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Rick Hess Straight Up

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.

Teaching Opinion

The Secret Source of Lost Learning and Educator Burnout

By Rick Hess — June 10, 2019 3 min read
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About a week ago, the Washington Post published a stinging essay on the problems with excessive paperwork in medicine. A study of 7,000 physicians found that half showed symptoms of burnout, with surveys consistently showing that doctors who spend too little time on meaningful activities are much more likely to burn out—and to go part time, leave their practice, or simply leave medicine. Researchers estimate that half of physicians log on to their electronic health record from home, just to complete their documentation for the day. Though it’s long been assumed that surgeons are unusually susceptible to burnout, data suggest that surgeons are actually reporting high rates of professional fulfillment. Why? The thinking is that surgeons spend much of their time doing meaningful work in the operating room—away from the “insurance companies and the electronic health record.”

This account will feel achingly familiar to anyone who has sat in a teachers’ lounge or talked to a tired principal. As I note in The Cage-Busting Teacher, teachers spend more than a third of their instructional time on tasks other than instruction—including rote tasks like attendance taking, passing papers, listening to announcements, and all the rest. And that’s before we add in duty period paperwork, Sunday night form-filling, or after-school document scrambles. The burdens can be even higher on educational specialists, with speech language pathologists spending 400 hours a year on paperwork and in meetings. Eighty-six percent of teachers have reported that they have to do “too much paperwork and documentation.” A year or two ago, in Clark County, Nevada, school principals spent an average of 19 days at year’s end compiling documentation for the state’s teacher evaluation system—after all the useful stuff (observations, debriefs, mentoring) had been completed.

Now, readers will note that such data points barely register in discussions of teacher quality, teacher retention, instructional improvement, or school culture. That’s telling. The thousands of scholars who study these things have been remarkably uninterested in prosaic stuff like paperwork. Why? Well, tracking this stuff is hard, tedious, and, well, not real sexy. It would be hard to publish the results in respected outlets because the research is “descriptive” rather than “causal.” And, to be fair, it’s hard to get funders interested in underwriting this kind of stuff.

Research aside, the truly bizarre thing is how little interest this question has garnered in education circles.

You’d think that unions would be all over this. You’d think that they would be pushing for districts to examine how much time teachers are spending on forms, entering data, assembling data dashboards, filing lesson plans, and all the rest. You’d think they’d raise a cry about all the mindless reporting and paperwork that sucks up teacher time and energy. But they don’t.

You’d think that conservatives worried about bureaucracy and big government would be eager to free teachers from unnecessary burdens. That this would seem a natural opportunity to illustrate why notions like “deregulation” should appeal to teachers frustrated by bureaucratic routines. But I’ve been trying to make that case for 15 years or more, with remarkably little success.

You’d think that reformers might be eager to take this on, as part of their effort to remake outdated systems and make schools more agile and student-focused. But, truth is, from No Child Left Behind to School Improvement Grants to teacher evaluation, 21st century school reform has done a lot more to increase paperwork for teachers and principals than to reduce it.

Heck, even “teacher voice” groups formed to advocate for professional autonomy and respect have been notably silent on all of this. Instead, most of these groups seem to have spent time variously making the case for things like standards, teacher evaluation, charter schooling, or school finance—but not on the need to address the routine burdens that drive so many teachers to distraction.

I know paperwork is boring compared to cheering for our pet solutions—whether that be more spending, more school choice, or what have you. But, for the life of me, I’ve never understood why we spend so much time and energy pursuing grand strategies to promote learning, retain teachers, and create positive school cultures—and so little in tackling simple stuff that might help that happen.

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.