‘Bureaucracy Can’t Teach’: Why American schools often fail

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Quin Hillyer

Philip K. Howard is most well-known for being an advocate of lawsuit reform, but he spends a surpassingly large portion of his latest book on improving the American education system.

His central message is well-captured in the title of the book’s Chapter 5 (also the headline of this news story): “Bureaucracy Can’t Teach.”

Too Many Laws,
Too Many Lawyers

According to Howard, most public school systems are plagued by far too many rules from central office administrators (or school boards) and far too little autonomy for principals and faculty. He provides a host of examples: Teachers forbidden from allowing students to ask questions during “mini-lessons”; teachers required to file detailed weekly lesson plans that no one will actually read; so many rules in New York City “protecting” students from being disciplined that it took more than 60 steps and legal considerations just to suspend any student for five days.


By contrast, Howard writes, “Fairness in schools — an essential element of a healthy school culture — requires assertion of values by the people in charge, not application of rules against the people in charge.” To that end, Howard proposes three major reforms — as much attitudinal as programmatic, which can be summarized thus (as slightly paraphrased and condensed):

1. Free the teachers (and every other adult). Every school should be able to manage itself independently, as if it were a charter school. School boards should set goals (and basic curricula), but let educators on the ground determine how to reach those goals on a day-to-day basis.

2. Don’t tolerate disorder. Let principals and teachers act promptly to remove disruptive students without stopping to fill out forms.

3. Judge schools by their cultures (i.e., allow subjective judgments). “Energetic teachers, not bureaucracy, are the building blocks of a healthy school culture. ... Bureaucracy and legal fear has smothered individuality.”

But Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Brookings Institution, took issue with some (but not all) of Howard’s approach.

“This is essentially a Darwinian model, in that everybody is accountable and they get to succeed or fail,” Whitehurst said. “We need more standardization than that.”

He continued: “Once we have determined that certain ways of doing things work better than others, why should teachers be free to deploy the methods that are least effective?”

Dan Lips, senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, was more enthusiastic.

“I think the main point of decentralization and allowing for greater school-based management is really promising,” he said. “And it’s something we are seeing a growing bipartisan support for ... [including] in reforms in cities such as San Francisco and Houston that are giving principals much greater authority to run their own schools.”
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