“That’s Not How We Do Things”: Cui Bono Redux

To a certain kind of mind, the status quo has no risks and no costs. The “way we do things” is seen as, if not the best of all possible worlds, then at least a sort of unexaminable state of nature. To this mind, only new ways of thinking and doing have downsides and they are always significant enough that it’s not worth the risk to travel outside the lane. The new is the monster under the bureaucratic bed, the agoraphobic’s great outdoors.

Policy versus Practice
Policy versus Practice

In my last post I talked about the ways that districts use justifications like “conflict of interest” or, even more vaguely, “policy” to put the scare into people in order to minimize the occurrence of unfamiliar behaviors. Since it works to prevent things from happening, the consequences of that kind tyranny can be hard to identify, like trying to prove a negative. Once in a while, though, they’re given to us in very sharp focus.

Like most government employees, teachers are prohibited from benefiting inappropriately from their positions. Now there aren’t many teachers extorting money from parents in exchange for better treatment, but should that happen we can rest easy knowing there’s a statute under which they can be punished.

This is sensible in theory and serves a broader purpose. Self-dealing behavior by public employees not only hurts those directly subject to it, but also erodes trust in public institutions. This in turn decreases government’s ability to be effective, causing a social harm that goes beyond the immediate bad action.

Therefore, the thinking goes, it’s important to maintain not just integrity but also the appearance of integrity. To perform that “integrity theater” the organization enacts regulations that seek to limit, bar, or penalize employees’ judgment and discretion, sometimes to a bizarre degree.

In one recent New York example, a school therapist was suspended without pay for 30 days for committing “theft of services.” Her offense? Using a school computer and email address to help a thirteen-year-old special-needs kid mount a Kickstarter campaign to create a graphic novel and short film about a disabled superhero.

The action against her—which the New York Times described as that of “an almost unfathomably mindless school bureaucracy at work” (“Bureaucracy Turns a Hero Into a Rogue”)—is a crystalline example of the District Operating System. Starting with a reasonable notion (“it’s bad when employees steal”), the DOS twists that idea into a rigid caricature that violates common-sense values (“it’s good for teachers to care about and help their kids”) and then prosecutes it relentlessly in situations that feel like a bad translation from another language.

New York has no monopoly on unfathomable mindlessness. A Dorchester, Massachusetts third-grade teacher may have run afoul of state ethics laws by winning a $150,000 essay contest and then donating the money to her school. The official at the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission (which hasn’t yet determined whether the teacher will be charged with a violation) said, “…the law is there for a reason. Gifts can undermine public confidence in government. It creates an appearance problem.”

Okay. Going back to the first principles of public confidence, let’s ask: Which is more likely to erode trust in public institutions: the fact that a teacher uses her school computer to help a student realize a dream, or that we prosecute her for it? That a teacher donates a $150,000 prize to her school, or that she is brought up on ethics charges, first for having won and then for turning it to the benefit of her kids?

Which is more likely to attract or repel the kind of people you should want to work in your district? Which passes the eye-roll test? Which strengthens or undermines people’s faith in government? In each case, cui bono—who benefits—from this ordering of priorities?

Steven Hodas (@stevenhodas) is a veteran of both the New York City Department of Education and the edtech industry. In this blog series, School District Innovation: When Practice Collides with Policy, he provides insights into the challenges, struggles, and opportunities of large-district attempts to reform longstanding practices and change cultural norms. This series is part of CRPE’s ongoing examination of innovative school systems.

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