using their judgment to fit their students’ needs. We, together with our union, have required that clear, fair, and transparent accountability measures are in place. We believe in smaller, safer schools that become better environments for learning and personalization.

My points about shutdowns were referring to the urgency needed for the transformation of the system. The enemy is the bureaucracy, not the teachers or principals. In our model, we will need about 20 to 40% more teachers to serve Los Angeles and probably 10 times the number of principals. What we won't need is a bloated bureaucracy outside of the schools. The "punitive" method of closing schools that are chronically failing refers more to a process to get from point A to point B. I simply don't believe we can legislate ourselves out of this. Adult interests will always take precedence in a legislative process. We need bold action to transform.

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 7, 2008, 10:17am

Jeff Abbott: 

Ye gads … Must be losing my advocate and belligerent edge from my law practice days, because I agree 100% with what Marco said. There are certainly a lot more enlightened charter schools than government public schools. This is due in no small part to the lack of a bureaucracy. Imagine Schools in Fort Wayne, IN, is organized and operates with the same philosophy as Green Dot. However, not all charter schools operate in such an enlightened manner. I can think of one charter school in Indiana that drove its new principal out within 3 weeks of starting the job. The president of the charter board was on a power trip and had always wanted to operate a public school, even though of course he had absolutely no teaching or administrative experience, much less any state educator license. His petty politics mimicked many local public school boards.

There is too much bureaucracy in public schools because we have too many chefs in the governance kitchen making the soup. We have state legislators, Congress, state departments of education, the U.S.D.O.E., school boards, central offices, teacher unions, and other interest groups making the soup. When it turns out bitter each part of the governance system can blame the other part. How convenient! What a wonderful way to design a system that assures a complete lack of accountability for any single person or group. The solution may be so simple that policy makers are overlooking the obvious—Why not hire just one chef (the principal) and let the chef be responsible and accountable for a sweet-tasting soup? Let the chef be the CEO of the kitchen, and hold the chef accountable for results. This seems to be the Green Dot way. Why not expand this philosophy to the public schools? Are the adult interests in the way of such expansion?

Jane Hannaway Director, Education Policy Center Urban Institute

Posted November 7, 2008, 2:51pm

Jane Hannaway: 

Everyone would agree that "excessive red tape" and "bloated bureaucracies" are bad. They waste precious and limited resources and often restrict productive behaviors. But I think we want to distinguish between that and decentralization. A school could be highly decentralized and still be hamstrung by its own excessive school rules and regulations. The trade-off, as I see it, is between holding schools accountable for process (following rules, procedures, etc.) and holding them accountable for student outcomes. I think we are in the midst of a big change in this regard...moving toward performance-based accountability...and experiencing all the bumps along the way. And that's how we got to discussions about what to do with the chronically low performing schools. Is simply setting them "free" the answer?

Ken Royal Senior Editor Scholastic

Posted November 7, 2008, 3:02pm

Ken Royal: 

I’ve been following the conversation and even reading the reader comments. We need to forget everyone’s personal agenda and think about what we’ve all said that is consistent in almost every thread of this conversation. It is that there needs to be a fresh look from the top to filter out all the fibrous mess, decrease the number of hoops everyone has to jump through, and get the rules straight forward enough that you can see from point “A” to point “B”. We used to call that common sense, and it works in business and it works in education. Our new president could get this rolling, where as our last just added to the confusion. Wouldn’t it be something if President Obama gathered a group to look at education bureaucracy from the top down? The prerequisite for a member of this new group could be knowledge of education and business, but most importantly it should be that each member has common sense and can see through the tangle to get the shortest distance between each point from national to state to local—right down to the student. The time is right to do it and it can be done. It would take time, and I hate that, but it needs to happen. Sure, there’s dead wood in every field, but to straighten out this bureaucracy it needs a new, fresh look from the top, rather than removing the managers on the ground floor, who are certainly having trouble figuring out the map—and don’t have the funds to cover the jungle that continues to grow. Man, I’d love a chance to do that, and I’m sure everyone it this discussion would as well. Who knows Barack? Sign us up!

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 7, 2008, 3:18pm

Jeff Abbott: 

Jane, simply setting school principals and teachers "free" is not sufficient. I do believe they need to be free to use their best professional judgment. In over thirty years I have not observed excessive school rules and regulations promulgated at the school building level. These excesses have always been promulgated by state legislatures, the state board of education, the state department of education, school boards, central offices, and teacher unions. Any principal who in the new freedom school environment attempts to establish excessive rules and regulations, and thereby create a one-school bureaucracy, will not last long in a competitive environment. Scientific management types simply don't last long in the school business.

I have had conversations the past few years with various local teacher union leaders about the idea of holding schools (and teachers) accountable for outcomes and not process. The teachers like the idea of being in control of their own classroom. But I have received mixed responses, although the majority would favor the idea. Many are scared of accountability because it has been a foreign concept and not part of public schools' culture.

Unfortunately, teacher evaluations mostly just evaluate the teachers’ processes, and not outcomes. In Indiana we have a statute preventing a teacher's evaluation from being based upon the state's standardized test (ISTEP+). Thus, I have seen very little movement in Indiana toward the idea of freeing up teachers to select their processes, in turn for being held accountable for outcomes.

In my view, academic achievement will take a quantum jump when policy-makers free up teachers to select their own processes (i.e. to control their own destiny in the classroom and use their professional judgment) in return for accountability for outcomes from using those processes.

Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 7, 2008, 3:22pm

Jeff Abbott: 

Love your idea Ken! Sign us all up! I agree totally with your idea to look at education bureaucracy from the top down. This is exactly what is needed. The problem of bureaucracy cannot be attacked from the ground floor, but needs to be attacked from the 20-mile-high view. Bureaucracy as we know it will always be with us until policymakers study public education with a systemic reform lens.

Jean Johnson Executive Vice President Public Agenda

Posted November 7, 2008, 4:03pm

Jean Johnson: 

Several posts have focused on the need to avoid micro-managing principals and certainly have made a persuasive case for it. I am just wondering if there are a few more specific near-term measures that might persuade state legislators to think twice before passing non-academic mandates on oral health and "Freedom Week" and the like. Many of them seem well-intended, but passed without much thought about how schools will actually accomplish them. I wonder if there are groups like the National Governors Association or others that could publicly challenge this kind of "mission creep," feel-good legislation. Given the challenges facing today's schools, it really doesn't seem like too much to ask. This may not be a fundamental issue, but it certainly seems to be a frustrating burden for the principals and superintendents we've interviewed. I wonder who could be the bully pulpit here.

