Control Freaks

How Progressives and efficiency experts abolished school-based management.


When teachers' unions complain about rigid, top-heavy management and criticize increased school spending, you know the American school system is indeed too bureaucratic. And teachers are complaining, often very loudly.

In January, the Rochester, New York, Federation of Teachers (an American Federation of Teachers local) bought a full-page ad in the city's daily newspaper listing the titles and salaries of 300 administrators the union thought should be fired in order to make the school system more flexible and more productive. "More often than not," Rochester teachers' union head Adam Urbanski told Education Week, "more money for education is indeed throwing good money after bad."

The Rochester teachers have joined a growing number of critics of the American school system who claim that public schools have too many administrators and too much central direction, leaving schools unresponsive to the needs of teachers, parents, and students.

But sacking unnecessary administrators isn't easy. The organizational structure of most school systems, in which a large central office minutely controls the affairs of the schools in its district, has been in place for generations. "We too rarely realize that today we know far more about the stunningly complex processes of learning than we did 90 years ago," notes education professor Theodore Sizer in his new book, Horace's School, "but that the template of American secondary education that was struck then is very much in place."

But how was this "template" created? Why did American high schools become rigid command-and-control bureaucracies? The answers are found in debates that concluded around World War I. School decentralization is not a new idea. If instituted, it would simply return American public schools to the practices they abandoned at the turn of the century.

Until 1900, most public schools were under local control. In 1890, the average state department of education had two employees, but nearly 500,000 local school board trustees hired and fired employees, determined curricula, and set budgets. Rural schools set aside time every Friday for "declamations," times when parents could visit the schools and talk with teachers about their children's progress.

In the cities, "ward boards" ensured that large numbers of parents would have a substantial say in school affairs. In Philadelphia, for example, there were 545 ward board members making it easier for parents to approach an elected official about problems. "A ward board, or ward representative," historian Joseph M. Cronin observes, "could 'ask around' and talk with people about vacancies and about the particular problems faced in an individual school building."

At the turn of the century, notes historian David Tyack, "there was 'school-based management' and community control to a degree unimaginable in today's schools. Local trustees and parents selected the teachers, supervised their work, and sometimes boarded them in their homes."

But between 1900 and 1915, the Progressive movement systematically destroyed local control of schools. The Progressives believed that government agencies should be run not by politicians and political appointees beholden to special interests but by highly trained nonpartisan experts who would serve the public interest.

In city after city, the Progressives steadily worked to eliminate the ward boards and replace them with a single consolidated board with a few members. In many cases, particularly in New York City, the reformers tended to be middle- and upper-class whites wary of giving control of the schools to immigrants.

The Progressives also believed that centralized control would ensure that schools would be immune from patronage. "If there are men who will not accept the office of trustee unless they can appoint teachers and employ tradesmen," said Nicholas Murray Butler, leader of New York City's school reformers (and later Columbia University's president), "there are other citizens worthy of respect, who have no taste for the distribution of spoils but are interested in education." Arguments for the democratization of schools, Butler contended, were as foolish as those for the "democratization of the treatment of appendicitis."

But most of New York City's ward board members were not under the control of Tammany Hall or anyone else. Forty percent of them were Republicans, and most had respectable occupations. Columbia University historian Diane Ravitch says that "more than half were merchants; others were lawyers, doctors, judges, and bank officials." These solid citizens campaigned vigorously for local control: 100,000 parents signed petitions opposing consolidation of the city's school boards. New York's mayor, nearly all the teachers, and 15 out of 21 members of the city's Board of Education also opposed consolidation. The ward boards, nonetheless, were abolished in 1896, and the school boards in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island were also abandoned when these cities merged into New York in 1898.

After the ward boards were abandoned, New York Mayor Sylvanus Van Wyck warned that the reform would do more harm than good. School board consolidation, he declared, was "a radical move in the wrong direction [bound] to destroy all local interest…[and] practically exclude the people from all management of the schools."

Despite Van Wyck's warning, the school board remained small. What happened in New York happened in other cities; by 1910, 545 ward board members in Philadelphia were reduced to eight. The swift process of school board consolidation had Chicago Teachers Union President Margaret Haley warning in 1909 that "our city school systems shall become great machines, in which one superintendent 'presses the button' and all the teachers move absolutely as he directs."

As parents lost ground, superintendents gained. The superintendency became professionalized; from 1903 onward, superintendents could obtain doctorates, either from Columbia University's Teachers College or from Stanford. But it took a second event to complete the transformation of the public schools into rigid, command-and-control bureaucracies: the "efficiency craze."

In the first years of the 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor conducted a series of "time-and-motion" experiments showing that workers could vastly increase their productivity if their jobs were broken down into a series of easily repeatable acts. Taylor argued that any organization could be made more productive by using his methods. The principles of efficiency, Taylor wrote, "can be applied with equal force to all social activities: to the management of our homes; the management of our farms; the management of the business of our tradesmen, large and small; of our philanthropic institutions, our universities, and our governmental departments." Taylor's ideas swiftly entered general circulation.

