Educational Organization

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Education and schooling are not synonymous. Education is the more encompassing concept, referring to the general process by which a social group—whether an entire society, a family, or a corporation—transmits attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and skills to its members. Within these broad boundaries, we can distinguish three general types of education—informal, nonformal, and formal—according to the location of instruction, the characteristics of the teachers, the methods of instruction, and what is learned.

Informal education takes place in the context of everyday life, and the educators include family members, peers, workmates, and the mass media. Formal education or schooling, meanwhile, takes place outside the family in institutions that specialize in education, is conducted by teachers who are not students' intimates and whose principal occupation is education, and stresses learning more through verbal and written description and guided inquiry than through observation and imitation. Finally, nonformal education—which takes such forms as on-the-job training, agricultural extension programs, and family-planning outreach programs—is more organized than informal education but has aims that are more specific and short term than those of formal education.

Virtually all societies utilize all three forms of education, but they differ in the relative predominance of these forms. In nonindustrialized societies, informal education dominates, with formal and nonformal education only marginally present. But in industrialized societies such as the United States, formal education rivals, if not exceeds, nonformal and informal education in importance and the use of society's resources. However, this is not to say that such agencies of informal education as the mass media do not have very profound effects. The ubiquity of the modern mass media and the fact that they are now held in relatively few hands allow them to widely and deeply shape many of our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors (Bagdikian 1990; Herman and Chomsky 1988).


School systems across the world are converging more and more in structure and content (Meyer, Kamens, and Benavot 1992; Meyer, Ramirez, and Soysal 1992). Yet school systems still differ considerably, even among countries comparable in economic development. One key axis of variation is relative size. Nations greatly differ in the proportion of their total population, especially the young, enrolled in school. For example, in 1994 the proportion of youth of secondary school age enrolled in school averaged 94 percent across twenty-one advanced industrial societies (sixteen European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan, Korea, and Australia). But the average percentage was 55 percent for eighteen less developed Asian countries (excluding Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) and 32 percent for fifteen African countries (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997).

Clearly, differences in wealth and degree of industrialization explain a major part of this variation. But even when we control for these factors, we still find enormous differences among societies in the structure of their school systems.

Economically Advanced Countries. Even economically advanced societies differ greatly in how their school systems are governed and how their students' school careers are structured. Nations differ greatly in how much control the national government exercises over how schools are financed and operated. There are several countries that lodge governance primarily at the subnational or provincial level, such as the United States, Canada, and Germany. But most advanced societies vest control in a national central educational authority, usually a national Ministry of Education. For example, the Japanese Ministry of Education provides most of the funding for schooling, determines national curriculum requirements (the subjects to be taught and the depth in which they are to be covered), selects lists of acceptable text books, sets standards for teacher training and certification, and administers the 166 or so public universities. To be sure, local prefectural boards establish or close schools, hire and supervise teachers, and plan the curriculum. But they do all this within parameters set by the national ministry, which can veto their decisions (Kanaya 1994).

Nations with strongly centralized school governance leave much less room for local control and therefore for local variation in the content and structure of schooling. But the flip side of the coin is that such nations also suffer from much less inequality in school spending across localities and—because of class and racial segregation in housing—across social classes and races.

School systems in advanced industrial societies vary also in the structure of students' careers; that is, the timing of career selection and therefore curricular differentiation; the proportion of secondary students specializing in vocational studies; the strength of the tie between vocational training in secondary school and labor-market outcomes; the proportion of students entering and graduating from higher education; and the degree of differentiation within higher education, including whether there is an elite sector with privileged ties to elite public and private jobs (Brint 1998; Hopper 1977). The United States and Germany are nearly polar opposite on virtually all these dimensions.

The United States puts off occupational selection until very late. The main branching point comes after high school, when a student decides whether to go to college, which college to enter, and later what field to major in. As a result, U.S. high schools have a weak connection to the labor market. Because of this, many current educational reforms—such as school-to-work partnerships between schools and employers—are directed toward enhancing the connection between secondary school curricula and labor market opportunities.

Meanwhile, the proportion of students entering and graduating from higher education is huge. In 1996, 65 percent of high school graduates (or about 58 percent of all college-age youth, given a dropout rate of about 11 percent) entered higher education. According to the High School and Beyond Survey, about one-quarter of college entrants eventually receive a baccalaureate degree or higher and another one-fifth receive a one- or two- year certificate or degree. These figures for college entrance and graduation are about double those for Germany (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 1998; U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997). Because so many U.S. students go on to college and because student selection occurs to a great extent within college, U.S. higher education institutions are quite varied in curriculum, prestige, and student-body composition (see below).

