Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Accountability Tales I

I am thinking about writing an essay titled, "Holding Teachers Accountable." Some times I hash over such ideas in my mind for some time before writing. Some times the article never gets written. I've been on my local public school board for eight years now. I have written very little about it despite good intentions. At least I know that if I had written much before being on the board, or say after only a year or two on the board, I'd have to be retracting quite a bit in the current round of essays.

When one writes an article of this sort it is tempting to think that everyone has been in school, so everyone will agree with you if you just make a good case. But while accountability sounds good (to most people), it is a tricky topic.

Teachers like to think they are holding kids accountable, and not just on accademics. There are rules for classroom behavior. Perpetrators get punished, just like on a police TV show. Except that the kid acting out is sometimes being provoked by another kid who has learned to maintain the appearance of innocence. But what is a teacher to do? Not have rules of behavior?

My first "real" job, one that actually required a college degree to get, was in the retirement bureau of the Civil Service Commission in Washington, D.C. The Social Security system that most folk in the United States have to depend on is not good enough for federal government workers. They have their own far more generous pension system, not unlike what corporations used to provide for their favored workers. The office I was in helped administer that government pension system. I was, briefly, that most-hated of all things, a bureaucrat. I got my feet wet immediately because I missed the 6 week training course given to new hires. Instead I began to help with the task of approving pensions for former government workers. This was in 1977. They called the rank of beggining admistrators GS-5.

Everyone in the cavernous, flourescent-light bathed, New-Deal era furnished office I was in did the same thing. There really was an in box on one side of each desk. Thick personnel file folders went there. On the other side of the desk was an out box. You processed the folder, then put it in the out box. There was a huge wall of filing cabinets on one side of the room, but they did not seem to be part of the ordinary flow of folders.

Someone, probably at a higher level of management, at some point, whether in Abraham Lincoln's reign or just a couple of years before I was hired, decided to make my fellow-administrators more accountable. It seems that not enough work was getting done. It took too long from the day a federal bureaucrat (all of whom are in the Civil Service) retired to the day that first fat, taxpayers' blood pension check arrived. Probably someone wanted to save some money as well, this being when the debt from the Vietnam War and the Great Society programs and a spike in gasoline prices was worrying economists.

How had the administrators been made more accountable? Their promotions, in effect their pay, were now based on how many pensions they successfully processed. So that meant you could still take two-hour coffee breaks at tax payer expense; they could not fire you; but no more promotions just for putting in (sort of) time.

The results were the usual mixture of good and bad. Most of the workers decided they needed the salary-enhancing promotions rather more than they wanted to goof-off. But even they found that the files of certain retirees presented a problem. Some files took much longer to process than others. If a file came in complete, with all the necessary information for appoving a pension, the administrator could be done with it in about an hour. Eight such completed files a day meant regular promotions and the good life.

But some files were missing information or had other complexities in them. Such a file might mean an extra five minutes, an extra hour or two, or even entire days to get complete. If one such file was dumped in your in-box each day and you worked on it until it was complete, it was the same as if you had been goofing off. You might only average six completed pensions a day, instead of the required eight. No promotion, no good life.

There were a lot of these "bad" files because a lot of records had been lost. A bunch had disappeared in fires; others had been shuffled to warehouses without insufficient tracking. [Note to young people: paper records were the rule then; computers existed, but did not yet store all information].

So what the now-accountable administrators did, when they got a bad file, was make a list of the things that were missing from it (usually, it turned out, a partial list), put a paper to that effect on the outside, and send a form letter asking for the required records. Then the file went into the wall of file cabinets. On to the next file, hoping to make your eight per day, hoping to become a GS-7, then a GS-9 with a house in the suburbs.

Maybe someone somewhere got one of those form letters, found the information, sent it back. This could happen if the last department the employee worked in had a competent personnel department, especially if it had made a simple admission. Then the records needed came to Washington, the file was pulled from the wall, the admistrator finished processing it and got credit for that, the former employee's pension checks started arriving, and the administrator was still in line for promotion.

On the other hand maybe the records had been destroyed in a fire or misplaced. Or at the other end an unaccountable bureaucrat could not be bothered with finding the information. Then ... into the valley of death. Pension checks did not arrive. Rental and mortgage payments could not be made. There was nashing of teeth and eventually a call to my bureau.

No one wanted to answer those calls. We had more important calls to answer. The ones from the staff members of Congressmen whose constituent had worked for 30 years for the good old U.S. of A and what the hell was going on down there?

Fortunately, there was me. I was not trained. I was not being held accountable. I had nothing to do all day but try to hunt down the information and talk to sad and mad former bureaucrats. After three days I was bored. After four weeks, two pay checks, I was in the money (because I was broke when I arrived in Washington I ended up, of necessity, with very low rent in a slum building.) After five weeks I began to have nightmares. I lasted six weeks before resigning.

I have many more accountability tales to tell, which will have to be shortened somehow to fit into a narrative about holding teachers accountable.

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