Marco Petruzzi President and CEO Green Dot Public Schools

Posted November 7, 2008, 4:50pm

Marco Petruzzi: 

Here's another crazy idea: (this is for LA but could be done anywhere) I bet you that if you took the California Ed Code, the full set of LAUSD policies and all LAUSD union contracts and did a thorough analysis, you would find that there are a crazy amount of conflicting rules and regulations. And I do mean, which one "wins"?


Jeff Abbott Assistant Professor of Education Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Posted November 7, 2008, 5:19pm

Jeff Abbott: 

I think Jean is on to something. Where can the "bully pulpit" be found? I think the National Governors Association or the Council of Chief State School Officers might be another. The problem with both these organizations is that their membership is full of politicians, many of whom have regularly offered legislation to "fix public schools."

I think we need good research on the plethora of laws that hamstring public education as Marco suggests. This might draw media attention to the problem. Perhaps, as the newly elected President of the United States did, we need an electronic media campaign to build grassroots support to significantly reduce the "bad" bureaucracy. I am not sure anything will be done until teachers and education leaders join in this effort to reduce bureaucracy.


Janet Corcoran Senior Consultant Common Good

Posted November 7, 2008, 5:52pm

Janet Corcoran: 

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. You have been an engaged, thoughtful group and it has been a pleasure serving as your moderator. As most of you know, reducing school bureaucracy is at the heart of Common Good’s Education Initiative. Our Over Ruled project (which will go national next year) is one of the ways Common Good is working to raise awareness of the plethora of laws you have identified. We look forward to a continued dialogue with you about the best bully pulpits. In the meantime, let’s all do our part to cut red tape whenever we can!


Jeff Abbott Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne
Janet Corcoran Common Good
Jane Hannaway Urban Institute
Jean Johnson Public Agenda
Sana Nasser H.S. 455 Harry S Truman High School
Marco Petruzzi Green Dot Public Schools
Ken Royal Scholastic

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Reader Comments


Lest we take the market metaphor too far (AOL-Time-Warner-Worldcom High, perhaps?), I believe Green Dot is just the voice you're looking for.

-- Carl Snodgrass

This blog is a very interesting read! I agree all schools are faced with different types of bureaucracy. Schools have many policies and codes they must follow. These policies and codes are very complex and in many schools they are governed by people who are in a central office. In the corporation I work in the central office makes many of the rules and regulations for the schools. These same people want school principals to be instructional leaders, but in my eyes they do not provide the opportunities for this to happen.

Jane and Brian I agree, some bureaucracy is needed in schools for them to function properly. However, many of the rules and regulations are schooling and deskilling our children. The rules and regulations are providing challenges for educators to truly educate students based on their needs. I believe if some of the bureaucracy was taken out of the school the schools would function in more appropriate manner. I believe more schools should empower teachers to become educational leaders and transfer that empowerment to the students. This cannot happen if teachers are being governed strictly by the bureaucrats in those centralized offices.

Will this ever change? Maybe Freedom Schools is the answer?

-- Rhian Crider

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  • Risk and Legal Fear in Schools
    With Lenore Skenazy, Frederick Hess, Megan Rosker, Walter Olson, and Nancy McDermott. Start date: June 5

Reader Comments (33)

Add Yours
1. November 6, 2008 12:47 PM

There are a number of overlapping issues that seem to pull the overall quality of education down.

- Legal issues - fear of school administrators to address problems, because they know they'll get sued

- Less Educational Focus from Parents: Many parents don't see their child's behavior in school as their problem, they've "given" this responsibility to the school and if the school reacts incorrectly, see above.

- Teacher's Unions: In general I believe that Unions are part of the problem, not the solution. If you look at highly unionized industries, the unions tend to protect bad behavior by their constituents vs. working to innovate in their companies or deliver best possible services etc.

- Teaching kids to take tests instead of teaching them so they have actually learned the subject. IE my calculus teacher in HS taught us what we were doing, as opposed to how to manipulate equations. Thus when I got to college I was MUCH better prepared for Physics classes.

We need a system that empowers principals and teachers to deliver on the promise of giving all students a great education. Right now there are too many structural hurdles for most to be able to succeed.

-- Andrew Mackenzie
2. November 7, 2008 9:54 AM

In the market, firms that reach bloated or lazy stage are ripe for overthrow by underdogs that serve customers better. Market discipline requires firms to be able to calculate economically, which requires prices and the profit/loss evaluation that comes with it. This natural accountability is damaged when government takes over. Government necessarily means negation of the market.

Hence, any proposal to fix the bureaucracy problem must take into account that there is no substitute for private property, real exchange, prices, profit/loss, entrepreneurship and consumer sovereignty.

Will this reality enter into your Discussion? The roster, sadly, reveals a lack of market friendly voices. But this omission is predictable: recognizing the necessity of a market in schooling threatens your livelihoods.

-- Reason
3. November 7, 2008 3:31 PM


Lest we take the market metaphor too far (AOL-Time-Warner-Worldcom High, perhaps?), I believe Green Dot is just the voice you're looking for.

-- Carl Snodgrass
4. November 7, 2008 4:57 PM

Carl, quick reply:

1) The Fed Reserve, not a market institution, helped create the bubble

2) When corporations commit fraud or fail in the market, a market without the opportunity for government bail-out or military contracts that is, they effect a whole lot less people than government does on a daily basis(read: taxation, wars, creating boom-bust cycles through central banking, decimation of innocent foreign peoples, conscription,...)

3)There is no middle way a la Green Dot. Either you support individual freedom or you support telling people what to do at the point of a gun. Unionism, compulsory attendance and taxation are not mitigable. Any alleviation still opens the door to inevitable actions towards total control. If the theory doesn't bite you, just review the history of the USA in terms of the growth of government. Or how about the history of government schooling?

