Posted in Professionalism, School organization, Systems, Teaching

Larry Cuban — Rockets Are Complicated but Schools Are Complex; Thoughts about Educational Exceptionalism

In this post, I want to explore a vivid image developed by Larry Cuban to characterize the peculiar nature of teaching and learning in schools.  Scholars have frequently argued for a form of educational exceptionalism that sees schooling as a social structure that is distinctive from the normal patterns of bureaucratic organization that one sees in private companies and public agencies.  Think of Karl Weick’s depiction of educational organization as “loosely coupled systems” and John Meyer’s depiction of them as “institutionalized organizations.”   Scholars have also argued that teaching is an odd form of professional practice that doesn’t follow the norms of other professions.  Think of David Cohen’s account of teaching as a “people-changing profession” and Dan Lortie’s account of the weak control that administrators exert over teaching.  

Cuban has distilled these scholarly insights into a single salient distinction between organizational practices that are complicated vs. those that are complex.  Rockets, he says, are complicated; schools are complex. 

Sending a rocket to the moon is a fiendishly complicated endeavor, involving a lot of sophisticated calculation and planning.  But it has the enormous advantage of being a determinate process.  With enough intellectual and technical firepower, there is a solution that reliably works. 

The same is not true of the process of schooling.  The problems that make classrooms and school systems so difficult are not technical.  They are social — depending on the complex interaction among a large number of individual and organizational actors.  They are motivational — depending on the voluntary buy-in of all these actors.  And they are normative — shaped by the conflicting purposes that these actors seek to impose of the practice of schooling.

Here’s how Cuban makes his case in the opening section of the final chapter in his 2013 book, Inside the Black Box of Classroom Practice.  

Cuban Cover

The path of educational progress more closely resembles the flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.

— Philip Jackson, 1968

Questions:

What’s the difference between sending a rocket to the moon and getting children to succeed in school?

What’s the difference between a surgeon extracting a brain tumor and judge and jury deciding guilt or innocence for a person accused of murder?

Answer:

Sending a rocket to the moon and extracting a brain tumor are complicated, while getting children to succeed in school and arriving at verdicts are complex, closer to the “flight of a butterfly than the flight of a bullet.”

According to multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners, complicated procedures like brain surgery and rocket launchings require engineer-designed blueprints, flowcharts breaking actions into step-by-step tasks, well-trained staff, and exquisite combinations of computer software running carefully calibrated equipment. Think, rocket landing on the moon in 1969, doctor-controlled robotic arms doing brain surgery, and the U.S. “shock and awe” invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A complicated system assumes expert and rational leaders, top-down planning with a ”mission control” unit pursuing scrupulous implementation of policies in a clockwork-precise organization. Complicated systems use the most sophisticated math, technical, and engineering expertise in mapping out flowcharts to solve problems. Work is specified and delegated to particular units, and outcomes are monitored. Confidence in performance and predictable results is in the air the organization breathes.

Yet even those sophisticated systems fail from time to time; for example, the Challenger shuttle disaster, the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Like complicated systems, complex systems such as legislatures, the courts, health-care, and schools are filled with hundreds of moving parts, but many of the parts are human, and these players have varied expertise and independence. Moreover, missing in such systems is a “mission control” that runs all these different parts within ever-changing political, economic, and societal surroundings. The result: constant adaptations and compromises in design and action.

Recall the U.S. president, Congress, lobbying groups, and scores of interest groups trying to pass a health-care reform bill into law during 2010 in the midst of a slow recovery from the Great Recession of 2008. Blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans, and savvy managers may be necessary but are insufficient to get complex systems with hundreds of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in constantly changing and unpredictable environments. These web-like, complex systems of interdependent units adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings. They are constantly changing just to maintain stability.

