Inquiry & Learning for Change

Pt. 1: School and District Bureaucracy Has Failed Us All. What Are Some Alternatives?


(originally published July 19, 2021, at the NGLC website:

“…there was a realization that freedom is not for the faint of heart. It is something one has to live into moment by moment, more akin to spiritual practice than the power struggles central to social movements, more focused on our internal relationship to power than the external ones, which are reflections.”
–Cyndi Suarez, from The Power Manual

“Let’s make the future compelling.”
–adrienne maree brown, in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Are We Learning from the Pandemic?

Around North America I hear the voices of school leaders, teachers, superintendents, students, and families talking about all that we have learned during this long pandemic year, what we have learned from this “blameless disruption” of the way school is supposed to be. I hear how the pandemic forced into stark relief the inequities of our current educational system as well as its longstanding failure to create compelling, meaningful, engaging, and deep learning experiences for each and every student. When these issues were exaggerated by the challenges of distance and virtual learning, they resulted in many students disappearing. Yet at the same time, in contrast, I hear how powerful learning continued in schools and districts that had already made great strides in building strong and trusting relationships and a deep culture of collaborative adult and student learning, even with the immense challenges of pivoting overnight into distance learning, the challenges to continue to provide meals, computers and internet access, health care, emotional support and counseling, and even housing for our most vulnerable populations. We have been given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn what efforts to amplify, what to discard, and what to create going forward.

This has been a great experiment. The list of what we have learned is long and varied. Teachers and students across the country have raised their voices, sharing what could be different. It seems that there is a wave of innovation and optimism sweeping through our public education system that finally we might achieve the transformation we so need.

However, it also seems that this newfound freedom “is not for the faint of heart.” Even as we reflect on what might be different after this pandemic, I see these same school people, students, and families throwing up their hands and shaking their heads in consternation and dismay, as, one piece at a time, the old ways reassert themselves in lockstep. Irresistible forces are seemingly conspiring to return our schools as fast as possible to a past that we know did not work. State standardized tests, regulations about seat time and instructional minutes, teacher contact hours and student:teacher ratios in union contracts, school board policies and unexamined assumptions about teaching and learning, worries about “learning loss,” mandates and compliance procedures, funding streams and regulations, district silos and initiatives with competing priorities and evaluation criteria, school schedules, bus schedules, graduation requirements for numbers and types of course completions, grading policies…. The list goes on and on. It is a tangled web of interacting systems that has withstood decades of efforts at reform. Even with all we’ve learned, these systems are stubbornly reasserting themselves so that a lot of supposed reinvention is actually just recreating the status quo. It is the frenetic energy and inertia of a system designed not to change.

The Way Things Are

The critiques of this system are not new. They go back generations. Two competing aphorisms about our system are often tossed off rather glibly, without digging deeper into what they might actually mean or require for things to be different:

  1. “The system is broken; despite decades of efforts at improvement, it still creates widely inequitable outcomes; distributes resources, opportunities, and experiences widely inequitably; and provides at best a mediocre learning experience for our learners.”
  2. “The system is working perfectly well; it is getting exactly the [inequitable] results it wants and is designed to get.”

My take is that both these aphorisms are accurate, and we need to explore why in order to find a way to overcome this status quo.

In a 2013 article1, my colleague Jal Mehta wrote, “The root problem is that the educational sector as a whole is organized around a core system that functions as a bureaucracy rather than as a profession; we are trying to solve a problem that requires professional skill and expertise by using bureaucratic levers of requirements and regulations.”

Below, I will discuss why it is that functioning as a bureaucracy rather than a profession is a problem that results in both of the aphorisms being accurate. I show that the overarching culture, structures, routines, and underlying beliefs and assumptions of the educational bureaucracy don’t—and can’t—support addressing the many challenges we face to transform schools to make it possible for each and every young person and adult to experience equitable access to deeper learning. Mehta mentions variability in teacher skills, failure to scale good practice, lack of infrastructure supporting practice improvement, distrustful and unproductive relations between policy makers and practitioners…. this list also goes on and on.