-- Reason
5. November 9, 2008 2:55 PM

I read all the entries there are many ideas that are appealing to me; however, there are some ideas that perplex me. I teach in a private school and there does seem to be as much bureaucracy in the areas of trying to get ideas passed. We are still held to the bureaucracy of the federal government. Principal and teachers ultimately should have the upper hand in the decision-making that concerns the students that they are servicing. Who else knows better what each child needs? There are so many mandates at the local, state, and federal levels that prevent teachers to enjoy and implement their creative and enthusiastic spin in lessons. All the bureaucracy is deskilling our teachers. As a future prospective principal, I hope that I will have the ability to provide my teachers with ample amount of resources. Teaching in a private school, we have many additional resources that we can pull form that provide our teachers with resources. Many times, we do not need to go through all the red tape and can go directly to a resource for funding or any other need.
I agree with Jane Hannaway when she stated, “they waste precious and limited resources and often restrict productive behaviors.” Many leaders have wonderful and exciting ideas that when implemented can increase student excitement and involvement; however, by the time the idea gets to the prospective individual’s time has passed or in many cases expired, thus leaving children behind.
The roles need to change and more power needs to be given directly to the immediate school leaders.

-- Heather Van
6. November 9, 2008 3:27 PM

I agree with Dr. Abbott when he said that we must consider the historical perspective to understand why schools have become so bureaucratic. In the beginning, it was because the Federal government realized the educational opportunities for its citizens were not equal. Therefore, the Supreme Court got involved in the 50s and decided that segregated schools were unconstitutional and offered increased federal aid to equalize educational opportunities to all children (minority and special needs children, for example). These were the beginnings of the red-tape bureaucracy initially intended to offer education equality under the “equal protection” and “due process” clauses of the Constitution. However, these hierarchical levels have continued to tighten control with influence from special interest groups to the extreme control that we now experience as educators. The question that I see missing in this discussion is, “What is the greater purpose of education in this country?” I do agree that educational reform should consider the levels of bureaucracy that now exists which limits an administrator’s ability to impact his/her school. However, the larger issue that is missing is necessary reform as it impacts the purpose of education. The bureaucracy discussion pays attention to the minutiae of education, not the bigger issues. Are we educating a population of critical thinking, problem solving citizens who have a moral purpose and dedication to the preservation of democracy? Or are we losing focus of the greater purpose of education through bureaucratic micro-management of schools? Who knows best about what a school needs but the parents, teachers, students, and administrators who are part of that community? Eliminating some levels of bureaucracy might raise our ability to impact the bigger issues in education such as funding, demographic gaps in achievement, and the ever-changing population and individual identities of schools. Once this is achieved, perhaps we can discuss the purpose of education and make reform decisions that will reflect the ideals that this great nation was founded upon.

-- C.Brian Howard
7. November 9, 2008 3:39 PM

I agreed with the statements that were made concerning the deskilling of teachers and principals. If the government really wants to see student achievement take place, something needs to be done to return professional empowerment back into the hand of the educators who work with and are aware of the student’s needs. I believe student achievement can take place, but the government and bureaucratic sub groups are going about it all wrong. I am not saying I know how to fix the situation or how to put the control and decision making abilities back where it needs to be—within in the school building, instead of among people and groups that have no contact with America’s students. I am simply saying there are an array of decisions that are made concerning public education and some of those decisions are being made by the wrong people and groups.

On the other hand, I agree with Jane Hannaway, some bureaucracy is needed and will always exist within any organization to promote and sustain an efficient and effective environment. The areas where bureaucracy is needed should be well thought out and remain in those designated areas. Those areas should be where bureaucracy can be of use, not where it hinders student achievement.

On a whole our nation is getting away from what school reform is meant for—to increase student achievement. There are so many sub groups (federal government, state governments, school boards, central offices,…) throwing their weight around, instead of coming together and creating a realistic and measurable plan geared towards student needs. For this to happen outside forces may want to get over themselves and recruit the help of those professionals who are really in touch with the student’s needs—teachers and principals. The only way for this to happen is a leap of faith--delegate responsibilities to those professionals that work within the school buildings across the country.

-- Colleen Kobi-Berger
8. November 9, 2008 10:34 PM

The issues identified by the participants are the daily causes of educator frustration. Most educators choose to be in the profession because they have a drive to help children succeed. Unfortunately, teachers and administrators spend the majority of their time crossing their t's and dotting their i's to ensure that their school remains in "good standing". Administrators are managing, teachers are reciting, and students are responding. Where is the thinking? We have a responsibility to teach students to be problem solvers and thinkers. In a bureaucratic system students learn how to follow rules and procedures, complete activities as a part of the school improvement plan, and become good test takers.

The reality of the situation is that many schools are failing in this bureaucratic system. How could we possibly succeed? We are being asked to work miracles. We must communicate the realities and prove that the system is what is failing, not the schools. Until we are able to make this point, it matters little what alternative or new school initiatives are proposed. Direct and persistent communication must be made to the decision makers about the existing difficulties in trying to succeed with all the regulations. Politicians must recognize the impact of their regulatory decisions on the opportunities for student success. With the incredibly high need level of the children entering school building across the country, schools need support from the govenment, not mandates.

-- J Smith
9. November 10, 2008 9:33 AM

Colleen Kobi-Berger


Fort Wayne Community Schools

I agreed with the statements that were made concerning the deskilling of teachers and principals. If the government really wants to see student achievement take place, something needs to be done to return professional empowerment back into the hand of the educators who work with and are aware of the student’s needs. I believe student achievement can take place, but the government and bureaucratic sub groups are going about it all wrong. I am not saying I know how to fix the situation or how to put the control and decision making abilities back where it needs to be—within in the school building, instead of among people and groups that have no contact with America’s students. I am simply saying there are an array of decisions that are made concerning public education and some of those decisions are being made by the wrong people and groups.

On the other hand, I agree with Jane Hannaway, some bureaucracy is needed and will always exist within any organization to promote and sustain an efficient and effective environment. The areas where bureaucracy is needed should be well thought out and remain in those designated areas. Those areas should be where bureaucracy can be of use, not where it hinders student achievement.

On a whole our nation is getting away from what school reform is meant for—to increase student achievement. There are so many sub groups (federal government, state governments, school boards, central offices,…) throwing their weight around, instead of coming together and creating a realistic and measurable plan geared towards student needs. For this to happen outside forces may want to get over themselves and recruit the help of those professionals who are really in touch with the student’s needs—teachers and principals. The only way for this to happen is a leap of faith--delegate responsibilities to those professionals that work within the school buildings across the country.

-- Colleen Kobi-Berger
10. November 10, 2008 7:41 PM

Insightful and invigorating read!