Germany, meanwhile, has a very different school system. Student selection occurs at age ten, when students are divided between academic high school (Gymnasium) and two types of vocational secondary schooling (Realschule and Hauptschule). At age fifteen students graduate from the vocational high schools into either more advanced vocational schools or apprenticeship programs combining on-the-job and classroom training. Both are strongly connected to specific employment. Meanwhile, graduates of the Gymnasium go on to take the Abitur exam, which determines if they will be allowed into university. All told, only onequarter of German students enter the university and only 15 percent get university degrees (Brint 1998; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development 1998).

These differences in student careers fundamentally shape educational outcomes. A tightly coupled school career system, in which test results largely determine admission to the best schools and graduation from them in turn strongly shapes job placement, will tend to produce students who work hard at their schooling and their exam performance, as is the case in Japan (Brint 1998; Rohlen 1983). But the effects of school structure reach further. School systems that have small, highly selective higher educational sectors with little or no distinctions made among universities, as in the case of Germany, will tend to generate greater class consciousness and solidarity. In contrast, schools systems with large, internally heterogeneous higher education sectors, such as in the United States, foster weaker class consciousness (Brint 1998).

Economically Less Developed Countries. Economically less developed countries (LDCs) vary greatly as well in the size and structure of their school systems. For example, in Africa, the ratio of secondary school students to the secondary-age population ranges from 7 percent in Mozambique to 77 percent in Egypt (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997). In addition, LDCs vary greatly in how socially exclusive their higher education systems are; for example, in 1985 the proportion of postsecondary students who are female ranged from 24 percent in sub-Saharan Africa to 52 percent in the Caribbean (Ramirez and Riddle 1991).

A major source of this diversity in size and structure is, of course, differences in degree and form of economic development even among less developed societies. But other factors also play an important role in causing this variation. Though most LDCs were at some point colonies or protectorates of one of the European powers or the United States, this colonial inheritance was not homogeneous. For example, the British and French colonial heritages were quite different, rooted in the different educational and political systems of those two countries. British colonies typically had higher rates of college attendance and lower rates of grade repetition than French colonies, echoing the differences between their colonial masters' own school systems (Brint 1998). Furthermore, the nature of the political elites—whether enthusiastic modernizers as in Turkey or Iraq or conservatives as in Saudi Arabia—has made a difference in how much emphasis they put on expanding the school system (Brint 1998).

Despite these variations, educational systems in economically less developed countries (LDCs) do exhibit considerable homogeneity in structure. A lack of resources has tended generally to force a lower level of educational provision (Brint 1998). In addition, many LDCs share a common colonial inheritance; for example, across the former British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, secondary education remains dominated by the British "O-level" and "A-level" examinations (Brint 1998). Moreover, modernizing movements of quite various ideological stripes have seen education as a way of creating loyalty to and solidarity with their new ideas (Brint 1998; Meyer, et al. 1992). Finally, the World Bank has been playing a homogenizing role by strongly urging particular reforms (such as emphasizing primary over tertiary education and deemphasizing vocational education) on nations applying for loans (Brint 1998).


As noted above, the U.S. school system is quite unlike that of most other advanced industrial societies. The United States is virtually unique among advanced societies in that education is not mentioned in the national constitution and educational governance is not lodged with the national government (Ramirez and Boli-Bennett 1982). Instead, schooling in the United States is a state and local responsibility. Consequently, the United States has more than fifty separate sovereign educational authorities.

The United States has no national universities (except for the military academies and a few other specialized institutions). There is no required national exam for university entrance. While the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and the American College Testing (ACT) exam are widely used, they are privately operated and individual colleges decide whether and how their results will be used.

The connection between educational credentials and workplace opportunities is comparatively weak in the United States (Collins 1979). Of course, for some occupations, the connection is quite strong, with a standardized curriculum preparing graduates for licensing examinations. But for most college graduates, the connection between their college major and their work careers is tenuous at best. Significant labor-market advantages go to those who attend and graduate from college, but the school system has relatively weak connections to most occupational sectors. Recent reforms, such as the 1994 federal School-to-Work Act, aim to tighten the links between secondary and postsecondary training and the labor market (Van Horn 1995). But it will take many years of such efforts before the United States even approximates Germany or Japan in the closeness of linkage between school and work.

