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Of ESSA Plans and TPS Reports

If you're anything like me, you've never forgotten the TPS reports from Office Space.

What made them so memorable was how true-to-life they felt. Management's quasi-religious belief in the power of this paperwork and the importance accorded to the reports . . . yep, we've all been there. And, if you've spent much time around schooling, you've been there time and again.

In fact, that paper deluge is one of the less-appreciated fault lines in schooling—the one that divides educators and bureaucrats. It's easy for paper-shufflers (in school-district offices, state agencies, Washington, or foundations) to get enamored of their data sheets and reporting systems. They excitedly look on their strategic plans and reports as indispensable to driving real change. To others, however, it all looks like a case of comfortable bureaucrats creating busywork for people with better things to do.

This tension is part and parcel of life in any big organization. But you rarely see the paper-shufflers get as much ink or as many pats on the back as you do in schooling. One of the more striking examples of this is the recent fascination with state plans for the Every Student Succeeds Act (especially where they build on decades of paper-driven plans to improve "teacher quality"). For reasons that escape me, ESSA's required federal filings, which have been assembled by hordes of well-meaning state officials and consultants, have been treated not as largely meaningless paper exercises but as something deserving of breathless notice from education advocates and press (including American Idol-style contests and foundation-funded independent review boards).

Over the weekend, a correspondent flagged a recent American Institute for Research column about what the first batch of state ESSA plans have to say on teacher quality. In a helpful summary that nicely illustrated the problem of treating these word-salad filings as something more profound, AIR's Ellen Sherratt shared "highlights culled from the first 17 state ESSA plans to shed light on how states will address critical teacher shortages areas."

As one reviews these highlights, it's worth taking a moment to consider the TPSness of it all.

Sherratt notes that two states, Connecticut and New Jersey, "mention plans" to attract educators through better marketing. She drolly observes, of course, that "marketing is not a new approach to addressing teacher shortages." If one were in a more cutting mood, one might suggest that states and school systems have spent many years trying to attract good teachers—and that declaring one is going to do more of this in a "strategic plan" isn't going to make a lick of difference.

Multiple states, Sherratt reports, indicate that they're going to help tackle their teacher shortage problems by doing more to cultivate an interest in teaching among high schoolers. This begs the question: Do parents actually want school systems working hard to shape their children's career choices, so that school officials find it easier to hire employees? (This presumes that teens are likely to flock to the profession because their high-school teachers are roped into shilling for it, a strategy that suggests a limited grasp of adolescent psychology.) Those sponsoring these programs, of course, explain that they don't have anything so dramatic in mind—their intent is just to open students' eyes to possibilities and expose them to the joys of mentoring. That's all fine . . . but also another reason why these efforts look more impressive on paper than they do in practice.

And seven state plans specifically indicate that they'll be collaborating with teacher preparation programs to tackle teacher shortages. You can hear folks in these states slapping their foreheads even as they ask, "Why the heck didn't we ever think of that before?!" The answer: they have thought of it before. Officials in every state will always tell you they're working hard to foster that collaboration, as though their predecessors hadn't done so (or hadn't done so "seriously" or with the same attention to "institutional alignment"). So, now, for the umpteenth time, states are promising that "this time we'll really collaborate!" Keep your eyes out for the next new plan, likely to be issued five or eight years from now, in which a new cast of characters will say the same thing.

Speaking of doing the same things yet again: states promise to embrace new ways of "onboarding and mentoring" new teachers. If this sounds like something else that states have already been talking about for decades, congrats, you've been paying attention. The particulars are predictably banal: Michigan and Arizona pledge to improve teacher induction; Delaware will give districts resources on high-quality induction programs; Louisiana hopes to formalize its "mentor teacher" role; yada, yada. It's hard to ask for anything more, given that states have been wringing their hands about teacher turnover for decades and tinkering with reforms to induction and mentoring for just as long.

The vapidity of the exercise would be unremarkable if everyone clearly understood that these filings are the kind of pointless, paper exercise demanded by 21st century bureaucracy, and that the only thing that matters is what states and districts actually do after they've submitted their plans. But what's disconcerting is how much enthusiasm the education intelligentsia has invested in these latter-day TPS reports. It makes them look more than a little like Initech's paper-loving mandarins—and that's not something I would wish on anyone.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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