School bureaucracy has overwhelmed educators for much too long. Ken and Marco, both of you seemed to struggle with how to deal with underperforming, or failing, schools. While I am not sure what actually transpires in those schools, there are schools around the Fort Wayne area with teachers who actually have scripted lessons. What a slap in the face to people who spend four years of training to reach and improve the lives of children! The good news is that I’m positive someone really thought that this was the best idea for improving student learning. Now that’s engagement! The classroom should be a dance where the students and teachers switch leads, not one orchestrated and choreographed by a bureaucratic puppeteer who controls teachers’ and, consequently, the students’ every move.

My concern is this: Marco’s definition of “boldness” coupled with the future of education. Schools must be held accountable, no doubt about that. Yet, Jeff’s vision for freedom schools echoes W. Edward Deming’s quality systems management. One of Deming’s fourteen points is that a quality system must drive out fear. The goal of any educational model should be for the students’ benefit. A reoccurring theme of this thread is that in order to do this we must empower the principal, or CEO, and the teachers. This begs the question, “will the new system balance accountability, but not paralyze educators with fear”? I am hopeful that it will not, but the issue is one worth pointing out.

A final word on another issue that resonated with me: Ken’s struggle with the technology red tape. Didn’t Dylan tell us the times were changing in the 60’s? Why haven’t schools caught up?

-- Kellis Coffman
11. November 10, 2008 8:16 PM

There are clearly too many hands trying to stir the pot and all with varying philosophies of what the current education model should look like and how it should be run. We started with the common school era and it only grew from there. Adding who should make decisions on the federal, state, and local level. The teachers and principals make very few choices if ever, on what should be taught to the students. It is now a mix of several laws, policies, restrictions, and the list goes on for what each level of our system is to complete as their task.
How will we in the educational field fix this? Starting at the top we need to clearly define what each level needs to do and weeding out the unnecessary job titles that have arisen over the last couple of centuries. The states need to restructure what decisions should be made at the different levels in education. An example of this would be instead of having the local school board receive information from several entities such as the state school board and the U.S. and State Departments of Education; there should just be one area that receives the information. Simple steps like this would make it so much easier and probably more cost effective.
Then with this type of re-organization the principals and teachers can fine tune their schools to become productive, educational, free-spirited schools. The educational system needs to re-focus on what we are really there for and this is the student.

-- K. Hopf
12. November 10, 2008 10:25 PM

I certainly agree that education needs to eliminate bureaucracy as much as possible. I agree that teachers are being de-skilled (even free-thinking programs such as Reading Workshop are losing the element of professional choice due to canned programs) and are losing their passion for teaching students. As I have read, I see that the majority of those who posted agree as well.

I also agree that there are models and structures created that could serve to replace and improve the current system. Freedom Schools and charter schools offer answers to weaknesses of public schools, though even they are not without weakness. In spite of their imperfections, I am confident that a workable solution could be created (then assessed, modified, reassessed, modified, etc.). In other words, the “what” is attainable.

The issue I have with this discussion is the overwhelming burden of “how.” I agree with Ken Royal and Dr. Abbott that such a change must begin from the top. However, the top means politicians, and I struggle believe that politicians would be the leaders of de-politicizing education (as the growth of the involvement of the federal government in education in recent years can attest). With Obama’s education plan calling for millions in new spending, how can I hope for his administration to step back in government control of public education? How will we ever get politicians, unions, and educators to agree on a new structure? Again, the “how” is overwhelming to me.

-- Lee Snider
13. November 11, 2008 12:21 PM

This rousing discussion of touched upon a variety of issues surrounding education in today's world. I appreciate the personal insights of the contributors and readers willing to post their responses in an effort to better the educational process. Looking specifically at the level of school bureaucracy, I believe all factions mandating various "red-tape" do mean well as stated above. The issue exists as the continually progressing "red-tape" combines together to press upon educational leaders.

My personal response to the discussion swayed back and forth as the debate continued. I disagree with the sentiments regarding restructuring or closing of schools, but agree with the overall leniency given to poor performing schools. The discussion offered tremendous opinion on why there is so much school bureaucracy, but I believe a simple solution address what can be done is unachievable. In order to attain a lofty goal of limiting or reducing school bureaucracy, significant change must occur at every level of the educational process.

The most difficult element of limiting bureaucracy rests on one's ability to successfully communicate the need for change. Individuals being told to change their roles in the educational system will revolt or resist change out of fear or ignorance. True change in the bureaucratic arena must be accompanied by an effective oration outlining the reasons and methods for successful change.

-- Brad Yates
14. November 15, 2008 12:00 PM

I think that everyone is really on the same side of the argument. The bureaucrats and everyone. Everyones goal is to improve education. All of the legislation that is getting passed is people trying to help the problem. However, most of these people are not educators so their good intentions end up hindering the process of education. Everyone needs to take a step back and look at the big picture. Everyone thinks their rules and regulations are good and the others are bureacratic. We need to end all of this and get it back to the good of the children. What works in business is a set of rules for everyone to follow, then each company in that field figures out their own way to get results. Once something works, many companies copy what that company did. This would work in education as well. Set the rules at the state level. Then schools can meet these however they see fit to do it. It would be up to each school district to decide how they would accomplish their goals within this single set of rules.
Currently, every school has to follow too many different sets of rules. It was mentioned already that many of these rules conflict. With a simple set of rules that everyone plays by, it allows for more professionalism. Educators can do their thing. Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "To many rules get in the way of leadership." By reducing the regulations administrators on any level can lead their organizations in a more successful direction.
Right now if a school is failing, even changing the leadership does not produce the desired results very quickly. This is because all the red tape does not allow the new leadership to make the necessary changes. Let leaders lead and see if they can not elevate education!!

-- Brian Booker
15. November 16, 2008 5:29 PM

I teach in a private Catholic school. I have relatives and close friends who are educators in local Indiana Public School Systems. In one district, the staff have considerable difficulty accomplishing progression because of bureaucracy, but in the other system, staff are fully content and feel that their opinion matters and they are able to affect needed change. I'm curious as to why that is.

As I read through the posted discussion, a few points stood out to me. First, and the one I will address, being the suggestion of shutting down failing schools. As I look back through the discussion prior to that comment, I see that there is much frustration with the inability to be a CEO or allowed the freedom to run a school. I find myself questioning exactly what is the role of the principal in the public school system? How can the principal be accountable for the success of the school when given no power to make needed changes because of so much "red-tape"? When a principal is hired, it's a statement that the people doing the hiring have faith in that particular person to run the school...then why take away all of their power to do so? Or is the principal hired with the intent of being a good "yes" man who will not rock the boat? How much "red-tape" does a principal have to go through to employ staff that are there to educate the students or dismiss those who are not? Are unions to blame for this?
Shutting down a failing school does not sound like the answer to me...investigating why the school is failing and looking into all the 'red-tape' that particular schools might be "stuck" in seems to be a more reasonable solution.

