An earlier version of this paper appears in educational Horizons Fall 2008.

Democracy vs. Efficiency in Public Schooling
Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.

edited 10/2/17

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Democracy and efficiency are by no means mutually exclusive. But they are also not easily compatible: efficiency tends to demand centralizations, leadership and the imposition of top-down structures, whilst decentralized and participatory structures are inherently slow, inefficient and susceptible to democratic sclerosis. This tension surfaces in a wide range of contexts.

European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR)[1]

Primal Tension: the Individual vs. the Group

In the course of our education we encounter not a few mixed messages. "If you want something done right, do it yourself." "No man is an island." "Do your own homework." "Be a team player." Seldom are the contradictions pointed out -- no need, we might suppose, since any normal fifth grader has begun to develop an adolescent sensitivity to adult inconsistency.

We might hope these contradictions are intended to teach moderation, Pan Metron Ariston. More likely, they are overlooked by the adults issuing them who don't notice or care about the dilemma they pose students. The students, of course, learn quickly enough to either disregard both horns of the dilemma, or to pick the most convenient alternative, since any remonstration by an adult that students have been remiss can be met with the rebuttal that they were obeying another directive and couldn't perform both.

This is the most meager of win-win situations: the adults in the school console themselves with the concession that some student has listened, finally, to something they have said; the students take their conceded rebuttal to be an acknowledgement of the little freedom they can exercise. This charade of authority on the part of the adults, and of choice on the part of students maintains the appearance of Democracy in Education we Americans feel so pressured to maintain.

However, outside of school, when we, as adults, encounter really incompatible options, we often wallow in indecision -- called by political scientists, sclerosis -- rather than seeking a middle way or taking the best risk. Or, we forget much of what we have learned and decide based on whatever strikes us at the moment.[2]

In many schools, public and private, where John Dewey's message has reached many a lip and hardly a soul, "democracy" is commonly practiced through a form of student government where students may vote for anything-- provided it doesn't question administration control. (A cynic might point out that this experience prepares them all-too-precisely for the realities of our political institutions.)

In addition, unlike private schools, public schools are constantly hectored to become more "efficient." But the great majority of our citizenry does not share a common concept of educational efficiency beyond "lowest cost."[3] Calls for specific approaches to school rationalization, i.e. reform, have always been the pet projects of the few -- that is, non-democratic.[4]

Democracy and Hierarchy: a thought experiment

Democracy tends to be inefficient; hardly a major concern in a country as wealthy and as socially stable as ours. In the worst cases, however, it becomes sclerotic, deadlocked on issues that bring social or governmental action to a halt. Then, with usually draconian prescriptions for social reform, "leaders"[5] appear, ready to impose their nostrums on a populace, who unlike those leaders, cannot outrun their mistakes.[6]

For some years now I have asked my doctoral students in a policy development course to consider two organizations. The question I pose is this: "On what basis would you say that one organization is more democratic than the other." Being good Deweyans -- generally unbeknownst to themselves -- they tend to reply that the more people tend to listen and talk with one another, the more democratic the organization is likely to be.[7]

I then ask, "How does this notion of democracy tie into that of hierarchy." Over many years the answer tends to repeat itself: hierarchy is the "opposite" of democracy. A perfectly democratic organization -- for that matter, a perfectly democratic society -- would have few or no hierarchies. (Twenty years ago I more frequently encountered communards who were especially vehement on this point: hierarchy means domination.[8] Committing the well-known fallacy they tend to draw the conclusion that lack of hierarchy is not merely a necessary, but a sufficient condition for democracy.)

But need the desire to dominate be the sole impetus for hierarchy? Can there be no other motive? I have my students consider the following situation:

       a. we want to turn out a product.

       b. the production task can be divided into two parts: coordination and construction.

       c. we can work alone, or engage others in the production task.

       d. we want to maximize democracy in the production group.

