Building covered in red tape
“The accumulated red tape is counterproductive.”

The Covid crisis could be the impetus that finally pushes the broken machinery of America’s schools over the cliff. Everyone is scrambling to figure out how to educate in a pandemic, and the answers will differ depending on the infection rates in particular communities and many other variables. Work rules, legal entitlements, and one-size-fits-all bureaucracy are impossible to comply with.

Who decides? This is where the centralized education apparatus collapses of its own weight. Teachers unions want to control when and on what terms teachers return to work. Education regulators in Washington, D.C., and state capitals want to dictate answers with a new set of rules. They expect the Covid-19 education framework to come out of negotiations with unions, who have already threatened to strike if teachers must go back to the classroom.

The stranglehold by central bureaucrats and union officials over how schools work is why they fail so badly. Public schools are a giant assembly line of rigid work rules, legal entitlements, course plans, metrics, granular documentation, and legal proceedings for almost any disagreement, including classroom discipline and comments in a personnel file. Day after day, teachers and principals grind through the dictates of this legal assembly line. There’s little room for innovation or creativity, and not even the authority to maintain order. The only certainty is no accountability. No matter how much or how little someone tries, no matter how badly a school performs, there will be no effective accountability.

While teacher pay has stagnated over the past two decades, the percentage of school budgets going to administrators has skyrocketed. Half the states now have more noninstructional personnel than teachers. The Charleston County, South Carolina, school system had 30 administrators earning over $100,000 in 2013. Last year it had 133 administrators earning more than $100,000. Union officials and central bureaucrats owe their careers to the bureaucratic labyrinth they create and oversee.

Now the unions want to devise a pandemic school assembly line. In addition to not returning to the classroom, ideas floated so far include a limit of three hours of online instruction, a preference for older teachers to teach online courses instead of teachers with demonstrated skills, and a refusal to allow classes to be recorded and accessed anytime because of privacy concerns.

Top-down dictates don’t work well in any setting, and particularly not in the pandemic. Some teachers want schools to reopen in their communities, but others will not want to take the risks of infection. Distance learning is an experiment just beginning; some teachers will be effective at distance learning, and others not. It may be better to record remote lessons by superstar teachers, and to supplement this with online tutoring. A hybrid model of distance learning with staggered attendance is also a possibility. Tailoring these techniques to particular populations and students holds the promise of effective education. But these experiments will surely fail if rigidly constrained by rules in advance.

A further complication is that parents need to get back to work. But they will also have different tolerances for exposure to risk. They will need not one mandated solution, but different alternatives. How about small learning pods, organized by neighborhoods, and overseen by teachers? This will require teachers to supervise and teach students of different ages. Different communities will require different approaches, taking into account the needs of the students and parents, the local infection rates, and other factors.

The urgency here could lead to innovations that are unimaginable to stakeholders stuck in current bureaucratic machinery. This disruption is also an opportunity to finally abandon the system and replace it with a set of core principles that restore ownership to educators and parents on the ground. These seem to me the core principles:

  1. Replace bureaucracy with periodic evaluations. Replace most mandates and reports with general goals and principles. Replace red tape with periodic evaluations by independent observers who judge a school by a number of criteria, including academic achievement and school culture.
  1. A new deal for teachers. Give teachers much more autonomy to run classrooms in their own ways. Remove most paperwork burdens, especially in special education. Use the funds now spent on excess administrators to pay teachers more, and to provide alternative education settings for disruptive students.
  1. Restore management authority. Restore the authority of principals (or other designated school leaders) to run a school, including allocating budgets. Because accountability is vital to an energetic school culture, principals or governing committees must be able to terminate teachers who are less effective. Instead of legal proceedings, safeguard against unfair personnel decisions by giving veto power to a site-based parent-teacher committee.
  1. Revive local autonomy. All stakeholders must have a sense of ownership of their schools. Within broad boundaries, communities should be free to set priorities and manage schools as they believe effective.

For several decades, public school reforms have focused on measuring and rewarding specific output measures, notably test scores, or improving inputs, such as training programs and new technology. But the best measure of a school is its culture—with shared values, goals, energy, and mutual commitment. That’s what good schools all share. It is impossible to have a good culture unless the teachers, administrators and many parents all feel a sense of ownership. That’s why top-down reform ideas have little impact, and why the accumulated red tape is counterproductive. Educators need to focus on their mission, not filling out bureaucratic boxes.

America ranks poorly in international student achievement results despite spending more than all but a handful of countries. Teacher attrition is at 8 percent a year, with the best teachers burning out or quitting because of frustration with suffocating bureaucracy. Principals too are leaving, with one out of three saying they plan to pursue different careers within five years.

No one likes the system. Over the years, I have worked with leaders of school systems across the country such as New York City and Denver, with teachers unions, and with research firms such as Public Agenda. Everyone feels disempowered from doing what they think makes sense. But the key stakeholders are stuck in a kind of trench warfare, firing bureaucratic rules at each other. Union operatives and public administrators control compliance with, literally, thousands of pages of detailed requirements. Schools are stuck in the muddy no-man’s-land of legal mandates and people demanding their legal entitlements.

The only cure to what ails America’s schools is to abandon the massive bureaucratic machinery aimed at forcing everyone to make it work. The accumulated education bureaucracy crushes the human spirit and any chance of fostering energetic school cultures. The Covid crisis could be the impetus for a mutual disarmament. School bureaucracy should not be reformed but abandoned. It fails every constituency that matters—students, teachers, principals, parents, and broader society—and it prevents the adaptability needed to cope with Covid-19.

Philip K. Howard is founder of the Campaign for Common Good. His latest book is “Try Common Sense.” Follow him on Twitter: @PhilipKHoward

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

Last updated August 11, 2020