With so many schools failing, we can't shut them all down...we need to find out why.....and I am not talking about looking only at test scores. I'm suggesting, go in and discuss with the principal and staff, not jsut the school board, or superintendent....but the people who live that school day in and day out. They are the ones who know it best. Through discussion with these key people, that is where you will find the true answer as to why a school is failing. Yes, it might be that the school needs a change in leadership and staffing, or there just might be other issues such as the feeling of "hands being tied" that are stopping that school's progression. Just a thought.

-- Kristine Call
16. November 16, 2008 7:42 PM

I believe in today's era with increased "blame" being placed on public education for the multiple problems American society is currently faced with; we see a critical eye turning towards education. The bureaucracy in schools today I believe is only inkling to what is in store for schools in the future. In order to change the bureaucratic movement, the opinion and thoughts of our lawmakers and America must change.

The mandates and bureaucracy in schools today is due to the perception of mainstream society that schools have failed, and in order for them to be successful strict mandates and levels of accountability must be in place. The constant criticism and negative opinions that have stirred over the past 25 years is the driving force behind the bureaucracy in schools today. Until America starts to have faith in public education and teachers again, we will have to continue dealing with the bureaucracy we deal with today.

-- Brandon White
17. November 16, 2008 8:28 PM

Education is not immune to bureaucracy. One problem I see is that we don’t run our “business” like other businesses. Our customer is the student yet decisions are rarely about the student. On so many levels, decisions are made to meet the needs of certain special interest groups or to address an issue specifically related someone’s own child. Those working directly with students(teachers and administrators) rarely have a voice about what is best for their students.

They are constantly being judged on the outcomes of testing and limited by laws and lack of funding. Local school board members usually run for their position based on an agenda. The agenda can often be traced back to that board members personal experience (good or bad), the desire to change something that they personally feel is not going well (athletics, building projects, and special programs), or their desires to make the schools better. “Better” is often defined by their personal opinion yet with no practical solutions. A good school board will get into classrooms and talk to teachers. Too often their focus is primarily financial solubility, development of policy, and personnel - all of which affect student learning and achievement, yet they rarely know all the teachers, programs, school data, or principals very well.

On the state level there are inequities in the school funding formula that affects a schools ability to produce a good product. The state mandates and expectations also strap teachers and administrators with many areas of accountability. I am not saying that accountability is wrong; we need it in many areas. However, accountability is easier said than done. Many teachers feel repressed in their teaching as they try to teach all the state standards. Those at the state level have not tried teaching all the standards for a class in a school year. The state-wide testing changes every so many years so it is difficult to work with the data and know whether students are achieving each year. The test changes so all kids can’t and won’t pass it!

Funding is also an issue at the state and federal levels. We have more and more programs that we are expected to implement and show evidence of learning. Funding for the programs never seems to follow the laws. Again, this can hinder school administration and teachers from accomplishing these expectations because there is not additional money for staff, training, etc.

-- R. Kawsky
18. November 18, 2008 11:27 AM

I agree of Sana Nasser that the principal is not a true CEO of his building because of the amount of bureaucracy that is now part of education. This is the time to free schools from the bureaucrats. Real live classroom teachers and administrators should be in charge of regulations that govern their profession. The focus of the true educator is to do what is best for students. The heart of many bureaucrats is to do what will get them re-elected. Teachers would do a much better job of outlining school regulations because we are the ones who will be impacted by our decisions and we care for the students in our care.

As educators we must engage in the public debate about our profession. Because the opinions of teachers and administrators have not been truly valued by legislators and other public officials, we need to exercise our right to organize ourselves so that our voice will be heard. As I read through all the blog conversations there was a lot of agreement about the issues that are bringing down schools today. There ought to be a representative body of educators who would represent those important causes at a state and national level. I'm not talking about an NEA type of organization but a group that is solely to take stands on educational issues.
Marco Petruzzi made an excellent point when he said,"that principals have turned into good followers of the rules not great managers and instructional leaders. Districts need to hire talented and highly motivated people and then get out of their way. Allow talented people who want to do what is best for students and empower them by allowing them to use their creativity, talents and skills. C. Brian Howard asked a thought provoking question "...are we losing the focus of the greater purpose of education through bureaucratic micro-management of schools?".
Another issue that I see is that being an educational leader is viewed as not being worth it. Most teachers go into the teaching profession because they want to help students. Many administrators go into administration because they want to help improve the overall school environment to increase student learning. The layers and layers of regulations and rules that schools have make those goals very difficult to attain.Instead of tying the hands of educational leaders, we need to empower leadership positions. Make being a leader worth it. Being an educational leader is a high stress, low respect, position. Expectations for giving of one's time and resources are extremely high. Principals and teachers often give selflessly of their personal time and funds and we are not compensated adequately. Outstanding teachers and principals ought to receive a just compensation.
These issues and others that are being discussed on this forum will take time to resolve themselves. Persistence and focus will be needed in order for education to change in a significant and permanent way.

-- Marc Andrews
19. November 18, 2008 4:51 PM

I do not believe that bureaucracy, it self, is the problem. Isn't our country built upon bureaucracy? Our fore-fathers were so worried about the exploitation of individual power, that they created a complex system of bureaucracy focused on checks and balances. Our public schools are an extention of our government. Public educators are government employees, whether you like it or not. Therefore, to release our schools from bureaucracy would mean releasing the "public" from our schools.

Dr. Abbott introduced the idea of looking at the historical perspective of our public schools. Our education system is very different than it was two hundred years ago. It has evolved, over time, to become the measuring stick that all other countries use to compare. Much of this change has occurred because of bureaucracy. Bureaucracy does not stop progress, it is in place to monitor and prevent the misuse of power. In a utopian world, the purpose of bureaucracy is to make sure that resources are being used for the right reasons, our students. Unfortunately for most educators, our bureaucracy is not structured, or customized, for the building based educator.