Between 1910 and 1914, "efficiency experts" swarmed across factories, bureaucracies, churches, and even households and came up with ways to be more productive. (Their typical advice to mothers: Serve standard meals at standard times.) By 1915, most organizations had forgotten the efficiency experts' advice. But not the schools; the efficiency craze permanently altered the way they were run.

In 1912 and 1913, the Ladies Home Journal ran an eight-part investigation of American education that concluded that schools largely failed to educate students. In New York, the Journal reported, winners of a New York Times essay contest were those who had the fewest composition classes. The Journal also noted that "the public librarians have shown that the most numerous requests for good literature come from those who have not studied literature in school."

In San Francisco, Frederic Burk, president of the San Francisco State Normal School (now San Francisco State University) quizzed 40 bright high school seniors in that city and found that only 11 out of 40 could identify labor leader Samuel Gompers, while 23 of the 40 did not know who Charles Darwin was. Some students, said Burk, thought that Booker T. Washington had assassinated Lincoln, that Sen. Robert LaFollette was "a Frenchman of the Fourteenth Century who explored," and that Charles Darwin had conspired to kill Mary, Queen of Scots.

School superintendents, as Raymond Callahan showed in his 1962 book Education and the Cult of Efficiency, responded to public criticism in ways that resulted in permanent change. They began to pay more attention to items that could be measured—test scores, expenditures, salaries—and less to intangibles, such as determining what methods of instruction could best ensure that students learned.

Increasingly, these superintendents saw themselves more as chief executive officers of large corporations and less as scholars or professors. "Educational administrators," said Callahan, "by devoting more of their time and energy to the financial aspects of education and less to the instructional aspects, moved closer to the business-managerial role and away from the educational role."

But how could schools become more efficient? Many different approaches were tried. New York, Detroit, Boston, and New Orleans established efficiency bureaus. In Blackfoot, Idaho, the schools adopted "student efficiency tests," in which students were judged 2 percent more efficient if they slept with at least one window open and 5 percent more efficient if they made it a rule "to do a kindness toward someone each day." But a graduate student at Columbia University's Teachers College proposed what became the most significant change.

For his doctoral dissertation, J. Howard Hutchinson studied various school systems to see how they managed their supplies and found that few could adequately describe how they ordered supplies or how many goods they had in stock. He recommended that schools adopt 22 forms, including purchase orders, time sheets, expense ledgers, and so on. Hutchinson's record keeping was quite thorough; his form for ordering supplies and textbooks had 19 entries, and his requisition forms had 21 (to be filled out in triplicate).

Hutchinson argued that, if his system were implemented, the public could be better informed about how school systems spent their tax dollars: "An inquisitive citizen could, from the accounting kept by [the] board of education, learn whether or not it was faithful to the trust imposed in it, i.e., whether it spent the money as it stated it did." He also contended that his system would cost very little; school systems need only increase their budgets by $1,800 to pay for the cost of a clerk and his assistant.

Hutchinson's ideas spread rapidly throughout America. As David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot showed in their 1982 study Managers of Virtue, most of America's educational leaders at the time were a relatively small close-knit group of men who went to the same graduate schools (usually Stanford or Columbia), who frequently attended the same conferences, and whose careers routinely rotated between school superintendencies, high-ranking positions in the National Education Association and the U.S. Office of Education, foundation posts, and professorships at leading universities.

A dissertation, if published in the right place (such as Teachers College), could easily reach a select audience of people who could use the monograph's findings to make major changes in American education. As a result, Hutchinson's research, by offering superintendents a relatively low-cost way to satisfy taxpayer demands for economy, proved far more influential than most graduate theses.

By 1920, the organization of American schools was firmly fixed. School districts were to have large central offices that restricted the autonomy of their schools by controlling supplies and regulating conduct and school governance. School superintendents, seeing themselves as the chief executives of institutions as complex as General Motors, created hierarchical management structures using organizational techniques (such as command-and-control or line-and-staff management) thought innovative at the time. Had these superintendents chosen alternative models of organization (such as those used in hospitals or churches), schools may well have emerged as decentralized institutions whose heads were considered scholars rather than bean counters. But this was not to happen.

Little evolution has taken place in educational administration since the 1920s. Most large corporations are now striving to eliminate as many layers of administration between the CEO and the workers as possible. But civil-service regulations and the natural inertia of bureaucracies ensure that administrators still clog school systems and consume most of the tax dollars spent on education.

Still, school superintendents forced to make budget cuts might ask themselves whether they can afford an antique organizational structure. And voters threatened with tax increases for education might consider whether it is desirable to preserve all those central-office jobs. If these questions are asked—and asked repeatedly—the lessons the Progressives taught American educators may finally be forgotten.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is writing a book about reforming public high schools.