(Over)managing learning: The “administrative burden” consumes staff time and priorities in a community literacy program

A program coordinator in a community-based Literacy and Basic Skills (LBS) program took some time from her work to walk me through the systems and processes she has developed to fulfill mandated ministry reporting and organize a learning program.* Patti (a pseudonym) works full-time at an urban community-centre, which hosts the LBS program. Her paid time and some of her own time is taken up with a combination of administration requirements and an administrative approach to literacy development, in which students complete numerous worksheets on their own. A part-time assistant dedicates all of her time to data entry.

Patti recognizes the limitations of the current learning model and would like to introduce two new initiatives at the community centre: a digital literacy class two evenings per week, and a GED preparation course. The community centre manager has asked her to start a computer course to respond to requests and identified needs of those who use their facilities but aren’t currently participating in LBS. Patti would also like to provide more direct teaching support to those who want their high school equivalency certificate, a common aim of students currently in the program. But she doesn’t have the time and resources to make either program happen. Her priorities are focused instead on meeting the reporting and data collection demands mandated by the LBS funder, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD).

Ideally, she explained, she would like to be able to reorganize how the program currently assigns responsibilities so that she takes on all administrative work, including the data entry work of the half-time assistant. She would then like to change the half-time administrative position to a teaching position. “If I could reorganize the program, if I lost my assistant, I would not bring another assistant on. I would bring another teacher on. Then that’s all I would do is just administer the program.”

Even in this wishful scenario, only one-third of paid staff time would be allotted to teaching and learning work and two-thirds of paid time would still be used for program administration. Currently, I would argue, that nearly all paid time is consumed by administrative work.


I sat next to Patti at her desk in front of her computer the morning I visited her. As she described her administrative work, I had a hard time keeping up with her. Patti adeptly moved from her spreadsheet and record-keeping system displayed on her computer monitor to the individual student folders stacked on her desk, then on to a master flow chart and her own large binder of documentation used for data entry.  I jokingly said, “Spreadsheets are your friend.” She laughed and nodded in agreement. “I grew up with Excel,” she added.

ColouredFolders

Piled at the edge of her desk was a stack of colourful folders, each one marked with a student’s name, and filled with various forms, documents, and tests. Judging by the thickness, there were about 40-50 pages of mandated administrative documents in most. In addition to the folder documentation each of the 50 students she sees throughout the year has a learning activities binder containing worksheets aligned with their learning goal and level.

Then she showed me her master workflow chart, listing all the tasks she must complete using the 13 or so data and information collection tools identified in a previous post. The chart contains 35 action items. Not on the chart are additional items required by the community centre, such as a code of conduct and additional registration information. Also not included is an individualized listing of learning activities she develops for each student. This listing, with about 20 items on it, appears at the front of each student’s binder. She referred to the complete process as “putting them in the system” and “developing their curriculum.”

Patti estimated that the intake piece alone takes about 12 hours per learner. During the 12 hours most of the conversation and documentation is focused on “case management” not literacy and learning. She must ask students for a variety of personal information including their Social Insurance Numbers, their sexual identity, immigration status, marital status, identification as a person with a disability, First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Francophone or visible minority, details about past education and training, source of income, details about their recent jobs including hourly wage, and reasons for leaving if currently unemployed. Students are also required to complete a goal-setting exercise and learning styles questionnaire to gather information that is then entered into a learner plan, one of the key reports collected and sent to the ministry. She will also give the students tests during initial meetings in order to input a learning level. At three different points, learners are required to sign documents including a lengthy and legalistic release of information form.

The work takes place over a few sessions, possibly stretching over two or more weeks, depending on the program schedule and learners’ schedules. What this can mean is that learners don’t actually start working on learning activities for weeks, redirecting their energy instead to respond to personal questions to comply with a process of surveillance and monitoring.

During this intake period Patti also sets up their binders. This is the aspect of her work that she referred to as “developing the curriculum.” She doesn’t have the time to develop, oversee and participate in planned learning activities that involve shared topics of interest, conversation, problem-solving, research, formulating opinions, sharing new knowledge, etc. Instead, she assembles photocopiable worksheets for each student that they then complete on their own. The completed worksheets are handed over to Patti for marking. She then provides some feedback and snippets of instruction. This is the extent of the teaching and learning interaction that she is able to offer.

The 35 item workflow chart also contains tasks to be completed that stretch past the intake and registration process, such as completing Milestones, updating goals, and completing a six-page exit and follow-up form. At three different points, after they leave the program, former students are asked if they think the program they attended helped them get and keep a job, even though most students attend the provincial LBS program to develop their academic literacy and move into a college program, a secondary credit program or write a GED test. The repeated questions are even more perplexing for students in Patti’s program since another staff person in the community-centre, not funded by LBS, offers job support just down the hall.

These items require additional time to complete— likely as much or more than the intake and registration process, depending on the number of Milestones assigned and whether a student completes a Culminating Task (this alone could take three to four hours to complete). All together, her students may spend 24 hours or more on mandated tests, interviews, questionnaires and other information gathering and surveillance activities. The proposed use of a pre- and post-test to measure learner skill gains would add to the students’ administrative burden, possibly increasing the time to 30 or more hours. None of this work, including time spent preparing for tests and completing practice tests, involves developing the literacy and numeracy needed to help learners meet their goals.

Although the program is small, it is part of a downtown community-centre, and is well situated to receive student referrals and obtain supports for students, including access to social workers, employment counselors and healthcare providers. It’s an ideal situation, as the literacy program is partnered with a range of services and supports that complement each other—a true wrap-around service model.

However, if Patti is unable to respond to the request for evening digital literacy classes, she jeopardizes her relationship with the community centre leadership team, possibly leading them to question either Patti’s role, or the purpose of the LBS program, or both. Patti is in an untenable situation as she is compelled to prioritize administrative demands over teaching and program development. If she doesn’t fulfill the ministry’s demands, and is deemed non-compliant, she could lose program funding.

Her relationship with students is also compromised. They enter the program thinking they will participate in an engaging learning environment working on activities they deem useful and relevant to their interests and learning goals, only to have their interests and goals buried by administrative paper work during their initial visits. Once they finally do start to work on learning activities, they can access only a whisper of opportunity as they quietly and dutifully complete their worksheets.

Patti does what she can to reach out to students, making them feel welcome and supported. She organizes regular social gatherings and has an open-door office policy. When I visited, she and the students were in the middle of planning an upcoming potluck meal. While speaking with Patti in her office, a student came by asking to meet with her either before or after her lunch break. Patti told him she would be available during the lunch hour.

Patti explained how she also spent her own time developing her extensive tracking and record-keeping system. Although training sessions on data entry and completing the main reports were initially offered to all programs, there was no clear-cut process to follow. Program coordinators and educators had to figure out day-today procedures on their own, often involving staffing changes and assigning new responsibilities. Patti did most of this work alone, often making modifications to the templates and tools that she received during training so they better fit her program and understandings. “Sometimes I don’t like the stuff that they give us so I just do my own,” she explained in a matter-of-fact way.

Before entering the LBS field Patti worked in finance. To make the career change, she first earned a degree in adult education with the aim of teaching adult learners and not administrating a program. She has yet to put her degree to good use and continues to rely on the administrative experience gained in her previous career to run the program and work in LBS.

 

* I visited Patti late in 2014 as part of a study overseen by AlphaPlus that examined the use of Milestones. Her approach to using Milestones appears in a research brief available here. She also explained her overall administrative process during the visit.

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