These structural features have created an educational system in the United States that is wide open and characterized by very high enrollments and great student and institutional diversity. We make available a seat in some college somewhere for virtually everyone who wants to attend. Consequently, our secondary education system is less decisive than in most other countries, as "second-chance" opportunities abound. Secondary school students do not have to make hard decisions about their educational futures until quite late, often in college.

In order to better understand these unusual features of the American system, let us examine the structure of U.S. education in greater detail.

Elementary and Secondary Education. All elementary and secondary (K–12) school districts operate within the confines of the relevant state education law, which specifies requirements for graduation, certification of teachers, and so forth. State governments also provide on average about 47 percent of public school funding, with most of the rest coming from local taxes (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997).

Private schools, too, must conform to state education law, but they are less restricted than are public schools. For example, in most states, the regulations governing teacher certification are less strict if one teaches in a private school than a public school. It is almost entirely up to the private school and its sponsors to generate financial support. No tax-derived funds may be used to support private K–12 schooling unless special conditions are met (for example, private schools may receive public aid if they enroll handicapped students). Interestingly, public aid flows much more easily to private colleges. They can receive student financial aid, grants to build academic facilities, and grants and contracts to conduct research and run academic programs.

The operation of public education at the elementary and secondary levels largely rests with the local school district. In 1995–1996 there were about 16,000 separate school districts in the nation, each with its own school board, superintendent, and schools (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997). Although smaller school districts have often been consolidated into larger ones, many states still have hundreds of separate districts. School district boundaries are usually coterminous with local political boundaries, but elected school boards are rarely identified with a political party. Localities provide about 46 percent of public school funding (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997).

This reliance on local revenues derived from property taxes generates great disparities in per-pupil spending across property-rich and property-poor districts. Though states have increased their share of educational expenses, largely due to legal challenges to relying on local property taxes for funding, spending disparities have decreased only a little. The poorest districts do have more money to spend, but rich districts have increased their tax levels in order to maintain their spending lead (Ballantine 1997).

An important consequence of the U.S. pattern of considerable local control is that local concerns are more likely to be reflected in school policies and practices than is common in countries with more centralized educational systems. Citizens elect local school boards and frequently vote on budgets, property tax rates, and bond issues. Moreover, parents exercise considerable informal political power through parent–teacher associations, informal conferences with school teachers and administrators, and decisions about whether to send their children to a particular school or not. (See the section below on modes of influence over schools.)

Despite the absence of strong national control, U.S. elementary and secondary schools do share many similarities across the country. One reason is that the federal government does exercise a homogenizing influence through its policy recommendations and funding for particular programs. In addition, national professional associations of educators and regional nongovernmental accrediting agencies provide common definitions across states and localities of what constitutes good educational practice. Also, college admissions requirements, though they vary across colleges, are similar enough to influence the course offerings of secondary schools. Moreover, textbook writers and publishers, who provide instructional material for schools nationwide, influence what is taught and often how it is taught by marketing the same instructional materials nationwide (Apple 1986). Finally, the high geographic mobility of students and teachers has helped reduce the isolation and consequent diversity among schools.

Across the United States, formal public schooling generally begins at age six, but enrollment in preschool and kindergarten is widespread and growing. In 1995 about 61 percent of three- to five- year-olds were enrolled part time or full time in nursery schools or kindergartens (U.S. National Center for Educational Statistics 1997).

Elementary schools are smaller than secondary schools. They are also less differentiated internally, in that all students are exposed to essentially the same subject matter by their "home room" teacher. However, within the home room, teachers often do divide students into different groups that are supposed to learn the same material at different speeds. This within-class differentiation is often termed "ability grouping," but in actuality test scores are often only a weak predictor of group assignment. Nonetheless, this grouping by putative aptitude is an important source of later class and, less so, racial differences in achievement (Dougherty 1996).

While elementary schools are generally alike in organization and curriculum, they differ widely in student composition. Because they draw from neighborhoods differing in class and racial composition, they end up differing from each other in student composition.

Secondary schooling begins around age thirteen. For the most part, U.S. secondary schools are "comprehensive"; that is, intended as much for those who will not attend college as for those who will. The comprehensive high school provides college preparation, vocational education, and general secondary education under one roof (Clark 1985; Krug 1964, 1972).

