More on the Progressive Solution: A Response to EdWize

June 16, 2007

Leo Casey over at EdWize has a thoughtful response to my recent post regarding the responsibility that the African-American community has for demanding better school systems. (For more on how this conversation got started, see Kevin and Sara’s posts at The Quick and the Ed.)

But as I read this and his other post on the topic of fixing broken bureaucracy, I realized that he does not fully understand the nature of the problem in Washington, D.C. (and I expect in at least some other places, but D.C. is what I know best). The problem Casey is focused on is corruption and patronage. But while these are problems, this misses the real issue. The biggest problem in D.C., if you accept the Washington Post’s analysis, is inaction and incompetence.

–It is a brand new school opening, but 3 years later the media production room still doesn’t work, because a critical piece of equipment fell into a bureaucratic chasm.

–It is employee records stuffed in cardboard boxes–and the system is five years behind in processing the contents of the boxes.

–It is a system that lacks an accurate list of its 55,000 students, although it pays $900,000 to a consultant each year to count.

–It is a principal who lured a great math teacher from a charter school, but the paperwork took so long downtown that the teacher went elsewhere.

–It is a supervisor trying to figure out why the system pays so much for trash collection, finally locating the employee deep in the bowels of the bureaucracy, and realizing that the person did not know how to operate the computer on their desk.

–It is a new superintendent finding that personnel records were lost because a motorized filing system had been broken for years, trapping hundreds of records behind a wall. And then learning that people had known about the problem and done nothing.

I agree with Casey that the solution is not dismantling all bureaucracy (nor is it to turn all schools into charters, which are also susceptible to the problems we are discussing). We will always have government-run schools (I don’t think the term is pejorative, by the way), and we need government to work. Poor and working people need it especially. So we need a bureaucracy that works.

But in getting the bureaucracy to work, I don’t think the race and class issues I raise are 20 years out of date. Maybe what I have to say is limited to D.C., which is a majority black city. But I continue to contend that at least in D.C., if a mostly-white system were doing to lower-class black children what our current system is doing, the African-American community would be outraged and this would be a major civil rights issue. That the system has been allowed to under-serve our neediest children for so long is in part because our community still struggles with how to respond when those doing the disserving look like us.

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One Response to “More on the Progressive Solution: A Response to EdWize”

  1. Jeff Senter Says:

    I think this is a more accurate assessment of one of the problems with at least some large inner-city school districts. A large and incompetent bureaucracy is entrenched in some such districts and is an impediment to positive change. The solution is not as some suggest a privatized take-over of the school district or lots of charter schools. The solution is to improve the schools in the district. In order to improve the schools I think a district should bring in a very good and empowered management team that 1) knows how to run a large organization efficiently, 2) knows how to run schools specifically, and 3) understands and can communicate with the local community. The trouble is even if a city sought to hire such a management team, I am not sure if very many qualified people with all three knowledge areas exist.


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