Education Opinion

Joel Klein and the Bureaucratic Mind

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — May 26, 2011 4 min read
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By Jeffrey R. Henig

No one, I dare to reckon, has accused Joel Klein of possessing a bureaucratic mindset. Let me be the first. I do so because it is one particular aspect of this mindset--a narrow focus on a designated function and set of institutional tools-- that seduces too many well-intentioned reforms to dismiss the “outside-in” consideration of non-school factors that Paul Reville and I argue in our commentary will be a important tools for social intervention in the future of education reform.

In most ways, of course, Klein has made his name as the ultimate anti-bureaucrat. When Michael Bloomberg selected him as his first chancellor, Klein’s main claim to fame was as a trust-busting assistant attorney general in charge of the Clinton administration’s landmark cases against Microsoft. “It’s not an accident that the mayor selected the country’s leading antitrust litigator and not a teacher to lead the DOE,” one top department administrator noted. “He’s a guy who breaks up monopolies,” another told a reporter. “The problem was the problem of monopolies - the lack of competition, market failure. The whole thing had to be blown up.” Jack Welch, to whom Klein turned to launch a principal training operation, informed a team of district leaders that they should emulate the General Electric approach of “annihilating” bureaucracy. As laid out in GE’s 2000 Annual Report: “We cultivate the hatred of bureaucracy in our company, and never for a moment hesitate to use that awful word ‘hate.’ Bureaucrats must be ridiculed and removed.”

Why has bureaucracy become everyone’s favorite kicking boy? Because the same things that make bureaucracy useful - hierarchy, top-down authority, fixed jurisdiction, specialization, emphasis on expertise, a career system, impersonal application of rules -- can mutate into something that is smothering, exasperating, and occasional dangerous.

“The decisive reason for the advance of the bureaucratic organization has always been its purely technical superiority over any other form of organization,” wrote Max Weber, the German sociologist sometimes referred to as the “father of bureaucracy.” But while impersonal application of rules and regulations means the absence of favoritism, it also means the absence of compassion and sensitivity. Top-down authority enforces uniformity and consistency, yes, but also street-level bureaucrats unwilling to take responsibility without seeking permission from their superiors, who have to seek permission from their superiors, and so on up the line. A career system anchored in expertise can create organizational capacity to get things done, but also distance from the experience and concerns of the Joe the Plumbers of America, who see bureaucrats as a favored class who live comfortable lives without having to break a sweat.

Klein can be faulted for focusing on the stifling, routinizing, and distancing effects associated with bureaucracy, without acknowledging the positive side of the coin. But my critique goes beyond this. (I use Klein as the foil here because he has been among the most visible and vocal proponents of a point of view, and he continues to play this leadership role even after leaving his NYC position.) While actively setting up educational bureaucracies as their foil, he and many other reformers have tended to think and act like bureaucracies in one important and constricting respect.

Central to bureaucracies is their issue specialization, including a disciplined focus on the tools within their designated field. But this, too, cuts both ways. Specialization makes possible the mobilization of advanced technical expertise and a coherence and intentionality that generalist institutions are rarely able to pull off. But it also makes government incoherent and uncoordinated, a danger that political scientist Theodore Lowi warned about more than four decades ago. Bureaucracies, or what Lowi called the “New Machines,” have made cities “well-run but ungoverned” by allowing neglect “of those activities around which bureaucracies are not organized, or those which fall between or among agencies’ jurisdictions.”

But isn’t it simpler to let educators pull on the school change lever while others pull on the housing lever, income support lever, family services lever, and so on across the array of functionally organized bureaucracies? Simpler, yes. But smarter? No. That would be like telling Derek Jeter to worry only about the baseballs that are hit in his direction, when his real value includes his ability to anticipate and synchronizing with the movement of his eight other teammates on the field.

Jeffrey R. Henig is a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. His recent book, Spin Cycle: How Research Is Used in Policy Debates, The Case of Charter Schools (Russell Sage Foundation Publications, 2008), won the American Educational Research Association’s Outstanding Book Award in 2010.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.