The comprehensive nature of U.S. secondary schools is fairly atypical, for the usual pattern abroad is to have separate academic and vocational high schools. For example, in Germany, academic and vocational training is assigned to separate secondary schools, with nearly half of all students entering the latter (Brint 1998).

The United States is also atypical among industrialized societies in awarding secondary school diplomas qualifying their holders for college entrance solely on the basis of the number and kinds of courses taken. Most other countries require passage of a national exam to receive a degree that qualifies one for university entrance (Brint 1998). To be sure, seventeen U.S. states do use minimum-competency examinations for awarding high school degrees (Airasian 1987; U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997), but the country still does not have a European-style national examination that alone determines university entrance.

The exceptional devotion of the United States to comprehensive schooling is traceable to two factors. The strong local role in educational governance in the U.S. system makes it more likely that the demands of non-college-goers will be listened to. Moreover, the heterogeneity of the U.S. population has made social integration a more pressing concern than in most European societies. This is evident in the words of the highly influential 1918 report, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: "The comprehensive school is the prototype of a democracy in which various groups have a degree of self-consciousness as groups and yet are federated into a larger whole through the recognition of common interests and ideals. Life in such a school is a natural and valuable preparation for life in a democracy" (National Education Association 1918, p. 26).

While U.S. comprehensive schooling may have been successful in its aim of social integration, its diffuse character has also been widely criticized. As many recent critics have noted, the variety of curricular goals and educational and social purposes served by U.S. secondary schools blurs their academic mission. When large proportions of students are not particularly academically inclined, the rigor and sense of purpose necessary to motivate student effort are missing. Moreover, the huge size of many U.S. schools makes them impersonal and hard put to maintain the involvement and commitment of students (Cusick 1983; Goodlad 1984; Powell et al. 1985; Sizer 1985).

While the U.S. school system is much less differentiated than is typical abroad, U.S. secondary schooling is by no means entirely undifferentiated. To begin with, there is an extensive private sector. Ten percent of all U.S. K–12 students attend private schools. These schools vary enormously, from individual Montessori schools, Christian academies, and elite private schools to citywide systems of Catholic parochial schools. While small in numbers and enrollments, the elite private schools, which are variously termed "prep" or "boarding" or "country day" schools, carry great prestige and importance. Most areas of the United States have elite schools, but the most famous are the boarding schools of New England, such as Phillips Exeter, Choate/Rosemary Hall, Groton, Hotchkiss, and St. Paul's. These schools have enrolled such famous Americans as Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, George Bush, and Nelson Rockefeller. The importance of these schools lies not only in the fact that they heavily enroll the sons and daughters of the upper and upper-middle classes, particularly those of long-established wealth and prominence, but also in the fact that they provide their students with privileged access to the top universities and, in turn, corporate and governmental leadership (Cookson and Persell 1985; Hammack and Cookson 1980).

But it is not just the public/private divide that provides differentiation within the U.S. system. Even the comprehensive public high schools provide alternatives within their walls in the form of different curricular groupings (college prep, vocational, and general) and courses at different levels of rigor. However, this phenomenon, typically termed "tracking," has been criticized as a significant source of class and racial inequality in educational attainment (Dougherty 1996). Consequently, a movement has developed to "detrack" schools by eliminating grouping and instead relying on "cooperative learning" within mixed-ability classrooms (Oakes and Lipton 1992; Wells and Oakes 1996).

In addition to different tracks, most U.S. urban school districts maintain specialized vocational and academic secondary schools. For example, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco have maintained old and distinguished academic high schools such as Boston Latin.

Since about 1970, most urban school systems have introduced a wide variety of programs in order to meet demands for more choice, retain middle-class white students, and better motivate students (Dougherty and Sostre 1992). New York City provides a good example of how highly differentiated some urban school systems have become. The city does have a large number of general "academic/comprehensive neighborhood schools." However, within many of these schools, there are "academies" or other magnet programs, which are operationally independent and have some freedom to select their students from wider attendance areas. In fact, there are about fifty small alternative high schools that offer special curricular emphases and that are open to students citywide. New York City also has a variety of vocational schools. Special "educational opportunity" high schools are organized around vocational themes (such as health, business, or aviation) and have the right to select their students. On the other hand, there are also ordinary vocational schools that have no particular focus and have open admissions. Finally, the city boasts four very well-known college preparatory schools, such as the Bronx High School of Science, that grant entry solely on the basis of an examination or audition (Board of Education of the City of New York 1997).

