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Social Organization of Schools

American Public Schools in Context, The Purposes of Schooling, Defining Organizations and Bureaucracies

Understanding contemporary schools requires examining their purposes, evolution, structure, and political dynamics. Ordinary ideas of how schools operate are clouded by a number of misconceptions and assumptions. People often think that schools only teach skills and content, such as reading, writing, and math; or history, English, and social studies. They also think about extracurricular activities, such as football, proms, and childhood peer groups. When visualizing schools, people think of buildings like the elementary, secondary, or tertiary ones they attended. Further, given how politicians talk about their "education agendas," people assume that most control and funding of schools comes from the state or national government. However, schools do much more than just teach content, and encompass more than individual buildings. Regardless of their size or complexity, schools fulfill a wide range of overt and less obvious functions.

Schools are embedded within districts established by communities to provide both educational and extracurricular activities for young people and a center for social, political, and cultural community events. Moreover, in the United States, schools are preeminently local, not national. They are controlled by locally elected officials and their appointed superintendents, and are largely funded by local property taxes. Thus, what is described here is only typical of schools and districts in the United States, where pressures for democratic localism conduce to an almost radical decentralization–at least compared to schools in other countries.

American Public Schools in Context

In most other countries, a national ministry or office controls curricula, instructional methods, teacher qualifications and salaries, and individual school budgets. In the United States, however, the Constitution specifies that education must be provided by the individual states, which in turn have delegated responsibility for schooling to local communities. While funding for and control over schools in other countries is often shared by the national government and the established church, the U.S. Constitution mandates a marked separation between secular and religious affairs–a mandate with which public schools comply. While strong systems of parochial schools exist in some communities–particularly ones with large Catholic populations–and while private schools, semi-private charter schools, and home-schooling have become increasingly popular, these enroll only a small minority of U.S. children.

Local control–a response to both constitutional silence and to deep-seated cultural aversion in the United States to centralization–is one of the most unique characteristics of American public schools. Nowhere else are public schools so explicitly run by locally elected school boards. This means that those most active in educational affairs are often business and professional persons, since they are more likely than working and middle-class individuals to have the time and money to run for elected office. The United States also differs from other countries in that more than half of all revenue for schools comes from the local community. The federal government, in fact, contributes only about 7 percent of all educational revenues, and only for specific programs such as school lunches; vocational training; impact aid to districts located on military bases or Indian reservations, which generate no property taxes; entitlement programs to educate disabled and language minority students; and compensatory educational programs for children in economically disadvantaged communities. These patterns of governance and funding make U.S. schools extremely vulnerable to influences from interest groups, taxpayers (particularly property owners), upper and middle-class residents, and business interests.

Schools and school districts must be understood and analyzed on many academic and organizational levels and in terms of often conflicting demands for their services. Contradictions of goals, purposes, control, and functioning complicate a clear understanding of how schools, broadly defined, really work–in general, and in different communities. Differences in demographic characteristics; economic resource bases; proximity to urban centers; specific constituencies such as labor unions, religious groups, and industries; and historical factors make each school district, and each school within districts, unique.

The Purposes of Schooling

Schools have multiple purposes, and each of these purposes has its own constituency or advocacy group, and each affects the goals and organization of schools. Since the goals of advocacy groups may contradict one another, schools face important dilemmas that can complicate their organizational structure and goals. As will become clear, schools are called upon to provide solutions to a variety of social problems, including poverty, disability, and illness of students, and the fraying of civic culture.

Academic competencies: basic skills or college preparatory? American society asks schools simultaneously to provide job training for children who will not go to college and college preparatory training for those who will. Historically, these two types of training were provided in separate institutions. Public schools initially were established in the mid-nineteenth century to provide primary school training in reading, writing, computation, and, sometimes, citizenship to the children of poor and working-class families who could not, or would not, educate their children themselves. Public elementary schools supplanted earlier programs of apprenticeship, in which poor and working-class children were apprenticed out to learn a trade, and the masters they worked for were required to teach them basic literacy skills.