I will discuss the ways that districts have become balkanized through “the geological residue of generations of other people’s ideas about what schools need to do” (Richard Elmore, unpublished, undated chapter). Elmore calls these layers, “serial, incoherent, and persistent,” and shows how they create the incoherence across compartments that is the most serious obstacle to large-scale improvement. I will discuss how the hierarchical model and this balkanization are at the base of the problems Mehta names as well as the reason for the frenetic energy and inertia of a system designed not to change that I described above.

While the machine bureaucracy is excellent at getting quality cars manufactured, the professional bureaucracy is actually not very good at getting anything done.

Why is this the case? Max Weber wrote succinctly about the design of the bureaucracy in the late 19th century: “Bureaucracy develops the more perfectly, the more it is ‘dehumanized,’ the more completely it succeeds in eliminating from business love, hatred, and all purely personal, irrational, and emotional elements which escape calculation.”2 The goal was to remove any possibility for human error, individual abuse of power, or impulsivity in decision-making (an Enlightenment reaction to the abuses of power by kings and priests), as well as to create human systems that could be based on the aggregation of individual human knowledge, and withstand the buffeting of social or political winds. To Weber, the bureaucracy was the perfect organizational analogue for what he referred to as “the iron cage of modernity” that “traps individuals in systems based purely on teleological efficiency, rational calculation and control.”3 The modernist ideal was that all social orders, hence organizations, could be based on our capacity to “measure, predict, and control” anything of worth.

The sad irony here is that, while the machine bureaucracy is excellent at getting quality cars manufactured, the professional bureaucracy, attempting to emulate the machine bureaucracy, is actually not very good at getting anything done in the more complex realm of human development. The reason is that the various subsystems in the educational bureaucracy are disconnected from each other in the way the larger system operates, which Weick4 and Glassman5 refer to as “loose coupling.” So there is a technically rational superstructure, and then all kinds of random activity, for good or bad, going on underneath it, with no one monitoring it. The only thing the professional bureaucracy of K-12 education is good at, then, is maintaining the inequitable and mediocre quality of education it was originally designed to produce.

But this critique, however shocking, is still insufficient for our understanding of the two aphorisms or how we might transform this system into one that enacts what we are now learning about equity work and deeper learning. There are several additional perspectives that might help.

In their new book, Street Data: A next generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation, Shane Safir and Jamila Dugan cite the work of Stuart Hall as he compares Western (British) approaches to knowledge with our views in education of what is important to “measure, predict, and control.” Hall (cited in Safir and Dugan) compares the Western views of society that emphasize classifying societies into categories with K-12’s current need to create subgroups in our educational data systems, the desire to “condense complex images of other societies through a system of representation” with our school data dashboards, to “provide a standard model of comparison” with valid and reliable assessments that allow us to compare the performance of subgroups from year to year, and to “provide criteria of evaluation against which other societies can be ranked” with our state and federal educational standards. All these Western views of society, social order, and comparable processes in our educational system can be considered as forms of “scientific colonialism,” Safir and Dugan state, citing the work of Serie McDougal III. And while there have been counter-movements that offered different visions of pedagogy, such as Dewey’s pragmatism, constructivism, and reflective practice, those have struggled against a system designed not to embrace them as mainstream practice.

Importantly, the Western (British) worldview instills a hierarchy as it classifies other cultures and other people, with the British social order and bureaucracy at the top, as the supreme standard against which all other cultures would be measured. This is straight up White supremacy culture, and it too is enshrined in K-12’s social order, scientific order, measurement order, order of the learning environment, and the bureaucratic organizational order. Everything we do as a part of that social and bureaucratic order is designed to reproduce that dominant Western narrative and its hierarchies: the way we design learning, how we assess it, and how we structure the systems that support it.

