Monday, March 16, 2009

The Elusive Balance

Phillip K. Howard's new book Life Without Laywers focuses on the various ways that our over-regulated society is messing up. It's kind of a downer read. His chapter on schools (titled "Bureaucracy Can't Teach") holds to pretty much the same theme. He argues that we've regulated and systematized the schools to the point where forms and paperwork, not teachers and principals, are where the power and authority lies. Obviously this is bad. Fortunately, he has a solution.

1. Free the teachers (and every other adult). Let teachers focus on teaching their students rather than worry about what systems and procedures they're supposed to be following every second of the day.
2. Don't tolerate disorder. Disruptions limit learning and need to be dealt with effectively and immediately.
3. Judge schools by their cultures. Effective schools have effective school cultures. Ineffective schools either operate without a set culture or have in place a culture that doesn't bolster student learning.

Of course, none of this is new thinking. Complaints about bureaucracy and meddling from afar is pretty much par for the course. The question that goes largely unaddressed is how to balance our obsession with accountability (which seemingly can only be ensured through standardized testing) with our desire to let great teachers have the freedom to teach as they see fit. So far, that balance has remained elusive. More than that, we often don't even try to find it as we look for more ways to hold schools, teachers, and students "accountable." In our rush to test and measure how good our schools are, we're forgetting what actually makes schools great.

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