Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Entropic Management: Restructuring District Office Culture in the New York City Department of Education

  • 235 Accesses

  • 1 Citations


Although a growing body of literature is produced on reform of urban school districts, few studies examine shifts in the culture of managers resulting from reorganization in these bureaucracies. This article engages an analysis of central office managerial culture in the New York City Department of Education during a culminating moment of district office restructuring. I argue that a lack of consistent practices ensuring inter-office network building was instrumental in shifting the prevailing culture of the central office from an instruction-based to an accountability-based organization. Managerial restructuring was coordinated by way of empowerment, technology, and the use of space. I label this arrangement entropic, arguing an order through disorder as innovation, constraints from the district’s organizational environment, and uncertainty lead to a focus on performance conditions more than institutional capacity. The study draws on ethnographic research and in-depth interviews conducted with upper and middle managers of this school district.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Mayoral control of urban American school districts is a phenomenon that began in the mid-1990s. “Two guiding principals behind it are ‘integrated governance’ and ‘consolidation of power’” (Wong and Shen 2003).

  2. 2.

    The physicist and mathematician Rudolf Clausius, a foundational figure in thermodynamics, coined the concept of entropy (1879). It is derived from the second law of thermodynamics, which states that there is a tendency toward equilibrium of energy in an isolated thermodynamic system. In physics, entropy is a measure of dissipated and productive energy. It indicates the amount of work available by way of work expended and holds that energy will continue to exert itself in pursuit of equilibrium. This constant effort towards equilibrium simultaneously indicates a drive to minimize any potential energy within a system. In the field of information theory, entropy is the amount of uncertainty or lack of information that a variable presents to a system. It is a measure of the level at which information gets communicated. Ludwig von Bertalanffy, a founder of general systems theory (GST), made the distinction that while irreversible entropy in closed systems is positive in open systems the environment contributes more disorder. The goal in open systems is to reduce entropy’s impact and maintain stability (1969). GST is concerned with the operations and patterns within systems of various types (Bausch 2002) and seeks to explain their derivation and evolution. A system consists of two or more units or sub-systems that are interdependent and seek equilibrium. This can be a biotic system or a social system like an organization such as the DOE (Beeson and Davis 2000).


  1. Amagoh, F. (2008). Perspectives on organizational change: Systems and complexity theories. The Innovation Journal: The Public Sector Innovation Journal. http://www.innovation.cc/scholarly-style/amagoh3dec2008jag2rev1.pdf.

  2. Anderson, P. (1999). Complexity theory and organization science. Organization Science, 10(3), 216–232.

  3. Barzelay, M., & Armajani, B. J. (1992). Breaking through bureaucracy: A new vision for managing in government. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  4. Bausch, K. (2002). Roots and branches: A brief, picaresque, personal history of systems theory. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 19, 417–428.

  5. Beeson, I., & Davis, C. (2000). Emergence and accomplishment in organization change. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 13, 178–189.

  6. Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. (1992). An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  7. Byrne, D. (1998). Complexity theory and the social sciences: An introduction. London: Routledge.

  8. DiMaggio, P., & Powell, W. (Eds.). (1991). The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  9. Fioretti, G., & Visser, B. (2004). A cognitive interpretation of organizational complexity. Emergence: Complexity & Organizations, 6, 11–23.

  10. Foster, J. (2005). From simplistic to complex systems in economics. Cambridge Journal of Economics, 29, 873–892.

  11. Glaser, B., & Strauss, A. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory: Strategies for qualitative research. New York: Aldine Publishing Company.

  12. Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91, 481–510.

  13. Greenwood, R., & Hinings, C. R. (1988). Organizational design types, tracks, and the dynamics of strategic change. Organization Studies, 9, 293–316.

  14. Honig, Meredith. I. (2007). Building policy from practice. Journal of School Leadership, 17, 195–221.

  15. Houchin, K., & MacLean, D. (2005). Complexity theory and strategic change: An empirically informed critique. British Journal of Management, 16(2), 149–166.

  16. Jepperson, R. L. (1991). Institutions, institutional affects and institutionalism. In P. DiMaggio & W. Powell (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  17. Jepperson, R. L., & Meyer, J. W. (1991). The public order and the construction of formal organizations. In P. J. DiMaggio & W. W. Powell (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  18. Mason, R. B. (2007). The external environment’s effect on management and strategy: A complexity theory approach. Management Decision, 45, 10–28.

  19. McElroy, M. (2000). Integrating complexity theory, knowledge management and organizational learning. Journal of Knowledge Management, 4, 195–203.

  20. McKenzie, C., & James, K. (2004). Aesthetics as aid to understanding complex systems and decision judgment in operating complex systems. Emergence: Complexity & Organizations, 6, 32–39.

  21. Meyer, J., & Rowan, B. (1991). Institutionalized organizations: Formal structure as myth and ceremony. In P. J. DiMaggio & W. W. Powell (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

  22. Mintzberg, H. (1983). Structure in fives: Designing effective organizations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

  23. Montuori, A. (2000). Organizational longevity—integrating systems thinking, learning and conceptual complexity. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 13, 61–73.

  24. NYC.gov. 2010. DCAS managed public buildings. http://home2.nyc.gov/html/dcas/html/resources/man_tweed.shtml.

  25. Pfeffer, J., & Salanck, G. (2003). The external control of organizations: A resource dependence perspective. California: Stanford University Press.

  26. Rhee, Y. (2000). Complex systems approach to the study of politics. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 17, 487–491.

  27. Rosa, H. (2003). Social acceleration: Ethical and political consequences of a desynchronized high-speed society. Constellations, 10, 3–33.

  28. Schmidt, Vivian. A. (2010). Taking ideas and discourse seriously: Explaining change through discursive institutionalism as the fourth new institutionalism. European Political Science Review, 2, 1–25.

  29. Spillane, J. P. (1998). State policy and the non-monolithic nature of the local school district: Organizational and professional considerations. American Educational Research Journal, 35, 33–63.

  30. Taylor, S., & Spicer, A. (2007). Time for space: A narrative review of research on organizational spaces. International Journal of Management Reviews, 9, 325–346.

  31. Wong, K., & Shen, F. (2003). When mayors lead urban schools: Toward developing a framework to assess the effects of mayoral takover of urban districts. The program on education policy and governance, Harvard University. http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p62166_index.html.

  32. Žižek, S. (Ed.). (1995). The specter of ideology. In Mapping ideology. London: Verso.

  33. Zucker, L. (Ed.). (1988). Institutional patterns and organizations: Culture and environment. Cambridge, MA: Ballinger Publishing Company.

  34. Zucker, L. (1991). The role of institutionalization in cultural persistence. In P. DiMaggio & W. Powell (Eds.), The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Fanon John Howell.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Howell, F.J. Entropic Management: Restructuring District Office Culture in the New York City Department of Education. Urban Rev 46, 725–746 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-014-0302-9

Download citation


  • Management
  • Organizational behavior
  • Reform
  • Institutionalism