Skip to main content

Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Nested Organizations: Public Schooling Is Complex

In the previous post on the complexity of teacher decision-making, I mentioned that not every teacher or parent knows that classrooms are embedded in complex organizations that affect what teachers do daily. This post tries to get at that organizational and political (yes, political) complexity that colors both how and what teachers teach and their relationships with students.

Many readers are familiar with wooden dolls made in Russia that fit one atop another. As one loosens the largest doll, the next one that appear get smaller and ditto for each one taken out. These dolls are nested in another.

The system of schooling in the U.S. is also nested. The largest organization–“doll” to stretch the analogy– that runs the nation’s schools, however, is not the federal government as it is in those nations that have centralized education as a national responsibility such as Japan, France, China, and Russia.In the U.S., it is each of the 50 states.

Because the U.S. has a decentralized system where the federal responsibility for schooling the nation’s 55 million students is restricted largely to funding states (e.g.,the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965) and enacting education laws giving all children access to schooling (e.g., Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975). the federal government is not responsible for schooling the young in the nation. States are.

Each of the 50 states, operating under the jurisdiction of the governor and state legislature enact educational policies and distribute federal and state funds to the districts they have established to operate local schools. California, for example, has chartered over a thousand local districts to make policy, receive funds, hire staff, and operate schools. Connecticut has 172 districts and Hawaii is only one state-run district. That is the largest doll in the nested collection.

So every one of the 50 states represents the next “doll.” Each state establishes districts–another smaller “doll– to carry out its educational policies. Besides funding, each state sets curriculum standards, certifies teachers and administrators, administers tests, and enacts policies that guide each district’s board of education and its superintendent, including whether independent charter schools are allowed to operate in the state or district. In the U.S., There are over 13,000 school districts.

For example, When the Arlington (VA) Board of Education appointed me as their superintendent in the mid-1970s, I swore an oath to obey the state constitution and, with the Arlington County Board of Education, ensure that state policies including curriculum standards were put into practice in nearly 40 elementary and secondary schools then enrolling just under 15,000 students. I directly supervised almost 40 principals who were charged by me to implement state and district policies in each of their schools. They, in turn, supervised nearly 1,000 teachers in those buildings.

Moreover, I had to meet Virginia’s credential requirements to be a superintendent. Turned out I lacked one course in managing school facilities and had to take that course before the state certified me as Arlington’s superintendent. In effect, states are responsible for tax-supported public education within its boundaries.

Responding to their political constituencies, the governor, state legislators and board of education direct policies to these elected district school boards whose members respond to a variety of state and community stakeholders. These elected boards approve all policies from how much to spend in next year’s budget per pupil to setting attendance boundaries to salaries for employees to what curriculum teachers will teach to the kinds of soap in students’ bathrooms. In short, tax-supported public education is a state-dominated, locally operated political instrument for producing literate, engaged civically adults prepared for the workplace.

Which brings me the next smaller nested “doll” in the collection: the school and its principal. As noted above, districts vary in size of enrollment so the number of schools within a district will vary. School districts vary in size from New York City with over one million students in 1800 buildings to Indian Springs Elementary School District in California with 17 students. As noted above, when I served as superintendent between the mid-1970s and early 1980s, Arlington had nearly 15,000 students distributed among nearly 40 schools, each with one principal.

As the state mandates policies for all of its districts, each district board and superintendent does the same in directing its principals to pursue those state policies and the ones that the locally elected school board authorized. Each school is led by a principal appointed by the superintendent and approved by the school board. Individual principals do have leeway in adapting to its neighborhood and diversity of enrollments and responding to superintendent directives. As the superintendent leads the district, so, too, the principal is expected to lead the school. And the classroom teacher–the smallest “doll” in the nested collection–is charged to lead her students to learn.

The nested dolls analogy gets at the different, constantly interacting tiers of U.S. school organization and how political relationships between stakeholders at every level come into play to fund, operate, and assess student outcomes. In sum, the decentralized system of public schooling in the U. S. is a complex, open, multi-tiered organization driven by multiple goals (e.g., engaged citizenship, workplace preparation, enter adulthood with moral principles intact, etc.) and, no surprise, filled with tensions, conflicting values, and contradictions.

But there are surprises nonetheless. Do I need to mention Covid-19 and the immediate switch to remote instruction?

Therefore, elaborate blueprints, technical experts, strategic plans and savvy managers simply are inadequate to control complex systems with thousands of reciprocal ties between people to operate effectively in such constantly changing and unpredictable environments. There is no “mission control” for the federal role in schooling the young. Nor are there “command-and-control bureaucracies” running state or district operations–although formal organizational charts hanging in superintendents’ offices give the illusion of such power. What does happen in these web-like complex systems of interdependent units is that they adapt continuously to turbulent surroundings.

And few parents, much less wannabe school reformers, understand the complexity of schooling children and youth beyond the classroom their children are in and the meaning of these many nested “dolls” of U.S. education. So what? What is the big deal about complexity of an open system like U.S. schooling?

At the minimum, knowing that working at any level in a complex system means adapting to changes, dealing with conflicts, and constant learning. These are natural, not aberrations. Know further that reform designs borrowed from engineering or technical occupations and imposed from the top (e.g., federal, state, or district) in complex systems will hardly make a dent in the daily work of those whose job is convert policy into action, i.e., superintendent, principal, and, especially the small and powerful “dolls" called teachers.

This blog post has been shared by permission from the author.
Readers wishing to comment on the content are encouraged to do so via the link to the original post.
Find the original post here:

The views expressed by the blogger are not necessarily those of NEPC.

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...