Children of the wealthy learned their "three R's" at home from parents, governesses, or tutors, while secondary academic schooling was provided by private academies with a classical liberal arts and college preparatory curriculum program–and was usually limited to males. Maintaining public elementary training for the lower classes and private secondary academic training for the wealthy reinforced the social class structure, even though private academies offered scholarships to some deserving and needy children. This system gave working-class children sufficient literacy for citizenship and the labor market, and provided advantaged children the academic training, cultural knowledge, and contacts needed to assume positions of leadership in society. The comprehensive public high school that evolved to eliminate this dichotomy has not resolved the tension between these two types of schooling.

David P. Resnick and Lauren B. Resnick (1985) argue that by the beginning of the twentieth century the labor market demanded higher levels of literacy and numeracy for greater numbers of people. However, private academies were too expensive for the masses and insufficient in number to fulfill an increased demand for more schooling. It was for this reason that the American comprehensive high school developed–to provide free secondary education to all children. This "poor man's academy" was lauded by labor unions and business people because it provided a terminal vocational education for working people, but it was not enthusiastically received by families and communities desirous of distinguishing their children academically, occupationally, and socially from those in vocational training. The result has been an uneasy–and often invidious–system of streaming, or tracking, in which the same school offers vocational, and often remedial, training; a terminal general education; and an elite college prep program. Since each stream often serves quite different groups of children, the effect is to house separate institutions within the same building.

Citizenship: for diversity or uniformity? American schools are asked to inculcate in children the attitudes, values, and habits needed for good citizenship because, since the family is suited best for developing individual personality, institutions such as schools must provide the overall civic training needed to create allegiance to a uniform set of cultural values and to the society's political system. This purpose is unambiguous in a homogenous society, but difficult in the polyglot, multicultural United States. Initially, public elementary schools were given the task of Americanizing or assimilating immigrant children to the English language, a northwestern European cultural heritage, and the desirable habits of industry, hygiene, thrift, and obedience to the laws.

As moral or civic education evolved into social studies in high schools, its focus changed somewhat to emphasize studies of the American government and economic system and appropriate ways for citizens to vote and participate in legitimate political activity. The overall purpose, however, remains: To create a culturally uniform, English-speaking, and law-abiding citizenry–an increasingly problematic task as the United States has become more culturally, linguistically, religiously, and ethnically diverse. Schools in the early twenty-first century must serve children with mental, physical, and emotional disabilities; children who do not speak or write English; children whose parents are nontraditional, absent, poor, working so many jobs that they cannot participate in their children's education, or who are themselves disabled, not working, non–English speaking, and poorly educated. Ensuring academic success for such children has required the establishment of a variety of support services, including bus transportation, meals at school, health screenings, counseling, medical care, language training, sex and drivers' education, and free clothing. This support service sector has added many more levels of organization to schools.

Some ethnic groups resist being assimilated to what they perceive to be a white, western European, Christian, middle-class culture, arguing that schools should equally celebrate their own origins, experiences, and heritage. These goals pose a dilemma: Do schools continue to promote assimilation to a uniform version of American life, or do they promote diversity and multiculturalism? If diversity is to be promoted, how is it to be done? What impact would it have on school structures, curricula, and instruction? Parents of ethnic and language minority children and parents of disabled children form one of the strongest and most vocal advocacy groups in the educational system. Their claims are backed up by constitutional guarantees for "equal protection" and "equal access" under the law. These federal guarantees, however, are left to the individual states and local communities to enforce. These claims, and the services they require, complicate the goals of schools and add yet more departments and staff members to them.

Schools as centers for social life. Academic instruction aside, friendship groups and the social activities they participate in are a significant aspect of school life for children. In part, schools must teach children to maintain healthy social relationships. They also have created a wide range of extracurricular activities to motivate students who otherwise underachieve academically. School activities such as drama, music, and competitive athletics also entertain the entire community, while adding departments and sometimes diverting resources from instruction. Athletics in particular is a significant consumer of school space, time, money, and staff energy.

