Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

In the heart of Silicon Valley where start-ups are a way of life, open space offices and teams rule the landscape. Even at the biggest of the big companies such as Google and Facebook, power struggles among and between bureaucrats are a thing of the past. “Move fast and break things” is a Facebook’s slogan. Flat organizations, no elaborate hierarchies, and constant change dominate. Or so, everyone seems to say. See here, here, and here.

Then along comes a Stanford professor who says: “Sorry Kids, Corporate Power Hasn’t Changed.” Jeffrey Pfeffer at the Graduate School of Business since 1979 has studied organizations for decades. According to Pfeffer, Silicon Valley firms–big and small–recruit engineers and programmers to become managers by saying:

We’re not political here. We’re young, cool, socially networked, hip, high-technology people focused on building and selling great products. We’re family-friendly, have fewer management levels and less hierarchy, and make decisions collegially.

It just ain’t so, according to Pfeffer. He points out that hierarchies exists in all organizations and power, acquiring status, and control over ideas and practices are in play unceasingly. He points to the power struggles that occurred at the birth of Twitter and the frequent turnover of CEOs as Hewlett-Packard. And hierarchy is alive and well at Facebook and Google where dual classes of stock “allow the founders to retain the lion’s share of control.” An infographic on hierarchy at both firms would have strengthened his argument even further.

Pfeffer concludes his article with the flat-out statement:

Competition for status and advancement exists not only over time and across countries but also in virtually all species. In short, whether we like it or not, the rules of power abide largely unchanged. People who ignore these principles do so at their peril.

I was struck by Pfeffer’s points that amid all of the talk about change, flat organizations, and team-work, the constancy of competition within companies for power and status remains. Even in Silicon Valley.

Power, Status, and Hierarchy in Public Schools

A similar rhetoric pervades the quest for effective schooling. Reformers, both on the political left and right, say teachers need to collaborate, network, and build strong school cultures where instruction and learning are primary goals. See here, here, and here. But talk is cheap. Beyond the words, what are the organizational realities (i.e., tall or flat, hierarchical or teams) in public schools?

Most U.S. elementary schools are already “flat” organizationally. There is a principal, a few administrative and instructional aides, building staff, and the largest group of all, the  teachers who report to the principal. That’s it. In larger secondary schools there are more administrators, staff, and rules but few hierarchical strata separate teachers from their principals. The largest number of staff in middle and high schools are teachers. But rules also come from district and state offices.

Regulations abound in schools because districts are creatures of the state which, in turn, makes educational policy for everyone. So district administrators try to make sure that local and state policies are followed in schools. School-site principals do the same with teachers. In short, even with a flat school-site organization, bureaucratic levels exist in school districts and the state which means that elbowing for higher status and getting more clout occur in schools, districts, and state departments of education. Here’s the catch, however.

With all of the rules and hierarchical levels from classroom through the state superintendent of education, teachers have one things in their power to do: close the classroom door. They are (and have been) gatekeepers for student content, skills, and attitudes.

What about charter schools that have autonomy and are free from most district and state regulations? KIPP, Aspire, and other groups of charter schools have state and national organizations that make rules for individual schools to follow. As in public schools, however, charter school teachers can close their doors.

Teachers as gatekeepers exist because the organizational reality of both regular and charter schools is that they are age-graded and each teacher has a self-contained classroom with a door to close. Teachers have power within their classroom but little outside of it unless they develop a support network, a culture within the school. And, from time to time, that has occurred in both charter and regular schools.

Consider all the talk of moving to project-based learning and shifting the teacher’s role from the sage-on-stage to guide-on-the-side. Periodically, school reformers for more than a century have coerced, urged, and pleaded with teachers to change their dominant teacher-centered forms of instruction into more student-centered ones along the lines mentioned above.

On occasion, some of the reforms have stuck in some schools where teachers  weathered criticism and supported one another through cascades of hype and criticism. In these scattered instances, teachers kept their doors open and built a stable school culture supporting such instructional reforms as teaching in small groups regularly, sustaining open classrooms, using project-based learning, and creating rich student-centered activities (see here and here). But not most teachers who returned time and again to practices that worked better for them than the “new” reform simply because they could close their classroom doors.

These are (and have been) abiding features of public schools and companies that no amount of talk and hype about doing business differently has changed. Even in Silicon Valley.




Filed under leadership, Reforming schools

17 responses to “Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools

  1. Jeff Bowen

    The negative connotations given to bureaucracy fascinate me. We critize it and try to escape it, but long ago Max Weber convinced me it is a vital necessity in our worlds of business and education. You should do a piece on why bureaucracy is a good thing…and why our failure to understand and use it leads to many of our young people into deep trouble.

