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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Why Do ‘Anti-Corporatists’ Defend Factory-Style School Leadership?

By Rick Hess — July 28, 2014 3 min read
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Amidst the summer lull, I’ve spent a bunch of time over the last month or two talking about “cage-busting” to school and system leaders in a bunch of districts, state gatherings, and university programs. By “cage-busting,” I mean finding ways to rethink the web of rules, regulations, contracts, and routines that have accreted over the past century, and to shrug off the self-imposed cage created by urban myths, professional norms, and a “culture of can’t.” I argue that cage-busting is a necessary (if insufficient) step to escape factory-style bureaucracy and ensure that time, talent, technology, and money are used in ways more likely to promote great teaching and learning.

One of the interesting reactions to all this has come from “anti-reformers” who dismiss any call for leaders to think this way as a “corporatist” attack on public education. This comes up now and again when I’m talking to school and system leaders, who nod along with the main points but sometimes wonder whether empowering school or system leaders reflects an attempt to import a “business” mindset into education. It’s an interesting question. And, on that count, a little historical context can help.

In the early 1900s, influenced by education psychologist Edward Thorndike and scientific management guru Frederick Taylor, proponents of progressive education worked to bring the same standardization and routine to education that they admired in industry and business. The problem, explained Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University from 1917-1933 and, in many ways, the father of modern school administration, had been that, before 1900, schools had been like “a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency.”

In short, progressives worked hard to import the best practices of private industry to American education. (This is why the familiar school model bears such an uncanny resemblance to the early 20th-century factory.) That model made some sense at the time, helping to manage a massive expansion of schooling in a world lacking modern data tools and communications technology.

Since that era, though, K-12’s routines and rules have been largely preserved, as if in amber. Intrusive regulations, petty bureaucracy, and balky decision making have bizarrely come to be treated as part of the schoolhouse culture.

In the private sector, meanwhile, old giants like Univac, TWA, and Xerox have given way to Google, JetBlue, and Apple. These new ventures had the freedom to build brand new cultures, staffing models, evaluation systems, and delivery models that took full advantage of evolving talent, tools, and technology.

In schooling, this passing of the baton is absent. Instead, leaders inherit long-standing schools or school systems. As successive generations of entrepreneurs and thinkers in other sectors have revisited basic assumptions and built wholly new organizations, educational leadership preparation has clung to aged norms. Indeed, those championing more flexible, creative, and quality- and cost-conscious leadership have been pilloried for pursuing “corporate-style school reform.” As I noted in The Same Thing Over and Over, “The debate over the sanctity of ‘schoolhouse leadership,’ then, is really a debate between the defenders of early-twentieth-century management practices and those championing the management practices [favored] by leading public and private organizations in recent decades.”

Today’s education leaders too often find themselves ill-equipped to negotiate a world marked by profound changes in what we ask of schools, the labor market, and the available tools and technology. These changes have created new challenges and vast new opportunities. Given that, there’s little reason to expect that century-old assumptions about how to organize and deliver schooling are necessarily the smartest way forward. You might think that, given all this, self-proclaimed champions of public schooling would cheer efforts to give leaders the tools they need to help public schools thrive in a new century.

It seems to me like it’d be hard to enthusiastically defend factory-style, early 20th-century management. That said, some folks appear eager to do so, and to denounce more agile, dynamic management as “corporatist.” Okay, then. It’s a free country. But, as Mandy Patinkin so famously opined in The Princess Bride, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.