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Political and Economic Stress and the Social Reality of Schools

by Ann Lieberman - 1977

The author discusses the thought and behavior of educators faced with the growing gap between scientific rationality (application of linear procedures, cause-effect relationships, and other simplistic systems) and control of the schools, in the one hand, and the growing body of knowledge about the social reality of schools which eschews such rationality. (Source: ERIC)

Anyone working in schools or with schools will attest to the fact that we are now witnessing another wave of pressure on schools. That is, rather than the innovative curricular thrusts of the sixties and a seeking for alternative means of educating the young, school people are now being asked to go "back to basics," "trim the fat," and get rid of the "frills." Such terms as efficiency and accountability are rampant. Cost effectiveness is a key concept as schools are closing and the public is demanding that schools be held accountable for what boards will support. Few people will disagree that again the schools are playing out the chaos and confusion in the society. There are higher prices, fewer jobs, general dissatisfaction with futures, and the school represents the one place where the public still has a chance to voice its frustration with the many things gone wrong.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss the growing gap between a quest for scientific rationality1 and control of schools on the one hand, and the growing body of knowledge about the social reality of schools that eschews such rationality. Given the pressure to impose order on a system and the fact that such a system cannot be manipulated in such fashion, we may be participating in another wave of reforms that we can predict right now will fail. This observation would be simplistic if it were not mated with the fact that there are also counter forces recognizing the complexity of schools and working hard to understand these complexities. This essay then will attend to these two major forces—the one calling for the pursuit of scientific rationality, and the other calling for knowledge of the social reality of schools. It is not the WHY that concerns this author, but the HOW. How do we as educators think about and behave in the face of the contradictions described herein?


We now have an abundance of descriptions of schools from Waller's now classic study in the thirties2 to Sarason's reflections in the seventies3 that reflect the enormous complexity of the school as a social organization.4

What is documented over and over again appears deceptively simple. Teachers are asked to translate global goals, such as "creating good citizens," into a workable curriculum. They are given a group of children, some books, a schedule, and somehow in a year's time gains in various test scores are to be made. In some schools, there is a variety of specialists who take children out of the classroom for a number of other learnings (art, speech, English as a second language, etc.). Why then is it so hard for teachers to respond to the demands for greater accountability and more precision in what they do?

The answer to this question has to do with the nuances that lie behind the simple input-output model that makes a caricature out of what goes on in an individual classroom and school. Some central understandings underlie how we think about school life.5

1. Teachers learn how to teach by teaching. More inventive teachers try all kinds of classroom procedures that engage children in the subject areas. Some very quickly find a narrow repertoire that works. But "style" is forged in isolation and becomes highly personalized. Bringing in new ideas, new packages, or new demands means shifting a personal style accomplished often through great struggle.

2. Goals of schooling are global and often even conflict, and as such are open to individual translation. One might argue that teachers should be open to new ideas. No one would deny this. But being open to new ideas does not account for the teacher's mode of learning the craft nor does it consider a reasonable skepticism developed as a result of an inadequate understanding of the complexity of the role.

3. Teacher isolation best describes the context in which teachers work. Major rewards for teaching come not from sharing, discussing, and reflecting on the work, but from the children.6 Good teaching becomes then a matter of what works in the classroom, for better or for worse, rather than a dialogue about student learning styles, teacher style, methodology, appropriateness of materials, etc.

4. Teachers appear, to the public, to have tremendous autonomy "behind the classroom door,"7 yet there is an enormous amount of pressure exerted on teachers to conform to organizational norms.8 Again, teachers appear to be free agents, but they are part of a system, not unlike other large-scale organizations that have unwritten rules that help govern the behavior of the members.

5. The individual school is further complicated by the enormous range of behaviors manifested by the principal9 and his/her effects on the school faculty. Principals affect the way teachers work together, the way they feel about their work, the way new ideas come into the school; they also provide a link to our understanding of the general feel of a school environment. Principals learn how to principal also by doing it and appear to be subject to many contradictory pressures. Principals in different contexts have different kinds of pressures exerted upon them and many of these directly or indirectly affect teachers.