Hospitals, courts, and schools — even with their facades of command-and-control mechanisms, flowcharts, and policy manuals filled with detailed procedures-are constantly buffeted by unpredictable events and interrelated factors over which participants have no control. Picture a hospital emergency room; judges presiding over successive arraignments; and, yes, teachers teaching first-graders, algebra courses, and Advanced Placement U.S. history in the black boxes of classrooms.

These complex social systems have time and again foiled reform-driven policy makers’ efforts to get doctors, judges, lawyers, and teachers to change their routine practices in any substantial way. I now return to the central question of this book to connect the complexity of school systems to classroom practices: With so many major structural changes in US. public schools over the past century, why have classroom practices been largely stable with a modest blending of new and old teaching practices leaving contemporary classroom lessons familiar to earlier generations of school-goers?

To document the complexity of the K-12 school system, look at figure 6.1, a representation of the external political factors and organizational forces that frequently impinge, sometimes unexpectedly, on what occurs in classrooms. Such figures, of course, give the mistaken impression that these stakeholders are static when, in real life, they are constantly using policy talk drenched in reform rhetoric as they lobby school board members and interact with administrators, teachers, and each other producing tangled web of interdependent players in a complex system aimed at human improvement.

Cuban Fig 1

Now look at figure 6.2, which tries to capture the different factors again, not static but in dynamic tension with one another-within a classroom. In the helping profession of teaching, the interdependence of teachers and students and relationships with peers and other adults inside and outside the school community are but a few of the influences that come into play when teaching and learning occur.

Cuban Fig 2

Keep in mind the different levels of interaction and interdependence in these complex social systems. At one level is the mutual dependence of students and teachers in classroom interactions over content and skills during lessons in the black box. Next is the school level, where groups of students interact with adults who have reciprocal ties between themselves across many age-graded elementary and secondary classrooms. Parents and governmental agency adults also bring in concerns and resources that influence school wide relationships and routines. Then there is the district level, where decision makers use policy talk and take action in connecting those outside the organization and those inside who are expected to carry out decisions-the administrators and teachers who implement the policy. At the district level, community, state, and national economic, political, and social factors impinge on the community (e.g., immigration, economic recession, mayoral control of schools) and ripple through schools and classrooms.

This multitiered view of a complex system aimed at human improvement suggests the intricacies of overlapping and interacting levels comprising K-12 schooling. At each level, change and continuity are in dynamic, even tense, equilibrium-almost like running as fast as possible just to stay in the same place.

 

Posted in Inequality, School organization, Schooling, Sociology

Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy

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.

 

Cover page from Two Cheers Magazine version-page-0.

 

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.

References

Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America New York, NY: Basic Books.

Chubb, J. & Moe, T. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Washington, DC: Brookings.

Doepke, M. & Zilibotti, F. (2019). The economic roots of helicopter parenting. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (7), 22-27.

Katz, M. (1971). Class, bureaucracy, and schools. New York, NY: Praeger.

 Labaree, D.L. (1997) How to succeed in school without really learning. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Labaree, D.L. (2018). Public schools for private gain: The declining American commitment to serving the public good. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (3), 8-13

Labaree, D.L. (2010). Someone has to fail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

 AUTHORID

DAVID F. LABAREE (dlabaree@stanford.edu; @DLabaree) is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, emeritus, at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education in Palo Alto, CA. He is the author, most recently, of A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendency of American Higher Education (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

 

ABSTRACT

Bureaucracies are often perceived as inflexible, impersonal, hierarchical, and too devoted to rules and red tape. But David Labaree makes 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, Labaree argues, 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.

 

 

 

Posted in Education policy, History of education, School organization, School reform

Michael Katz — Alternative Forms of School Governance

This post is my reflection on a classic piece by my former advisor, Michael Katz.  It’s a chapter in Class, Bureaucracy, and Schools called “Alternative Proposals for American Education: The Nineteenth Century.”  Here’s a link to a PDF of the chapter.

