Bureaucracy and the Common School: the Example of Portland, Oregon, 1851–1913

  • David Tyack


“The most fundamental principle observed in the present conduct of the Portland school system is the maintenance unchanged of a rigidly prescribed, mechanical system, poorly adapted to the needs either of the children or of the community.”1 So concluded a team of educational experts led by Ellwood P. Cubberley of Stanford in a 1913 study of the Portland Public Schools. “Because of lack of opportunity to exercise initiative,” they observed, teachers and administrators were “carrying out a system in whose creation they had little or no part. The result is a uniformity that is almost appalling.” Administrators were mere inspectors, certifying or compelling compliance with rules. The curriculum was “vivisected with mechanical accuracy into fifty-four dead pieces.” Children trotted on one stage of the treadmill until they could advance to the next by passing an examination. “School board and superintendent, as well as principals, teachers, and pupils, are victims of the system for which no one is primarily responsible.”2 The origin of the bureaucracy was a mystery; pride, ritual and fear maintained it. Cubberley and his colleagues were describing—with some caricature—a social pathology which had afflicted urban schools for decades. In 1880 Charles Francis Adams Jr. blasted school superintendents as “drill sergeants” and described their schools as “a combination of the cotton mill and the railroad with the model State-prison.”3 In a series of articles in the Forum in 1892, Dr. Joseph M. Rice attacked regimentation in city schools of the East and Midwest.


Public School School System Urban School School Board Progressive Education 
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  1. 1.
    Ellwood P. Cubberley, The Portland Survey (Yonkers-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1916), p. 125.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    On school systems as bureaucracies see Charles E. Bidwell, “The School as a Formal Organization,” in Handbook of Organizations, ed. James G. March (Chicago, 1965), p. 974; on bureaucratic structure generally see Reader in Bureaucracy, eds. Robert K. Merton et al. (Glencoe, IL, 1952).Google Scholar
  3. 7.
    On early district schools see Clifton Johnson’s Old-Time Schools and School-Books (New York, 1904); the quest for standardization is a theme of practically all histories of the common school reform and reports of state superintendents—as an Oregon sample, see Oregon Superintendent of Public Instruction, First Biennial Report (Salem, OR, 1874), pp. 24–27.Google Scholar
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    David Tyack, “The Tribe and the Common School: the District School in Ashland, Oregon, in the 1860’s,” Call Number, XXVII (Spring 1966), 13–23;Google Scholar
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    Aaron Gove, “Duties of City Superintendents,” NEA, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses … 1884 (Boston, 1885), p. 27; for a similar point of view see Superintendent of Public Schools, San Francisco, Twenty-Second Annual Report (San Francisco, 1875), p. 140; T. L. Reller, The Development of the City Superintendency of Schools in the United States (Philadelphia, 1935).Google Scholar
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    Thomas H. Crawford, “Historical Sketch of the Public Schools of Portland, Oregon, 1847–1888” (typescript, Oregon Collection, University of Oregon Library), pp. 9, 13–14; Alfred Powers and Howard M. Corning, “History of Education in Portland” (mimeographed W.P.A. Adult Education Project, 1937), p. 48.Google Scholar
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    Lucien Kinney, Certification in Education (Englewood Cliffs, N. J., 1964), pp. 77–79; the discussions in the department of superintendence of the NEA at the turn of the century dealt extensively with the problems of the spoils system in education, as did the series of articles on public education in Atlantic Monthly in 1896; on the issue of the “book trust” see the Oregonian, Sept. 23 and 24 and Oct. 28, 1894.Google Scholar
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    Wallace Sayre, in “Additional Observations on the Study of Administration,” Teachers College Record, LX (Nov. 1958), 73–76, analyzes some of the “serviceable myths” developed by educational bureaucrats in their quest for autonomy and outlines some issues that need to be studied to clarify the external relations of schools to their environment; I am indebted to his suggestions.Google Scholar
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    E. H. Whitney, “Partial History of the Portland School System, 1896–1913, with Biographical Sketch of Frank Rigler” (Seminar Paper, University of Oregon, 1922).Google Scholar
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  22. 75.
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    Cubberley, Public School Administration (Boston, 1916), p. 338.Google Scholar
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    Cubberley, Changing Conceptions of Education (Boston, 1909), pp. 56–57.Google Scholar
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    In 1917 P. W. Horn did a follow-up study to see if the Cubberley recommendations were followed: Report of Supplementary Survey of Portland Public Schools (Portland, 1917).Google Scholar
  26. 82.
    John Dewey, School and Society (Chicago, 1956), pp. 7–11; Dewey was somewhat ambiguous in posing an organizational model for the school, for he realized that large-scale organizations were a permanent feature of modern industrial society, and he wished workers to realize the functional significance of their contribution to these enterprises.Google Scholar

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© John L. Rury 2005

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  • David Tyack

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