  2. Pingback: Business as Usual in Corporations and Schools | Educational Policy Information

  3. I teach at a low budget private school, my wife teaches at a public middle school. I get to see both worlds. Over the last 10 years or so I have noticed a shift in focus of the upper echelon in the public schools. It has shifted from the student being the focus to the budget being the focus. Superintendents are now hired by their ability to manage a budget and keep costs down. The connection between the upper levels of the bureaucracy and the teacher in big public school districts is getting tenuous to say the least. Many of the school bureaucrats have very little time in a classroom. Education is becoming a business, not an investment.

  4. Jerry Heverly

    I have often thought that one of the most useful “reforms” a school like mine could enact would be to publish an organizational chart. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone in any school I’ve ever worked. And I think I know why. It would create too much strife. Take the issue of span of control.
    In our high school we have one principal, 4 asst principals and 120 teachers. (not to mention the head janitor, the secretaries, the librarian, the parent liaison, et. al.)The asst principals have many responsibilities from supervising testing to making sure the fire alarms work properly. Very little of their time is devoted to supervising the next level, i.e. the teachers. I’d guess the typical asst. principal spends about 10% of his or her time on the latter role. And none of them has a cadre of teachers assigned to them so that in reality all 120 teachers are “supervised” by 5 principals. I’ve learned over the years that, when I have an issue, I seek out the one asst principal that I think will be most sympathetic to my plight. I shop principals, in other words.
    A closed door can be opened. An asst principal could sit in my classroom at any time. But they don’t. Except when the union contract specifies (every two years, 2-4 observations scheduled in advance) I never see these people who are above me in the organization.
    It’s more than just the issue of a closed door. It is the culture of most US schools that enforces the teacher-fiefdom model. For the principals there is the out-of-sight-out-of-mind advantage to this way. You don’t need to deal with invisible problems. Better to attend meetings than to engage real people with real problems.
    Schools have ignored the Silicon Valley business culture with its open offices and game rooms, but this is nothing new. US school culture has been immune to the blandishments of private industry for over a hundred years. From the books I’ve read about charter schools they don’t seem ready to challenge the basic structure of this system. They mostly play around with the hours of work and the discipline systems meant to maintain order.
    There’s value in having some ultra-stable institutions. If we ever were to throw open the doors to radical reform I’m not sure we’d like the results.

    • larrycuban

      Maybe there are some advantages to school bureaucracies that go unnoticed. Thanks for the comment, Jerry.

    • Reading something like this make me realize how lucky I am to teach in a small school. I have a principal and a president above that. I see the president almost daily in the school halls. He does not manage the teachers but he knows them all personally. I really do not think I could operate in a big school where the boss is a bureaucrat and not a former teacher.

  5. As someone new to teaching, with 25+ years in high-tech in companies large (>100k employees) and small (8 employees), and a brief stint in the military, I can assure everyone bureaucracy and its concomitant battles for influence and power reign supreme in public education. As Larry points out, the classroom door is a teacher’s best defense against overly intrusive, misguided, or ludicrous bureaucratic missives. While there are always pros and cons to any action, those on the front lines of any organization often know better than those insulated from reality as to the feasibility of any new edict, well-intentioned or not. With healthy lines of communication running throughout an organization, most differences and difficulties related to the desired change can be rectified over time, at least until the next change from on high arrives; this presumes a shared, mutually beneficial outcome is possible. Unfortunately, most education reformers do not understand this time-proven, natural necessity.

  6. Pfeffer’s argument certainly reflects my own experience both of the business of education and the education business. Having spent almost two decades teaching English, constantly encouraging teenagers to express themselves articulately and with originality, I was taken aback when I discovered just how little these abilities were valued in businesses where hierarchical mentalities stifle anything like originality.

  7. Jessica Haugo

    As a teacher who truly believes in project-based and students centered learning, it can be very difficult to implement these practices behind closed doors when your district requires you to use “research – based” programs that are predominantly direct instruction and worksheet heavy. In order to implement these practices, a lot needs to change in regards to school policy at the district, state and national level. The majority of our inner city schools face these challenges and teachers lose more and more control over how to teach the curriculum. Being able to close a door is no longer an option for many teachers these days, especially those who work in large impoverished districts. The sad result of this is the students are the ones who ultimately suffer.

  8. Pingback: Khan Academy and Implications of Teacher Control « Uncategorized « Keeping Pace

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