In recent years, a new form of differentiation has arisen within the public schools: "charter schools." Since 1991, more than thirty-five states have passed legislation making these schools possible, and perhaps more than 1,000 of them are now operating. Once granted a "charter" by the state or other designated authority, these schools operate independently of many existing school regulations but are financed by funds that would otherwise go to the districts. Charter schools are accountable to the chartering authority, and the renewal of their charter depends on meeting the goals set forth in their mission statement. The idea behind these schools is to free public school parents, teachers, and administrators to create schools that "break the mold" of existing schools and, by competing with existing public schools for students, force them to improve their performance and attractiveness. Moreover, many charter advocates have seen charter schools as a way of meeting the growing parental demand for choice—among not only affluent white parents but also working-class minority parents—but keeping it from tipping into a demand for vouchers to allow student to attend private schools. Beyond these commonalities, charter schools are very diverse in size, mission, student composition, and sponsorship. And because of this variation and their youth, it is unclear what impact charter schools will ultimately have. The jury is still out on whether they will enroll more than a fraction of public school students, successfully "routinize the charisma" of their founders after those founders move on, significantly enhance the performance of their students, and effectively stimulate regular public schools to improve. Many fear that charter schools may simply cream off the most advantaged students and leave the regular public schools more segregated and academically impoverished than ever (Cobb and Glass 1999; Manno et al. 1998; Wells et al. 1999).

Higher Education. As with the K–12 system, the U.S. higher education system is also quite unusual. It is much larger than, and organized very differently from, most other nations' systems. As of 1995, the United States had 3,706 institutions of higher education enrolling 14.3 million students in credit-bearing courses, which corresponded to about 35 percent of the population age 18-21 (keeping in mind that many college students are older than twenty-one). In addition, there were some 6,300 noncollegiate postsecondary institutions enrolling 850,000 students (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997). All these numbers are much larger than those for comparable advanced industrial societies.

Given their number, it is not surprising that American colleges are quite varied. This variation can be usefully categorized along three axes: control, degrees and programs offered, and student-body composition.

U.S. colleges are legally owned by a wide variety of bodies. Some 1,700 colleges are public, owned by local, state, and federal governmental bodies. They account for 45 percent of all colleges but 78 percent of all college enrollments. Meanwhile, about 2,000 colleges are private, owned either by religious groups, profit-making corporations, or nonsectarian, non-profit-making boards. The nonsectarian, nonprofit private institutions include both many of the most prestigious doctorate-granting universities in the world and many small, undistinguished liberal arts colleges (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997).

The U.S. Department of Education distinguishes five kinds of colleges according to the degrees and programs that they offer. The first group is the 171 "doctoral" institutions that offer doctoral and professional programs and produce a large number of graduates with either Ph.D.'s or medical and dental degrees. "Comprehensive" institutions, numbering about 420, make up the second category. They offer graduate programs but graduate few people with doctoral or medical degrees. Rather, they specialize in undergraduate, master's, and law programs. Quite often these institutions are former teacher-training colleges that broadened into general liberal arts schools and added graduate programs. The nearly 700 "general baccalaureate" or "liberal arts" colleges emphasize undergraduate education and have very few, if any, graduate programs. "Specialized" colleges, which number about 600, emphasize one field, such as engineering or the arts, and offer either a baccalaureate or postbaccalaureate training. Finally, the nearly 1,500 "two-year colleges" specialize in two-year associate's degrees, one-year vocational certificates, and noncredit training, They enroll not only college-age students seeking academic or vocational training but also older adults seeking job retraining, skills upgrading, or avocational knowledge (Cohen and Brawer 1996; Dougherty 1994).

U.S. higher educational institutions also differ in their student-body composition. As one moves from universities to four-year colleges to two-year colleges, the proportion of students who are male, white, upper-class, or academically high-performing drops. In addition, some colleges serve distinct student populations; for example, nearly 200 colleges are single-sex and nearly 100 are all-black (U.S. National Center for Education Statistics 1997).


The governance of education has been a repeated motif in our discussion above. We would now like to discuss it in greater detail. So far, in our discussion of control we have focused on political authority, whether exercised by national, state, or local governments or the citizens that elect them. But political authority is only one of several, often contradictory, mechanisms of influence over U.S. schooling. Also operative are market competition, bureaucratic power, professional authority, and ideological formation (Weiss 1990).

