Last week, I was struck by the response to “Of ESSA Plans and TPS Reports,” a short, acerbic take on how schooling’s fascination with strategic plans and bureaucratic reports can bring to mind some of the worst excesses of corporate culture.
A decade ago, most of those who thought of themselves as “reformers” worried that education was awash in paperwork, jargon, and bureaucracy. They argued that streamlining hidebound rules and routines was a big part of empowering families, communities, and educators. There was a presumption that a central aim of reform should be helping schools be more nimble, creative, and responsive.
That’s why reactions to the blog felt telling. Reformers seemed pretty much left cold by the premise. The self-styled reformers at the Collaborative for Student Success, an outfit committed to promoting the Common Core, blasted the column as “irresponsible.” More generally, after conceding that ESSA plans are mostly blather, reformers skipped past any concerns on that score in order to argue that particulars of state accountability systems really matter (which is true, but not much of a justification).
The positive responses came not from the reformers but from the field, mostly from folks who work in leadership roles in state education agencies and local districts. Their notes were mostly along the lines of, “Hey, I can’t say anything about what a TPS report our ESSA plan is, so thanks for speaking up.” And it was proud anti-"reformster” Peter Greene who wrote at his Curmudgucation blog, “There is something childishly naive about the bureaucratic belief in the power of paperwork to bend reality.”
Last week didn’t feel like an isolated occurrence, but rather one more illustration of a lager shift. When Mike McShane delivered a hard, useful look at regulatory bloat in charter authorizing a couple years ago, reformers were surprisingly disinterested—in fact, more chose to take shots at McShane than seemed inclined to worry about the question. Reformers appear completely unbothered by the fact that charter-school applications can run 500 pages or more, meaning they’ve become cut-and-paste compliance exercises that can seem unmanageable to anyone without professional staff and foundation support.
Race to the Top’s sprawling, encyclopedic applications—with their haphazard appendices and Maya Angelou poetry—were treated as a point of pride, rather than evidence of consultants run amok. In ESSA, concerns about new reporting burdens or the need to streamline federal paperwork wound up as afterthoughts. In recent years, discussion of School Improvement Grants, new teacher-evaluation systems, and Common Core implementation has featured lots of discussion—but remarkably little attention to the amount of paper and process these entail, or the amount of time and energy they have required.
Ultimately, it feels like we’ve lived through a sea change in school reform, one which means reformers are increasingly inclined to behave as proud stewards of a new establishment. As I put it in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, “The same reformers who once sought to combat stifling bureaucracy have slowly become a new breed of bureaucrats. Of course, as you’d expect, they don’t see it that way. That’s not because they’re innately bossy; it’s more a function of where they now sit.” Many reformers now see themselves less as a vanguard trying to create room for others to reimagine schools, after all, than as guardians of ambitious paper plans to promote the “equitable distribution of teachers.”
I’m not questioning anyone’s motives. The strategic plans and proliferating reports are all offered with good intentions. However, the easiest thing in the world is to demand another report or suggest adding some more length to an improvement plan. But everyone who spends time in and around schools and school systems understands how much time, energy, and initiative is soaked up by the paper chase. And today’s reformers would do well to keep that in mind.
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.