Are Lawmakers Asking Too Much of Our Schools?

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Mandates have tied down educators' hands for too long. Maybe we should re-examine the expectations of what schools should even accomplish in the first place.

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If public school superintendents and principals could sit down and talk with local, state, and federal lawmakers, seeking relief from the thicket of regulation and red tape controlling America's schools today would surely be high on their agenda. In nationwide surveys and interviews Public Agenda has conducted through the years, school leaders have repeatedly conveyed that mandates, bureaucracy, and process consume too much of their time and school resources, and undercut their capacity to exercise judgment. Some statistics:

  • 86 percent of public school superintendents and 84 percent of principals say that "keeping up with all the local, state and federal mandates handed down to the schools takes up way too much time";
  • 82 percent of superintendents and 49 percent of principals say that politics and bureaucracy are the main reasons their colleagues leave the profession;
  • 77 percent of superintendents and 72 percent of principals say that "making it much easier for principals to remove bad teachers -- even those who have tenure" -- would be a very effective way to improve school leadership;
  • 64 percent of superintendents and 67 percent of principals say that "markedly reducing the number of mandates on schools and the bureaucracy and paperwork associated with them" would be a very effective way to improve school leadership;
  • 63 percent of superintendents and 66 percent of principals say the emphasis on "documentation and due process" makes it "difficult to take action against students who are discipline problems";
  • 47 percent of superintendents and 45 percent of principals say they generally have to "work around the system" to get things done; and
  • 44 percent of principals do not believe they have enough decision-making authority to be fully effective.
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It's clear that school leaders and their associations should be speaking up more forcefully about overregulation. If it's an obstacle to improving schools and to the wise use of scarce resources, they have an obligation to both students and taxpayers to say so. Because of pushback from school leaders in the state, a commission created by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo provided some mandate relief to schools last year, including providing leeway to run buses based on actual ridership and not on the number of eligible students. The Port Washington school district estimated that it would save $2 million a year if it could run fewer but fuller buses, once this one-size fits-all statewide mandate was eliminated.

Reducing bureaucratic requirements for schools is generally a step in the right direction, but maybe part of the solution is to also re-examine our own expectations of what schools should even accomplish in the first place. Asking school leaders to improve instruction, raise standards, and create school climates that are respectful and conducive to learning is reasonable, and sensible regulation here is warranted. But that's not all we demand; schools are routinely required to advance social improvement missions that often have little or nothing to do with education. Asking schools to take on every do-gooder mission that occurs to us may be going overboard. At what point, it's fair to ask, have we created a "to do" list that's so long and convoluted that not even the most committed and savvy school leader can accomplish it?

In one Public Agenda interview, a superintendent provided this list to show how it all adds up. By law, his schools must: provide oral health instruction; give students information about organ donation; set-up anti-bullying policies; ensure that children say the Pledge of Allegiance; make sure that social studies classes celebrate Freedom Week; organize parent involvement committees at every school; set up committees on employee policies; set up school and district committees on "closing the gap"; arrange for bus drivers and other employees to have two paid breaks; see that each teacher has a specified amount of money to spend on classroom supplies; and include the body mass index of each child on his or her report card. As he wrapped up the list, the superintendent added this parting shot: "Oh, by the way, remember No Child Left Behind!" From the same study, 93 percent of superintendents and 88 percent of principals related that their district has experienced "an enormous increase in responsibilities and mandates without getting the resources necessary to fulfill them."

Most laws in education and elsewhere reflect lawmakers' and the public's hopes and good intentions. Health and safety education, consumer education, financial literacy, and promoting patriotism and love of country are all good things -- but are we right in asking public schools to absorb them? The impact at the end of the day can be to take away from schools' underlying goal: teaching kids. "Some items are well-intended," a school leader told us, "[but] most of the lawmakers don't have a clue what the unintended consequences of their laws will be."

For America's public school superintendents and principals, the consequences of asking schools to do too much is evident. If we're serious about improving American education, maybe it's time for the rest of us to rethink what we're asking schools to do.

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Jean Johnson is a senior fellow at Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research and engagement organization More

Johnson is the author of You Can't Do It Alone: A Communications and Engagement Manual for School Leaders Committed to Reform. The book reviews opinion research on the views of parents, teachers, students, and school administrators. Johnson is also the co-author, with Scott Bittle, of Where Did the Jobs Go--and How Do We Get Them Back?, a guide to the national debate over jobs and unemployment; Where Does the Money Go?, a book designed to help typical Americans understand the debate over the national debt; and Who Turned Out the Lights?, a citizen's guide to the energy debate, all from Harper Collins.

Johnson has served on the Research Committee of The Ad Council, and is currently a member of the board of the National Issues Forums Institute, an organization which convenes citizens nationwide for non-partisan discussions on vital public issues.

Prior to joining Public Agenda in 1980, Ms. Johnson was Resource Director for Action for Children's Television in Boston, where she authored a number of articles on television and children. In addition to her work at Public Agenda, Johnson is a director of Sugal Records, a small, New York-based classical music recording company. She graduated from Mount Holyoke College and holds master's degrees from Brown University and Simmons College.
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