Defining Organizations and Bureaucracies

Schools are usually described as organizations or bureaucracies. These terms have technical meanings that often conflict with popular understandings. Social scientists define organizations as social structures that (a) possess a distinct set of goals agreed upon by their members, (b) operate under uniform rules and stable patterns of interaction, (c) are governed by a system of authority, (d) recruit members and resources to implement their purposes, and (e) maintain autonomy in decision-making.

Bureaucracies, or complex organizations, have goals and operations large and complex enough to require a staff division of labor or specialization, and to create rational and standardized sets of procedures for employees to do their work. These procedures include standards–such as job descriptions–for carrying out specific tasks or occupying specific positions. Authority and decision making in bureaucracies is hierarchical, governed with each staff member held accountable to those in higher positions. Superiors hold their positions because they have demonstrated that they are competent to do so. Bureaucracies resemble a typical hierarchical organizational chart, and most businesses, government agencies, social services agencies and schools are bureaucratized.

Unrealistic assumptions: schools as bureaucratic hierarchies. The bureaucratic model assumes clear-cut and unambiguous goals and authority structures, consistent systems of accountability, operations based on exercise of professional judgment and rational logic, clear and fair operating rules, and the capacity to generate sufficient resources to carry out necessary tasks. If a superior gives orders, it is assumed the subordinate will follow them or risk sanctions. If funds are needed to operate, they can be generated and controlled. While these assumptions may well characterize most businesses, they do not typify schools. This is problematic, since the business people who often are key players on schools boards may have difficulty discerning differences between how schools and the businesses with which they are more familiar operate. This causes strain between expectations for, and assumptions about, what schools should do and what they can actually deliver.

In addition, American culture values business-like models more over diffuse structures such as those in schools–so much so that many systems in schools, including supervisory patterns, age-grading, fifty-minute periods, systems of accountability, and ergonomic desks, all derive from the Scientific Management movement of the 1920s. This movement, which revolutionized industrial practice, was enthusiastically applied to educational institutions as well.

Organization and Funding of Schools and Districts

School districts generally encompass the elementary grades, which include kindergarten through grades 5 or 6; middle (grades 6 through 8) or junior high schools (grades 7 through 9), and high schools (grades 9 or 10 through 12). Some districts also include preschools and a two-year community college. Elementary schools are relatively small (300 to 1,000 students) and located in relatively homogenous neighborhoods. Middle schools and junior high schools are larger, and usually include the enrollments of several elementary schools. High schools are larger still; many communities have only one.

Schools also group within grade levels by ability for ease of instruction. Most elementary classrooms divide children into high-, middle-, and low-ability groups for basic subjects such as reading and math. Tracking begins in middle school or high school as students are grouped by ability and occupational destinations into college preparatory, general, and vocational curricula. These tracks tend to divide the academically able students from those who are not. Because vocational training does not prepare students for college (and vice versa), it becomes more and more difficult to change tracks as a student progresses further in school. Thus, early tracking has serious consequences for children, as small initial differences in skills learned are magnified with each successive year.

Instructional functions are carried out in the individual school buildings, each of which is administered by a principal. Middle schools and high schools also have several assistant principals and secretarial staff. The central office, under the leadership of the appointed superintendent, provides overall supervision of the individual schools, coordination of all instructional and support services, and staff development for teachers and administrators. The central office also houses offices for school board members; legal, personnel, and financial departments–and departments for research, evaluation, testing, and accountability; grants development; and enumeration and monitoring of student attendance. Central office staff are geographically located at some distance from individual schools, which can make close surveillance of activities in them difficult.

The structure of schools. Schools are divided into levels according to the age of students. Elementary teachers generally teach all subjects to one group of students in the same classroom year-round. They usually are assisted by resource teachers for disabled and language minority children, and, where resources allow, by special teachers for instruction in physical education, art, music, and computers. Middle schools and junior high schools are departmentalized or specialized–teachers teach only in their areas of specialization, and students move periodically from room to room for each content area. In the sixth and seventh grade, students may be grouped so they attend classes together with the same four or five teachers; however, by eighth or ninth grade, the high school model prevails. Here, students are scheduled according to the availability of the classes they choose to take. In middle and high schools, teachers are departmentalized by subject area–such as English, French, Spanish, biology, business practice, social studies, mathematics, and physical education.