I believe bureaucracy has a place in our schools, however, the power must shift to the professionals on the "front lines." As it is structured now, our school boards are voted upon by our community, but how much knowledge and relevant experience do our board members have? I have met most of my district's board members, and I ask, do they really understand what our students need? Do the administrators in central office really have an indepth understanding of what the needs of this generation are? Most central office administrators have been building principals, at some point in time, but without the constant contact with our students, is there a gradual disconnect?

The perception is, "our schools are failing, and its our fault." I do not agree with this accusation, however, it is pointless to dwell upon things we have little control over. With the pressures of NCLB, many school administrators are forced to collaborate and create new initiatives and programs that focus soley on student achievement. These new programs require resourses. Unfortunately, building based educators do not have the power to move these resourses fast enough. They are not the people who make these type of decisions. At the present time, building based educators are thought of as mid-level managers, with no real power. I believe, until this changes, making strides in student achievement will never reach its potential.

-- Andrew Shipe
20. November 19, 2008 10:40 AM

I have to respond to Andrew's comment because he invoked the founding fathers. I agree with Andrew that a certain amount of bureaucracy is needed. There must be efficient professional oversight at each level of education. However, we need to "thin out" the amount of bureaucracy between the superintendent and the classroom. Our bureaucratic ranks are filled with individuals who never leave their office and have little or no connection to the classroom. Furthermore, some of these officials had little or no experience in the classroom before becoming part of the burueacratic machine. When it comes to making curriculum decisions, who is a better authrority, a teacher with thirty years experience or a "down town" official with two years of teaching experience who now sits in meetings all day with other bureaucrats?

On that note, stop scheduling meetings that have no kinetic energy. Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.. . . I have been in these meetings. As mentioned in a previous comment (I forget the name), change in public schools does not have to be so slow. If it is good for kids and the research proves it, then let's make a change. Before making that change we do not need to hold ten meetings talking about when we are going to make the change. Do not get me wrong, I know that signficant change requires adequate preparaion, but sometimes I feel like I'm sitting in a meeting where we are talking about talking about (yes I meant to write that twice) preparing for the change that we might talk about changing. Do people just schedule meetings to justfify their jobs? "I better look busy and schedule a meeting!"

If those same school officials were not in meetings all day, they would actually be able to get out into the schools where the most important work is taking place. If you're going to run a school system, be in the schools! I'm not saying that a system wide administrator should be looking over the shoulder of teachers, but he or she should have a solid understanding of what is happening in the classroom. And for the record, a curriculum map or a copy of a lesson plan is no substitute for a classroom visit.

There is more to say, but I'll save it for the teacher's lounge.

-Brian Hill

-- Brian Hill
21. November 19, 2008 4:47 PM

Bureacuracy in our public school system is truly a double-edged sword. School reform continues to be a "hot topic" and one that educators and politicians have at the top of their lists each year. State and Federal legislation continues to mandate rules and regulations that rob students of educational opportunities by placing undue responsibilities on administrators, teachers, and staff. The concept of school leaders resembling CEOs would indicate that a greater number of administrative duties are non-academic in nature.

What effect does this have on our schools? In order for any organization to be successful it must be able to attract the most talented and highly skilled professionals in that area. Creative freedom and flexibility in the classroom are all but non-existent, and veteran teachers have not been able to withstand the changes and restrictions over the years. The "brightest and best" are leaving the profession because they are not willing to fight the system. The problem continues to worsen the more that bureacuracy continues to thrive. The bottom line is that students don't always have the advantage of highly competent educators in the classroom maximizing their educational opportunities.

Change is a slow process but all stakeholders must agree on the best direction for education, and take action in order for it to succeed. Is it possible to mandate excellence? Some would say yes, but many would disagree. NCLB seems to work in theory but leaves much to be desired in terms of defining how to measure success in various types of schools. The biggest issues that I see now dealing with bureacuracy are school funding and accountability.

Many aspects of the Freedom Schools Model are worth looking in to. Let's give control to those who are the experts and have the biggest impact on student achievement - teachers and administrators. Let's make everyone accountable to each other and let the success or failure rest on the shoulders of those who make up the system. Students will thrive when teachers and educational leaders are given the freedom to make academic decisions in the best interest of their students and schools.

What will it take to make a difference and be able to correct the problems? Educators need to have a voice. They need to be willing to be actively involved in changing the process. They need to believe passionately that their voice counts and that their efforts are worthwhile. They must all remain optimistic that those in authority will not only listen, but take heed to the voices of those who are committed to the cause. If we fail to make the effort to change, the problems are likely to get worse before they get better. Let's act before it is too late!

-- Jana Reinking
22. November 21, 2008 8:53 AM

This has been an interesting blog to read. I feel that we are all generally in consensus on the matter of school bureaucracy. It cannot be argued that bureaucracy hasn’t created unnecessary grief for schools. I think we are all in agreement that the individual schools are the ones who feel the brunt of school bureaucracy. I agree with some of the other bloggers that not all bureaucracy is bad. There is a certain level that is needed to create accountability. NCLB is a perfect example of this. This legislation has led to intense scrutiny of schools and their progress. I contend that this is not all bad. I have personally seen an increase in the level of student achievement awareness that was not present before NCLB. Teachers are working as teams to remediate students and improve instruction. We are rising to the expectations of NCLB. Where the legislation let us down is in the bureaucratic red tape and penal system for schools that are not blessed with advantaged children and resources. The legislation does not allow for personalization of the requirements to unique schools. We are all expected to come to the race on an even playing field. We all know this is preposterous.
I truly believe that the problem with school bureaucracy is level at which it occurs. We have become so top heavy in education today. With departments of education, state boards of education, school boards, and large central offices, the political and bureaucratic red tape becomes even more cumbersome. I concur that the thinning out of top end departments and removing the political influence could alleviate some of the problems we see today. Allowing individual schools to “govern” themselves and make decisions on how to meet federal mandates would be a huge step in the right direction. Trusting those who work within each school to decide what is best for their population is liberating and productive. I am not suggesting that federal and state expectations should be removed. Instead we should free schools from cookie cutter systems and programs and let them tailor their own programs. It is what educators were truly trained to do: assess student needs and work to improve student achievement.

-- Sara Wertman
23. November 21, 2008 9:36 PM

This blog is a very interesting read! I agree all schools are faced with different types of bureaucracy. Schools have many policies and codes they must follow. These policies and codes are very complex and in many schools they are governed by people who are in a central office. In the corporation I work in the central office makes many of the rules and regulations for the schools. These same people want school principals to be instructional leaders, but in my eyes they do not provide the opportunities for this to happen.

