Maureen Downey: Limit the paper trail

By Maureen Downey

One of the surprises in talking to teachers over the years is that their biggest complaint is not unruly students or uninvolved parents.

What really discourages teachers is the paperwork, the ever-increasing and ever-changing litany of demands from the central office, state agencies and federal government to fill out this form and churn out that report.

Across grades, systems and states, teachers are overwhelmed by the pressure to submit detailed lesson plans, agendas and daily goals.

A survey earlier this year of 43,000 Maryland teachers found that while they are generally happy with their class sizes and teaching conditions, they despair over all the paperwork.

A 1987 study found that teachers on average spent eight hours a week on paperwork. The hours may well be higher now since many current school reform models seem to measure success by the stacks of reports produced.
The emphasis on relentlessly documenting their every move in the classroom whittles away at their autonomy and their discretion, teachers say. They also maintain that there’s no evidence that better record keeping inspires better teaching.

A top researcher once told me that his best advice to new teachers was ignore all the central office notices and directives in their mailboxes for the first three months and concentrate on their craft.
A mentor teacher shared with me that her inexperienced colleagues seldom come to her in frustration with students. It’s the impositions of the administration that brings them to her door.

What bothers me is that these paperwork laments also come from seasoned teachers, the pros in the classroom with long histories of success with students. I am stunned at the bureaucratic shackles put on even proven teachers.

I met a lot of effective teachers a few weeks ago at an Education Trust conference in Washington, D.C., honoring schools around the country making great strides with high need kids.

At the National Association for Gifted Children conference in Atlanta more recently, I listened to other acclaimed teachers talk about how they strive to accommodate the advanced learners. And in recent classroom visits around Atlanta, I watched as clever teachers engaged their students in innovative math and reading classes.

Struck by the commitment and talents of these high-performing teachers, I had a sudden idea for a reform that would be cheap, easy and could start tomorrow:

Leave the terrific teachers alone. Allow them to devote all their time to their students.

Decide which teachers in each school building are performing well. Most principals already know their stars, but student achievement data could also be used as a determinant.

Free those teachers from meetings, professional development, lesson plan submissions, data collection and every other piece of minutiae, paperwork and reporting that diverts them from their students.

Not forever. Start with six months and see what happens.

Enable these professionals to chart their own course, set their own goals and trust them to do well. Focus on the struggling teachers instead.
Don’t fret if the great teachers are doing it their way and departing from the systemwide script. If they’re succeeding with their students, who cares who wrote the script?

A friend in the computer industry has been through multiple reorganizations and has come to recognize two signs that a company is sinking fast:

No more free bagels in the break room and a sudden insistence on written and detailed records of time on task, forcing employees to devote precious time to writing about selling computers rather than getting out and actually selling them.

That insanity appears to be spreading to education where documenting classroom performance is preventing teachers from performing.

Yet, I can’t believe that Superintendents Cindy Loe or Beverly Hall want their best teachers harangued over incomplete lesson plans.

I don’t buy that J. Alvin Wilbanks or Fred Sanderson think their top teachers should alter successful practice because an off-the-shelf reform model calls for a different approach. Edmond Heatley can’t care if teachers write daily goals on the board if their students are learning.
The late British historian C. Northcote Parkinson aptly summarized the cost of focusing too much on paperwork:

“The man whose life is devoted to paperwork has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself.”

Taken from the Atlanta Journal Constitution: http://www.ajc.com/opinion/maureen-downey-limit-the-757684.html

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