Katz CBS

The core argument is this.  In American politics of education in the 19th century, there were four competing models of how schools could be organized and governed.  Katz calls them paternalistic voluntarism, democratic localism, corporate voluntarism, and incipient bureaucracy.  By the end of the century, the bureaucratic model won out and ever since it has constituted the way public school systems operate.  But at the time, this outcome was by no means obvious to the participants in the debate.

At one level, this analysis provides an important lesson in the role of contingency in the process of institutional development.  Historical outcomes are never predetermined.  Instead they’re the result of complex social interactions in which contingency plays a major role.  That is, a particular outcome depends on the interplay of multiple contingent factors.

At another level, his analysis unpacks the particular social values and educational visions that are embedded within each of these organizational forms for schooling.

In addition, the models Katz shows here never really went away.  Bureaucracy became the norm for school organization, but the other forms persisted, in public school systems, in other forms of modern schooling, and in educational policies.

This is a piece I often used in class, and I’m drawing on class slides in the discussion that follows.

First, consider the characteristics of each model:

  • Paternalistic voluntarism
    • Pauper school associations as the model (which preceded public schools)
    • This is a top-down organization: we educate you
    • Elite amateurs ran the organization
  • Democratic localism
    • The small- town district school as the model
    • Purely public in control and funding, governed by an elected board of lay people: we educate ourselves
    • Anti-professional, anti-intellectual, reflecting local values
  • Corporate voluntarism
    • Private colleges and academies as the model
    • Independent, local, adaptable; on the border between public and private
    • Funded by student tuition and donations
    • Flexible, anti-democratic
    • Owned and operated by an elite board of directors
  • Incipient bureaucracy
    • An interesting composite of the others
    • As with PV, it’s a top down model with elite administration
    • As with CV, it provides some autonomy from democratic control
    • But as with DL, it answers to an elected board, which exerts formal control

Questions to consider:

    • How have paternalistic voluntarism, corporate voluntarism, and democratic localism persisted in modern schooling?
    • What difference does this make in how we think about schools?

Consider how all of these forms have persisted in the present day:

  • Paternalistic voluntarism
    • Means tests for educational benefits (Chapter I)
    • School reformer’s emphasis on the education of Other People’s Children (e.g., no excuses charter schools)
    • Teach For America
  • Corporate voluntarism
    • Private colleges and private schools continue this model
  • Democratic localism
    • Decentralized control of schools at the district level — 15,000 schools districts that hire teachers, build schools, and operate the system
    • Elected local school boards
  • Incipient bureaucracy
    • Still the most visible element of the current structure of schooling

Katz sees democratic localism as the good guy, bureaucracy as the bad guy

  • Is this true?  Consider the downsides of democratic localism
    • Parochialism, racism, restricted opportunity, weak academics
    • Desegregation of schools relied on federal power to override the preferences of local school boards
  • Katz is critical of ed bureaucracy from the left, a reflection of when he published the book (1971)
  • But the right has more recently developed a critique of ed bureaucracy, which is behind the choice movement: free schools from the government school monopoly;

Question: What is your take on the role that the educational bureaucracy plays in schooling?

My own take is this:

  • Bureaucracy is how we promote fairness in education
    • Setting universal procedures for everyone
  • Bureaucracy is how we promote democratic control over a complex educational institution
    • Setting a common set of standards transmitted by the elected board
  • Bureaucracy is how we protect schools from pure market pressures (see Philip Cusick’s book, The Educational System)
    • As consumers try to manipulate the system for private ends
    • It’s how we protect teachers from the unreasonable demands of parents
  • Thus bureaucracy serves as a bastardized bastion of the public good
  • Consider the modern school system – elected board and bureaucratic administration – as an expression of liberal democracy, with the democratic and liberal elements constraining each other
    • B expresses democratic will and enforces it, restricting individual choice
    • B provides due process for adjudicating individual choice, protecting it from tyranny of majority

Next week I will be publishing a new piece of my own, which picks up this last part of the analysis.  It’s called, “Two Cheers for School Bureaucracy.”  Stay tuned.