Systems Verses People


So much time and energy of the education reform movement is being wasted on the establishment of systems. The reformster bible state that the solution is better systems; more streamlined, move efficient. That is why charter schools are seen as the medicine to all the ills of public schooling. They are the lean, mean cutter that can outmaneuver the hulking container ship. After 16 years as an educator and lots and lots of research and reading, I will flat out tell you excellent schools are excellent schools because of people, not systems. Improved systems will never improved public education if we can’t ensure that our schools are staffed and led by people with the right sets of skills and abilities. (Even some charter schools appear to be realizing this).

Lets think about it. Would the most efficient and well run hospital system work without talented surgeons? Would the most efficient law firm survive without a brilliant legal mind or two? Absolutely not. A brilliant surgeon would be less effective in a hospital that is poorly run, but they would still save more lives than terrible surgeon working in a well-oiled machine of a hospital.

The focus of true education reform should be BOTH on efficiency and on attracting, retaining, and supporting excellent staff and creating positive, collaborative educational environments. Bureaucracy is absolutely the killer of education quality and education innovation (and crusher of souls). However, bureaucracy exists in all organizations and all systems, both governmental and private. Thinking that bureaucracy can be avoided by privatizing schools is naïve. We must try to understand the nature of bureaucracy to control it. It is like kudzu—you will never kill it and it requires constant effort to keep it cut back or it will overtake anything in its path. (If you don’t know what kudzu is, find a Southerner and ask).

Bureaucracies do on materialize from thin air. Schools are criticized for being too bureaucratic and top heavy yet reformers and politicians continue to pile onerous and unfunded mandates, rules, restrictions, policies, required data collection, required data collection, statutes, laws, and decrees upon us…somebody has to do all that work.

What is insidious is that this bureaucratic drowning of teachers and schools is intentional. When you keep educators so busy with useless mandates and paperwork, we don’t have time to fully engage, to reflect, and to ask critical questions. We don’t have time to read, listen, and connect with our colleagues across the country and understand, wait, it isn’t just me…it isn’t just my state…it isn’t just my district or my school. We can’t focus on issues of social justice. Current education reform policies focus on systems because systems maintain the existing structures of power and privilege while educators with critical minds have a lot of power to challenge those power structures.



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