We want to test the following hypothesis:

The "amount"[8a] of democracy that a group enjoys has no effect on its production.

Let us adopt the following -- narrow -- "definition" of democracy: A production group is perfectly democratic (non-hierarchical) if every arbitrary pair of individuals in it has a channel of communication between them. For example, A -- B symbolizes a dyadic channel of communication -- it goes both ways -- between members A and B of the group. Clearly, a single individual needs no channel of communication, so we will be interested mainly in groups of two or more.

A relatively simple argument demonstrates that democracy conceived as the antithesis of hierarchy makes production on anything but the smallest scale unlikely. The following figure illustrates dyadic relationships that obtain among two through five persons. Letters indicate group members. Lines indicate channels of communication between them.[9]


figure 1

But here is the rub: as the group expands, the number of channels for "perfect democratic" , i.e. non-hierarchical control expands much more rapidly than the number of persons.

We will assume that coordination takes time away from construction. Let us make it minimal: each person communicates with each of the rest for only one-percent of his or her worktime per person. (For a forty-hour workweek this would amount to twenty-four minutes a week per other group member.)

Assuming a rather low loss of 1 percent productive time for coordination, the following chart gives the productivity level as the number of persons in the group increase.

Persons, Channels, Productivity (prod)/person at -1% per 2-person channel

Persons in group

Channels needed

% prod/person

Persons in group

Channels needed

% prod/person

Persons in Group

Channels needed

% prod/person














































Chart 1

For one person, the productivity is 100% since there is no time lost to coordination. But each additional person adds additional channels (N-1, N increasing) in such a way that by the time the group has reached fifteen members, there is no productivity at all.

The hypothesis is shown to be false. Hierarchy (the postulated opposite of democracy) restricts channels of communication (coordination possibilities) if only to permit enough time for construction. The concept of democracy criticized above is clearly too restrictive; perhaps, appropriate only to a band of hunter-gatherers.

But does this necessarily lower efficiency? Couldn't the efficiency of a group working together offset the coordination costs by producing a higher total output than any one person over a unit of time? It could. Suppose that one person working alone can produce one widget per day. Perhaps two working together might produce 2.5 widgets per day, even though by the chart above based on a 1% loss of time per channel reduces each individuals efficiency to 99%. [9a]

But it is unlikely that, as the group grows, the productive efficiency and the coordination costs will remain the same, since bigger groups, and the procurement and handling of the materials that support their efforts, will likely require more coordination than a smaller group would. It will depend on a host of assumptions. On the face of it, there does not seem to be any set of a priori constraints on the argument.

Now, a rather technical development is in the offing which would serve only to make this paper more arcane and so will be forgone. But even more confounding are the following general facts about schools that complicate our general theoretical analysis:

a. unlike the classical widget factory, the school enjoys little consensus as to which outcomes, e.g. patriotism, punctuality, punctuation (?), are controllable primarily through staff treatments and which depend upon a host of other factors;

b. even for those outcomes we suspect can be teacher controlled, production measures for student learning and group effects upon those measures are lacking; e.g. is group learning (what size?) more efficient for physics than for French?

c. there is no commonly accepted manner of computing outcome-type relevant student costs, i.e. does it cost more -- in some sense -- for someone to learn German rather than, say, biology?

The plausible although logically not conclusive point to be won: it is very premature to try to assess the trade-offs between democracy and efficiency as it pertains to schooling. Given the size of our educational organizations and our obsession for productivity in schools, democracy seems hardly likely to be served by dismantling school hierarchies -- ephemeral practices like "town meetings," increased parental involvement, and the like to the contrary, not withstanding. [10]

But, schools are not the only, not even the primary, supports for democracy. Rather, other possibilities, such as representative government, a free press, a universal military draft, an expanding economy, entrepreneurship, unionism and the like should be reckoned into the process.[11]

The Technical vs. The Political

...organizations with powerful political characteristics find it difficult to produce action in general, and change in particular. -- Nils Brunsson (1989)[12]

