School Administration Research Paper

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Inquiry on the administration of education reflects a variety of intellectual and social influences. Those influences and the main trends in the field’s scholarship are examined.

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1. The Ecology Of An Applied Field Of Inquiry

The ecology of an applied field of inquiry reflects its indigenous theory and research and that of related fields, demands from the worlds of policy, practice, and professional preparation, and the spirit of the times which usually mirrors societal and global trends. School administration (often educational administration) is a field of many specializations in such areas as politics, organizational studies, fiscal affairs, law, and philosophical issues or, in less-disciplined oriented areas, such as school effectiveness, leadership and supervision, human resource management and labor relations, and equity issues.

Explanations about subject matter are developed in areas of this sort. As in other fields, theoretical plausibility is judged using various logical and evidentiary criteria. However, applied fields also attend to relevance for practice and implications for assorted conceptions of organizational improvement.

2. A Brief History

Educational administration became a recognizable academic field in the early twentieth century in North America and later, in other parts of the world (Campbell et al. 1987, Culbertson 1988). Initially, the field was oriented to practical matters and broad issues reflecting pedagogical and societal values. An example was democratic administration, especially popular before and after World War II. In the 1950s, the field began to adopt social science theories and methods. In the mid-1970s, the subjectivistic, neo-Marxist (largely as critical theory), and identity politics perspectives, already popular in the social sciences and humanities, reached the field, with postmodernism a later addition. These perspectives typically were critical of science, which generated extensive debate.

The social science emphasis led to specialization along disciplinary lines that resulted in considerable research, much of it reported in the Encyclopedias of Educational Research issued in roughly 10-year cycles, with 1992 the most recent, in two International Encyclopedias of Education issued in 1975 and 1994, and in the first Handbook of Research on Educational Administration (Boyan 1988). The second Handbook (Murphy and Louis 1999) was more fragmented and factious, often mixing research with philosophical commentary.

3. Current Trends

Current trends in inquiry into school administration include conflicting views of knowledge and ethics, efforts to bridge the gaps between theory on the one hand and policy and practice on the other, more attention to making sense of complexity, and an emerging literature on comparative international aspects of school administration.

3.1 Conflicting Views

The controversies about knowledge and appropriate methods of seeking it, and about ethics, are ultimately philosophical. The contending positions are similar across the social sciences and humanities, although each field’s literature reflects its peculiarities.

The main strands of contending thought are grounded in different general philosophies. Subjectivism, a version of idealism, stresses mind, reason, and intuition. Science is criticized for devaluing humanistic concerns in favor of objectivity. In ethics, there is usually a hierarchy of values with the highest being absolute. In educational administration, Greenfield was this movement’s leading early figure, while Hodgkinson remains its best known scholar, with special contributions to ethical theory ( Willower and Forsyth 1999; see also relevant entries in the 1992 Encyclopedia of Educational Research and the 1994 International Encyclopedia of Education).

Critical theory, with its historical roots in the Frankfurt School’s search for a more contemporary Marxism, is devoted to a reformist agenda (revolution is out of fashion) and an ethic of emancipation. Its ideology now goes beyond class to stress race and gender, although advocates of identity politics may not endorse critical theory. Suspicious of science, described as serving the purposes of the ruling class, critical theory’s literature attends mainly to unjust social arrangements. There are many adherents across subfields of education, with William Foster note- worthy in educational administration. Generally, they contend that schools serve the powerful, giving short shrift to the disadvantaged. The antidote is political action, including radicalized educators.

Postmodernists and poststructuralists reject meta-narratives or broad theories of every kind, including scientific and ethical ones, believing such theories totalize and ignore difference. This leads to an emphasis on text or words; all that is left after efforts to understand and improve the world are disallowed. Texts are deconstructed, or examined for their assumptions, including the ways they oppress and ‘trivialize’ otherness, by what is said and omitted. This view has only recently received much attention in educational administration: the August 1998 issue of Educational Administration Quarterly was on post- modernism and the September 1998 Journal of School Leadership featured a debate on that perspective.

In applied fields such as administration, post- modernism may be selectively combined with critical theory. This was discussed by Alvesson and Deetz (1996) and illustrated in the June 1998 issue of Administrative Science Quarterly on critical perspectives, where the writings of Foucault on power and control were often cited. It remains to add that Derrida, perhaps the leading scholar in the post- modern-poststructuralist camp, recently (1994) appeared to argue for a relaxing of strictures against metanarratives to allow for radicalized critique, which is what deconstruction has been all along. This suggests recognition that postmodern relativism and nihilism have made it irrelevant to the world of human activity and practice.

Adherents of the views sketched often associate science with positivism, a long dead perspective that flourished in the Vienna Circle (1924–1936). Using stringent standards of verification, positivists saw metaphysics as pointless, and values as mere preferences. Although it held on longer in fields such as psychology, positivism lost favor and was folded into the more trenchant analytical philosophy. Nevertheless, positivism has been disinterred to serve as a target in philosophical disputes.

