Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Politics, Bureaucrats, and Schools

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

Politics, Bureaucrats, and Schools

Article excerpt

In a provocative analysis, Chubb and Moe (1990, 1988) argue that private schools perform better than public schools. They reason that efforts by democratic institutions and the complex environments of public schools generate greater levels of bureaucracy in public schools than in private schools. Rules, regulations, and controls restrict the autonomy of teachers and prevent them from doing what they do best - teach. Only by permitting teachers to adopt techniques free from the influence of bureaucratic meddling can schools successfully educate children. As evidence to support their argument, Chubb and Moe use the High School and Beyond data set. They present data that show private school students perform better on standardized tests and link these results to teachers' perceptions of how bureaucratic the school system is. While their primary argument focuses on the difference between public and private schools, they also contend that less bureaucratic public schools are more successful than other public schools and provide some empirical evidence for their claims in an appendix. The work of Chubb and Moe has greatly influenced administrative practices in education. Thirteen states have adopted choice programs, and many school districts are experimenting with charter schools and site-based management to reduce the size of central bureaucracies (Carnegie Foundation, 1992).

This research reexamines the role of bureaucracy in the educational performance of public school students. Three reasons suggest that probing the bureaucracy/school performance nexus is worthwhile.(1) First, bureaucracy is a measurable concept. In much of the organization theory literature, specific, objective measures of bureaucracy or the level of formal bureaucracy are presented - levels of hierarchy, supervisory personnel, existence of rules, ratio of administrative to production personnel (Price, 1972, 19; Galambos, 1964; Rushing, 1967; Meyer, Scott, and Strang, 1987, 196). Chubb and Moe (1990), however, rely on subjective assessments using teachers perceptions of how bureaucratic their school system is. Perceptions are influenced by a wide range of phenomena including, perhaps, even feelings that student performance is lacking (Lan and Rainey, 1992; 16).(2)

Second, bureaucracy is the instrument democracy uses to assert control over the school system. Chubb and Moe (1988; 1069) contend that democratic institutions such as the school board or other political actors establish goals for the public schools and seek compliance with those goals by creating bureaucracies to monitor the schools. Schools are no different from other organizations in this regard (Bozeman, Reed, and Scott, 1992). In the context of complex, industrial democracies, bureaucracy is a prerequisite for democratic governance (Etzioni-Halevy, 1983).(3) Bureaucracies, however, have multiple goals and surely not all such goals have negative connotations for the school system.(4) Bureaucracies are necessary to maintain the infrastructure of the school system, to tranlate academic research into techniques usable in the classroom, to provide access for all students, to provide schools a way of assessing their performance, etc. Reducing bureaucracy in such cases may actually harm organizational performance.

Third, bureaucracy, especially government bureaucracy with its normative connotations, has become the universal scapegoat in American politics. Be it a slow down in economic productivity, an inefficiency in pollution control, an explosion in the national debt, or simply just the growth of government, bureaucracy has received much of the blame (Litan and Nordhaus, 1983; Downing, 1984; Goodsell, 1984; Niskanen, 1971; Tiebaut, 1956). The empirical support for this blame, however, has rarely matched the rhetoric, comparisons between private and public sector bureaucracies (and private schools are bureaucracies too) shows that public sector bureaucracies perform about as well as private sector bureaucracies when valid comparisons are made (Goodsell, 1994). …

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