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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  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).

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Correspondence to Fanon John Howell.

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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

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Keywords

  • Management
  • Organizational behavior
  • Reform
  • Institutionalism