Naturalistic and pragmatist philosophies have been the main sources of support for proponents of scientific inquiry in educational administration. Science is seen as a human activity that seeks explanations of how things work, that can be subjected to public assessment. It is an open, growing, enterprise that is fallible but self-corrective, as better methods and theories displace older ones. Based on logic and evidence, its results have been highly successful from the standpoints of the development of plausible theories and of benefiting humankind. Claims about uncovering an ultimate reality or final truths are not made; they are inconsistent with a self-rectifying conception of inquiry. In ethics, absolute principles and pregiven ideologies are rejected in favor of an inquiry-based process that examines moral choices in concrete situations. Competing alternatives are appraised in terms of likely consequences using relevant concepts and theories, and by clarifying applicable principles. Such principles are derived from cumulative moral experience and are guides, not absolutes (see Willower and Forsyth 1999).

These contrasting philosophical approaches were sketched to suggest the substance of contemporary debate, because of their implications for scholarship in school administration. Qualitative research, for instance, is a mainstay of subjectivists and those critical theorists who do ‘critical ethnography.’ Postmodernists are less explicit about research, but several articles in the Educational Administration Quarterly issue on postmodernism reported field research. Qualitative studies were done in educational administration long before these views gained popularity, but have become more widespread, and the literature now includes work aimed at demonstrating injustices, rather than building theory. Changing philosophical emphases can legitimate new subject matter and methods, as shown by comparing the second Handbook of Research on Educational Administration (Murphy and Louis 1999) with the first (Boyan 1988).

However, philosophical influences are filtered by variations of interest and practice. Work may borrow selectively, sometimes from conflicting philosophies, or tailor philosophical ideas to special purposes, or ignore them entirely. For instance, in ethics, single concepts such as equity, caring, or community often are stressed, sometimes along with visions of the ideal school. More philosophical explorations of moral principles and their applications are scarcer. In epistemology, many writers in antiscience camps argue against positivistic ‘hegemony,’ while ignoring formidable views of inquiry. Hence, many disputes are about politics rather than theories of knowledge. In educational administration, examples of broad philosophical efforts are Evers and Lakomski’s joint work on epistemology and Hodgkinson’s and Willower’s respective approaches to ethics and to inquiry (See Boyan 1988 and Willower and Forsyth 1999).

The substitution of politics for philosophical substance can be found in most social sciences and humanities, reflecting the influences of critical theory, postmodernism, and identity politics. Various commentators see these influences as declining because of their one-sidedness and practical irrelevance. However, they remain visible, claiming a share of the literatures of assorted specializations, including educational administration.

3.2 Theory And Practice

In school administration, current issues command much attention; theoretical discussions have a more specialized appeal. Devolution, school site based management, and restructured decision processes are examples of a type of contemporary reform that is the object of wide attention. Such reform results from recent trends in government and politics, but also is the current incarnation of a long line of participatorytype schemes, especially seen in Western countries. They range across democratic administration, human relations, organizational development, open climates and participatory styles of leadership, organizational health, and staff empowerment. This sort of reform is oriented to practice, but has theoretical grounding because openness and participation are often held to be paths to organizational improvements, such as increased staff motivation and commitment. However, most school improvement efforts make demands on time, erode teacher autonomy, and disturb orderly routines, adding to staff overload. Counter forces include pressures to display legitimating progress and educator hopes for positive student outcomes. Such contradictory pressures are characteristic of attempts to improve school practices, but how they play out depends on contexts and contingencies. Another contemporary reform is privatization. It stresses consumer choice, efficiency, and economy. Often linked to efforts to change governmental policies on education, it is squarely in the political arena.

While reforms of policy and organization aim at changing practice, students of cognition and learning have sought to understand how practitioners solve problems and make decisions. Influenced by Simon and the ‘Carnegie School,’ this work emphasizes domain-general problem-solving processes and domain-specific knowledge. Research comparing expert and novice decision makers shows the importance of both. In educational administration, the investigations of Leithwood and his associates (Leithwood and Steinbach 1995) have been noteworthy (for other sources, see Willower and Forsyth 1999).

Professional preparation programs for school administrators use many approaches to transfer learning to practice. They include case studies, simulations (sometimes computer based), films, approximations of virtual reality, internships, and other school site based activities. Program improvement has benefited from the cooperative efforts of professorial and administrator associations ( Willower and Forsyth 1999). Improving the practice of school administrators and educational reform is, like inquiry, ever unfinished. Current successes do not guarantee future ones, despite progress made in developing explanative theories, and continuing efforts to improve schools and the preparation of administrators. A barrier to the implementation of theory-based reforms are practice is the multiplicity and complexity of the influences that impinge on the schools, considered next.

3.3 Making Sense Of Complexity

School administration appears to be more complex than many forms of management. Schools tend to be vulnerable to community and societal forces, are usually subject to substantial regulation (no surprise since they serve society’s children), and have difficulty demonstrating effectiveness. The latter occurs because of the complexity of showing the school’s part in student learning vs. that of family, variations in student motivation and ability, and other factors. Further, schools are commonly expected to foster subject matter achievement and acceptable social skills and conduct. Beyond that, school administrators oversee personnel who ordinarily define themselves as professionals and value latitude in their work. Thus, school organizations are characterized by external pressures and internal forces that heighten complexity. In addition, social changes have placed new demands on schools as societal arrangements that provided regulatory settings for children and youth, have begun to erode. As this occurred, schools increasingly have had to cope with an array of social ills, for instance, substance abuse, vandalism, and violence, against a backdrop that too often includes dysfunctional families and subcultures with norms that devalue learning, along with the miseducative effects on young people of ubiquitous mass media. As a result, many schools face expanded responsibilities, adding new complexities to the administration of schools.

