Bureaucratic education: The modern past

Social organisations are called bureaucratic when their members are confined to rule-bound roles. Typically, bureaucratic organisations are hierarchically organised. People in superior positions in the organisation pass down orders and instructions to people in subservient positions. Earlier modern schools and education systems were mostly organised in a bureaucratic way. Some school systems, schools and classrooms remain bureaucratic in their orientation today. And even when they are not particularly bureaucratic, some educators in some learning communities, occasionally and under certain circumstances, may catch themselves at moments acting in a bureaucratic way.

See Max Weber on Bureaucracy.

Dimension 1: Class management

The classroom is a small learning community, or a learning community within a learning community. In schools that practise bureaucratic management, the classroom is the smallest social unit of formal organisation. It is a place that, in its own modest way, can be as bureaucratic as any larger organisation.

See Rosabeth Moss-Kanter on Nursery School Bureaucracy.

The teacher-bureaucrat establishes a system of disciplinary roles and rules by which learners have to do certain things on the teacher’s instruction. ‘Do this activity.’ ‘Now do this test.’ This happens, in part, because the teacher is located in a line of bureaucratic command. Power may originate within an education system, often administered by the state or at least, in the case of private or semi-private schools, regulated by the state. This power is in turn delegated to the principal, who in their turn delegates control to subject masters or division heads, who in their turn supervise the teachers under their command. Then, at the end of the chain of command are the students who, all being well, do as the teacher tells them and absorb the knowledge that the teacher says they need to know.

This kind of bureaucratic structure applies as much to the control of knowledge as it does to person-to-person chains of command. The syllabus dictates to the textbook writer the subject matter they must cover. The textbook writer then tells the teacher what the syllabus means by filling out the content details. The teacher tells the learners what they are to learn. ‘Read the facts and theories presented to you in Chapter 11.’ Then, at last, the test so the parent, school and education system can be given the mark, which indicates how well the student has managed to learn. This is how the inside of the classroom connects with the outside world, using mechanisms that are by and large bureaucratic.

As the learner acquires knowledge, they develop a kind of competence, which we call ‘assisted’ (Cope et al. 1993). The learner learns to know because there are lots of prompts and explicit directions around them – information provided in the textbook and the direct orders of the teacher. ‘Do precisely this first, then this next, then answer the test.’ Learners learn things, to be sure. But the underlying moral economy of the learning relationship is where there is dependence on numerous props in the form of knowledge laid out in such a way that it can be memorised.

In an organisational sense, the teacher’s competence is also ‘assisted’. They rely on the explicit instructions handed down to them by principals, syllabi, textbooks and tests.

Relationships of assistance like this may be, at times, a good thing. You often need and appreciate these kinds of support when you move into a new or unfamiliar area of learning or organisational context. For a while, you need assistance, you need direct instruction, you need to be told some simple rules of what you should do until you find your feet in the new knowledge or institutional setting. You can be a competent learner or a competent teacher, but only with these kinds of structured support.

Dimension 2: Curriculum planning and evaluation

In bureaucratic forms of educational organisation, teachers and schools have very little say over the syllabus, which is presented as a sequence of topics or areas of factual content that must be covered. In earlier modern bureaucratic education systems, teachers had to teach what your superiors instructed you to teach. These topics, you were told quite unambiguously, were to be covered in this particular year for this particular subject. This was standardised curriculum. If Henry Ford could say, ‘Any colour you like as long as it is black’ to the purchasers of his motor vehicles, so too the administrators of school systems could with similar justification say, ‘Any topic you like so long as it is what we have determined to be the right topic for you to learn and the right stage in your education to learn it’.

As for evaluation, the teacher’s success in a bureaucratic arrangement of curriculum is their learners’ results, and this is measured by tests. Sometimes these are devised by the teacher to it the syllabus. Other times they are externally administered ‘standardised tests’. The more directly quantifiable the test results, the easier the test is to implement. This is the case with multiple-choice tests with their supposedly unambiguous answers.

See No Child Left Behind

See Kohn on Standardised Tests.

By means of these processes of curriculum planning and evaluation, teachers become intermediaries in a hierarchical command structure, middle managers in a system of bureaucratic line management.

Dimension 3: Educational leadership and management

Bureaucratic education systems began in the same era as the industrial system of Fordism, described earlier in this book. In the school, just as in any other workplace, there was a fine division of labour. In the secondary school, this particular teacher knew mathematics and so that’s what they covered. This other teacher knew history and so that’s what they covered. This elementary or primary teacher taught this year level, separated by one-year age increments from other levels, and that teacher another. This person just did teaching, while that person, say, the principal, just did administration. Generic ‘products’ were created that were supposedly good for all learners, or at least all learners at a certain grade level or of a certain ‘ability’ – hence mass-production textbooks.

Management was by bureaucratic command, with the sternly authoritarian principal at the head of the school. Their main function, or so it appeared to students, was to be the final arbiter of the most serious disciplinary infractions. The school was a cloistered, rule-bound place, with the look and feel of the prison or asylum, and cast in the same institutional mould. Beyond the school, the principal stood in a fixed and formal line management or hierarchical relationship to the equally bureaucratic apparatus of administration that ran the education system.

See Thayer on the Teacher-Bureaucrat.