Simplicity and Bureaucracy

Categories:  Fellow Alumni: David Banks

Photo Credit: Richard DudleyBureaucracy.  Its a nasty word that has moved to the center of political discourse.  We are always looking for ways to cut,circumvent, or reinvent the managerial apparatus that has come to define our interaction with government.  Stacks of confusing forms, hidden rules, and disinterested paper-pushers are the components of an imagined boogeyman that political candidates rail against. When it comes to schools, we talk about stubborn teachers’ unions, incompetent administrators, and out-of-touch school board members.  In times of economic strife the people who make up these institutions are the targets of fear and anger.  Its a particularly potent kind of anger, because these institutions are meant to disseminate the collective knowledge and information of our society.  When things go wrong, we turn to our schools for reassurance that they are giving our children the skills to out-maneuver such catastrophes.  The public’s relationship to its schools can range from constructive criticism, to physical violence, as the School Board in Panama City, Florida witnessed first-hand last month.

19th Century sociologist Max Weber noted that in economically advanced societies, bureaucracy is a necessary organizational tool that lends robustness to critical institutions.  We write down rules and regulations and assign certain people to execute them in such a way that we are not beholden to any one person’s expertise.  The system can carry on without any given individual because no one has proprietary knowledge.  It is all shared and accessible to those given certain responsibilities.

The bureaucracy of schools are a peculiar kind of problem.  Weber’s theory of bureaucracy (and America’s schools) are from a different time.  Maybe its time we rethink the hierarchy of our educational system.

Starting at the bottom, the organization of teachers and students seems outdated.  Most of our workplaces don’t operate on a rigid time frame coordinated by bells.  We solve open-ended problems using a multitude of skill sets organized by project.  We enter field sites and perform our craft.

Teachers’ efforts and students’ progress need to be organized to a certain degree.  Its important that the “big picture” is considered.  Currently, this task falls to administrators, deans, and counselors that perform a wide variety of oversight, from multiple points of view.  The principal is concerned with the overall operating efficiency, the deans are looking after the student’s behavior and safety, and the counselors monitor student achievement across classrooms.  Without getting too specific, I just want to offer the possibility that these functions need not be organized in this top-down manner.  Careers with the highest job-satisfaction ratings are often those that allow for flexibility and true creativity in everyday work.  Giving teachers more administrative power is a good way to foster such creativity.

Finally, at the very top of the food chain, are the superintendents and district school boards.  These are usually elected positions that set broad goals for many different schools.  Someone with a better political science background could provide a better alternative to the current schema, but I think reform needs to start with the scale of things.

We take the current form of bureaucracy for granted.  Nothing about education inherently demands school principals, or county school boards.  When we look at options for reform, consider simple (but fundamental) changes could be the answer.  Finland’s reform did not involve deep pedagogical debates about what it means to say 2+2=4.  They paid teachers well, gave them autonomy in the classroom, and respected their bosses because they had been teachers in the past.  Just remember to sharpen your Occam’s razor every once in a while.

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