Political Authority. Political authority is vested in the various elected bodies of government and ultimately in the citizenry. State governors, legislatures, and boards of education control the schools through state funding (which amounts to nearly half of all public school revenues) and through laws specifying minimum curriculum and graduation requirements, the minimum length of the school day and year, required facilities, standards for teacher education and certification, standards for school plant, school district lines, and so forth (Campbell et al. 1990; Wirt and Kirst 1992).

However, state governments delegate political authority over the day-to-day operation of schools to local schools boards elected by local citizens. These local boards in turn have the power to hire and supervise district superintendents and school principals. The boards also vote on the school budget, the local tax rate (though usually subject to voter referendum), curriculum, teaching, facilities standards beyond state minimal, and the rules for hiring and supervising teachers (Campbell et al. 1990; Wirt and Kirst 1992).

The federal government, meanwhile, only contributes about 7 percent of K–12 public school revenues, mostly in the form of categorical aid (discussed below under "Market Competition"). However, through the federal courts, the federal government has had a profound effect on school policies involving the treatment of pupils, particularly women, racial and linguistic minorities, and the handicapped. Moreover, as will be discussed below, the federal government has also exercised great ideological power (Campbell et al. 1990; Wirt and Kirst 1992).

Citizens, finally, exert political authority. Very frequently they vote on who will represent them on a school board or in state office. They also exercise direct democratic control by voting on tax rates and bond issues through local and state referenda and initiative elections. And in states such as California and Washington, it has become commonplace for voters to vote on school policies such as affirmative action in student admissions and teacher hiring (Wirt and Kirst 1992).

However legitimate and powerful political authority is, it can also be ineffective, particularly in a highly decentralized political system such as that of the United States. When a host of different government bodies impose multiple, often conflicting, mandates on schools, the effectiveness and authority of any one given political body is undermined (Weiss 1990).

Market Competition. Market control is less coercive than political authority. Schools can refuse to act in the way a market actor wishes, but that actor achieves compliance by supplying or denying resources that the school values and that the school cannot easily acquire from alternative sources (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978). These resources include funds, students, teachers, and jobs. Market control is particularly obvious in the case of private schools, which usually do not have a guaranteed clientele or funds and must recruit new students every year. But public schools also face market competition. In fact, market control over public schooling is steadily rising with the current vogue for school choice, charter schools, performance-based funding, and other means of making public schools more "accountable."

Students and their parents exercise market control over schools through their decisions about which schools to attend (Spicer and Hill 1990; Weiss 1990). If many middle-class students desert a school district, it loses state funding, which is largely enrollment-driven. Moreover, local tax revenues may also decline. Real estate values are strongly affected by perceptions of the quality of local schools, and these perceptions are in turn shaped by how many middle-class and white students attend a school. But even if school revenues are not affected, the desertion of middle-class students can still affect schools by impinging on teachers' perceived quality of work. Teachers usually clamor for better-prepared students, and a loss of middle-class students can lead the better teachers to themselves desert a particular school.

In order to retain students, particularly middle-class white ones, school districts adopt a variety of expedients. They create "gifted" programs or "magnet" schools that attract such students not only by offering superior academic resources but also by largely segregating them from working-class and nonwhite students (Metz 1986; Wells 1993).

School competition for students has risen in the 1990s. It used to be that the main choices parents had available were between sending their children to public or private schools or between living in one school district versus another. But competition for students has increased with the advent of greater choice within the public schools in the form of magnet schools, charter schools, and interdistrict choice plans (Cookson 1994; Metz 1986; Wells 1993).

Students and their parents exert market power not only over schools overall but also over the classrooms within them. Student decisions about whether to take one or another course or whether or not to actively participate in class deeply shape the character of teaching and learning within classrooms. In order to attract students and then motivate them to work hard and actively participate, teachers often resort to such devices as giving students more choice over course selection or course content, making course content less abstruse and technical (more "relevant"), reducing academic demands, and grading less stringently (Powell et al. 1985; Weiss 1990).

But teachers themselves are also market actors. Teachers can choose whether to go to work for one or another district or, if they have enough seniority, work at one school versus another in the same district. Hence, school districts compete to hire and retain teachers, particularly if they are in fields such as math and science, where qualified teachers are scarce. Moreover, teachers have shaped the schools through their collective capacity to withhold their labor through unions. With the rapid growth of teacher unions since the early 1960s, teachers have been able to secure considerably higher salaries and greater voice in how schools run than they had before (Campbell et al. 1990; Kerchner et al. 1993).