Thus we are enmeshed in both a technical/bureaucratic worldview, and a racist worldview that is the product of Western White supremacy culture. It is technical in that, in trying to mimic a machine bureaucracy, it acts as if all challenges are technical problems to be solved, and learning as well as the overall organization of school is like an assembly line for cars. It is linear, sequential, orderly, controlled, with the goal of high quality students with no defects through using quality control measures such as tracking and standardized tests. This “quality” of system products requires the kind of system stability that Bateson referred to as “continuous non-progressive change.”6 This stability relates to the aphorisms I started with, since it both reproduces what it was designed to do and continues to be unable to change so as to produce equitable deeper learning. System stability also accounts for the energy that the K-12 system is currently applying to return as quickly as possible to that old status quo. Both of these, the technical and the racist worldviews, are deeply embedded in the educational bureaucracy, and we are so deeply embedded in the educational bureaucracy ourselves that we almost cannot imagine any other organizational design. It is “the water we swim in.” No wonder we are challenged to overcome this inequitable and mediocre status quo.

A Cautionary/Transitional Tale

A few years back I was working in a Linked Learning College and Career Pathways office in an urban school district that had decided that all its high schools would develop wall-to-wall career-themed pathways. We had created a team of Pathway Coaches who were site-embedded to support the multi-year transition, especially in the larger comprehensive high schools. Several schools already had small career themed academies, but those did not operate in a collaborative way toward a school-wide approach. In some cases they did not represent the diversity of the school or community and they were not particularly equitable. Let’s consider one case, an Environmental Sciences Academy that had been active for about twenty years. The academy had a few Career Tech Ed (CTE) courses that were not well designed or sequenced, there were several courses that had been used as gatekeepers to push out lower performing students, and the core academic science courses were not well aligned with the overall environmental sciences theme of the pathway or the new Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS). The academy’s teacher team, representing core content subject areas and CTE and including several newer recruits, wanted to redesign it to be more equitable and with a more coherent and accessible environmental sciences program of study. They just weren’t quite sure how.

The Pathway Coach could work with them on overall pathway design and improving their team functioning, but she did not have science expertise to help with the CTE sequence or the core academic program. The Linked Learning Office had a CTE Specialist who could help with the requirements for an effective CTE sequence in environmental sciences, but not the broader program of study, which would require aligning the core science courses with the CTE courses. There was, however, a science specialist in the district’s Teaching and Learning Office who had taught in another science-related academy at another school and knew the NGSS really well.

But here is the catch: The Director of Teaching and Learning did not allow the curriculum specialists in their office to work directly at school sites, feeling this was an inefficient use of their expertise. The previous Director of the Linked Learning Office had tried for several years to coordinate with the Teaching and Learning Office, to no avail. This is not uncommon: I have experienced a number of districts where Teaching and Learning, or Curriculum and Instruction, does not communicate with the high school reform office or the office overseeing principal supervision and evaluation. Often there are turf battles, or long-standing personality conflicts, or just conflicting priorities or mandates. These silos across which there is restricted or non-existent communication or coordination represent the challenge of incoherence in the education bureaucracy that Richard Elmore describes, that I cite above.

The teacher team in the Environmental Sciences Pathway was itching to go, and I knew that taking on this project to redesign their program of study would also be a great way to help them become a higher functioning team. This was a just-in-time opportunity. If they worked with the Pathway Coach, the Linked Learning CTE Specialist, and the Science Specialist at the same time, they could put it all together. I decided to go ahead and get them all working together. Over the course of several months, they redesigned the program of study, the CTE sequence, and the core science courses. And in the process they also built a really positive adult collaborative team culture.

But when the new Director of Linked Learning and the Director of Teaching and Learning found out what we had been doing, they strongly reprimanded me and the Science Specialist for going outside the authority of our positions and violating their different offices’ policies. (In fact, they said, their different offices’ leaders had been meeting for several years to work out how they might align their efforts more, and it was my responsibility to wait until they had ironed out these alignment details before doing anything like what we did.)