6. Although all schools share common problems, there are clearly differences among student populations. And the students themselves form a social system of their own to cope with each other, their teachers and the expectations held for them.10

So the simple notion of teaching and learning is a complex reality of teachers and principals struggling with vague goals that somehow get translated into subjects and a varied restless student population growing up in a fiercely competitive world.


Against the background of a highly complex human organization (the school) that attempts to deal with goals representing a culturally pluralist society, we now have a growing demand that schools be held strictly accountable for what they say they are going to do. And we now have over thirty states with some type of accountability legislation.

On the face of it, who could be against clear statements of goals and equally clear statements of how these are to be accomplished, and test scores to prove learning has taken place? But few are raising their voices to show the impediments and contradictions inherent in such demands.11 Fewer are raising the problems involved in applying linear procedures to work that only in its most simplistic forms lends itself to such rationalism.

Hencley12 raises three major impediments that we as educators need to discuss as contradictions. The first problem revolves around a philosophical difference between the inherent assumptions underlying the accountability movement and assumptions regarding a broader view of schooling.

The accountability movement stresses precise objectives, planned allocation of resources, specified procedures, and measurement of outcomes. The humane or informal school, on the other hand, places great stress on spontaneity, flexibility, individual differences, and creative experiences not only in the academic subjects but also in the arts. There is little concern with measurement and great concern with feeling, joy, and openness. One movement is highly rational and precise. The other is largely impressionistic and flexible. In a sense, it is the difference between a science and an art.13

Although both sets of assumptions may appear extreme, we do not have a theoretical framework for resolving the two positions. The public has been seduced by the former because of its logic and rationality and put off by the latter because it appears soft and unbusinesslike. But the actual work of teaching and learning involves objectives as tools or guides that sometimes allow for precision, often need to be flexible, and at other times do not work at all. An extreme position on holding teachers accountable can lead only to the "quantification of inconsequential ends."14

The second impediment revolves around the policital-legal problems raised by the accountability movement. The trend has been for legislatures to increasingly take the role of centralizing policies that control local schools, even as we are learning that little change takes place unless it is initiated and nurtured at the local school level.15 Although the public is being told that local units are "uneconomical" and "politically impotent,"16 those who have studied these units find this position contrary to their findings. The impatience of the policymakers is understandable, but that cannot excuse the creation of policy that blinds itself to the actual work involved in carrying it out. "Legislatures are initiating more policy, allocating proportionately less money, and insisting on better performance."17

Some states are toying with the idea of basing pay on standardized results, and clearly the implication of much of the legislation is an effort to place blame on schools for not doing their job. More and more, teacher evaluation is being tied to the specification and accomplishment of objectives. Although performance contracting has had its setbacks, Lessinger's linking of expenditures to outputs18 has gained in popularity.

We are faced with an onslaught of legislation that calls for greater centralization and control of schools as we are concurrently learning that attention to local schools is what makes the difference in their operation. Teachers are being asked to be held accountable when they have little or no say in what directly relates to them—their preparation for teaching, the selection of teacher candidates, their development on the job, selection of appropriate materials, involvement in curricular planning and evaluation. Accountability, yes, but with the kinds of conditions necessary to make such accountability relate to the real conditions of work in schools, not what we would like them to be. Much of the accountability legislation has yet to be tested in the courts. It may be that court battles will also become a part of the quest for the legislator's new powerful role in reforming schools.

Hencley's last impediment to accountability revolves around technological and economic problems. Here Hencley reminds us of the fact that we do not have the kind of technology about teaching and learning that allows us to "engineer" the kinds of results called for in most accountability plans. And we do not have the kind of financial support for research that might aid in such plans. New statewide assessment plans that speak to minimum-level competencies may be easy to write, but they raise a whole new set of questions such as minimum for what? What is basic? By whose criteria?19 Releasing test scores to goad school people into greater activity or to embarrass them, or worse yet to use the scores to fire people, can only lead to more confusion rather than its intended purpose—greater rationality in the system.