Jane and Brian I agree, some bureaucracy is needed in schools for them to function properly. However, many of the rules and regulations are schooling and deskilling our children. The rules and regulations are providing challenges for educators to truly educate students based on their needs. I believe if some of the bureaucracy was taken out of the school the schools would function in more appropriate manner. I believe more schools should empower teachers to become educational leaders and transfer that empowerment to the students. This cannot happen if teachers are being governed strictly by the bureaucrats in those centralized offices.

Will this ever change? Maybe Freedom Schools is the answer?

-- Rhian Crider
24. November 23, 2008 2:35 PM

I agree with most that the large school bureaucracy we are experiencing in today’s educational environment is causing more harm then good. The school bureaucracy has led to large centralized organizations that exert too much control over the schools. Decisions are now being made from the central office with considerable influence by the politicians and board members. This creates a system of top-down management that is disconnected from the school and students needs. It bombards the school with numerous initiatives and rules that greatly affect the ability and effectiveness of the building level principal and staff. This model creates a system that is often inefficient and ineffective at meeting the needs of the students.

As Dr. Abbott stated the large school bureaucracy system emerged as our society moved to consolidate the schools which led to the expansion of programs. As the demands grew so did the number of people and groups that became involved in the decision making process. These changes shifted the attention and power away from the school and led to the de-skilling of the principal and educators. I believe allowing the educators a greater voice and control will greatly improve student achievement. The building level principal and educators have a greater knowledge and ability to meet the needs of the community and students. I think that the more decisions that can be made at the building level will lead to a greater impact on the development of the staff and students. This focus helps to develop a more client-centered approach in our schools that will cut out the red tape of the large school bureaucracy.

-- David Piepho
25. November 24, 2008 5:59 AM

Like many people have previously stated, I too believe the public school system is in need of change. The best way to achieve this change is by decreasing bureaucracy within education. By removing the bureaucracy from education, teachers will be empowered to make decisions on their educational visions of the school. If public schools do not change, students and educators will continue to suffer at the hand of the state's bureaucracy.

I believe a model, like the Freedom School model, has the potential to foster the decision making process at the building level. When it comes to determining the best enviornment and which instructional strategies to utilize within the school, I believe the principals and teachers are the most knowledgable and influential people. In most schools, educators possess the appropriate experience, ability, and desire to create a successful program, yet they are limited because of the political involvement of others who too often focus on their own personal agendas. In the current system, we allow the people farthest from the students to have the greatest voice on how schools should operate.

Unfortunately, while this is taking place, the educational opportunity of too many students are being sacrificed. I strongly believe that bureaucracy in education is stifling principals and teachers. Teacher are working harder than ever yet are constantly reminded that their students and/or schools are failing. It is the bureaucracy of the educational system that is failing, not the students, teachers, or schools. The educational system must return to its roots and focus on its fundamental purpose; to teach, inform, and influence students to maximize their academic potential. In this way, our future generations will be able to make informed decisions as we prepare to compete in our global society.

-- Kristin Roeder
26. November 27, 2008 10:42 AM

Regardless of decades of trial-and-error school reform—whether research-based, data driven, performance and/or evidence-based—we all agree that public schools remain gagged by bureaucratic red tape. Break-away prototypes have not fared any better. Charter schools-magnet schools-Gate schools have not set the world on fire. For example, how disappointing it was to become acquainted with Cynthia Diamond, a leading force in the Indiana charter school movement, only to read of the Flanner House fall to scandal (2005)! Bill Gates, as valiant and pure were his intentions, was bitten by the performance of his own self-designed schools, as well as the lack of completing his own homework (Buffalo Report, 2004). Too few shining examples of excellence exist.
In his November 6 post, Dr. Abbott hit a key deterrent to school success—the lack of trust. Hence: checks and balances, standards and benchmarks, school boards and teachers’ unions. We know what it takes to establish trust: moral leadership, as called for by Michael Fullen (The Moral Imperative of School Leadership, 2003), Stephan Covey (The 8th Habit, 2004), Thomas Sergiovanni (Leadership for the Schoolhouse, 1996), and Theodore/Nancy Sizer (The Students are Watching, 1999). However, human nature tries for short cuts, instant results, elevated titles. . .Greed and avarice abound today as in the Garden of Eden.
Rather than focus on an inherent evil that no form of surgery will cure, in my opinion, I think that we need to focus on programming that will answer the call of globalization. Concretely, we need to propose—not dismantle—our P-16 initiatives. The classroom grade level walls need to be replaced by skill-level, flexible grouping that will allow students to advance by level versus grade. Curriculum compacting, acceleration, and concurrent credit must be availed to all levels. We have the research: The College Ladder—American Youth Policy Forum (2006); The Educational Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy (January 2004); Gaining Traction, Gaining Ground: How Some High Schools Accelerate Learning for Struggling Students (November 2005), and more. What are we waiting for? Let’s get started!

-- Cheryl Thomas
27. November 30, 2008 6:25 PM

As I read through all the discussions, I found myself thinking many times about how all the issues discussed are the exact issues that drives teachers and administrators into a state of frustration. I am all for finding a system that will put the teachers and administrators in charge of the accountibility for their school. Exactly what that system is, I don't know, but Green Dot and Freedom Schools are a start to looking into how they might help our public schools become more successful. I often thought that I would like to see a school system fail under NCLB and watch the government take over with the same students. I wonder how successful they would be under the exact same circumstances that some of our failing schools have. If they think they know the answer, then maybe they should take over a school and teach us how to do it. Too many teachers are getting out of the profession due to the bureaucracy, and many young people are choosing not to go into the field due to the comments they hear from teachers now. We need to find a way to allow teachers and administrators to run the teaching aspect and determine what and how to teach the students in their class to be successful.

-- Bonnie Bonelli
28. December 2, 2008 3:34 PM

As I read all the discussions I found that there were many great thoughts and ideas about the issue of bureacracy in schools. I like the idea of letting the principal be the CEO of the school. We often say in education that all children learn differently, therefore, we have different methods and teaching strategies that we use. The same principle applies with schools. Each school is different in the make-up and demographics, therefore, each school needs to be run a different way. Principals need to have the power to run the school in a way that will best benifit the students of that school.
Dr. Abbott's idea of a "Freedom School" is also beneficial to the well being of the school. I have never understood why a school board, that generally does not include educators, is allowed to control a school district. The administrators are the people that should be making the decisions about what goes on and who works in our schools. Allow the people that have been educated in this profession to do their job!