Larger schools can offer more subjects, and they have more departments. Large size, then, can be an advantage, but it creates social costs in terms of alienation and isolation for students and teachers, who cannot know all their classmates or students. Although team teaching and sharing classrooms exists; these innovative practices are rare. Most teachers teach by themselves; only elementary school teachers and teachers with severely handicapped children generally have aides. This isolation can impede collegiality, opportunities for teachers to learn from each other, and their capacity to organize; however, the autonomy of the closed door, as Dan Lortie calls it, also serves to insulate teachers from excessive supervision by their principals.

Coupling and control. Patterns of what Lortie calls variable zoning ensure that overall control is fragmented in schools. Individual offices or personnel in schools have jurisdiction only over specific activities. Teachers control delivery of instruction, though the type of instruction and assessment may be imposed upon them by principals, the central office, or state mandates. Teachers also control management and discipline of students and how time is organized within the class period or day. School-level administrators handle overall coordination; disbursing the budget; assigning and scheduling teachers and students to classes; hiring and firing building staff; maintaining relationships with other schools, the central office, parents, and the wider community; and providing an overall instructional and managerial vision for school operation.

Within buildings, principals seldom can supervise the day-to-day activities of teachers; likewise, teachers' choices of materials and activities are limited by priorities established by the principal, central office, and community. Central office staff are responsible for carrying out the dictates of the school board, mediated by professional judgments about the best way to educate children and operate schools. They oversee overall planning, staff development, administration, public relations, fundraising and financial planning, hiring, accountability, and research and evaluation, and they coordinate all service and support activities.

Dispersion of physical units within school districts, as well as the discreteness of individual classrooms, also fragments control because it creates, according to Karl E. Weick, loose coupling, or difficulty in assuring that directives from supervisors are carried out by subordinates. Neither school boards, nor superintendents, nor principals can assume that orders given will always be carried out as desired. Some scholars, such as John W. Meyer and Brian Rowan describe American schools as "decoupled," while Cora Marrett (1990) argues that inner-city schools actually are "uncoupled"–following no upper-level directives at all. This poses dilemmas for educators. Fairness and the need for teachers to build on what children have learned previously requires that all children at each grade level be provided the same quality, type, and quantity of instruction. However, despite the responsibility of principals and central office staff for enforcing some degree of uniformity in instructional practice and policy, individual neighborhoods can exercise considerable leverage to distinguish the instruction their children receive from that in other neighborhoods. Further, individual districts can resist policies mandated by states or the federal government. Some mandates, such as desegregation of schools and services to students with disabilities and language minority students, have been ignored by states and districts for decades.

Even when districts try to implement specific policies regarding instruction, individual teachers can avoid compliance by simply neglecting to follow guidelines unless they are observed by supervisors. Further, in transferring some aspects of decisionmaking authority to school principals, some popular organizational reforms, such as shared decisionmaking and site-based management, can complicate district attempts to institute overall reform, since principals in site-based districts argue that they alone have responsibility in their buildings. Nevertheless, current reforms, which include statemandated accountability systems, require schools to meet uniform academic standards for test performance or face consequences such as loss of funds and accreditation, or wholesale firing of administrators and staff.