Such complexity can be daunting. One response in education, as in business, has been a susceptibility to fads, with total quality management as a recent example. These fads may include some reasonable ideas, commonly packaged as part of a larger program. Although often treated as panaceas, they are typically short-lived. Such fads can be explained as attempts to give perceived legitimacy to organizational efforts to confront what in reality are intractable problems.

While practitioners adapted to changing social conditions and increasing complexity, those who study school administration sought to gain a better understanding of such phenomena. More sophisticated quantitative analyses facilitated by computer technology provided ways of examining relationships among many variables in numerous combinations, clusters, and sequences. Although empirical investigations rarely employed such analyses, their availability provides possible handles on complexity. More popular recently have been field studies, done as participant observation, ethnography, or case studies. While qualitative methods are favored by those wishing to advance a particular view using illustrations from selected ‘narratives,’ more traditional field work has long sought to plumb complexity by attending to the details of daily activity. Disputes about qualitative vs. quantitative research are not new, mirroring the richness vs. rigor debates in sociology in the 1930s (see Waller 1934). In educational administration, the dominant view appears to favor the use of a variety of methods recognizing that each has strengths and weaknesses. In any event, empirical studies in quantitative and qualitative modes have sought to make complexity more understandable, albeit in different ways.

The increased recognition of complexity has rekindled interest in chaos theory in educational administration and the social sciences. Chaos theory, it is well to recall, is not a denial of the possibility of orderliness. Rather it is a search for odd, intricate, or many faceted patterns. Reviewing chaos scholarship, Griffiths et al. (1991) concluded enthusiasm for the theory had not resulted in meaningful social research. They suggested that chaos theory has limited applications in educational administration because of the theory’s dependency on precise measures. Conceptual efforts to accommodate fluidity and fluctuation are not new. To cite others, they range from Hegelian dialectical analysis with its clash of opposites, followed by a new synthesis, to threshold effects noted only when a variable reaches a certain level, with little or no gradation, to equifinality or functional equivalents where similar results stem from different sources. Ethical theory has also been concerned with complexity. Perspectives that recognize how moral choices are embedded in elaborate contexts, and attempt to include potential consequences of action as part of choice, are illustrative. Related are cognitive-type studies of problem solving and decision making and work on types of intelligence and their relationship to problem solving.

Clearly, human experience is fluid and complex, and human behavior is often irrational and contradictory. Yet, in inquiry, the irrational is apprehended through rational processes, and experience is known through the use of concepts and explanations. Obviously, concepts and theories simplify, but so do intuition, lore, pregiven ideologies, aphorisms, and other ways of confronting experience. Nothing comprehends everything. The trick, in science and administration, is to include the relevant elements and get to the heart of the problem. The record on understanding complexity in school administration, as in the social sciences, is one of incremental gain. The methods of scientific inquiry can make complexity more comprehensible and more manageable, but there are no panaceas.

3.4 Internationalization

Educational administration is becoming internationalized. New preparation programs and journals are cropping up around the world. Established outlets such as the Journal of Educational Administration and Educational Administration Quarterly regularly feature comparative-international pieces, and research done cooperatively by investigators in different countries is increasingly appearing, as for example, in the July 1998 issue of the Journal of School Leadership. In addition to the International Encyclopedias of Education, World Yearbooks of Education, and others, new works are being published, for example the 1996 International Handbook of Educational Leadership and Administration. Scholarly associations such as the University Council for Educational Administration (in North America) and the Commonwealth Council for Educational Administration and Management continue to develop cooperative activities.

Internationalization presents opportunities for inquiry that take advantage of different societal-cultural settings to examine the impact of contingencies on behavior and outcomes. Such research can show how the relationships of the variables under study are mediated by setting variables. This, in turn, can lead to new theoretical explanations, not to mention better international understanding.


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  2. Boyan N J (ed.) 1988 Handbook of Research on Educational Administration. Longman, New York
  3. Campbell R F, Fleming T, Newell T J, Bennion J W 1987 A History of Thought and Practice in Educational Administration. Teachers College Press, New York
  4. Culbertson J A 1988 A century’s quest for a knowledge base. In: Boyan N J (ed.) Handbook of Research on Educational Administration. Longman, New York
  5. Derrida J 1994 Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. Routlege, New York
  6. Griffiths D E, Hart A W, Blair B G 1991 Still another approach to administration: Chaos theory. Educational Administration Quarterly 27: 430–51
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  10. Willower D J, Forsyth P B 1999 A brief history of scholarship on educational administration. In: Murphy J, Louis K S (eds.) Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, 2nd edn. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, pp. 1–24
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