Business also shapes schools through market control. For one thing, business controls jobs. Schools compete to place their students in good jobs because a good placement record can be used in turn to attract students. In order to get their students placed in good jobs, schools inculcate the kinds of skills, attitudes, and behaviors that business is looking for in new workers (Brint and Karabel 1989). In fact, business's influence based on its role as future employer of students has been institutionalized in the form of a myriad of business/school or school-to-work "compacts" or "partnerships" in which formal links are established and schools receive resources and job placements in return for greater responsiveness to business opinions about the desirable content of education (Gelberg 1997; Van Horn 1995).

In addition, business along with foundations and government influence schools through discretionary funding. Almost all business and foundation aid and most federal aid to schools takes the form of categorical grants. These funds will flow to a school only if it successfully competes with other schools to demonstrate that it is willing and able to engage in actions that the funder wishes to encourage. Moreover, this avenue of market control is increasing, as state governments establish not only more categorical grant programs but also performance funding, in which a certain portion of state formula aid is conditioned on meeting certain performance targets.

Market competition can be a very powerful control device, but it is also less effective than its evangelists believe. For example, greater student choice may not cause the deserted schools to change. The schools may not know why students are leaving, and the loss of funds, good students, and good teachers may impede its capacity to improve. Moreover, even if schools do react, they may get the wrong cues because students and their parents make bad choices due to lack of good information (Weiss 1990). Similarly, categorical aid often fails to accomplish its purpose. What schools do to secure the aid may bear little resemblance to how the aid is actually used. This has been a perennial problem with federal Title I funding for high-poverty schools. It often does not end up benefiting the students to which it is ostensibly targeted (Somini 1999).

Bureaucratic Power. Schools are bureaucratic organizations. They have explicit goals. Their work is done through a division of labor involving specialized jobs. There is a chain of command, with explicit differences in the authority of members according to their place in the organizational hierarchy. The members' actions are largely governed by formal rules and a norm of professionalism (impersonality). Organizational decisions are recorded through explicit and voluminous records. And personnel decisions are supposedly governed by merit (Bidwell 1965).

Within this bureaucratic structure, administrators—such as district superintendents or college presidents, school principals or deans—exercise great power. They create jobs and define their responsibilities, establish organizational rules, allocate scarce resources (money, space, staff, etc.), order specific actions, referee conflicts among subordinates, and hire and supervise subordinates (Campbell et al.; Weiss 1990).

Historically, teachers have been objects of administrative power. But increasingly, they themselves are participating in the exercise of administrative duties. The movement for school-based management has given teachers the potential to exercise greater power over how schools are run, though it is still not clear to what extent this has become a reality. In numerous communities, school councils have been set up that include teacher members. These councils have the authority to exercise considerable voice over such things as a school's budget, teacher hiring (what areas to hire in and whom to recommend to the district), and student discipline rules (Kerchner et al. 1993; Mohrman et al. 1994). However, this authority is often not exercised in practice. Between principal resistance to sharing authority and teacher reluctance to assume it, school councils often end up exerting much less authority than authorized.

Bureaucratic control had become perhaps the dominant form of school control by the end of the Progressive era. But despite its power, bureaucratic control does not handle localized, specific situations well. The general orientation of bureaucratic rulemaking is toward general prescriptions because the aim is to circumscribe the discretion of organizational staff (Weiss 1990). However, student-centered education—particularly in a highly diverse, politically decentralized society such as the United States—often does not fit easily within bureaucratic universalism.

Professional Authority. However bureaucratic schools are, they are also professional organizations because teachers make up such a large portion of the labor force and administrators are invariably former teachers. The main fount of professional authority lies in the fact that effective teaching requires the exercise of discretion—how teachers are to interact with students cannot be prescribed—and teachers largely monopolize the knowledge necessary to correctly exercise that discretion. Teachers use their professional authority to strongly shape curriculum, student evaluation, student discipline, proper classroom practices, and teacher training (Weiss 1990).