Budgets and funding. Looseness in organizational structure is paralleled by looseness in budgeting and fund-raising. The public often fails to understand why schools cannot simply buy the materials and teachers they need. However, school budgets are based on school board priorities and superintendent decisions. Since individual principals usually receive their allotment of funds, and even the individual categories of expenditure, yearly, the degree of control exercised over expenditures at the building level may be very small. District level constraints also exist. The majority of school district revenues come from local real-estate taxes. Although a few communities have given their school boards–within limits–the authority to establish tax rates, rates usually are controlled by voters, who periodically must approve requests both for school tax levies and the bond issues used for major capital expenditures such as construction of new buildings. Districts that experience emergencies–such as a sudden influx of needy immigrant students, destruction of a building by fire or its sudden obsolescence because of new earthquake codes, or radical increases in enrollment because of explosive population growth in the community–cannot quickly raise funds to meet their needs. School personnel and their supporters cannot compel, they can only argue persuasively for, additional funds. Further, they must await the usual political cycle to request increased funds from the voters, who can vent their displeasure over taxes in general by disapproving the only taxes they directly control.

Similarly, districts have little control over revenue received from state foundational funds, called ADA because they are calculated on the average dailyattendance of all students in the district. States raise educational funds from a variety of sources, including gasoline taxes, lotteries, and sales taxes. They give each district a certain amount for each child enrolled in mid-October; these funds are intended to "equalize" educational provisions across districts. However ADA is the same for children in all communities. Since communities vary widely in the value of their real property, and since they are not limited in the amount–above foundational funding–they can generate locally, wide inequities exist in educational services. Not only can rich communities generate more money than poor ones, their residents pay fewer taxes, proportionately, than those in poor communities with decaying housing and little industry. Poor communities often struggle to cover the cost of minimal educational services.

Politicians, including school board officials, often are elected on the basis of promises to reform or redirect educational policies and practices. In fact, their ability to do so is severely curtailed by their inability to affect already established budgets and revenues. Over the years, few attempts to change the local nature of school funding have been successful. States that have tried equalization–giving a larger share of foundational funding to poor districts and correspondingly less to rich ones–have met strong opposition from well-funded communities reluctant to lose their privileged economic position. Federal funds cannot make up the difference, as they are earmarked for specific programs and constitute only a minuscule proportion of overall educational cost.

Reform Issues: Recurring Problems and Proposed Solutions

While parents usually say that they are satisfied with the schools their own children attend, their support has been dropping since 1983. A significant segment of the public in the United States has always been dissatisfied with the education system. This is understandable, given that many segments of the population hold expectations for schools that either cannot be met or are contradictory. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle also suggest that the declining confidence in American schooling is a crisis "manufactured" by political conservatives to usher in the privatization of public schools.

Typical solutions proposed for real or imagined school failure often involve instituting changes in the organizational structure and patterns of control in schools and districts. Reforms proposed since the 1970s are discussed below. These reforms have attempted to improve student performance by changing power balances in schools and districts; raising standards; increasing assessment; creating smaller organizational units; changing on-the-job training for teachers; increasing local control of schools; giving public-education funds to parents, semi-private, and private schools; and devolving more autonomy to teachers and principals.

Decentralizing pathological bureaucracies. Believing that "bigger is better," Americans consolidated their school districts, reducing the total number of school districts by more than 80 percent from 1930 to the 1970s. Consolidation created larger funding bases and greater variety in course and curriculum offerings, but it also required districts to provide transportation for students who could no longer walk to nearby schools, weakened immediate neighborhood and community control of schools, and increased bureaucratization of educational administration.

However, by the 1970s, public disaffection with district size; excessive diversion of revenue to administration at the expense of instruction; lack of responsiveness to the needs of local neighborhoods, particularly minority communities; and, at times, administrative mismanagement and corruption led to the decentralization movement. Decentralization created subdistricts within larger ones. The superintendent's office retained overall coordination and fund-raising responsibility, but many other functions were delegated to subdistrict offices. Decentralization reformed "pathological" school bureaucracies unable to reduce corruption and operate effectively and made schools more responsive to immediate communities.

