Academic journal article Public Administration Review

School Bureaucracy and Student Performance at the Local Level

Academic journal article Public Administration Review

School Bureaucracy and Student Performance at the Local Level

Article excerpt

Scholars, political officials, the media, and the public have paid a great deal of attention to the topic of school choice in recent years. Scholarly attention has focused primarily on whether a market-based approach to education improves educational quality more than the traditional monopoly-based system of public education in America. School-choice advocates (Chubb and Moe 1990; Fliegel and MacGuire 1993) argue that school choice allows parents and students to flee low-quality public schools and move to higher-quality private schools. Thus, school choice forces public schools to improve in order to remain competitive with private schools. Critics of school choice (Henig 1994; Smith 1994; Smith and Meier 1995; Witte 1991, 1992) point to a large body of empirical evidence showing that few of the alleged benefits of school choice are realized when such programs are implemented and their effects are examined. In addition to looking at the effectiveness of school-choice programs in improving student performance, scholars have examined how parents acquire knowledge about school-choice programs (Schneider et al. 1998) and how school-choice programs effect the building of social capital in local communities (Schneider et al. 1997).

Although a variety of research questions relate to school choice, one of the most interesting questions, from a public administration standpoint, is the impact of bureaucracy on public school performance. Two prominent advocates of the choice paradigm, John Chubb and Terry Moe (1990), claim that public schools perform poorly because expansive centralized bureaucracies limit teachers' discretion to propose and implement innovative solutions to educational problems. Underlying Chubb and Moe's argument is the belief that administrators are not street-level bureaucrats, and thus do not appreciate or understand the day-to-day problems that schools face. For instance, administrators may lack the experience of direct and constant interaction with students. Because education is based largely on student-teacher interactions, administrators add little value to the core task of teaching. Their lack of day-to-day interaction with students also makes it difficult for administrators to measure student performance; administrators spend their time collecting and analyzing quantitative indicators that may be of dubious value in measuring performance. In contrast, teachers concentrate on doing their jobs well, working directly with students to improve performance, rather than collecting and reviewing performance indicators. When it comes to addressing the needs of parents and students, teachers have an advantage over administrators because their in-the-trenches experience better prepares them to address the needs of their client populations.

In direct contrast to Chubb and Moe, Smith and Meier (1994, 1995) argue that bureaucracy can be a positive tool in the management of public schools. Whereas Chubb and Moe view bureaucracy as an outgrowth of democratic control of public schools, Smith and Meier contend that bureaucracy arises from problems in school environments. This is especially true, they argue, in the case of urban schools: Many students in urban schools live in poverty or come from low-income family backgrounds, requiring administrators to implement and oversee school lunch, remedial education, and other poverty-related programs. Bureaucracy can be a positive force when these problems exist because the absence of administrators would place additional burdens on teachers, forcing them to spend more time on administrative matters rather than teaching students. Smith and Meier conclude that reducing bureaucracy in schools could lead to declining performance, as fewer experts are available to address administrative matters.

While both Chubb and Moe and Smith and Meier present persuasive arguments, our knowledge of the impact of bureaucracy on school performance remains limited. As Smith and Meier (1994, 551) point out, Chubb and Moe's assessment is based largely on the subjective evaluations of school principals. …

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