Paperwork burden plagues teachers

Robert McCartney
Columnist November 12, 2011

Regardless of whether you liked the results, the Fairfax school board elections Tuesday had at least one positive outcome. The campaign raised awareness of a bureaucratic ailment that’s becoming a regionwide classroom epidemic: the overburdening of teachers with paperwork.

Everyone from school board members to administrators agrees it’s a problem, but it keeps getting bigger anyway. The mania for more student data, more meetings to discuss the data and more high-level monitoring of the data is demoralizing teachers and undermining education.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

“I used to be up late preparing creative lessons that I loved. Now I’m up late getting my data in,” said a sixth-grade language arts teacher in Fairfax. She and others from her school said administrative chores have become so excessive that teachers have broken down and cried at work.

“It’s killing us. Our building is about to implode,” the teacher said.

We all know how this started. The national school reform movement of the past decade has placed a premium on using standardized tests to measure student achievement and hold teachers accountable for results.

That’s fine. But it’s gone too far. Several new and returning Fairfax school board members promised during the campaign to push to give teachers some relief. Let’s hope they succeed.

“This is a critical issue, and the school board needs to deal with this,” said Sandy Evans, who was reelected as the board member from Mason District in eastern Fairfax. “I’m hearing more and more that teachers are more concerned about workload than they are about pay.”

It’s not limited to Fairfax. The same complaints come from teachers, principals and union leaders elsewhere in our area.

“What you’re hearing in Fairfax is similar to what huge numbers of our folks are experiencing,” said Tom Israel, executive director of the Montgomery County Education Association. “It’s a national phenomenon, but I think districts like Fairfax and Montgomery, which are more sophisticated and complex, have taken the problem to a higher level.”

I had a chance to learn more about the topic after a Fairfax elementary school math and science teacher phoned me around Halloween. I had mentioned the overwork problem in a column previewing the Fairfax election, and he asked, “Do you want to tell the full story of what’s really going on?”

I said yes. And so I sat down Thursday with him and four of his colleagues who work at an elementary school in the Braddock district in central Fairfax. They all spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fear they’d be punished for speaking out.

They complained particularly about requirements to fill out and update ever more forms about kids’ individual performances and lesson plans. Some forms can take 10 to 15 minutes per child. That’s an average of about five hours for a 25-student class.

“Every year, it’s gotten worse. There’s so much paperwork and documentation,” a fifth-grade teacher said. “I don’t earn a corporate lawyer’s salary. Teaching used to be fun. You used to have some control.”

They also were frustrated with eCART, a Web site they’re supposed to use to help develop lesson plans. It’s hard to navigate and often doesn’t have material they need.

“We spend so much time looking for resources [there] that we don’t have time to prepare our lessons,” a special education teacher said.

An instructional assistant, who’s assigned to help a kindergarten teacher, was unhappy that she was frequently left alone to run the class while the teacher was busy administering assessments.

“I’m pretty smart, but I’m not a teacher,” the assistant said.

Fairfax School Superintendent Jack Dale pledged in June to address the problem. “I will speak to all the principals about ensuring we do not create inappropriate work load/time demands on our teachers this next school year,” Dale said in an e-mail to teachers association leaders.

But Dale’s promise apparently hasn’t yielded results. “Either he never communicated it to his managers, or they don’t listen to him,” according to the math and science teacher who originally called me.

Phyllis Pajardo, assistant superintendent for human resources in Fairfax, said the administration hopes to resolve the problem but warned against sacrificing academic progress.

“We can certainly look more closely at processes and practices to streamline things,” Pajardo said. “We can’t and shouldn’t move off of improving student achievement.”

Of course nobody wants to hurt student achievement. Based on what I heard, however, a bigger danger is burning out teachers. May the new school board press the bureaucrats to focus on that risk, as well.

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