It is quite common to hear educators and other would-be school reformers express the desire to "rid education of politics." Yet American public schools pursue both technical and political goals: the tradition skills and knowledge curricula, math, science, language as contrasted with values, moral, multicultural and inclusive education. The former strive for knowledge and skills; the latter, for attitudes promoting social harmony. Given the history of group conflict and conquest in America, this pursuit of social harmony, the taming of the child [13] (and ultimately the citizen), is seen as particularly important and transferred over to a primary duty of the public school.[14]

We can understand any decision to be political if it is based on something other than considerations of efficiency within a relatively narrow framework of a consensus on goals: what is to count as math, science and language skills are decisions usually left to specialists. By contrast, many, if not most, public decisions in a pluralistic democracy will be political and controversial: for example, what are values to be pursued, morals, multicultural and inclusive education?

It is important to point out some of the likely consequences of the democratization of educational decision:

a. the most socially viable methods will tend to low efficiency; this may lead, in times of scarcity, to a rejection of the goals they are instrumental to; e.g. values education

b. "excellence" will tend to be perceived either as an empty slogan, or as an elitist, undemocratic pursuit; for example, NCLB criteria were eventually left to states to define; Gifted Education is widely unfunded.

c. teaching will tend to "deprofessionalization" in any politically sensitive arena, e.g. decertification movements, Teach for America members used in poor schools.

Such trends may, in the long run, enable non-democratic elites to gain or to maintain disproportional influence on the system. For example, much of the criticism of public schools comes from persons very tenuously, if at all, connected with them. Yet they have the power to force public schools to submit to evaluations based on exaggerated reports of shortcomings from which private and parochial schools are exempt.[15]

It is sobering to remember that the many people who helped found our democracy, did not, themselves attend schools which were, or purported to be, democratically run. Nor did they recommend that basic education be a structural or moral reflection of governmental institutions. In real schools, concern for the developmental needs of children necessarily overrides the impulse to play-act the equality pursued in the political arena. Educational institutions in a democracy, may not -- contra Dewey -- best serve that democracy by being, themselves, democratic.[16]


[1] Efficiency versus Democracy? Towards New Syntheses ECPR Outline

[2] In accord with Kahnemann's & Tversky's Availability Heuristic. Kahneman, D, & Tversky, A. (1974) Judgment under uncertainty; Heuristics and biases. Science 185: 1125 - 1131

[3] Excepting those items any specific group understands to be absolutely essential to a "good" education, e.g. a football team, a drama club, and so on with little consensus. In reality, "efficiency" is a shibboleth of much lower priority than realized. On this see Edward G. Rozycki "Increasing Teaching Efficiency: 
the evaluation of method"

[4] Social rationalization pressures toward the undemocratic. ECPR Outline.

[5] See Gary K. Clabaugh "Looking for a 'Transformational' Leader: Longing for a Fuehrer" available at In this Summer of 2008, a not insubstantial number of putative "leaders" have adapted the superstition that the major, if not the only, reason for low student performance in public schools is that there are teachers that are unionized.

[6] See Robert Jackall (1988) Moral Mazes. The world of corporate managers. New York: Oxford. " way of looking at success patterns ... is that that people who are in high positions have never been in one place long enough for their problems to catch up with them. They outrun their mistakes." p. 90.

Their followers then have the opportunity to develop insight and critical thinking skills by confronting those most ancient of educators: Pain and Suffering.

[7] There seems to be buried here an optimistic assumption that the more people communicate the more the desire to dominate diminishes.

[8] A not uncommon opinion. See, for example, "Absolute Power" at "Hierarchy means there are the dominators, and there are the dominated."

[8a] "amount" sounds pretentiously scientistic; "level" would be more colloquial. However, our narrow definition of democracy permits an easy measure of democracy: an organization's measure of democracy is the ratio of actual dyadic communications channels to the theoretical maximum number of such.

