To Fix America's Education Bureaucracy, We Need to Destroy It


Successful schools don't have a formula, other than that teachers and principals are free to follow their instincts.


AP Images

America's schools are being crushed under decades of legislative and union mandates. They can never succeed until we cast off the bureaucracy and unleash individual inspiration and willpower.

Schools are human institutions. Their effectiveness depends upon engaging the interest and focus of each student. A good teacher, studies show, can dramatically improve the learning of students. What do great teachers have in common? Nothing, according to studies -- nothing, that is, except a commitment to teaching and a knack for keeping the students engaged (see especially The Moral Life of Schools). Good teachers don't emerge spontaneously, and training and mentoring are indispensable. But ultimately, effective teaching seems to hinge on, more than any other factor, the personality of the teacher. Skilled teachers have a power to engage their students -- with spontaneity, authority, and wit.

Solving the nation's most entrenched problems See full coverage

Good teachers typically are found in schools with good cultures. Experts say you can tell if a school is effective within five minutes of walking in. Students are orderly and respectful when changing classes; there's a steady hum of activity. Good school culture typically grows out of good leadership. Here as well, there are many variations of success. KIPP schools have a formula that includes, for students, longer hours and strict accountability to core values, and, for teachers, a cooperative role in developing school activities and pedagogy. David Brooks recently described a highly successful school in Brooklyn that abandons the teacher-in-front-of-class model in favor of collaborative learning. Students sit around larger tables trying to solve problems or discuss the task at hand. In every successful school, whatever its theory of education, a good culture sweeps everyone along, as if by a strong tide, towards common goals of discovery and learning.

Successful teaching and good school cultures don't have a formula, but they have a necessary condition: teachers and principals must feel free to act on their best instincts. Minute by minute, as they respond to students and each other, their focus must be on doing what's right. Humans can only focus on one thing at a time, sociologist Robert Merton observed. That's why it's vital for teachers to be thinking only about how to communicate the lesson to the students in front of them. Any diversion of this focus is apt to be seen as indifference or boredom, and will break the magic.

This is why we must bulldoze school bureaucracy. It is a giant diversion, focused on compliance to please some administrator far away. Every minute spent filling out a form or worrying about compliance interferes with the human interaction that is the essence of effective teaching.

Law is everywhere in schools. It permeates every nook and cranny. Teachers spend hours every week filling out forms that no one ever reads -- because the laws and regulations that have piled up over the years require them. Hardly any interaction is free of legal implications. Teachers are instructed never -- never ever -- to put an arm around a crying child: the school might get sued. Misbehavior and disrespect are met with weakness and resignation; teachers are trained to be stoics, tolerating disorder rather than running the risk of a "due process" hearing in which the teacher, not the student, must justify her decision. Principals suffer a similar inversion of authority with teachers, who are armed with hundreds of pages of work rules that prescribe exactly what teachers can be asked to do. Managing a school -- say, setting the hours, deciding how to spend the budget, and deciding which teachers are doing the job -- is an oxymoron. Public schools today are, by law, basically unmanageable.

Throw onto the legal pile a mono-minded compulsion -- complete with legal penalties -- to satisfy minimum standardized test scores. Recess has been canceled, arts and humanities courses scrapped, and creative interaction replaced by rote drills -- largely because of one law, known as No Child Left Behind. Another unintended effect of focusing only on the lowest performers is that all the all the other students get left behind. Teachers are treated like machine tools, their personalities and passions extruded through rigid drilling protocols. Demoralization has never been considered a good management strategy, but that's what NCLB has accomplished. One teacher in Florida put it this way: "I love teaching, I love kids, but it's become harder and harder when you're teaching to the test. Can you hear the discouragement in my voice?"

America's schools face many external challenges, particularly the breakdown of the nuclear family and an imbedded underclass. But numerous public, charter, and parochial schools succeed notwithstanding these challenges. What all these successful schools have in common is that somehow, usually with strong leadership, they figure out how to repress the bureaucracy and unleash the human spirit. "We have a great deal of freedom here," observed a teacher at a successful school studied by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, because the principal "protects his faculty from 'the arbitrary regulations of the central authority.'"

The organizational flaw in America's schools is that they are too organized. Bureaucracy can't teach. American schools have been organized "on the totally erroneous assumption," management expert Peter Drucker observed, "that there is one right way to learn and it is the same for everyone." We must give educators freedom to be themselves. This doesn't mean they should be unaccountable. But they should be accountable for overall success, including, especially, success at socialization of students through a healthy school culture, not just objective test scores. This requires scrapping the current system -- all of it, federal, state, and local, as well as union contracts. We must start over and rebuild an open framework in which real people can find inspiration in doing things their own way.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Philip K. Howard is a lawyer, author and chair of Common Good. He is the author, most recently, of Life Without Lawyers: Restoring Responsibility in America, and wrote the introduction to Al Gore's Common Sense Government. More

Philip K. Howard is the author of Life Without Lawyers(Norton 2009), as well as the best-seller The Death of Common Sense(Random House, 1995) and The Collapse of the Common Good(Ballantine, 2002), and he is a periodic contributor to the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. He advises leaders of both parties on legal and regulatory reform issues, and wrote the introduction to Vice President Al Gore's book Common Sense Government. A practicing lawyer, Howard is a partner in the law firm Covington & Burling LLP. In 2002, Howard founded Common Good (, organized to restore common sense to American public life. The Advisory Board of Common Good is composed of leaders from a broad cross-section of American political thought including, among others, former Senators Howard Baker, Bill Bradley, George McGovern, and Alan Simpson. Howard is a civic leader in New York and is Chair-Emeritus of the Municipal Art Society, a leading civic group that spearheaded initiatives to preserve Grand Central Terminal.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Fascinating Short Film About the Multiverse

If life is a series of infinite possibilities, what does it mean to be alive?

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.


How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe


A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.


I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."


Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion



More in National

From This Author

Just In