This story is a perfect example of the challenges of creating coherence, equity, and powerful learning settings in our existing school district bureaucracies and hierarchies. And yet, embedded in the story is also the kernel of a way forward. In this case, the “new system” we created was really only a small matrix across existing silos and hierarchies, and it only temporarily created a kind of coherence, but we could imagine it being more emergent, dynamic, and sustained over time. If we can (1) recognize when a situation is ripe for change, when the people are passionate about the work and ready to learn how to do it, (2) provide the appropriate support and needed expertise, (3) create the organizational and process containers and resources for innovative practice to emerge, and (4) get existing organizational structures and protocols that would hinder that innovation out of the way, then it is entirely possible for great new work to happen. The possibilities that I describe next push the envelope on rethinking organizational systems for doing just that.

Some Ways Things Could Be Different

For years, organizational theorists have decried our over-dependence on mechanistic, Newtonian metaphors for our organizational designs (and they are metaphors; the traditional organization chart really only exists in our minds as a mental construct and a set of habits, and often has very little to do with how the organization actually functions). These metaphors lie at the heart of the problems I described above.

While there are some problems for which technical solutions are appropriate, the organizational design of the machine bureaucracy treats students as products to be measured, predicted, and controlled, operates with a traditional command and control mentality, and replicates Western hierarchies of value and worth. Some aspects of our current educational system do go beyond seeing students as products to operate as if students were passive clients, to be given treatments, a system that relies on professional skill and expertise more than unskilled assembly line workers. These aspects operate toward a practical vision of student success, and measure student learning outcomes that way; however, this is still far from where we need to be. In the place of these organizational designs, metaphors, and purposes, the K-12 educational systems could look to an organizational design that is purpose seeking, a transformational space. Why is that?

Mehta and Fine found that true, deep learning operates dynamically at the intersection of student mastery of meaningful content, the recognition and development of student identity, and involving students in the creation of knowledge rather than the passive reception of information. Fullan, Quinn, and McEachen added, “a strong sense of identity around a purpose or passion; creativity and mastery in relation to a valued pursuit; and connectedness with the world and others”7 to the intersection where deep learning operates. This kind of dynamic and ever-deepening inquiry into learning (by students, by teachers) requires an emancipatory organizational design.

An emancipatory organizational design is a series of fractals (that is, symmetrical forms at all levels) of what we want to see in the learning environment. Elmore believed that unless everything in the educational system surrounding the learning environment was coherently and symmetrically focused on supporting deep learning, then it would not happen. In the work we are doing in the Deeper Learning Dozen, we add that unless everything in the system focuses on a sustained and deepening inquiry—purpose seeking—into how to make that kind of learning happen for each and every young person and adult, it will not happen equitably. Thus the emancipatory organizational design provides a symmetry of experience—equitable deeper learning—structured within and across the entire educational system.

What might be the characteristics of an emancipatory organizational design that symmetrically supports equitable deeper learning? Here I suggest some key characteristics. In an upcoming post, I will elaborate on these characteristics and share some examples, taking off from the many other possible metaphors that various organizational theorists have proposed.