-- Jason Culver
29. December 4, 2008 12:02 PM

I find Marco's suggestions from Green Dot very intriguing and hopeful. His model seems to have less bureaucracy than our current public schools, and there is evidence that his schools are succeeding. According to, Green Dot currently operates five high schools that serve Los Angeles' highest need communities. The success of its schools, which score on average 113 points higher than Los Angeles Unified high schools on the state of California's Academic Performance Index, validates the Six Tenets school model. A key to the success at Green Dot seems to be their aggressive pursuit of parental involvement. According to their web site, parents of Green Dot children are required to contribute 35 hours of work throughout the year.

In all of these discussions about bureaucracy, no one has mentioned the importance of parental involvement in education. Has anyone on this list been a high school parent and tried to get involved in your child’s education? There seems to be a heavy door between participation and observation in our high schools, and this might be a deep cause of some of our frustration with bureaucracy. When parents and the public (taxpayers) feel unwelcomed by their schools, they naturally turn to someone to voice their criticism. This criticism is being heard by our legislators and eventually turns into mandates, rules, procedures, etc.

-- Sandy Schaufelberger
30. December 5, 2008 12:26 PM

I must agree with some of the comments on the meetings. At my school corporation over the past three years we were dealing with new administration. Meetings were the norm. Most of the meetings resulted in committees being formed which lead to more meetings. Some of the teaching staff were involved in 4-5 meetings per week. How does that benefit the children? All it does is tie the teacher's hands before school, after school and during their prep.

In the school corporation that I worked in, the bureaucracy began with the School Board. "Locals with a pulse" is how I described those board members. How in the world do we allow the future of our children to be determined by a group of people with no education requirements? Something must start at this level. I completely agree with Dr. Abbotts's Freedom School Model in which the power of education would move to the teachers and free the building principal to do his or her job.

-- Kevin Hannon
31. December 6, 2008 10:50 PM

I am in agreement that when it comes to school bureaucracy less is going to give us more. As a parochial school teacher teaching in a school with site-based management, I can attest that not only is the staff morale one of positivity, but also ingenuity and centered on student success. A true learning community can develop as a result of autonomy, because teachers feel empowered to affect change. However, I do believe in the value that accountability measures such as NCLB play as an important tool to measure school success. NCLB may not be perfect, but it has brought forward initiatives that affect student success and growth. It is important that there are measures for school success, but does it really take hundreds of people at central office to insure it? Currently, ISTEP scores are being released and once again the private parochial schools have out-shined their public school counterparts. The Journal Gazette reports, “students in Indiana private schools continue to outperform their public school peers on the state proficiency exam“. Can we learn from what works in private schools? Could it be the reflection of a site based managed school that propels these schools to success? It is time for change in the way we manage public schools. It seems we are wasting the professional educated talents of teachers and administrators by micro managing every step. It’s time to put the control of student success fully and completely into the hands of the highly qualified and educated teachers and administrators of today. This is the time to begin anew and recreate schools for the new millennium. Time to insure the success of our students by allowing the professionals to do the job.

-- Cheryl Klinker
32. December 7, 2008 2:31 PM

I have to agree with the majority of the comments that have been made. We definitely have a problem with school bureaucracy. Wheat we have to realize is that the underlying problem is not necessarily the policies and litigation that is being passed; but the authors of these policies. If you look closely at these policies, most are written with good intentions, but unfortunately it is the implementation that is impractical. Some school bureaucracy should be in place. After all, many teachers don't have complaints about having guidelines to follow. It is when they are taken to the level at which we are at that a problem arises. We should review school bureacracy and decide who is qualified to be making decisions in the first place. Placing control in the individual schools is absolutely necessary. How can a "central office" filled with politicians possibly know what is best for the students in each school. They should be educated enough to know that each school is different in many ways and there is no way to mandate anything across the board. I firmly believe that focus is being lost. Is it possible that there are so many policies being passed to "fix" the problems of schools today that in reality they are the main cause of the problem? If teachers are teaching simply to satisfy the requirements that have been passed to them by individuals that know nothing about the children in their school--we have a problem. If teachers are simply trying to teach all of the criteria and not teaching to make sure that all the students are grasping the concepts--then we have a problem. The first concept that should be recognized is that a school is no place to expect instantaneous perfection. Children are individuals and their individuality should be embraced. The students must be the focus. Standardized tests do not tell us if our students are succeeding. School bureaucracy, if necessary, must be in place to advocate for the students--not simply to ensure that our school districts look good on standardized tests. Changes must be made and educational leaders must re-examine the focus of education. Teachers are qualified professionals in their area and they should be respected. You don't see teachers going into big corporations and tellling the CEO's how to run the company--why should schools be any different?

-- Jodie Cruz
33. December 12, 2008 5:03 PM

Bureaucracy is bureaucracy no matter what field we look at. In the ideal situation, our government should consist of an assortment of individuals who want to work together to solve the issues of our state and nation. It seems members of the government are more concerned with keeping themselves in office as opposed to working and taking the risks necessary to better ourselves.

In the form of education, a freedom school model has a great deal of potential benefits from the top all the way down to the individual student. This model will more and likely never come into existence because it would need to be adopted by our state government. They would need to willingly sacrifice a great deal of control to allow for the restructuring of our schools. Quite frankly, I don’t think our schools are schools have nearly enough problems for this idea to be recognized.

School principals are limited in what it is they can actually accomplish in their school building. They are trained to be effective leaders; however, they are never given the chance to truly be open to act on their own visions and ideals. Instead, they become enforcers of policy. Many of these policies are set far above their heads, don’t take in the consideration of varying school populations, and are many times not even created by educators. Superintendents, principals, and even teachers have so little control in governing schools which is a true insult to the amount of education and training these individuals truly possess. The ones who wish to do the most for the children, as opposed to improve statistics, don’t have the authority to run their buildings.

I understand bureaucracy will always be present in the schools. Government, whether we agree with their decisions or not, are elected to represent the people. Every child in entitled to a free, public education. This being said, the government needs to hold schools accountable to certain standards. The change needs to begin with the release of certain powers and controls. This will allow school districts to regain more control of the needs of their own diverse population.

-- Kyle Carter