As legislators are creating accountability systems to be imposed on schools, social scientists and educators are studying, researching, and developing new ways of thinking about schooling as a complex enterprise.


For four years a group of researchers at the Texas Research and Development Center have been working on a developmental model that describes teacher concerns and levels of use of innovations. Assuming that the teacher deals with a broad array of variables, they have empirical evidence that teachers move from very personal concerns through task concerns to concerns about the impact of the innovation on other teachers. At the same time, one can observe a developmental pattern of how teachers use new ideas. Teachers alter their behavior along a continuum from wanting information and feeling unsure about using an innovation to trying it out, exploring its consequences, and talking about it with others.20 This kind of research starts with the workers in the system and then attempts to explain how the teacher may be supported in attempts to improve performance.


From 1966 to 1971, the Institute for the Development of Educational Activity (l/D/E/A) conducted a study of eighteeen schools as they worked together in an informal network.21 In-depth case studies revealed that schools appear to go through a process that can be induced—a process of dialogue (schools begin to talk about their problems), decision making (a small group usually decides to do something about the problem), and action (several teachers take the plunge). The principal, it was found, is clearly a key member of the school social system. What was documented over time was the complicated set of exchanges, barriers, and rewards that make up the school social system. Researchers reported a very stable system on the one hand, yet a delicate one on the other. Life could be smooth sailing, then a principal would transfer and everything drifted into disarray. The nuances of day-to-day relationships among school people reveal a system not very likely to respond to simple orders for compliance.

The Rand Study,22 which collected evidence on programs in 293 federally funded projects across the country, documents findings similar to the I/D/E/A study. School people need to be involved at the local level in decisions about activities that affect them. This involvement has to do not only with learning new skills, but also with the importance of building commitment and morale and the harnessing of energy. This flies in the face of mandates demanding compliance.


Still other school researchers are focusing on the entire social system of a school in an attempt to understand how people behave as they deal with innovative ideas.23

Fullan suggests that we think about the different modes of intervention in schools (i.e., collaborative or coercive) and then look at the school's ability to cope with school problems. Under what conditions might a coercive mode be more relevant than a collaborative one? He suggests that there are different patterns observed of users' ability to actively engage in making changes and that these might be mated to different modes of intervention. Again, this kind of thinking and describing social system variables is in direct contradition to uniform procedures for compliance.

Miles has been studying the creation of new school settings to better understand the kinds of support and conditions necessary for nurturing and maintaining the behaviors that innovators describe in their new settings.

Sarason reminds us that we know very little about the new settings being created. We assume that we start fresh when we create a new group, or give an old group a new task. We forget that past history helps mold our present.

Many others, too numerous to mention, are evoking and embracing school complexities and trying to understand how to intervene in aiding schools to solve their problems.


This essay has attempted to raise a problem that this writer feels is reaching epidemic proportions. The more we learn about the social reality of schools, the more we find out that improvements must be initiated, nurtured, and supported on the local level. This reveals the importance of long-term work creating a receptive social climate in schools. Schools are not readily manipulable; they are complex, dynamic human organizations.

Yet the latest wave of reform centers around mandating specifics, linear procedures that tie money and support to precise objectives and their outcomes. Simplistic schemes are being created that do not consider the reality of schools. Such schemes are inappropriate mechanisms to help schools improve.

The actual work of teaching is not a linear process, nor is the context in which this work takes place reducible to such formulations. Furthermore, we do not have a way of combining philosophical assumptions underlying accountability with the social component of schooling. Politically, school people are being asked to perform functions over which they have little control and technically it is assumed that direct links always exist between what is taught and what is learned. Decades of research have proven this to be a false assumption.

There are people advocating bold alternative ways of thinking and behaving in schools to support improvements. Yet few people are listening. Consider this another voice being raised that calls into question the appropriateness of the mandates for accountability being imposed on schools without the necessary conditions to make them work.

