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.
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.
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?