Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Culture of Compliance

Last night I attended a school board meeting at a nearby district where they are struggling, like all Pennsylvania school districts, with financial problems.

Culprit #1 is the pension system. For a variety of reasons, school districts must contribute an amount equal to roughly 21% of their payroll this year to the pension fund. Next year it will be 25%. In a few years it will finally top out at 32%.

Culprit #2 is the cyber charter system, which sucks enormous amounts of blood from local districts. At the meeting, the treasurer listed off the monthly payment as well as the year-end total. It would be enough to keep their soon-to-be-closed elementary school open.

As the expense was explained, one board member said, "That's just nuts." Another board member said, "Well, let's just not pay it." And there was a sort of awkward silence.

Now, practically speaking, it would be a fruitless gesture. Presumably the state would simply garnish the district's subsidy payments, perhaps levy a fine. And it can be dicey to go head to head with the state-- a few decades back Philadelphia schools decided to play financial chicken with Harrisburg and lost local control. So withholding charter payments may or may not be a wise idea.

But the moment reminded me once again of how thoroughly the education system is saturated in the culture of compliance.

It is, frankly, one of the worst things about how we sometimes run schools and classrooms. When I was first starting out, it suddenly hit me like a bathtub full of icy water that when some of my colleagues talked about excellent and outstanding students, they were not talking about students who were whip smart or highly curious or uniquely driven or bold thinkers-- they were talking about students who behaved themselves, who did as they were told, who were cheerfully and fully compliant.

In my career, I have occasionally butted heads experienced philosophical differences with colleagues who don't just want their students to learn the material, but to be happy and grateful about it, to have the Right Attitude. I once worked for a man who equated letting students get away with dress code violations with letting students walk around shooting people.

We love rules. I would argue we love them way too much, and our love of the rules permeates the institution from top to bottom.

This is a lesson we could actually learn from the business world. My brother, who comes from the world of manufacturing, served on the school board for years. He would tell versions of the following story: "In the meeting administration would talk about some stupid rule from the state and we would all agree that it was a stupid rule. Then I would say, 'Well, let's just ignore it' and everyone would look at me like I had two heads one of which spoke Greek." But in parts of the business world, rules are not king. If a rule is stupid, you ignore it. And if you're supposed to pay somebody, but they are doing a crappy job or hurting your business, you withhold payment to get their attention and start a conversation.

Sure, too much of that gets you companies violating important rule and doing real damage. But so does doing as you're told without thinking about whether that's a good idea or not. The world is filled with folks who live somewhere between the Land of Anarchy and the Culture of Compliance.

Compliance is so hard-wired into schools that most educational regulations do not have any substantial oversight-- they just assume that schools and teachers will do as they're told.

True story. Pennsylvania has a law that says your school year must be done by a particular date, which means a teacher strike can't extend beyond a number of days. When we were on strike over a decade ago, we needed to figure out what that date was, so both the union and the district tried to find somebody in Harrisburg who could tell us for sure when the end date for the strike would have to be and, just for fun, what the penalty would be if we went over. Not only could we not find anybody in Harrisburg who could answer the question, we couldn't even find someone who would admit that their office was supposed to know the answer. We finally picked a final date to agree on-- it was one of the first points of agreement in the whole negotiation. There was no enforcement mechanism to go with the law-- apparently they had just assumed that if there was a law about school stuff, everyone involved would be sure to follow it.

In this one respect, the creators of Common Core actually read the room pretty well. "Once we put this out there as the Official Approved Standards," they must have thought, "teachers will pretty much fall in line, because they always follow the rules no matter what."

Meanwhile, we've been taking these crappy high stakes tests for years because that's what we were told we were supposed to do. In the face of the opt out movement, we still have education folks sputtering that of course you have to take the test because that's just what you're supposed to do because if you don't, Bad Things Will Happen (and go on your Permanent Record).

If there is any remotely good thing to come out of the last decade-plus of reformster nonsense, it's a growing awareness among teachers and parents and even administrators that we cannot simply comply with whatever comes down the pike, no matter what official seals of officially officialness are pasted all over it.

My dream world is not filled with anarchy and chaos, but I'm not deeply attached to order and rules and compliance, either. Our best students should be our most challenging ones, and sometimes being challenged is uncomfortable and hard and pushes us out of the EZ lane. But it's the best way to grow and rise and become fully human, fully ourselves. So that means challenges for the students, challenges for us, and challenges for edu-leaders of all stripes who were hoping we would just shut up and sit down and behave because that's what we're supposed to do. I am always open to new ideas, new techniques, new insights, new understands, but none of those come into town riding on the back of Because I Said So or This Is The New Required Policy.

Compliance never leads to excellence. Never. Don't make trouble just to make trouble, but don't put up with wasteful, toxic, destructive nonsense just to avoid trouble, either. Compliance is not a virtue-- not in us, not in our students, not in our leaders.

1 comment:

  1. My aunt, Patricia Hamilton Yurkanin, was a teacher at Utica elementary for 33 years. She passed away this February, but she would have been heart-broken to know her beloved school was closing. I went to school at Cranberry and all of our small schools have been closed or are closing. It is disgusting to me what is happening in our public schools.

    I read all of your posts and enjoy them greatly. Keep up the good work.