1 Scientific rationality as used here is not meant to be antiscience or antirational, but refers to the mechanistic application of linear procedures, cause-effect relationships, and other simplistic systems imposed upon school organizations.

2 Willard Waller, Sociology of Teaching, 2nd ed. (New York: John Wiley, 1932).

3 Seymour Sarason, The Culture of the School and the Problem of Change (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1971).

4 John I. Goodlad, The Dynamics of Educational Change (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975); Philip Jackson, Life in Classrooms (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968); Dan Lortie, School Teacher (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975); and Matthew Miles, "Some Properties of Schools as Social Systems," in Change in School Systems, ed. Goodwin Watson (Washington, D.C.: For the Cooperative Project for Educational Development by National Training Labs, NEA, 1967).

5 Ann Lieberman, "Linking Processes in Educational Change," in Linking Processes in Educational Improvement, eds. Nicholas Nash and Jack Culbertson (Columbus, Ohio: University Council for Educational Administration, 1977).

6 Jackson, Life in Classrooms.

7 John Goodlad and Frances Klein, Behind the Classroom Door (Worthington, Ohio: Charles A. Jones, 1970).

8 I have asked hundreds of teachers in my classes to describe the norms operating in their schools that constrain their behavior. Ready responses are "don't make waves," "leave your door open," "don't ask for help too often," "don't ask the principal for much," etc.

9 Ann Lieberman, "Effects of Principal Leadership on Teacher Morale, Professionalism and Style in the Classroom" (Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1969); James Lipham and James A. Holt, Jr., The Principals hip: Foundations and Functions (New York: Harper and Row, 1974); and Ken Tye, "The Elementary School Principal: Key to Educational Change," in The Power to Change, eds. G. Culver and G. Hoban (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973).

10 Not since James Coleman, Adolescent Society (New York: Free Press, 1961), has the student social system been written about so extensively. But clearly values climates differ and have powerful effects on student learning, morale, and participation.

11 Stephen P. Hencley, "Impediments to Accountability," Administrator's Notebook, 20 (December 1971).

12 Ibid.

13 Roald Campbell, "NCPEA-Then and Now" (Speech prepared for NCPEA Conference, University of Utah, August 23, 1971), p. 8.

14 Hencley, "Impediments to Accountability."

15 P. Berman and E. Pauley, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. II: Factors Affecting Change Agent Projects (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, April 1975); Goodlad, The Dynamics of Educational Change; and Ernest House, The Politics of Educational Innovation (Berkeley, Calif.: McCutchan Publishing, 1974).

16 Education U.S.A., October 26, 1970.

17 Alan Rosenthal, Education Summary, February 15, 1977.

18 Leon M. Lessinger, "How Educational Audits Measure Performance," Nations Schools, 85 (June 1970).

19 Jerome T. Murphy and David K. Cohen, "Accountability in Education—The Michigan Experience," The Public Interest, Summer 1974.

20 G.E. Hall, et al, "Levels of Use of an Innovation: A Framework for Analyzing Innovation Adoption," Journal of Teacher Education, 16 (Spring 1975); and G.E. Hall and W. Rutherford, "Concerns of Teachers About Implementing the Innovation of Team Teaching (Research and Development Center for Teacher Education, University of Texas at Austin, Spring 1975).

"Values Clarification" 267

21 For details on the entire study see M. Bentzen, Changing Schools: The Magic Feather Principle (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974); and Goodlad, The Dynamics of Educational Change.

22 Berman and Pauley, Federal Programs Supporting Educational Change, Vol. II.

23 Michael Fullan, "Overview of the Innovative Process and the User," Interchange, vol. 2 (1972); Matthew Miles, "Project on Social Architecture" (New York: Center for Social Policy, 1975); and Seymour Sarason, The Creation of Settings and Future Societies (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1972).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 79 Number 2, 1977, p. 259-267
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1158, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 7:07:42 PM

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