School Bureaucracy: Hierarchy vs. Collegiality

Summary: Further thoughts on hierarchical versus collegial styles in school administration.

Having had time to reflect on my post of 10/10/11, School Bureaucracy: A Comparison of Superintendent Styles, a couple more remarks occur to me.

Briefly, in an article in the Atlantic, Joel Klein, past Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools, essentially blamed the modest headway he managed in reforming City schools on the local teachers’ union and the hidebound contract system that he saw as strangling progress. He did seem to me to characterize himself as the white hat, the gunslinger striding into town to do battle with the bad guys. And the hero became embittered by his inability to right the wrongs to his satisfaction, so ended up pointing fingers in the pages of the Atlantic.

Klein is a type A personality, a hard charging, intelligent guy, who seemed to expect to change the system by sheer force of his personality, intellect, and grasp of the issues, all of which I suspect are formidable. He struck me as a top down type of guy, as well, and I suspect he strengthened resistance to change by his hierarchical style rather than promoted the change he sought.

Furthermore, would young, reform minded teachers, nascent professionals, long remain in a school system in which the top dog directed rather dialogued, and seemed in ways large and small to feel he knew best, and seemed not to acknowledge that valuable contributions might stimulate the organization from below? Would such a school leader attract the best and the brightest that many reformers acknowledge we must lure into teaching?

Long story short, in my experience it is true over time that the style of the leader of a hierarchy infects the hierarchy at all levels. If the leader is prone to fiat, then the message eventually into the capillaries of the organization is to follow orders. Wait for directive, take not initiative.

Probably I was a bit too gee whiz in praising Klein’s counterpart in Montgomery County, Maryland, Jerry Weast, in my earlier post on Klein, but his public persona by comparison to Klein still seems a breath of fresh air from my place in the ranks.

Do we not strive to encourage our teachers to be professionals in the manner of doctors and lawyers? In fact, to think, take initiative, to be partners in change, in essence, to profess?

If one accepts these premises, then we must look to flattening our school structure, and nurture the growth of teacher level input into decision making, even in large school districts, maybe particularly in large school districts, because in hardened hierarchical structures creativity and energy are both casualties. This ossifiosis, if I may coin a term, extends to students as well, for in important ways their connection to the school organization and their experience within it echoes the institutional byways that tie the adults together.

Hierarchy is the mode of the industrial era, and may be suited marginally to turning out technically proficient readers, writers, and mathematicians. But it’s a big stretch to argue that hierarchy will turn out the critical and independent thinkers so important to success in the dawning world economy.

Thus we do not need the Joel Kleins of the world to apply. Don’t get me wrong, we need gunslingers – that is, administrators who will kick butt. There has also to be discipline in the ranks. Decisions must be made. But there is a balance between structure and the cultivation of energy within staff, and those who seem his type don’t seem to understand the distinction.

Talk all we will of merit pay, and more pay, but in the long run elite teacher candidates will not flock to their own intellectual and professional death.

I am not as close as I would like to the training of principals, let alone superintendents, to know if and how they are trained along the lines of these thoughts. From what I experience I would say they are too often trained to control, much as a teacher loses face if she is unable to control an unruly class of kids. They are too little trained in the benefits and byways of collegiality, and in the concept that one gains control sometimes by giving up control.

Principals in particular these days may live in fear of ouster, having been identified as key individuals in school change, and so may be targeted for ouster if their school fails to perform. When we fear, we strive to control, and in controlling, we sometimes act against our better interests. In this case, that control reinforces underperforming institutional habits. Thus do individual school authorities act in dysfunctional self reinforcing ways that more cooperative conscious behavior could correct — again, a tragedy of the commons.

It is difficult to fathom, frankly, in what circumstances teacher types would insurrect and establish new norms from below, though I hold out hope that teacher professional growth might stimulate the development of collegial norms. Best though to look to principal and superintendent training, and to awareness in school boards who hire, in order to invent collegial structures over time that will welcome more assertive teachers, themselves trained to expect, even demand, these new cooperative constructs in our schools.

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