City Schools and School Systems: Sources of Centralization and Bureaucratization
H. Warren Button
City schools have not been good places to learn, as achievement scores and ample other evidence show. They have not been good places to teach, as burn out and teachers' testimony demonstrate. They have been slow to respond, or have not responded at all, to changing circumstances, changing clienteles, changing criticisms. After decades as minor participant and intent observer, I conclude that their shortcomings have been due more than anything else to their intricate bureaucracies, which are primarily due to longtime patterns of centralizing: on their first intellectual antecedents, on bureaucratization, and on the ideology of efficiency.
As to the effects of bureaucratization, I am in agreement with Michael Katz1 and other revisionist historians. I shall not argue, however, that bureaucratization, centralization, and standardization have necessarily been linked to, or arisen from, social class structure as it is conventionally defined. Neither is it to be argued that central authority and control or bureaucracy or technology has no value. For some ends, centralization is entirely appropriate. For some purposes, bureaucracy is without an alternative. In some instances, technology and the specialized and sometimes guarded knowledge of technocrats have substantial utility. But overcentralization, overbureaucratization, and inappropriate reliance on technology have far too often disabled urban schools. Therefore, I concentrate here on these matters.
The centralization of the administration of schools and the consequent bureaucratization have been an outcome of concurrent modes of thought, the evolution of society, and the efforts and persuasiveness of a few prominent men. Central control and the bureaucratization of school systems were based on ways of thought developed far earlier, during the Enlightenment, in the 1600s and 1700s. Science then provided belief in natural "laws" and in reason and logic.