An education in bureaucracy

School districts get managerial expertise from Broad Education Foundation “residents” with MBAs, JDs or MPPs (masters in public policy) and at least four years of work experience. The residents, who spend two years at urban school districts, get an education in “the shocking subculture of education bureaucracy,” writes Naomi Schaefer Riley in an LA Times commentary.

Michelle Boyers, who had worked as a private equity associate and attended Harvard Business School before joining the Boston Public Schools’ human resources department, says she has been most surprised by the “resistance to change” at all levels of the school system. Boston schools, for example, do all hiring on paper — candidates must submit three copies of a 1-inch thick application. Teachers who apply in January often don’t know if they’re hired until August. Putting the system online would snare good candidates who are now drifting to other districts. This no-brainer fix would have taken about two months in the private sector, she estimates. She figures it will take the district from nine to 12 months.

Others are shocked by the absence of accountability.

. . . the biggest shock (is) that public school systems pretend they don’t have to operate like other companies and organizations, that they can get the best people without giving them incentives, that their funding comes from heaven, that being a public employee charged with doing nice things for children means never having to answer to shareholders — in this case, taxpayers.

After two years, when the $80,000 Broad salary ends, most residents stay in public education.

About Joanne


  1. You know, I was actually surprised to see her cite a figure of 9-12 months.

    Years ago Bob Koegel (brilliant autism researcher at UCSB) told us that it takes 20 years for any good new concept to become standard practice: around 10 years for other researchers to validate the research, and another 10 for the practice to be adopted.

    That’s off the topic, but still . . . I think it’s related, in that you always have to have an ‘early adopter’ or two when making any kind of change, including bureaucratic change. (I think.)

  2. The “9-12 months” referred to the introduction of an on-line hiring system to keep prospective hires from wandering off instead of waiting for their paperwork to slowly grind its way through the bureaucracy.

    I think she was about right in her estimate. There are probably several canned commercial systems of this type. They merely have to be tailored to the precise requirements of the school system followed by entering of existing documents and the training of end-user and systems personnel and you’re there.

    Even if you include the entire HR process I think that it could be done within the specified time-frame. There are outfits that specialize in this sort of thing and, being their bread-and-butter, they have to be good at it.

    Of course, that time estimate is only valid for private enterprise where there’s pressure to control costs and raise productivity. In the public education system there’s no such systemic pressure and the result is that there’s not much change.

    Catherine, although you weren’t referring to the introduction of a business process improvement like putting HR on-line, I think that given the realities of public education, any estimate of the time required to implement such a change is pointless. The pressure to implement such improvements is simply too inconsistent to make such a prediction worthwhile. This year’s business process-oriented superintendant is next years memory and with them the force driving such a project.

  3. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Others are shocked by the absence of accountability. ‘

    Like no shit. My kids go to the BPS and it’s the last place in the world that doesn’t have phone mail. You can call at any time during the business day and have the phone ring until it disconnects. They have a huge problem with the concept that people actually expect response and service. If you go to the website and if you go to the contacts they don’t list eMail addresses even though the teachers and administrators all have accounts. My sons first grade teacher told us she doesn’t respond to eMails. I could go on and on and on and i mean on and on and on.

  4. I recently spent 18 months teaching at a public community college – before quitting. In spite of the loss of 2/3ds of our computer information systems students over just 2 years, no one cared. Suggestions for improvement were always met with “But we’ve always done it this way” even when “this way” was not working.

    The bureaucracy always took precedence over solving problems or the needs of the students. Faculty worked as little as 4 hours per day. One faculty member showed up to class periodically and told the students they were essentially doing independent study – so he’d show up once or twice a week to suggest assignments to work on. Teaching? What’s that?

    There is no accountability for anyone. The organization is completely unable to embrace necessary change. When things are not right, they whine about tax payers not giving them enough money, yet they squander the public’s funds with wild abandon due to inefficiency and ineffectiveness.

    Judge Bridges, in his ruling on Washington’s contested 2004 election wrote about the failed King County Elections Department, saying, “Almost anyone who works in state and local government knows exactly what this culture is. It’s inertia. It’s selfishness. It’s taking our paycheck but not doing the work. It’s not caring about either our fellow workers or the public we’re supposed to serve. It’s not taking responsibility. It’s refusing to be held accountable.” That’s in a Judge’s ruling!

    Anyone who is results oriented and interested in making processes better and solving problems will not be happy in the public sector, where the process is more important than a successful outcome.

    (To clarify – I am fortunate in that my kids go to some great public schools with some great teachers. My comments above are specifically in regards to a specific public education system that I witnessed. Not all public education systems are that gross. But education, in general, is decades behind contemporary reality.)