America’s public schools are mired in a bureaucratic jungle. Basic daily choices—how to teach, maintain order, let kids play, plan field trips, serve food, deal with other educators, you name it—are controlled by mind-numbing rules and procedures. The predictable result is to suffocate the most important resource needed to educate America’s youth: the energy and spirit of teachers and principals.
Find any successful school, in America or in any other country, and you will see educators making decisions all day long based on their instincts of right and wrong. Good teachers know how to engage their students, each in their own unique way. And students learn because teachers—like this one—inspire them. That’s why America needs to bulldoze school bureaucracy—and that means doing away with senseless rules, useless forms, excessive union requirements, and the outlandish threat of frivolous lawsuits.
So, what’s the right thing to do here? Instead of shackling teachers and principals in thousands of pages of red tape, they need to be empowered to use their best judgment, and then be accountable for how they do it. Daily choices are much more complex than can be prescribed in rigid rules. Let teachers maintain order, and draw on their unique personality to inspire students. Let principals distinguish between a tiny toy gun and real threats, and decide which teachers are doing their jobs and which are not. Monitor educators from a distance, and don’t judge school performance by one metric—say, test scores—but by the overall judgment of how well educators are training children to be productive members of our society.
What if educators make bad decisions? Hold them accountable, and have checks and balances on important decisions. In matters of student discipline, for example, we don’t need a legal process for every decision. In most cases, a fairness committee consisting of parents, students, and teachers can instead serve as a check against arbitrary injustice. Courts are needed mainly to draw sensible legal boundaries about risk and liability—so that educators no longer are fearful to put an arm around a crying child or to let students run at recess.
There’s one essential reform needed to fix America’s schools, and prepare new generations to succeed in global markets: Put humans in charge again—and show students by skill and example what it means to take responsibility.
Special education laws are an even denser bureaucratic tangle than other areas. The law dwells on legal rights instead of outcomes. And by making parents its enforcer, the law pits parents against teachers and encourages legal action: “It’s getting to the point where every disagreement turns into a bad divorce case.”
These due process and documentation requirements—originally designed to protect students protesting the Vietnam War—leave teachers and principals at a daily crossroads: whether to spend precious energy and time to remove a disruptive student, or to simply accept the constant interruptions.
A Culture of Mindless Compliance
If there’s one clear symptom of the disease of growing school bureaucracy, it’s the culture of rote compliance—and it has taken over classrooms, principals’ offices, and government agencies.
No Running at Recess
One unnamed school board recently instituted a “no running policy” during recess. To make matters worse, the school’s break period is only 10 minutes long to begin with.