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Paperwork Seen to Hit Struggling Schools Hardest

Paperwork is a burdensome part of the job for many public school educators. A new study of Louisiana schools suggests, however, that the burden is most onerous for educators in low-performing schools.

At the behest of the Louisiana department of education, researchers Susan E. Kochan Teddlie and Sharon Pol surveyed 4,000 educators in 302 schools across the state. They also conducted six focus groups with school and district personnel from 35 of the state's 68 districts.

Note by the way, that the surveys were online. "We didn't want to create paperwork in the course of measuring it," explains Teddlie, a researcher at the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She and Pol presented their findings this morning at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here in Denver.

They found that teachers on average spent about 2.9 hours a week doing state-required paperwork that was unrelated to teaching. But the burden was greatest for educators in the state's lowest-performing schools—i.e., those that had been judged "academically unacceptable" because of students' performance on state exams.

In those schools, educators devoted an average of 5.97 hours a week. When you consider that Louisiana teachers get an average of 90 minutes a day of planning time, that's a big chunk of time that educators could otherwise spend improving instruction.

Why so much paperwork for those schools, in particular? Higher rates of student mobility, teacher turnover, and student misbehavior explain some of the schools' disproportionate burden. Struggling schools also typically come under more scrutiny from the state and have more school improvement programs in place. Both of those factors tend to bring additional documentation requirements for educators.

While three-to-seven hours a week may sound like a lot of time, Teddlie believes it "grossly misrepresents" the time that educators actually spend completing all those forms. That's because, in focus groups, teachers seemed unaware of the origin of the paperwork requirements they routinely fulfilled, not realizing that many of those tasks had been imposed by the state.

And, ironically, Teddlie said, Louisiana's efforts to build an electronic database to better track student progress increased, rather than decreased, educators' paperwork burdens. That's because state education officials were often required to ask local school officials to verify the electronic data being collected.

The situation is worsening now, Teddlie said, because layoffs at the state level have thinned the ranks of state officials tasked with monitoring all those documents.

"Districts are continuing to send more and more paper up and no one has any time to look at it," she said.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this item gave the wrong label for the state's lowest-performing schools. They are called "academically unacceptable," as noted above.

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