[9] The number of channels needed for a group of size N is the number of combinations of members taken two at a time from N. This equals N!/(2!*(N-2)!) Paying attention to only communication channels is a simplification.

For a classical treatment dealing with six rather than just two relations per dyad, see Luther Gulick and L. Urwick, (1937) Institute of Public Administration. Columbia University. Papers on the Science of Administration. Chapter X: Relationship in Organization. Pp. 183 - 187. Available at

[9a] Suppose one person can produce one widget in one day: this is the base rate of production at 100%. Therefore, N persons at 100% productive efficiency can produce N widgets/day. Assume that if coordination reduces the efficiency of each person, it can make each person more efficient through teamwork. To regain productive efficiency of 100% per person, we need only increase each person's efficiency by 1/(reduced efficiency). The following chart shows some interesting results.

. . % cost/channl = 1%
persons 2-way channels reduced efficiency % req'd effncy to reach base 100%
1 0 100.0 100.0
2 1 99.0 101.0
3 3 97.0 103.1
4 6 94.0 106.4
5 10 90.0 111.1
6 15 85.0 117.6
7 21 79.0 126.6
8 28 72.0 138.9
9 36 64.0 156.3
10 45 55.0 181.8
11 55 45.0 222.2
12 66 34.0 294.1
13 78 22.0 454.5
14 91 9.0 1111.1
15 105 -5.0 -2000.0

[10] The path of American democratic educational reform is strewn with the wreckages of T-Groups, Site-Based Management Schools, Community Councils and the like. See Kenwyn K. Smith, Groups in Conflict. Prisons in Disguise. (Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1982) on the dubious kinds of "encasements" that might be necessary to make our thought experiment a reality.

[11] It is the traditions and practices of constraining conflict -- even to the point of trivializing its moral issues -- that are the fundamental support for American democracy. Here, again, wealth plays an important role: it enables those not directly involved in the conflict to retreat to their "own business" without suffering severe consequences. Where poverty is widespread, we might expect people to be more vulnerable to conflict, if only for the sake of distraction from their misery.

Americans tend to a cultural bias, especially as concerns moral issues, to imagine that like must generate like, e.g. good produces only good; bad produces only bad. A likely wiser, more pragmatic perspective would more recognize that good as well as bad produce good as well as bad. See Edward G. Rozycki, "Trading-Off 'Sacred' Values: 
Why Public Schools Should Not Try to 'Educate'". Available at

[12] Nils Brunsson, (2002) The Organization of Hypocrisy. Talk, Decisions and Actions in Organizations. Second Edition. Oslo, Norway. Abstrakt forlag. p. 69.
Also, see on this site EG Rozycki (2009) Productivity, Politics and Hypocrisy in American Public Education: school organization as instrument and expression.

[13] As the song goes:

School Days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick

(Music by Gus Edwards; Lyrics by Will D. Cobb, 1907)

See also, Jack Larkin, The Reshaping of Everyday Life (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) pp. 288-289 on teachers using physical force to control both students and their family members in frontier schools.

[14] Given highest priority to a goal of social harmony, the following "evils" may be efficient means: ignorance, incompetence, impotence and irrationality. (This provides a structural explanation for public school failure.) For psychological and philosophical reasons for identifying these particular "evils," see Edward G. Rozycki, "Values, Rationality and Pluralism" Philosophy of Education 79, 195-204. Available online as "Pluralism and Rationality: the limits of tolerance" at

[15] See David C. Berliner, "Educational Reform in an Era of Disinformation" (Paper presented at the meetings of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, San Antonio, Texas, February 1992). Contact Berliner at College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-0911. Fax: 602/965-9144. E-Mail: ATDAB@ASUACAD

[16] See Edward G. Rozycki, "Fat-Free Foods and Schooling Options:
The Pathologies of Enthusiasm" at