A recent parents' meeting with a local school district deputy superintendent boiled over in frustration as officials refused to allow direct parental input in replacing the departing principal at a middle school. Many parents requested an opportunity to meet the final candidates, only to be told that wasn't going to be possible, as it violated district policy.
When one father pointed out that he and other parents had participated in just such a forum with new principal candidates in Arizona, he was informed that such a thing could never happen here.
But why not? Of course it could happen here. And, if parents want it to happen, it should happen here. District policy is not immutable, nor does it carry the binding force of law. School boards, superintendents, and district officials have far more freedom to change than they are willing to admit. What they often lack, however, is sufficient will or desire to change.
This is disappointing, but it's hardly surprising. Inertia is the driving force in most large bureaucracies, and there can be unpleasant consequences for those who dare to do things differently from the way they have always been done.
An opinion piece in the spring issue of Education Next spoke of the "culture of can't" that exists in many public school organizations. Authors Frederick Hess, executive editor of Education Next, and Whitney Downs, a student at the George Washington University Law School, described this as a culture, "in which even surmountable impediments or ankle-high obstacles are treated as absolute prohibitions.
"This mind-set threatens to undermine the success of hard-won reforms and can make policy impediments appear more severe than they truly are."
Unfortunately, this culture has been found to exist in Utah schools, as well. Policies establish a necessary structure, but they also provide political cover for those who don't want to be held accountable for difficult or unpopular decisions. So, when faced with requests to get rid of bad teachers or fix processes that no longer work, too many leaders shrug their shoulders, blame a policy, and plead helplessness.
Going forward, as an unprecedented flood of new students threatens to overwhelm Utah's public schools, that approach just isn't going to work. To accommodate the needs of Utah's schoolchildren, educators will need to work hand in hand with parents to both consider and reconsider internal changes that can improve the system for everybody.
Over the years, education reformers across the country and here in Utah have proposed bold initiatives designed to force the educational system to be more responsive to the needs of students. Some of them have succeeded, and some have not, but the existing education establishment generally has fought almost all of them every step of the way. The priority among educators is too often stability over innovation. These two ideas do not have to be mutually exclusive, and "we've never done it like that before" is not, by itself, a valid enough reason not to do it that way now.