This post is a piece I wrote for Kappan, published in the March 2020 edition. Here’s a link to the PDF.
Bureaucracies are often perceived as inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and too devoted to rules and red tape. But here I make a case for these characteristics being a positive in the world of public education. U.S. schools are built within a liberal democratic system, where the liberal pursuit of self-interest is often in tension with the democratic pursuit of egalitarianism. In recent years, I argue, schools have tilted toward the liberal side, enabling privileged families to game the system to help their children get ahead. In such a system, an impersonal bureaucracy stands as a check that ensures that the democratic side of schooling, in which all children are treated equally, remains in effect.
Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy
By David F. Labaree
To call an organization “bureaucratic” has long been taken to mean that it is inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and strongly favors a literal rather than substantive interpretation of rules. In the popular imagination, bureaucracies make it difficult to accomplish whatever you want to do, forcing you to wade through a relentless proliferation of red tape.
School bureaucracy is no exception to this rule. Teachers, students, administrators, parents, citizens, reformers, and policymakers have long railed against it as a barrier that stands between them and the kind of schools they want and need. My aim here is to provide a little pushback against this received wisdom by proposing a modest defense of school bureaucracy. My core assertion is this: Bureaucracy may make it hard to change schools for the better, but at the same time it helps keep schools from turning for the worse.
Critiques of bureaucracy
Criticisms of school bureaucracy have taken different forms over the years. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, the critique came from the left. From that perspective, the bureaucracy was a top-down system in which those at the top (policy makers, administrators) impose their will on the actors at the bottom (teachers, students, parents, and communities). Because the bureaucracy was built within a system that perpetuated inequalities of class, race, and gender, it tended to operate in a way that made sure that White males from the upper classes maintained their position, and that stifled grassroots efforts to bring about change from below. Central critical texts at the time were Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools, published in 1971 by Michael Katz (who was my doctoral advisor at the University of Pennsylvania) and Schooling in Capitalist America, published in 1976 by Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis.
By the 1990s, however, attacks on school bureaucracy started to come from the right. Building on the Reagan-era view of government as the problem rather than the solution, critics in the emergent school choice movement began to develop a critique of bureaucracy as a barrier to school effectiveness. The central text then was Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe (1990), who argued that organizational autonomy was the key factor that made private and religious schools more effective than public schools. Because they didn’t have to follow the rigid rules laid down by the school-district bureaucracy, they were free to adapt to families’ demands for the kind of school that met their children’s needs. To Chubb and Moe, state control of schools inevitably stifles the imagination and will of local educators. According to their analysis, democratic control of schools fosters a bureaucratic structure to make sure all schools adhere to political admonitions from above. They proposed abandoning state control, releasing schools from the tyranny of bureaucracy and politics so they could respond to market pressures from educational consumers.
So the only thing the left and the right agree on is that school bureaucracy is a problem, one that arises from the very nature of bureaucracy itself — an organizational system defined as rule by offices (bureaus) rather than by people. The central function of any bureaucracy is to be a neutral structure that carries the aims of its designers at the top down to the ground level where the action takes place. Each actor in the system plays a role that is defined by their particular job description and aligned with the organization’s overall purpose, and the nature of this role is independent of the individual who fills it. Actors are interchangeable, but the roles remain. The problem arises if you want something from the bureaucracy that it is not programmed to provide. In that case, the organization does indeed come to seem inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and rigidly committed to following the rules.
The bureaucracy of schools
Embedded within the structure of the school bureaucracy are the contradictory values of liberal democracy. Liberalism brings a strong commitment to individual liberty, preservation of private property, and a tolerance of the kinds of social inequalities that arise if you leave people to pursue their own interests without state interference. It sees education as a private good (Labaree, 2018). These are the characteristics of school bureaucracy — private interests promoting outcomes that may be unequal — that upset the left. Democracy, on the other hand, brings a strong commitment to political and social equality, in which the citizenry establishes schooling for its collective betterment, and the structure of schooling seeks to provide equal benefits to all students. It sees education as a public good. These are the characteristics — collectivist and egalitarian — that upset the right.
Over the years, I have argued — in books such as How to Succeed in School without Really Learning (1997) and Someone Has to Fail (2012) — that the balance between the liberal and democratic in U.S. schools has tilted sharply toward the liberal. Increasingly, we treat schooling as a private good, whose benefits accrue primarily to the educational consumer who receives the degree. It has become the primary way for people to get ahead in society and a primary way for people who are already ahead to stay that way. It both promotes access and preserves advantage. Families that enjoy a social advantage have become increasingly effective at manipulating the educational system to ensure that their children will enjoy this same advantage. In a liberal democracy, where we are reluctant to constrain individual liberty, privileged parents have been able to game the structure of schooling to provide advantages for their children at the expense of other people’s children. They threaten to turn education into a zero-sum game whose winners get the best jobs.
