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The Trouble with Bureaucracy

No Child Left Behind epitomizes the folly of politicians creating feel-good legislation. The title of this 2001federal monstrosity certainly sounds as if every child benefits from its reforms.

Not so. The numerous requirements in this 700-page boondoggle blurred the lines between reality and compliance. How? They forced educators to forgo an earnest implementation of instruction in favor of the much more rewarded activity of compiling reports and data.

Documentation became the arbiter of success.

If our politicians thought all this paperwork would be confined to the  non-teaching elements in education, they were sadly misguided.  

NCLB required states to test and report on student achievement, contributing to something called Adequate Yearly Progress These test results can lawfully be mitigated by exemptions such as IEP (special ed), homelessness, ELL (English language learner), and poor home environment.  (Really.) 


Another requirement was the revamping of teacher evaluation schemes to include so-called 'performance-based' protocols. School districts are then issued an annual report card, affecting the federal funding they receive.

The number of non-teaching personnel added at the district-level increased significantly, and a large portion of the annual budget was allocated to the personnel necessary to administer these new activities. 


In the classroom, teachers evolved their own protocols:

It didn't take long for them to understand that the documentation of their activities was more valuable to their supervisors than the instruction they delivered.


School districts created online documentation portals, and encouraged teachers to enter information frequently regarding their differentiated instruction. Because collecting such data was now highly rewarded by the Dept. of Education, affecting a school district's annual report card heftily, these portals became very user-friendly, even allowing for bulk entries like this:



The savvy teacher soon realized that the more she documented, the happier her bosses were.  Principals, assistant principals, and instructional coaches could quickly skim the type and amount of instruction a teacher was entering to her online account, and update their own accounts accordingly.  It should not be surprising that the increasingly burdensome paperwork foisted upon everyone increased the likelihood that some of that paperwork would not represent reality.


Teachers also created their own documents for logging activities: making phone calls and sending emails to parents; putting up hallway bulletin boards; attending committee meetings; assisting a colleague with something; working one-on-one with a student; arriving early or staying late to complete a project; planning lessons and projects collaboratively with the team.....the things teachers could come up with to illustrate their productivity seemed endless.


Even more tantalizing was the knowledge that none of these activities needed verification, as if that were even possible. This documentation, however, was given the same credence as a courtroom exhibit:  if it was written down, it happened. Teachers could positively influence their annual evaluation with this yearly log of accomplishments, and even if a principal suspected it defied the laws of physics, he knew it was not in his best interest to contest it.  As a result, teachers realized that their personal house of cards carried a lot of clout and would most likely go unchallenged. Currying favor with one's principal made this even more likely.


All this documentation was considered performance-based, fulfilling a significant chunk of the mandate to revise teacher evaluations. Throughout the last 20-odd years, this practice has become more and more an accepted part of the fabric of education, and teachers entering the profession soon adapt to it because to do otherwise is not only futile, but career damaging.

At the same time, however, they battle with the lunacy of it. They understand that none of it helps children learn better or faster;  demoralization slowly creeps to the forefront of the psyche, where eventually, it sets up permanent residence. 


Out of desperation, many teachers settle into a survival mode guided by the following rules: 

  • let go of the ideals you had at the entrance to your profession; 

  • place documentation and data collection above instruction,

  • put on the occasional dog-and-pony show, and

  • make sure you are in good favor with your principal.

Public education is now a facade, and the participants are

cast members in a modern rendition of "The Emperor's New Clothes".

What's wrong with requiring teachers to document their activities? It goes to realistic expectations.  When is this documentation happening?  On planning time?  During lunch? After school?  Perhaps some of it, but likely not all of it.  


Shadow a teacher throughout her school day and see what it takes to work with kids. Lots of face time is required.  The teacher weighs this reality against the counsel she has been given by her principal:

If it isn't written down, it didn't happen. You only get credit if it can be verified on paper.

It doesn't take long to figure out that instead of working with the kids, the teacher can put them into groups, give them a worksheet, and then sit at her desk and document how she is working with groups.  At first, she does this only sparingly in an attempt to not feel overwhelmed by all the paperwork.  She reassures herself that she won't shortchange her students all the time.  Just when she's feeling stressed.

Gradually, that stress appears more and more often, and she eventually rationalizes that she is only adjusting to an impossible situation not of her making.  As the years pass, this becomes more and more acceptable to her.  In my first book, Finishing School, I relate this to the parable of the frog in the boiling water.

This is the slippery slope of bureaucratizing education.

When the paperwork becomes more important than the activity it supports,

people will spend more time on the paperwork than the activity.  This is

especially true if that paperwork is not audited, and in most cases at the school level,

auditing is not feasible or even possible.   One can only imagine how this paperwork 

can be manipulated at the district level.

The more layers of bureaucracy that exist in an organization, the more prone to misrepresentation everything becomes.  And that's putting it politely.  One could also use words like fraud and corruption to describe the potential.

What's the antidote? 

