A Rant About Bureaucracy & Education

bu·reauc·ra·cy  byo͝oˈräkrəsē/


  1. a system of government in which most of the important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives.

As a Civil Servant working for the DoD I am deeply ensconced in one of the largest bureaucracies in the world.  Every day I see first hand how policy made at the highest levels, usually with some sort of good intention, becomes a giant, complex and expensive Gordian Knot.  What was initially conceived to save a dime now costs hundreds in adminastrivia.  I've become a cog in several of these overly complex machines called processes.  It's one of the reasons I'm working so hard to reinvent myself and move on to my next career as an artist.  

My son heads off to school this morning for another round of Standards of Learning (SOL) testing.  I think the acronym is fitting but with a slightly different meaning.  This whole thing has gotten so out of hand it makes my head spin.  The complete story is far too complex to tell here but in a nutshell this is my perception of this ridiculous affair.  It started with Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) studies which have been ranking the US fairly low since first published in 2000.  Well, the US doesn't like to be considered average in anything so to fix this problem lawmakers created the No Child Left Behind act or NCLB.  Politicians really don't (or maybe can't because of how the DC beltway works) think outside the box.  They only know how to make laws that regulate, either by stick or by carrot.  The fed can't force a state to adopt standardized testing directly, but they have a big carrot - Title 1 federal education funding.  NCLB reprogrammed federal education funds to reflect performance on standardized tests.  Each state had to create a standard testing program and in Virginia those tests are the aforementioned SOLs.  Basically the fed says "play this testing game, score well and we'll continue to give you your alms."  Now the bureaucratic fun really begins.

Virginia and other states, in fear of losing those precious funds, decided that they needed to ensure good scores got reported to the fed, so they added some pre-test requirements throughout the year.  See the same flawed logic?  Then the local school boards, not wanting to lose their crumbs, added more tests as well.  This year, my 8th grade son will take 5 different standardized pre-tests in preparation for 7 different SOL tests.

Ryan Setzer - May 2010 shows off his 2nd grade science experiment

Ryan Setzer - May 2010 shows off his 2nd grade science experiment

This is just what happens in any large hierarchy.  No one had anything but good intentions however the result is this:  1) Education budgets are now strongly focused on attaining passing scores on all of these tests.  2) Teachers have thrown creativity and innovation out the window because they only have time (and are told) to teach to the test.  3) Students learn the test materials and not much else - so forget creative or critical thinking, appreciation for the arts, healthy living, or other truly useful life skills.  4) Educators' pay has gone down (sorry, no money left over for even cost of living increases, teachers.)  And, here's the real kicker....  5) Our Standings on those PISA surveys?  It has gone DOWN since we started all of this.

Going back to the original problem - if we had, instead, taken a fraction of the funds wasted on this circus, and used them to increased teacher's salaries to reflect their importance in our society and/or provided grants directly to those educators who demonstrated teaching innovations, taught creative and critical thinking and any of the really important things you're supposed to learn in school, we'd be looking at a much different result, in my humble opinion.

Jim Setzer4 Comments