Bureaucracy Has Conquered Schools. Joe Biden Won’t Fix It

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If anything, he looks set to make a centuries-old trend worse.

For over a half century, from Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to Barack Obama’s Race to the Top to the new education package within the COVID stimulus bill under Joe Biden, well-meaning presidents have tried in vain to remake America’s public schools. Why have all their efforts failed? We blame a history of ever-increasing bureaucracy that began with Napoleon and has had no end in sight since.

President Lyndon Johnson signed a Great Society bill — the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965 — to assure educational equity by funding and formalizing federal intervention into public education. ESEA has been reauthorized and amended multiple times, each creating new offices, bureaucrats, and practices, but not necessarily serving kids.

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed No Child Left Behind — ESEA’s seventh reauthorization — into law to change public education as we know it, forcing schools to test students annually and reform or close unless they taught all students. Postmortems a decade later found that few failing schools reformed and fewer still closed. Instead, schools became ever more enamored with mindless test prep.

Less than a decade later, President Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) — another ESEA-related initiative — promised a near-national curriculum, the Common Core, in part to help increasingly mobile students who had to start over every time they changed schools. RTT also paid states to consider whether students actually learned anything when principals evaluated teachers, infusing some consideration of performance into pay systems previously set by seniority and whether teachers had an extra degree.

None of this changed schools. The politically toxic Common Core united strange bedfellows such as teachers’ unions distrusting any national testing and conservatives distrusting any national curricula. At best, the RTT replaced teacher-evaluation schemes that had found 99 percent of teachers effective with more-rigorous schemes that found 98 percent of teachers effective.

The public-school system enjoys the status of being the most layered, centralized, and massive bureaucracies in America, and federal intervention has only made things worse.

As two education analysts with a combined 70 years of studying — and studying in — U.S. public schools, we see historic explanations for the past 60 years of bipartisan school-reform failure to fundamentally change school bureaucracies. This same history also suggests that the Biden administration will get schools to hire more bureaucrats, but not to actually better serve children.

This bureaucratic behemoth was not created on purpose, at least not in its current form. Back in the early 19th century, America had small public schools that were run by local school committees, often located in houses of worship. It was a sensible arrangement when government was small and churches were the dominant social organizations.

That dynamic began to change when, in 1843, Massachusetts state education secretary Horace Mann visited Prussia. After suffering repeated invasions by Napoleon, Prussian leaders remade their schools to instill military discipline and patriotism so that students would grow up ready to fight off foreign incursions. To do this, Prussia bureaucratized schooling, with national control of schools and teacher training. Prussia’s example inspired Mann and other American reformers. Through the mid to late 1800s, American states increasingly regulated and standardized schools, paving the way for even more bureaucratic 20th-century reforms.

The district system became essential to controlling schools. Gradually spreading across the country, first informally and finally through state constitutions, school districts essentially forced the majority of students to remain in the public school to which they were assigned by virtue of their zip code. Apart from all other educational considerations, this gave schools captive consumers whom bureaucrats could now often ignore. Later state and federal governments would seek to control these monopolistic local districts to get them to pay attention, sadly compounding the problem.

In the early 1900s, to copy American manufacturing, teachers’ colleges, state governments, and district-school boards began to adopt the theory of scientific management. They thus began to transform small, often female-led schools stressing academics into large education factories in which male principals bossed female teachers, who in turn batch-processed children. As Kate Rousmaniere writes in The Principal’s Office, by mid century, “it seemed to be the natural order of things that women taught and men managed” in schools. Most male principals and superintendents are former coaches, with athletic coaching providing the traditional male path for promotion into educational administration. They often stress loyalty and teamwork over academic quality.

Like factories, schools exalt specialization and division of labor. Indeed, professional administrators manage teachers and children much like factories process widgets. Through the mid and late 20th century, American education developed new professions such as curriculum specialists, counselors, and school psychologists, as well as specialized teachers for special education, English as second language, and gifted and talented students. Each new profession had its own specialized bureaucracy, imposed by federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Federal intervention thus fostered and expanded bureaucratization.

Here, we come full-circle. Many of the new specialists have come with their own specialized bureaucracies authorized by federal legislation such as ESEA Title I, Bilingual Education, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Carl Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. In fact, as one of us notes in the forthcoming “Rise of a Centropoly: Good Intentions, Distorted Incentives, and the Cloaked Costs of Top-Down Reform in U.S. Public Education,” federal intervention into schools turned out to be a powerful driver of one thing: school bureaucracy and its employees.

Kennesaw State University professor Benjamin Scafidi documents the public-education-staffing surge from 1950 to 2015, when the number of teachers grew more than twice as fast as student enrollments did, and the ranks of administrators and support staff rose nearly three times as fast as teachers did. From 1950 to 2006 the number of students for each school staffer fell from 19.3 to eight. With ever larger staffs, education budgets soared, but teacher pay stagnated, encouraging teachers to make more money by leaving the classroom. For men, athletic coaching offered a direct path into high-paying administrative jobs above the unglamorous work of classroom teaching. For women, new education bureaucratic professions such as “curriculum specialist” offered similar upward mobility.

Now the Biden administration promises no big changes, just more bureaucrats, more mental-health counselors, and more summer-school days. The K–12 money offered in the third COVID-relief package — almost $123 billion — goes toward a laundry list of programs and services. These include addressing learning loss through summer school, after-school, or extended-day programs, or responding to students’ academic, social, and emotional needs, and any activity allowed through existing programs including Title I of ESEA, IDEA, the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act, and the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act. For years, word on the street has been that big sums of money, such as those coming from the feds, go to hiring new staff. In other words, the money simply goes toward funding more boots on the same ground. Both students and staff are chewed up by a bureaucratic machine that favors ever larger budgets, not to mention fads from self-esteem building to personalized learning that are adopted and then discarded on a regular basis, doing little other than to pad administrator resumes.

Along with eroding students’ dreams and teachers’ status, over-bureaucratization has had two pernicious consequences. First, as any parent of a student with a special-education label can attest, in today’s public schools, a single child is the responsibility of multiple education professionals who do not always talk with each other, let alone with the parents. Not all focus on whether students advance academically. This may explain research findings that special education, for example, may not help students over the long term. Other vulnerable students have similar outcomes.

Second, bureaucratization means that principals have little control over the other professionals working inside their buildings. In Smarter Budgets, Smarter Schools, former school superintendent Nate Levenson grouses that when coordinators of specialized programs within schools claim that federal or state statutes require a particular practice or expenditure, few know enough to argue back. With dozens or even hundreds of spending categories, it is rare that a principal understands their school budget, much less how to shift resources from what fails to what works.

This machine — bureaucratization layered atop a set of government monopolies — makes it nearly impossible to change schools in order to advance academics, or anything else. That is except for one thing: the bureaucracy itself.

Martha Bradley-Dorsey is a distinguished doctoral fellow in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, where Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership. Mr. Maranto served on his local school board from 2015–20.

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