For one, recognize that a mandate as intrusive and report-driven as NCLB ensures its own defeat simply through human nature.

And second, make testing count more for the students than for the teachers and their school districts.  The incentive to fudge data cannot be overstated.  And the apparatus to do so is written into statute.


Finally, make sure the tests used to measure grade level success actually do what they purport to do.   The Common Core tests we subject our students to are questionable at best in their validity.

It's time to repeal the ill-advised monstrosity that is No Child Left Behind.  Until that happens, we are all just swirling in an eddy of facade and futility.  And most of us don't even realize why.

This is the trouble with bureaucracy.

Read more
about how this bureaucracy

manifests in the classroom
CHAOS in our schools:

Available on Amazon

in 3 formats:

hard cover, paperback,

and ebook.

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Where it all began:
No Child Left Behind - 2001

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The Daily Signal op-ed.png
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Read More:

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The fuss over education
Struggle to Differentiate

The Struggle to Differentiate

     The big idea in differentiation is to get teachers to think differently about how they set up relationships with and deliver instruction to their students.  The most outspoken purveyor of differentiation is Carol Ann Tomlinson, who wants teachers to think differently about how children learn.  If we want the learning to stick, it must be memorable to them.  It must become something they can access easily in their memory stores.

     Take reading instruction, for example.  Teachers understand that students need to be guided in order to learn how to become good readers, and have traditionally worked with small groups of children at their reading tables, teaching concepts that promote vocabulary development and comprehension.

     Tomlinson says that is not enough.  We haven’t made the skills meaningful to them. They are not memorable yet.  The child will not be able to access the learning in a different situation.    To counteract this, Dr. Tomlinson promotes something called metacognition, which means “thinking about thinking”.   Teachers must teach students to understand why they think what they think.   There are proven techniques to get this to happen, things like training kids to self-monitor their learning, track their own progress, and write reflections on what the learning really means.  


    The theory is that when students do this, they are more likely to learn deeply, in a way that will stick, because they understand not only the material, itself, but also where their “challenges” in learning lie and why the learning is important.  

    The theory makes sense.  Getting kids to be their own ally and

value their education is something we all want.  

     How do you implement metacognition effectively?  It requires trust and cooperation from the students, for one thing.  But it also requires a lot of time spent in meaningful discussion with each child.  How can that happen with 30 or more children every day?

     Dr. Tomlinson herself, seems to understand our dilemma:
 "Teaching asks us to do the impossible.

It asks us to establish ties with each child,

not to establish ties with all the children

as if they were one student.  They are not."  


 "The truth is, we will never really do all

each child needs us to do. A simultaneous truth

is that the first truth is no reason to stop trying."

     Many of us sat in our meetings wondering how we could carry this off.  We wanted to establish ties with our students based on their individual dreams and needs.  We wanted to embrace Dr. Tomlinson’s philosophies and practices.

      At the same time, however, we were informed, sternly, that class size does not matter.  If you are caring enough, organized enough, strict enough, and knowledgeable enough, your students will respond positively to any strategy.  End of story.  

     This lecture is delivered by someone who has not worked in a classroom in years, perhaps decades, even.  The last time this person taught, spirited collaboration was not even invented.  

     Still, Dr. Tomlinson’s words spoke to our heart:

 “Differentiated instruction is responsive instruction.

 It occurs as teachers become increasingly proficient

in understanding their students as individuals.”  

     The fall-out, though, from trying to understand each child’s differences is that we experience limited results and sometimes failure, because there are just too many students, and they are all so….different.   Best practices in education may have changed for the better over the years, but how we put kids together in classrooms has not.   

     When teachers are discussing ideas like differentiation, collaboration, and metacognition, we tend to focus on the rose-colored version.  Every teacher imagines her entire class so enthralled with learning (due to her excellent strategies and way with kids) that nothing ever goes awry.  It’s a heady feeling, imagining teaching like this in a room full of eager students.  Brainstorming ideas with colleagues adds to the euphoria, as we each imagine how wonderful our new school year will be.  Additionally, we are shown videos of teachers being successful with many strategies touted as “best”.  

     The reality is often far different.  If you are lucky, a third of your students are eager.   Others harbor a hate for school because it takes effort or it takes away from their free time or they don’t see the value in learning something they will never use in life or they are in  a perpetual power struggle with the world.  

     Still others have trouble retaining concepts, so they give up and often become behavior issues.  And then there are those who suffer from neglect at home, so they arrive at school ill-prepared for anything but daily survival.  In differentiation, teachers are supposed to accept all this and adapt everything in the classroom for every possible nuance that students bring to the table.  It’s not doable, but you begin to doubt every skill you ever had as a teacher because your principal keeps insisting that it is doable, bringing district experts in every now and then to punctuate her case.

   The experts don’t want you to dwell on class size because it defeats their purpose of convincing everyone that methods alone are the foolproof way to get students to achieve. 


from  Chaos in Our Schools

T.L. Zempel

Read an op-ed on 
Differentiation written
by Dr. James Delisle
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