Approaching the Issue of School Bureaucracy

As we look forward to a new administration in the White House and the possibility of a new look at school reform and No Child Left Behind, one of the inevitable topics of discussion is bureaucracy in our public school system. Bureaucracy developed out of the need to create a centralized school system in the 20th century, but as we continue into the 21st, we’ve found that it often hinders efficiency and ability to produce the best learning environments for students. Mandates from federal, state, and local governments complicate and clog the system, and endless meetings and paperwork jam up any progress principals wish to make.

From Nov. 6 and Nov. 7, NewTalk hosted a discussion on the subject of school bureaucracy and how to addressing minimizing it. NewTalk, a nonpartisan forum, “presents focused discussions by experts on the most important domestic topics shaping American society today.” It is organized by the Common Good coalition.

Janet Corcoran, the president of Common Good, moderated the discussion, opening with a call to “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.”

Participants in the discussion weighed in with anecdotes concerning run-ins with unproductive bureaucracy and restraints upon principals. Sana Nasser, principal at H.S. 455 Harry S. Truman High School in New York City, feels “a major factor contributing to this bureaucracy germinates from the principals inability to be a true CEO of his or her building.” This sentiment was echoed by other participants. A “thick bureaucracy” prevents any real innovative thinking and change; it is often squelched by administrative processes.

Marco Petruzzi, president and CEO of Green Dot Public Schools, offered several factors that contributed to this system. He included the explosion of policies and codes, the centralization of decision-making (principals have been relegated to the role of “followers of the rules”), the contribution of union rules, and the lack of management talent. Jean Johnson, executive vice president of Public Agenda, added to the list the complexity of “major federal mandates.” She states that principals are at once asked to be “‘instructional leaders’ and working more directly and closely with classroom teachers,” while still given “a lot of minor administrative tasks.”

Bureaucracy isn’t always bad, but when it stymies efforts to accomplish real school reform, it is time to find ways to cut the red tape. Jeff Abbott, assistant professor of Education at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, stated, “Empowerment of teachers and school principals is the key to containing bureaucracy.” He posits that a central office supporting “buildings with the provision of transportation, facilities, maintenance, and foodservices” would “place the authority and responsibility for producing academic achievement results at the building level.”

Abbott also pointed out the lack of accountability in the current system set-up. “We have too many chefs in the governance kitchen making the soup… When it turns out bitter, each part of the governance system can blame the other part.” To create a more effective school, the principal should be the one in charge of making sure the school fulfills its academic mandates.

In the end, it seems that the best approach would be a careful look from the top down. Ken Royal, senior editor at Scholastic, suggested a presidential task force “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.’”

To complement this idea, Abbott suggested drawing media attention to the problem with “good research on the plethora of laws that hamstring public education.” A joint venture between teachers and education leaders could reduce the bureaucracy.

With the new administration taking office in January, we will have to watch closely to see what happens with education reform. If we can continue the dialogue about bureaucracy, and raise awareness of what the problems are and the different solutions to tackle them, schools might be able to move forward to continue reform in a more effective ways.