09 May 2011

The Culture of Compliance

Yesterday During Spring Break, I was listening to the radio before I took my wife to lunch. Now, because I'm classy (and because I can only hear Katy Perry so many times before I want to punch myself in the head) I was listening to NPR's Talk of the Nation. The topic for the portion of the show I was listening to was an Op-Ed piece written by Eva Moskowitz which ran in the Washington Post on the 27th of March. In that piece, Ms. Moskowitz (a charter school administrator in New York City) raises the interesting idea that class size might not be the answer to as many questions as liberal reformers think it is.

I have thoughts on the correlation between class size and success, but I'm saving those for a rainy day. (Or I wrote it first. Whatever.) Instead, I'm going to focus on a short exchange that came at the end of the hour, right before Talk of the Nation switched topics to the nuclear disaster in Japan.

Here is the short exchange that got my synapses up and firing:

"I have two classes of 24 kindergartners. Those classes aren't bad, but doing the paperwork to track 48 students is bad enough that I'm looking at an early retirement" - Random Wisconsin teacher

"We have become a compliance driven system" -Eva Moskowitz

I know that this seems like a throw-away line at the end of an interview, but it provides deep insight into a problem in schools that I don't think we've done a very good job of addressing over the years.

That problem?

We've essentially added so much paperwork, without really adding additional staff, that teachers now teach, grade and plan as they always have, but they also have to keep track of reams of data on how those students are responding to that data.

Let's use my teaching experience as an example, shall we?

I teach in a school of about 1,000 students. I think that this size is very good for a high school. Obviously, middle and elementary schools should be smaller. My school has a teaching faculty of about 60 full time teachers. We have 5 full time special educators (and I think 5 para-professionals). We have 1 half-time RTI person.

What does all of this mean for paperwork? That's a good question. If a Special Ed student has 8 classes, and there is a meeting coming up for that student, that means that 8 teachers are filling out progress reports on that student and submitting them. The Special Educator is then compiling that information, and looking at accommodations, and planning the meeting. This seems entirely reasonable, doesn't it?

Sure, but let's suppose that 10% of our students are Sped students who have reviews this year. That means that there are minimum 800 pages of progress reports. We have 5 people to handle and compile the data for those 800 pages. That's more than a ream of paper. That's somewhat insane, considering the fact that we have limits on how much paper we can use for things like, you know, teaching class.

It gets worse. Now, as we attempt to make sure that No Child Is Left Behind, even non-sped students have paper trails longer than they are tall. Every phone call home, every late assignment, every adaptation to allow alternative assignments or due dates must be documented. For kids that might be Sped, but aren't yet, there is an RTI form that asks what interventions you've tried with the student. You are expected to go through a 100 page catalog of interventions to find the ones you've used.

Once you'd figured out which of the interventions you've used, you then are expected to fill out a form about the kid and submit that. One poor soul who's teaching English half the time spends the other half of her time compiling those records, and having meetings with those kids to figure out why they aren't being successful. Amazingly, none of the options are "I'm a lazy turd eater."

Heaven should forbid someone actually fail a class and you haven't documented 15 calls home. As an added bonus, parents now know about all of this, and when they suspect you haven't documented something, they start to throw around words like "lawsuit" and "sue" and "non-compliance". It takes less paperwork to get a passport in this country than it does to get out of kindergarten. Seriously. Here's the passport application. Six pages and a picture. Here's the KINDERGARTEN report card. Plan on four of those a year, plus any testing paperwork. There is an entire department at the State Department dedicated to passports. Teachers end up teaching and filling out these absurd amounts of paperwork.

But teachers aren't the only people punished by the culture of compliance. It bites counselors too.

I asked a former co-worker who's in counseling what compliance had done to counselors. She gave me the following, and yes I know how long it is, that's why I broke it down bit by bit:

On the process to change a 504 plan (this is a plan for kids with medical issues that require accommodations, though it has become a work-around IEP for many kids)
When teachers, counselors, and administrators have to follow 19 specific steps just to complete a 504 review (and I just counted - took off my socks and everything!), it takes more time to complete the check boxes, send emails, re-check boxes, etc than it does actually having the 504 review. (This assumes that I even have ACCESS to the documents, folders, files that I need to do my job properly without having to wait three months to have my username added to a permissions list, but I digress.)   Which part of this process serves the student and family better?  Yes - teachers need to know about any changes made to a 504 and parents should have a copy of their student's 504 as well.  Of course.  Because that makes sense.  And it's something that I would do even if the next step in our "504 Procedures" list didn't tell me to.  Maybe I'm just being defensive, but if you need to tell me to distribute 504 docs to teachers and make sure a copy goes in a student's folder, it makes me feel kind of insulted. 
This is a random break so that you could digest what she's saying and then move on. Take a breath. Stand up and stretch. Ready? Ok, let's get back to talking about compliance!
Now, multiply this 19-step process across almost every part of education - Special Education, sports eligibility, the AP course application process, going on a field trip, etc.  It's easy to see where the majority of my day could easily become paperwork and marking off items on numerous to-do lists rather than actually educate and teach.   
I'm going to end with probably the most insightful thing in the email she sent me. She tossed it in there as a random though between two paragraphs of rambling. But I think she has hit the nail on the head when she gives the following assessment of how teachers and other educators are now being judged:
Assumption that being compliance driven = care more 
Assumption that being compliance driven = do your job better
I think she's trying to say that not just being compliance driven, but actually having complied must mean that you care about kids and do the job well. So teachers, more and more under pressure to meet score standards and show growth, spend less and less time actually figuring out how to reach kids, and more time filling out paperwork to prove that they are actually figuring out how to reach kids.

But, as long as you're filling out the right forms, you're teaching kids, right?

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