Saturday, December 28, 2013

Superintendent O’Malley and Models of Failed Bureaucracy

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Max Weber as, “the foremost social theorist of the twentieth century.”  If you have studied bureaucratic structures in any way you have likely stumbled across Weber’s theories.  If you have ever been employed within a bureaucratic structure you have likely seen the best and worst of Weber’s bureaucratic notions.  Bureaucracy has become a dirty word in the 21st century and with good reason.  When bureaucracy is corrupted the results can be nauseating.  Weber was well aware of how the worst of bureaucracy could come to pass.  In fact, he defined, in astonishing detail, what lousy bureaucratic leaders would look like.

A bureaucracy can be led by what Weber referred to as either “Charismatic” or “Legal-Rational” authority (he also defines “traditional” authority but this does not apply here).  A “charismatic” authority figure maintains his (I mean “his or her” but I will use “his” for the sake of brevity) authority only for as long as people “believe” in him.  A “legal-rational” authority, when effective, establishes authority with knowledge and can more likely sustain a bureaucratic structure.

A charismatic leader will avoid, at all costs, a debate that challenges his notions of what is right.  A charismatic leader is fearful of appearing weak or unknowledgeable.  He will defiantly refuse to engage in debates, particularly those he knows he cannot win.  When he is compelled to provide a rationale for an unpopular stance he will resort to empty rhetoric, or what we might today refer to as “sound-bites.” He will try to say something which appears intelligent but upon inspection is revealed as meaningless.   A charismatic leader would appear very shiny (almost polished) from head to toe.  The charismatic leader would likely drive a fine luxury car, wear the finest suits, and would never be seen in public without the latest version of the most popular electronic device. In the most extreme case, he would keep his head buried in his little digital device and appear not to care what ideas the public was presenting.  A legal-rational leader would appear quite the opposite to the charismatic leader in each and every way.  The primary concern of the legal-rational leader would be decision-making based on expertise and knowledge – appearance and rhetoric would have little place in the legal-rational bureaucracy.

Weber also delineates two distinct managerial styles and he defines them as methods of coercion or collaboration.  The coercive method relies on forced compliance, and a bureaucracy relying on coercion is riddled with abstract rules and regulations.  The collaborative method builds consensus based on expertise, thus the rules and regulations are meaningful and just.  Coercive leaders do not much care for input or discussion, while Collaborative leaders foster an organic democratic process.  Coercive leaders seek rigid control structures over “top-down” initiatives (also known as micro-management), while Collaborative leaders offer ideas in advance of action and are therefore more trustful that their initiatives will be faithfully implemented.

If the Edison Board of Education is concerned with data, perhaps they should collect some on their Superintendent and share it with the Edison Public.  The BOE should create a survey with a meaningful guarantee of anonymity and offer it to every employee of the Edison Public School System.  The survey should include Principals, Teachers, Secretaries, Custodians, Security personnel; everyone under the purview of the Superintendent.  It would be very interesting to see whether the Superintendent would be rated as a charismatic or legal-rational leader; would his methods be viewed as collaborative or coercive.
Before they take the survey perhaps they will allow me to share my exchange with the Superintendent from June of this year (2013).  I reached out to Dr. O’Malley to express my concerns about large sums of money being invested in a handful of elementary classrooms without Public comment.  I wrote to O’Malley from my personal email and identified myself as an Edison resident.  What follows is, except where noted, a verbatim transcript of our exchange. My explanatory comments are italicized and in parenthesis:

(Each piece of my correspondence was arranged formally and opened with “Dear Dr. O’Malley” and was closed with “Regards” and my full name and Edison address.  I leave them out for the sake of brevity.  Dr. O’Malley made no such attempts at formality and his comments are presented completely intact)

TVP:  I would like to schedule a time to meet with you to discuss so-called 21st Century Learning Classrooms.  As an Edison resident who happens to be a teacher I have some questions about these classrooms.  I have been unable to obtain answers to these questions either within my building or in my review of documents available to the community.  My concerns pertain to funding, development, and access to these classrooms.  Thank you for considering my request to meet.

ROM:  I don't understand.  Are you interested in pursuing this type of classroom next year as well as some of your colleagues? (I cannot say whether his confusion is genuine, but I thought it was clear that I wished to discuss “funding, development, and access”)

TVP:  I apologize if I wasn't clear. No, sir, my concern is not in pursuing this type of classroom.  (I have deleted a paragraph here.  It contains the names of individual employees whose permission I do not have to print – the essence of this paragraph was to convey that I had addressed my questions to O’Malley’s appropriate subordinates before I addressed his office, in an effort to justify bringing my concerns to the Superintendent.  It is worth noting that O’Malley was personally handling the development of these classrooms and his subordinates were admittedly entirely unaware of the funding, development, and access)
I am trying to understand how these classrooms are being funded.    Are these classrooms being funded by public monies?  I have been trying to find some mention of them in the BOE minutes, but I cannot.

Admittedly, I don't catch every minute of every meeting, but I don't recall any discussion of these classrooms, either.  If these classrooms are being funded by public money there are a number of questions that follow.

If you'd prefer I provide a delineation of my concerns prior to discussing the matter further, I would be happy to do so.  However, my questions would appear foolish if these classrooms were being funded by a private grant, or a specific Board approved "pilot" program and I was not aware.  Perhaps you could let me know if these are funded within the Edison Public School budget and we can proceed from there. Thank you for your attention in this matter.

ROM:  School budget (This two word response was when I realized he was not interested in my thoughts on this initiative.  With two words he is verifying that these classrooms are being funded by tax payer dollars and also seems to be implicitly agreeing that these “pilots” were never discussed at a public meeting or listed on Board minutes – not sure about the legality of such a maneuver, but it would certainly be the first and most expensive “pilot program” to ever be enacted in Edison without public comment or a BOE vote)

TVP:  Dear Dr. O' Malley, Thank you for your response.
In light of this, again, I would like to schedule a time to meet with you to discuss so-called 21st Century Learning Classrooms.  As an Edison resident who happens to be a teacher I have some questions about these classrooms.  I have been unable to obtain answers to these questions either within my building or in my review of documents available to the community.  My concerns pertain to funding, development, and access to these classrooms. Thank you for considering my request to meet.

ROM:   I don't know why I would meet with you to discuss funding for something you are not interested in implementing.  These pilots have become very popular throughout the district and just yesterday I received emails from 5 more teachers at Lincoln School alone interested in implementing this classroom. Therefore, unless you are interested in implementing these classrooms, there would not be a need for me to meet with you not spend a moment further discussing this with you.  (His grammatical errors are left intact.) 

I will leave you to draw your own conclusions regarding where O’Malley fits on the Weberian spectrum, but I must say this: His final response here is almost as absurd as it is illogical.  He points out that more teachers have come directly to him and asked for hundreds of thousands of more tax-payer funded technology.  He then goes on to say if I do not beg to participate in this ridiculous drain on an already stretched school budget, as so many of my colleagues (he claims) have done, then I don’t get to be part of the discussion.  I think something bad is happening in Edison, with my tax dollar, but unless I help to make it worse I don’t have a say.  If a tax-payer wants to meet with O’Malley about fiscal responsibility his answer is, essentially, go to hell.  

If not “go to hell” then maybe he is saying “go write your congressman if you don’t like it.”  Well, I’ve tried writing to Congress and all I get are canned responses from low-level staffers.  Now I am trying the last Constitutional avenue afforded to the good ole American citizen – the free and independent press.

Thanks for reading.

Yours in education,

Tyler L. Van Pelt

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