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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Busting Bureaucracy and the Beginner’s Mind

By Guest Blogger — February 20, 2013 6 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Becca Bracy Knight, executive director for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems.

When you think of the word “bureaucracy,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Red tape? Sluggish workers who don’t help customers? Government agencies that buy $600 hammers? Surveys show that across the political spectrum, Americans don’t like bureaucracies, or the idea of their taxpayer dollars unnecessarily being tied up on administrative work.

But according to Merriam Webster, the word is actually defined, as: “a body of non-elective government officials, characterized by specialized functions, adherence to fixed rules and a hierarchy of authority.”

Whatever our views of bureaucracies, in government, K-12 school systems or elsewhere, they deserve credit for doing one thing well: enduring.

Certainly, stable and consistent policies across school systems can be a good thing, and people working within school systems have good intentions. But policies that prevent systems from evolving and keeping pace with modern student and teacher needs can be disastrous. In this global information age, where two out of three American eighth graders are not able to read proficiently (see statistics on America’s education crisis), following the rules just because they’ve always been rules can unnecessarily impair progress.

For example, when sophisticated transportation software purchased at taxpayer expense sits unused on a shelf - while bus routes continue to be mapped out with string on a wall because that’s how it has always been done - clearly bureaucracy is not meeting student and teacher needs. When a district’s physical education program has a rule that some employees can only wash student swimsuits, while others can only wash towels, and the net result is that time and money desperately needed for critical functions like literacy coaches are wasted, clearly something is wrong. And when teachers spend more than $900 out-of-pocket on classroom supplies and instructional materials on average every year even though their school districts have enormous purchasing power, it is clear that bureaucracies are no longer serving student and teacher needs.

In order to draw attention to real-life examples like these, The Broad Center compiled 75 Examples of How Bureaucracy Stands in the Way of America’s Students and Teachers. The stories, encountered over the course of research and site visits associated with The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation’s philanthropic work over the past decade, reveal numerous barriers to progress in large urban districts. And these are just examples. I have no doubt a comprehensive list would be much longer.

Now, more than ever, school systems should be focused on eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy and re-establishing conditions that support students and teachers. The question that superintendents, principals, school boards, and other school staff must ask is: regardless of how long a policy has been in place, how is it benefitting students and teachers?

To have a chance of righting dysfunctional systems, new superintendents would be wise to approach the job with what Rick Hess calls the “beginner’s mind.” Referred to as shoshin by the Zen Buddhists, the beginner’s mind means approaching each situation with a true learning orientation, with openness and fresh eyes. This can be hard to do, because everyone expects new leaders to have all the answers. But the beginner’s mind is essential to identify effective solutions.

New superintendents can exercise a “beginner’s mind” during their first 90-100 days in office by asking questions of everyone about everything. Repeatedly asking “why?” and “why not?” is the simplest way to cut through bureaucracy to determine whether something makes sense and in fact truly benefits students and teachers.

The best questions are those that don’t just seek to confirm preconceived notions, but search for new information and perspectives. Town halls with parents, teachers, students, and business and community leaders are a good way to elicit different voices. When people are asked to identify the district’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats, they often provide valuable insights that help leaders see things in new ways.

When retired U.S. Air Force Major General John Barry began his tenure as superintendent in Aurora, Colo., he conducted a “90-day listening and learning tour,” visiting every school in the district, talking with students, meeting with district staff, parents, business, community, and political leaders. Barry also reached out to other local superintendents to exchange ideas. This research revealed that “summer learning loss” disproportionately impacted low-income students and English language learners in his district. He then figured out how to add 23 additional days to the school year for students who needed extra learning time the most. By strategically reallocating existing resources, he was able to pilot a “fifth block” of instruction at the end of his first school year, and then was able to expand and sustain the program, once the pilot proved meritorious, through funds from a voter-approved mill-levy tax increase passed the following year.

Even though new superintendents visiting schools and classrooms for the first time may have the urge to suggest strategic recommendations, asking questions instead during early visits is critical in order to discern the most effective ways to move forward.

And superintendents that regularly step back, listen, and ask questions throughout their tenure continue to benefit from these insights. For example, after serving as superintendent in Charleston, S.C. for four years, Nancy McGinley knew the system very well. Even so, in her fifth year, she held nearly a dozen community engagement meetings with hundreds of community members as she developed the next five-year phase of the district’s strategic plan. Among other things, through this community engagement, she discovered that parents were interested in having more access to schools with technology and creative classroom approaches. As a result, the district committed to ensuring that every zone in the county would have equal access to magnet schools, partial magnet schools, and public charter schools that, in combination, provided many more choices for parents. McGinley calls the new direction based on community feedback, “a real culture change for the district.”

Cultivating the beginner’s mind is key to understanding a district’s unique context. It is the first step toward busting through bureaucracy to find solutions. And if our public school systems are to endure, there may be few things more important than redirecting bureaucracy so that non-elective government officials meet modern student and teacher needs.

-- Becca Bracy Knight

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.