School Bureaucracy I: The Nature of the Beast!

I’m sure that all of you have been angry or frustrated at one time or another with the public schools – the rules and policies can be so inflexible and trivial! But here’s the thing – most of what is frustrating and ridiculous in public schools is directly related to the fact that public education is a bureaucracy.

For the next several School Savvy Parents posts, we’ll be discussing the nature of the public school bureaucracy, how it affects parents and teachers, and practical suggestions for becoming a positive voice for change within that bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies don’t like to pay attention to individual needs, and they almost never make changes in response to individual people – and this is true whether you’re inside or outside the system. It’s like hurling yourself at a pillow – the system absorbs the blow and stays the same. That’s because no one is actually in charge of anything – there’s a handbook or a policy manual or a state regulation that is responsible for decisions, not a human being. For those who work in the system and follow the rules, there is no behavior or decision that will change their job duties or their salary.
People who work in bureaucracies aren’t bad people, and they’re often as frustrated as you are, but the rules of the game reward compliance (doing what you’re told) and punish innovation (coming up with a better way).

Think about what happens in a system that rewards compliance and punishes innovation. All the incentives are to stick with the program, follow the status quo, and keep your bright ideas to yourself. That’s how a teacher and a principal get good evaluations and a comfortable work environment. Innovative ideas make trouble, make others look bad, and upset the apple cart. That’s how school employees can get bad evaluations and an uncomfortable work environment.

Think about what happens in a system in which salary is not based on behavior, achievement, hard work, or great ideas. There is no external reason to work hard and do excellent work, and great ideas will often get you in trouble. School salaries are based on the number of years of experience, and the only way to raise one’s salary is to get a master’s degree or become an administrator. In the school bureaucracy, administrators are not educational leaders; they are compliance officers – a role that does not attract innovative, creative people.

So in schools, as in all other bureaucracies, everyone’s motivation and drive for excellence has to come from within themselves. Everyone has to get personal satisfaction from doing meaningful work, and that has to be enough for them to keep going. And there is part of the problem – much of what teachers and principals are asked to do is not “meaningful work” – bus duty, hall duty, lunch duty, collecting money from the fundraiser, chaperoning the dance, driving the bus, filling out endless self-evaluation forms, etc. So they get burned out and they stop caring – and just as there is no external reward for excellence, there is no external consequence for mediocrity.

In our culture, those who make a lot of money get the most respect – even if what they do is greedy and self-serving. Money is how our culture keeps score, and those who work in education (and other human service fields) aren’t even in the game. It is certainly possible to have a long, excellent career in education, but it takes self-motivation and the ability to be rewarded in ways other than money and respect. How hard would your banker work for a thank you note and a loaf of banana bread?

Next time we’ll continue our discussion of school bureaucracy with a look at the Rules of the Game and some ideas about Tactics vs. Strategy.

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