  1. Communities of Practice: Communities of practice are effective in supporting both social learning and the spread of innovation and new ideas about teaching and learning. In an emancipatory organization, communities of practice serve as each person’s home base. Every staff person in a school and district needs a home base that serves as a place for shared passions about the work, a community and relationships that are a safe place for learning, and a place to develop their knowledge and skills together with others. Communities of practice have stable rituals and routines. In these highly collaborative settings, people develop, iterate, and improve their practice.
  2. Dense Social Networks: The organizational design that most effectively supports the spread of innovation is communities of practice situated within dense social networks. “Dense” refers to the number of connections across communities of practice as well as the volume of flow of ideas and information across those networks.
  3. Simple Systems for Routine Tasks/Processes: Some routine work just needs simple ways to do it that don’t require much change over time. They just need to be the right systems to get the job done. That leaves most of our organizational energy for the deeper, more complex learning and practice development. Please note these are probably not offices with their own separate identities, cultures, and boundaries; they are more likely mapped process flows across different roles, of information, resources, or funds, designed to serve more complex work. Purchasing, or what outside of education is called supply chain, is one example. First response to crises would be another.
  4. Evidence, Information, and Meaning Making Relevant to the Community: “Student voice, multiple ways of knowing and learning, and community cultural wealth”8 are foundational kinds of information/lifeblood, that can be the basis of learning in the communities of practice, and the flow of information and ideas across the networks. How are we interconnected so we have access to these kinds of lifeblood?
  5. Contingent and Emergent Systems: The communities of practice would be anchor forms that would grow and develop organically as their members’ passions, purposes, knowledge, skills, and practices grow and develop; however, the networks they exist within, and the ways that members would come together across communities of practice to work on specific tasks, would be contingent on purposes that emerge from the needs of student learning experiences and teacher pedagogical development over time.
  6. Converging on Specific and Compelling Tasks/Processes: These convergences around specific tasks and learning related to them need to remain always open to transforming, agilely and nimbly, as new purposes emerge from our inquiry and learning.
  7. Emergent identities (individual and collective), spaces for learning, connections and relationships: We need to develop new identities and create spaces, connections, and relationships in order to engage in new exchanges of ideas and information, new meaning making, and new practice development, that all bear on learning needs and purposes that emerge from the community we serve.
  8. Combining to form new organizational systems as needed: These combining new organizational systems operate in the complex space of a different orientation to “the way things are,” and support a liberatory and humane pedagogy for our children and ourselves, and for our future generations.

These key characteristics for an alternative organization, and the freedom it might allow, are not a territory for the faint of heart. It will take great leadership courage to create and sustain such an organizational territory. And none of this can be imagined if those of us who work in educational bureaucracies (teachers, principals, district office staff, superintendents, school boards), state policy makers, supporting external organizations, and even students and families, can’t get the metaphor of the machine bureaucracy and the command and control hierarchy out of our minds. When we do, we can imagine a more humane, equitable, dynamic, biodiverse ecosystem of learning and development in its place. Peter Senge offers a way forward for the courageous leader: “The essence of the role will be the [leader] as researcher and designer. What does she or he research? Understanding the organization as a system and understanding the internal and external forces driving change. What does she or he design? The learning processes whereby managers throughout the organization come to understand these trends and forces.”9 Are we ready to be the researchers and designers who can make this future compelling?


1 Mehta, Jal. (2013, September). “From Bureaucracy to Profession: Remaking the Educational Sector for the Twenty-First Century.” Harvard Educational Review 83 (3): 463–488. doi:10.17763/haer.83.3.kr08797621362v05.

2 Weber, Max. (1921/1968). Economy and Society. (G. Roth, C. Wittich, Eds., G. Roth, & C. Wittich, Trans.) New York: Bedminster Press.

3 Weber, Max. (1994). Weber: Political Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought). Peter Lassman, Ed. Trans. Ronald Speirs. Cambridge UP.

4 Weick, Karl E. (1979). The Social Psychology of Organizing, Second Edition. McGraw-Hill. ISBN: 978-0075548089.

5 Glassman, Robert B. (1973, March). Persistence and loose coupling in living systems.

6 Bateson, G. (1972: p.125). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. San Francisco: Chandler Pub.

7 Fullan, Michael; Quinn, Joanne & McEachen, Joanne. (2018: p.5) Deep learning: engage the world, change the world. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin, a SAGE Company.

8 Safir, Shane & Dugan, Jamila. (2021). Street Data: A next generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin, a SAGE Company.

9 Senge, Peter (1990: p.299) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Doubleday/Currency.

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