Don't blame Weber!
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I’ve been reading Max Weber’s Bureaucracy (of course I have!) and I was surprised to learn that he is a little like Machiavelli - a commentator, not so much a proponent. Like Machiavelli, he wrote about the systems and behaviours that he observed, but has been tarred with the bureaucrat brush. We’ve all heard of lethal mutations in teaching practice. Similarly, Weber’s model of bureaucracy is far removed from the macro-structures that govern contemporary educational management and the lives of teachers. It might surprise you to know that Weber’s model of the bureaucracy promised protections, recognition and stability. What we see in our contemporary education institutions is that Weber is not only relevant but in need of reexamination so that we can critically assess the features worthy of retention and those in need of redress.
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Interestingly, Weber makes no distinction between the nature of bureaucracies saying, “It does not matter … whether it is called ‘private’ or ‘public’” (1968, p. 957). This is one such lethal mutation of bureaucracy in education, where schools are increasingly managed like businesses. But the crucial difference is that in education, the public/private distinction is real, with vastly unequal provision of resources and decision-making capability between sectors. In our highly stratified educational ‘marketplace,’ teachers and leaders of public and private schools are not equally subject to the effects of the bureaucracy. My work in an independent school is governed by NESA, ACARA, AITSL and AIS, but the bureaucracy imposed on teachers in public schools far outstrips any experience of mine.
Take for example the recent moves to limit suspensions in public schools, decentering teacher and leader judgement, and arguably risking the safety of staff and students. Here, decision-making is far removed from the chalk-face and the bureaucratic procedures involved make any kind of timely and assertive response by school leaders a near impossibility. At the same time, the NSW Government is planning to centralise efforts to improve student behaviour, recruiting internationally to engage a monocrat on the subject. Leaving aside the knee-jerk portrayal of Tom Bennett, the UK’s so-called ‘Behaviour Tzar,’ as a kind of right-wing folk-devil, these concurrent moves seem tone-deaf when 26% of teachers are considering leaving the profession due to challenging student behaviour.
I was interested to see that the generalist bureaucrat typically found in senior systemic leadership isn’t part of Weber’s original model; rather, he says that management “usually presupposes thorough training in a field of specialization” (1968, p. 958). It’s common for generalists to occupy the upper echelons of contemporary enterprise — and arguably since My School1, we are talking about education-as-business. But the unique feature of schools is the distance — physically and often ideologically — between the management apparatus and the service delivery. In business, high-level generalist positions are usually held by those who have an understanding of the ‘deep structure’ of businesses and can transpose that problem-solving capability. But it’s difficult to know where that knowledge of deep structure comes from in an educational bureaucracy so removed from the point of impact.
In his original conception of the bureaucracy, Weber observed that bureaucrats were awarded high status in the community, pay according to skill level, and tenure in their roles. In contrast, a shocking 37% of the NSW teaching workforce are in casual or temporary roles. Also, the Productivity Commission found that around 35% of a teacher’s work is not directly related to teaching and learning. Rather than respected, and highly skilled specialists, teachers are increasingly seen as administrative generalists. Marx’s theory of alienation comes to mind, where teachers are distanced from their identities and work as highly skilled professionals, pulled away by the administrative tasks that the bureaucracy is supposed to streamline. This may well be contributing to the high number of teachers considering leaving the profession.
We really have the worst of both worlds. Educators are at once administrators and highly-trained learning specialists — customer service agents for the greater good, offering personalised learning for the masses. I will leave you with this graphic from the Australian Government Productivity Commission, to illustrate the impact of the ‘demands of professional regulation’ resulting from contemporary educational bureaucracy. It is worth revisiting the original Weber for a way out.
Weber, M. (1968). Economy and society : an outline of interpretive sociology. Bedminster Press.
In Australia, under the guise of School Choice, results are published so that the more mobile families can ‘shop around.’ Oddly, this was the legacy of a Labor government.