Nonetheless, teacher professional authority has always been uncertain and contested. This authority is at its apex in the classroom and fades as one goes up the bureaucratic hierarchy (Metz 1978; Weiss 1990). The weakness of teachers' claims for professional power and autonomy results from several factors. The majority of teachers are women, giving teaching less status than more male-dominated professions. Also, because of the unique complexity of the teacher–student relationship, teachers are less able to deliver consistent results than members of professions such as medicine and engineering. Finally, teachers must coexist with a powerful and numerous body of competitors for influence over students; namely, parents. (We discuss teacher–parent struggles for control below.) In the face of these limits to professional authority, teachers have increasingly resorted to market control, in the form of unionism, in order to bolster their influence over the schools.

Ideological Formation. Various actors can shape schools by the power of their ideas; that is, by their successful socialization of educational policy makers to certain values and beliefs (Weiss 1990). This ideological power has been strongly used by the federal government. Repeatedly, it has stimulated schools to take action by focusing attention on certain problems or offering exemplary solutions. One of the most notable examples has been the educational "excellence" movement of the 1980s and 1990s, which was strongly accelerated—though not really sparked—by the report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk (1983). Within a year of its publication, many states and localities established commissions similar to the National Commission and passed laws implementing its recommendations. On a more global level, the power of ideological persuasion can be seen in the unusual homogeneity across the world in how nations have pursued the expansion and centralization of their educational systems. In large part this commonality of action is rooted in widespread support for a model of societal modernization that emphasizes national unification and development by means of the mass mobilization of citizens through a unified school system (Ramirez and Boli 1982).

Once established, ideological control can be extremely powerful and durable. Its main limitation is that it usually takes a long time to establish. And unlike the other forms of power, it is particularly dependent on the willing acquiescence of those who would be influenced (Weiss 1990).

Conflict Between Various Modes of Control. Many actors attempting to influence the schools utilize—wittingly or unwittingly—several of these modes of control. For example, state governments use political authority, market competition (through categorical aid), and ideological persuasion to get school personnel to act in certain ways. These different modes of influence can often yield great power if they are effectively meshed. But quite often they contradict each other.

Assertions of bureaucratic authority have been met by counterclaims by teachers in the name of professional authority or market control. Teachers have resisted state and local expansions of bureaucratic authority by mobilizing professional associations (for example, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) to shape the content of state curriculum standards (Massell 1994; Ravitch 1995). But because assertions of professional authority are often resisted, teachers have resorted as well to market control, in the form of teacher unionism.

But these assertions of power by teachers and by local and state school bureaucrats have in turn provoked democratic counterclaims by groups representing conservative parents concerned about parental prerogatives over education. These groups have strongly criticized teacher unionism and various curricular and pedagogical innovations advocated by teacher professional associations at the national, state, and local levels. These controversial innovations have included not only sex education and values clarification but also state content, performance, and evaluation standards. In California and Pennsylvania, parents associated with such New Right groups as Citizens for Excellence in Education, Focus on the Family, and Eagle Forum have vociferously attacked statewide goals and standards, performance-based assessment, whole-language instruction, and conceptually oriented math education. These groups reject such curricular and pedagogical reforms as ineffective and unwarranted educational experimentation on children that undermines parental prerogatives to determine the content of their children's education (Boyd et al. 1996; Kirst and Mazzeo 1995).

Interestingly, there has been little conflict between market control and democratic authority. For example, inadequate critical attention has been devoted to business/school partnerships and the question of how compatible are business desires and public interests in schooling. This absence of scrutiny may be due to the weakness of the socialist tradition in the United States. Because of this weakness, democracy and the market are seen in the popular mind as largely compatible. Both voting and buying tend to be seen similarly, as decisions by atomized actors operating on the basis of narrow self-interest. Public discussion and the public interest tend to be seen as no more relevant to voting than to buying. As a result, efforts to increase market competition within schooling through such devices as vouchers and charter schools are often portrayed in the U.S. as democratic innovations—because they "empower" individuals—whereas in Europe there is much more hesitation to equate consumer choice and citizen sovereignity (Whitty et al. 1998).


The sociology of U.S. schooling can benefit enormously from keeping in mind several features of that system. The educational system goes well beyond the schools to include such other institutions as families, the mass media, employers, and churches. Even when we focus on the schools, it is important to keep in mind that the U.S. school system is highly unusual compared to those in other advanced industrial societies. And when we turn to control of the U.S. system, we need to look beyond political authority to also consider other, often contradictory, mechanisms of influence over the schools: market competition, bureaucratic decision making, professional authority, and ideological formation.


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Kevin J. Dougherty

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