Localism: giving control to schools and communities. While decentralization dismantled and reduced the authority of central school-district administrations, localism went further. Three approaches dominated: site-based management, shared decisionmaking, and creating school-based school boards. All of these approaches weakened the central administration's ability to direct and coordinate overall district policy. Site-based management devolves decision-making powers in specific areas such as curriculum, hiring and firing of teachers, instructional methods, and even disbursement of budgets to school principals. They, in turn, can make all such decisions themselves, or engage teachers, staff, and sometimes parents in shared decision-making. School Improvement Teams (SIT teams) consisting of parents and teachers are popular; their responsibilities can include everything from fund-raising and volunteer services to actual policy decisions. While parents often participate enthusiastically, recruiting effective parent groups that include working-class and minority parents can be difficult. Shared decision-making not only dilutes the power of the principal, but can cause work overload for teachers, who argue that they do not have time to both teach and run the school.

A Nation at Risk: assessment and standards. While decentralization and localism addressed school responsiveness to constituencies, it did not affect student achievement. In the early 1980s conservative political forces commissioned A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983), a report calling for improving school quality by raising standards. The authors of this report argued that higher expectations for students would produce greater achievement. In response, states and districts increased the number of courses needed for graduation from high school, instituted state-wide and district-level basic skills and content area standardized tests to measure pupil achievement, and raised the test scores students needed to pass from one grade to the next. While these changes did little to change overall school organization, they did dilute district, school, and teacher control over what was taught, since teachers were forced to teach to the tests for their students to do well.

Improving instructional quality: testing teachers. The second attack on educational quality addressed the competence of teachers. The argument was that simply raising standards for students would not improve performance if teachers could not provide instruction commensurate with the level of the tests. In response, national and state-level minimum competency tests were created for beginning and experienced teachers. While the reforms initially required firing teachers who could not pass these tests, in practice, the passing levels for the tests were rather low. Many opportunities for remediation were offered, and few teachers were either found to be so poorly prepared that they could not pass. The testing programs did remove some district control over who could be hired and retained. Testing programs also took a heavy toll on teacher and student morale.

Privatization. In the 1990s disaffection with schools led to innovations in school funding and control, including privatization, charter schools, and vouchers. Privatization involves turning over to for-profit or nonprofit corporations and groups the operation of individual schools or districts deemed to be failures because of the low achievement of their students. These corporations receive funds from districts or the state that are normally allocated to those students enrolled in the privatized school or district; and the corporation then promises to do a better job than the public schools of educating children.

Charter schools, while still public, are run by parent or secular nonprofit special interest groups. Often using facilities owned by the public school district, they too are allocated ADA and local funds for the pupils they can enroll. Both privatization and chartering exempt the schools from a number of regulations–including the requirement that the schools serve all students (including language minority, poorly performing, and handicapped students) and specific guidelines regarding teacher qualifications, student teacher ratios, curricula and assessment. This effectively dilutes district and state capacity both to control what occurs in schools and to create consistent and coordinated educational policies and practices.

Vouchers, perhaps the most popular fiscal reform, involve giving to parents a sum equivalent to the local funds that would be expended for their child's education, and allowing them to use those funds to enroll the child wherever they wish, including private or parochial schools. Vouchers are popular with conservatives, who seek to dilute the influence of public schools by diverting public funds to private schools, which more often are attended by wealthier persons. By contrast, politicians of the left support strengthening the public schools to promote equality of educational opportunity for all children.

Open enrollment. Larger school districts historically have been divided into zones for attendance–students attended the school to which they were zoned, usually the one closest to their home. However, as parents have grown dissatisfied with the education offered at neighborhood schools, they have looked to enroll them in other schools–often those with special programs–within their district. Open enrollment policies dismantle attendance zones, allowing children to attend anywhere they choose, given available space or specific qualifications established by the receiving schools. They also disrupt patterns of school-level budgetary control, because funds earmarked for open-enrolling students go with them to the receiving schools, impoverishing the sending schools.


Schools are asked to assume a myriad of responsibilities quite separate from simply teaching social and academic skills. Each of these has transformed organizational structures and patterns of control and funding in schools. The question remains whether public schools, with their original mission of educating children of all backgrounds, will survive; or whether the public schools, like those in many countries, will become the last resort for disadvantaged and poor children while more affluent segments of the population send their children to private institutions.


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