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A Note to School Districts: Fish, Cut Bait, or Swim to Shore

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By John Watkins, a co-director of the Deeper Learning Dozen

This morning, my wife, who is an urban public school English teacher in a Linked Learning (College and Career) Pathway, the Public Health Academy, almost quit her job. I've never seen her so close to doing that, so angry, in tears, though she has had many opportunities over the last 10 years of her career. This was just one more of the hundreds of things that slowly wear her down, another "death by a thousand cuts." Don't assume that includes her students! Though they are quite challenging, and exhaust her, especially when she has to grade 160 essays or projects, she loves them, and they give her a sense of hope, joy, and occasionally even delight. No, what made her almost quit today was the incredible, pounding, oppressive inertia that the district bureaucracy puts in her way, that drains her time and energy, and that distracts her over and over from being able to focus on doing her teaching job well.

This morning could easily have been the last straw. Some day something similar will be the reason she quits teaching. She had worked hard over the course of the fall, going back and forth with the district's purchasing department, to put in place an invoice to pay for the publication of a book that would be her students' culminating exhibition of learning in a project-based learning unit on cross-cultural medicine this spring. This was no last-minute request; she plans ahead well. She had already arranged the publication details with the publisher, confirmed that it was an allowable expense from her Pathway's budget, and submitted the invoice in October. This morning, she found out the invoice had never been submitted for payment by the purchasing department, so the publisher had not received payment, and no one had bothered to tell her that. The funds for the book's publication came from a grant that sunsetted at the end of October. It's now April.

This is not at all a unique experience for my wife, nor for the millions of teachers who exist in a system that views its role to protect budgets from teachers, to keep them from expending funds for entirely legitimate needs for materials, supplies, equipment, field experiences in relevant adult work and higher-learning environments, as well as for new furniture that adolescents can actually sit in and configure for the new classroom learning environments that 21st-century skills development requires. These are not spurious requests. I know another teacher who last September requested the order of a special kind of printer that she legitimately needed for a project she was designing to challenge her students and for which she had funds already earmarked. She went back and forth with the purchasing department over eight times, and still, this March, her printer had not arrived. Someone should analyze the actual cost of this level of inefficiency in groundhog-day-style communication and purchasing procedures!

Imagine any other industry where the "line workers" would have to justify, over and over, their needs for the basic materials used in their daily work? "Sorry, we didn't think you really needed that fender panel, or that radiator, for the car you are building." "Really? You already asked for those bolts seven times? I can't imagine what happened to that purchase order. Are you sure you submitted it? Did you use the correct form? The right purchase org key? Ooops. Try again ..." Well, maybe it's like Boeing's failure to supply two essential safety fixes to their 737 Max jets unless their client airlines paid extra for them? Not a bad comparison: People's lives are at stake in public education as well as the airline industry; just, in the case of education, it's ALL our nation's young people.

Recently I attended a convening in Southern California of school district leaders for a project organized by Next Generation Learning Challenges. These districts have been working to redesign themselves so they can support more powerful, challenging, and engaging learning environments equitably for all learners. This is no small task, given the almost impenetrable fortress mentality that school district bureaucracies evidence, and their deliberate design to reproduce IN-equity, to sort winners from losers rather than create winners. Based on a 19th-century model of how to build resilient organizations (for an architectural metaphor, think Romanesque Revival, the same building design used in the early assembly line factories in New England), that structure has persisted ever since. It's a Newtonian, mechanistic, command and control view of the world and of organizations, which assumes that knowledge resides at the (mostly male) top, and everyone else down along the chain of command just does what they are told and reports back up when the tasks are completed. Add to that the layers of divisions put in place to respond to state and federal mandates and reporting requirements, the layers of programs and initiatives, the balkanization of divisions, the lack of any systematic coordinating information flow across those, and, as Richard Elmore so aptly put it...

"We have... accumulated dozens of random innovations that solve some particular problem. The organization charts of most school districts are the geological residue of generations of other people's ideas about what schools need to do. Those changes are serial, incoherent, and persistent. They are the main source of incoherence in school systems. They constitute the compartments in the organizational structure. Each has its own self-perpetuating constituency. That incoherence across compartments is the central obstacle to large-scale improvement."

Not the least of these layers are the systems to maintain control over budgets and expenditures, where the culture is often the result of a scarcity mentality, a culture of protecting the system against teachers, that views teachers as the servants of the fiscal system, not the other way around. In addition, ironically, given that we are talking about a century-and-a-half-old organizational structure, many of those departments still have no systems in place to handle these kinds of routine requests in routine ways. That combination of incoherence, no explicit work flow processes and procedures, inadequate communication and feedback protocols, and a culture that sees teachers as the problem, is deadly. It is a miracle that any teachers, even those most devoted to their students and to their profession, last even a year. These structural, procedural, and cultural challenges are just the tip of a deeper, more troubling challenge: Because of these dynamics that isolate people from each other and treat them like interchangeable gears in a mechanical system, school districts have become toxic places for our young people and adults alike. We need to heal them.

One of the districts represented in the gathering I attended offered a breath of fresh air about this need for healing. They said they had been rethinking the district's role in supporting schools, teachers, and learners. They had realized that they had many layers of positions that did not seem to provide any direct or meaningful support for teaching and learning and they recognized many systems that actually got in the way, as I described above. They are working to redesign their culture and their systems so that district people see themselves as servant leaders. They also see part of their job is to be "boulder removers," pushing big impediments out of the way, and "blockers," as in football, providing boundaries against forces that work to undermine effective teaching and learning, even if those forces are unintended consequences of other priorities or policies. In addition, they are flattening and streamlining the hierarchy and pushing positions back to school sites where the people in them can reconnect and rebuild healthy and trusting relationships, understand the contexts and needs of teachers and learners, and thus be of better service. I am curious to learn more about just how they are doing all that. Wouldn't it be amazing if the purchasing department in my wife's district saw itself as a boulder remover for teachers and students?

Meanwhile, my wife needs to get her publisher's contract and invoice approved, and the funds found to pay the invoice, so her students can actually publish and present their book on cross-cultural medicine at their exhibition of learning later this spring. That exhibition of learning is a book-signing event, attended by their older peers in the Pathway, by other teachers, and by community members from the local public health institute, the hospital around the corner that serves a very ethnically diverse community, the local university's school of public health, and the county public health office. The students are very excited, and a bit nervous, to present their work to this authentic audience in an authentic book-signing event that they will host and facilitate, and because their hard work will have a real impact on community needs. Let's hope the archaic systems and toxic culture of her school district don't make that exhibition impossible. And let's hope she can last another few years before all this punishing inertia and incoherence at the district level drive her away from the career and the students she so loves.

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