01 June 2012

In the Best Interest of the Students

An education-related story caught my attention yesterday, as a textbook example of how a bureaucratic mentality precludes reflective leadership and organizational learning—precisely the attributes required for being effective in the contemporary world. The details of the case are pretty straight-forward:
Lynden Dorval has been a … teacher in the Edmonton Public School system for 35 years. Last week, he was suspended indefinitely for what he says was insubordination for disobeying an order not to give zeros to students. [He says,] “…if [students] don’t hand in work or show up to write an exam … we have a comment policy where we’re supposed to put in comments indicating what they haven’t done. The problem with that is the marks program doesn’t count that for anything, so if a student had only done half the work then their average mark would be based only on that half the work. The average is calculated by whatever marks are in there.”
In other words, if a student does only one or two assignments on which s/he receives passing grades and does no other work through the term – including not taking the exam – the student will nonetheless receive a passing grade according to the Edmonton School Board policy. Mr. Dorval objected to this policy, ensuring that a student would receive a final mark that reflects both the work done and not done. The Board superintendent suspended Dorval for insubordination (notably only three weeks before the final exams when the students are most in need of a teacher familiar with what had transpired through the entire school year).

Seems pretty dumb on the surface, doesn’t it? Despite the seemingly ill-advised policy and inappropriateness of the suspension timing, what does this story have to do with leadership, and the problematics of a bureaucratic mindset? Well, have a listen to what the Board’s official spokesperson, one Cheryl Oxford, has to say about the superintendent’s decision:
“A student is to be assessed on their overall learning outcomes,” she told reporters. “So as opposed to being assessed on what they don’t know, they’re being assessed on what they do know. … All the decisions that we make are in the best interest of students. If the superintendent did not feel that this decision was not in the best interest of the students he wouldn’t have made it.”
Did you catch that? First, counting only those assignments that were done seems to ensure that students are evaluated on “what they do know,” presumably because what they haven’t done, they don’t know (as opposed to, say, simply not doing the work for whatever reason). To a system that is designed to purge human judgment – in other words, a bureaucracy – that sort of comment technically makes sense.

More significant, however, are the effects of the bureaucratic mentality. In his book, The Rise of the Network Society, Manuel Castells describes bureaucracies as, “organizations for which the reproduction of their system of means becomes their main organizational goal.” This means that a bureaucratic system cannot afford to be demonstrated to be wrong: If it was wrong, it would impede its ability to reproduce its system of means. This underlying mentality often translates into bewildering and often arcane public explanations that seem to ignore what to those outside of the system would be simple, common sense. It is the reason why so many bureaucratically minded leaders choose to “stay the course,” rather than admit that a decision was ill advised (because that would be tantamount to admitting that the system which vested in them decision-making power made a mistake). Case in point: Ms. Oxford’s comment that, since all decisions are made in the best interests of students, the specific decision to suspend Lynden Dorval must have been in the best interest of students, otherwise the decision would not have been made. It is a circular (il)logic that steadfastly defends a bureaucratic system over any potential reflection on the usefulness of the policy, practical problematics of its implementation, or – heaven forefend! – unintended consequences like depriving students of their teacher right before final exams which, according to the unique bureaucratic reasoning of the Edmonton School Board, must, by definition, be in the best interest of the students.

Besides, by creating an incentive for students to only submit assignments on material that they know and ignore everything else, we can be assured to create good bureaucrats to fill the cubicles of both public and private sector corporate bureaucracies. After all, bureaucracies exist to reproduce their systems of means, and what is the purpose of the traditional education system if not to serve that bureaucratic objective?

No comments: