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A Ray of Hope: Bureaucratic Disarmament in NYC Schools

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A retroactive raise is what made the headlines of the proposed new NYC teachers' contract. But the exciting breakthrough is the potential for abandoning the bureaucratic swamp that has made it impossible to fix NYC schools. 

Some school reformers will be excited that it will be easier to get rid of poor performers -- requiring, according to news reports, poor evaluations in two separate schools. This is indeed important. It is impossible to build and maintain a culture of excellence when poor performers are in the classroom next door. One bad apple, studies show, can spoil the barrel.   

But the revelation of the new deal is the idea of mutual bureaucratic disarmament. For decades, the City and the union have done battle by imposing on each other more rules and requirements -- for example, detailed requirements, sometimes minute by minute, on how a teacher must deliver a lesson plan, and requirements on exactly how many minutes per month a teacher has to listen to a principal.  

A study by Common Good a few years ago found that there were so many rules for NYC schools that no one had collected them in one place. Even the more rudimentary choices -- say, removing a disruptive student from a classroom -- are subject to dozens of rules and procedures that effectively remove a teacher's authority to maintain order. Common Good constructed bubble charts of steps and procedures for basic choices that were five feet long.

All this bureaucracy makes schools unmanageable. But it also does something far worse. Bureaucracy kills the human spirit. It's that simple. A teacher who is forced to trudge through mindless protocols cannot possibly be enthusiastic. Inspiring students is impossible when the teacher is forced to act like a bureaucratic robot.  

The myth of bureaucracy is that it makes sure things are done properly. But people can only think of one thing at once. Focus on A, as sociologist Robert K. Merton put it, and you cannot see B. Forcing teachers (and principals, and students) to focus on thick rulebooks just snuffs out the candle of human inspiration. What kind of role models are teachers who are forced to act like robots instead of moral models of maturity and fairness?

For decades leaders in schools have been stuck in a downward spiral of bureaucratic warfare. Good principals succeeded by ignoring the rules. New NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina famously built a culture of excellence at PS 6 by, among other things, ignoring the bureaucracy. (I profiled her in my book The Collapse of the Common Good.) Union leader Michael Mulgrew is not one to give an inch, but in many different settings, in conversations with me and others, he too has highlighted how bureaucracy had become the worst enemy of teachers.  

The devil of every deal is in the details. But extra money to teachers is a bargain if New York City can unleash human energy and enthusiasm in its schools. Bureaucracy can't teach.