Gaming the system
So how do upper-middle-class families boost their children’s chances for success in this competition? The first and most obvious step is to buy a house in a district with good schools. Real estate agents know that they’re selling a school system along with a house — I recall an agent once telling me not to consider a house on the other side of the street because it was in the wrong district — and the demand in areas with the best schools drives up housing prices. If you can’t move to such a district, you enter the lottery to gain access to the best schools of choice in town. Failing that, you send your children to private schools. Then, once you’ve placed them in a good school, you work to give your children an edge within that school. You already have a big advantage if you are highly educated and thus able to pass on to your children the cultural capital that constitutes the core of what schools teach and value. If students come to school already adept at the verbal and cognitive and behavioral skills that schools seek to instill, then they have a leg up over students who must rely on the school alone to teach them these skills.
In addition, privileged parents have a wealth of experience at doing school at the highest levels, and they use this social capital to game the system in favor of their kids: You work to get your children into the class of the best available teacher, then push to get them into the top reading group and the gifted and talented program. When they get to high school, you steer them into the top academic track and the most advanced placement classes, while also rounding out their college admissions portfolios with an impressive array of extracurricular activities and volunteer work. Then comes the race to get into the best college (meaning the one with the most selective admissions), using an array of techniques including the college tour, private admissions counselors, test prep tutoring, legacies, social networks, and strategic donations. Ideally, you save hundreds of thousands of dollars by securing this elite education within the public system. But whether you send your kids to public or private school, you seek out every conceivable way to mark them as smarter and more accomplished and more college-admissible than their classmates.
At first glance, these frantic efforts by upper-middle class parents to work the system for the benefit of their children can seem comically overwrought. Children from economically successful and highly educated families do better in school and in life than other children precisely because of the economic, cultural, and social advantages they have from birth. So why all fuss about getting kids into the best college instead of one of the best colleges? The fix is in, and it’s in their favor, so relax.
The anxiety about college admissions among these families is not irrational (see, for example, Doepke & Zilibotti, 2019). It arises from two characteristics of the system. First, in modern societies social position is largely determined by educational attainment rather than birth. Your parents may be doctors, but they can’t pass the family business on to their children. Instead, you must trace the same kind of stellar path through the educational system that your parents did. This leads to the second problem. If you’re born at the top of the system, the only mobility available to you is downward. And because jobs are allocated according to educational attainment, there are always a number of smart and motivated poor kids who may win the academic contest instead of you, who may not be as smart or motivated. There’s a real chance that you will end up at a lower social position than your parents, so your parents feel pressure to leave no stone unturned in the effort to give you an educational edge.
The bureaucracy barrier
Here is where bureaucracy enters the scene, as it can create barriers to the most affluent parents’ efforts to guarantee the success of their children. The school system, as a bureaucracy established in part with the egalitarian values of its democratic control structure, just doesn’t think your children are all that special. This is precisely the problem Chubb and Moe and other choice supporters have identified.
When we’re talking about a bureaucracy, roles are roles and rules are rules. The role of the teacher is to serve all students in the class and not just yours. School rules apply to everyone, so you can’t always be the exception. Get over it. At one level, your children are just part of the crowd of students in their school, subject to the same policies and procedures and educational experiences as all of the others. By and large, privileged parents don’t want to hear that.
So school bureaucracy sometimes succeeds in rolling back a few of the structures that privilege upper-middle class students. They seek to eliminate ability grouping in favor of cooperative learning, abandon gifted programs for the few in favor of using the pedagogies of these programs for the many, and reduce high school tracking by creating heterogenous classrooms.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the bureaucracy always or even usually wins out in the competition with parents seeking special treatment for their children. Parents often succeed in fighting off efforts to eliminating ability groups, tracks, gifted programs, and other threats. Private interests are relentless in trying to obtain private schooling at public expense, but every impediment to getting their way is infuriating to parents lobbying for privilege.
For these parents, the school bureaucracy becomes the enemy, which you need to bypass, suborn, or overrule in your effort to turn school to the benefit of your children. At the same time, this same bureaucracy becomes the friend and protector of the democratic side of liberal democratic schooling. Without it, empowered families would proceed unimpeded in their quest to make schooling a purely private good. So two cheers for bureaucracy.