A UDL BookBuilder Version of:

Thomas M. Skrtic's

The Special Education Paradox:

Equity as the Way to Excellence

Adapted by Jenna Gravel, Kevin Mintz, & Monica Ng

Image/illusion symbolizing a paradox
Image/illusion symbolizing a paradox

(Permission to adapt this piece has been granted from the publisher)

  • An Introduction to this UDL BookBuilder Book

  • How to Read this BookBuilder Book

  • Summary of Opening Sections


  • The Structural Frame of Reference

  • Differences between the Machine and Professional Bureaucracies

  • Managing Professional Bureaucracies Like Machine Bureaucracies

  • Similarities between the Machine and Professional Bureaucracies

  • The Cultural Frame of Reference

  • Organizations as Paradigms

  • Organizations as Schemas

  • Summary of Closing Sections

  • Tell Us Your Feedback!


An Introduction to this UDL BookBuilder Book

Skrtic’s “The Special Education Paradox” is a highly theoretical article, and many A-117 students have experienced difficulty comprehending it in the past. In order to support student learning, the A-117 teaching team has transformed this article into a digital reading environment using CAST ’s UDL BookBuilder , a free tool that allows users to create interactive books with embedded Universal Design for Learning (UDL) supports.

We have not transformed the entire Skrtic article. Instead, we have decided to highlight the most challenging and most important section: “The Discourse on School Organization and Adaptability” (begins on page 219 of the original article). To guide your comprehension and to activate your background knowledge, we have included a summary of the content leading up to this section as well as a summary of the content concluding the article. In order to differentiate from Skrtic's actual text, the summaries appear in blue text.

Due to the extensive number of endnotes, we decided not to included them in this BookBuilder version. If you would like to follow up on them, please be sure to reference the original text. Also, we wanted to remind you that should you choose to cite Skrtic's article in any of your A-117 assignments, please be sure to cite the original text and not this BookBuilder version.

The creation of this BookBuilder is twofold. First, we hope that this supported reading environment will assist you in better understanding Skrtic’s highly complex argument. Second, this BookBuilder book models pedagogical concepts about implementing inclusive education and UDL and shows that this work can be done using tools that are freely available and easy to use. This entire resource was created using a tool that you can bring to your classroom in your future work!

Happy reading!
A-117 Teaching Team

How to Read this BookBuilder Book

This BookBuilder Book is designed to be accessible to a diverse range of learners by embedding the following UDL supports into the text:

TextHelp Toolbar
The TextHelp Toolbar appears at the top left of every page. To hear the text read aloud, select the first icon and then click anywhere in the book to start reading. Or, to hear individual sentences, select the text you want to hear and click the green triangle. Use the square button to stop reading. Text-to-speech benefits students who are struggling readers, English language learners, and students who simply enjoy hearing text read aloud.

Spanish translation
The TextHelp Toolbar also features a Spanish translation button. Click the bottom icon for a definition in Spanish. This feature supports students who are English language learners as well as native English speakers who may be learning Spanish and want to increase their vocabulary.

Multimedia glossary
Words that are underlined with a dotted line are words that have been included in a multimedia glossary. Click on the underlined word for a definition. You can also access the glossary at any time by clicking the "ABC" icon at the top left of every page. The glossary benefits students who are struggling readers, who are English language learners, or who have limited background knowledge on the subject.

You will notice coaches at the bottom left of every page. "Tom Summarize" provides a summary of the content in everyday language. "Judy Connect" encourages students to connect to other articles and concepts that are discussed in the course.

Student response areas
On several pages, student response areas appear at the bottom right. These response areas help students connect concepts to their own experiences in schools. To collect all of your responses into one document, you can click the “View My Responses” button at the bottom of the page. You can then print your responses or download the text version. Be sure to bring your collection of responses to class as they will be useful to our discussion. You can also feel free to use the student response areas for any notes that you wish to take.

Captions and long descriptions
For every image, there is a caption as well as a long description. These features benefit readers with visual impairments who are using a screen reader to access the text and accompanying images. These features also benefit all readers by highlighting the critical features of the images.

Anthony uses a standing frame during reading class.
Anthony uses a standing frame during reading class.

As an introduction to this BookBuilder book, the opening sections leading up to our featured section have been summarized.

Summary of opening sections

In the opening sections of “The Special Education Paradox,” Thomas Skrtic asserts that the federal system of special education established under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ) has largely failed to achieve its goal of providing an appropriate public education to students with disabilities.  The article seeks to analyze this failure in terms of organizational theory .  In order to give his theoretical argument a more practical context, he analyzes special education in the context of a movement known as the Regular Education Initiative (REI) .  REI was a movement during the 1980’s to try and correct the limitations of IDEA by eliminating the separate special education programs found within most public schools creating one system of general education in which students with disabilities were to be supported within general education classrooms.  Some proponents of REI envisioned a system in which the education of all students regardless of ability would receive an education tailored to their individual needs.

The Stalker School Building in Bedford, Indiana. Image courtesy of Cindy Seigle.
The Stalker School Building in Bedford, Indiana. Image courtesy of Cindy Seigle.

In Skrtic’s view, the social sciences have relied too heavily on an organizational approach known as functionalism to analyze the success or failure of bureaucratic organizations.  For our purposes, consider the public school to be a bureaucratic organization as it is an entity designed to help implement the requirements of IDEA and other federal educational policies.  Functionalism supposes that a bureaucratic organization is designed to be rational and efficient and any failures on the part of the organization are those that are pathological or intrinsic to certain individuals within the organization itself.  In the context of students with disabilities Skrtic believes that the special education system, as implemented in most public schools, is meant to serve as a way of minimizing the impact of student failure on the school as a whole.  In other words, a functionalist’s view of special education specifies that the failure of public schools to educate a child is the result of the child’s disability as opposed to the quality of instruction or other factors based solely in the school environment.   

Skrtic argues that many of the efforts to reform special education have failed largely because most of them have made cursory reforms that do not question this functionalist assumption. He considers such reform an example of naïve pragmatism in that it seeks to improve the organization without questioning the underlying assumptions behind the failing practices that are trying to be remedied.  In this article, Skrtic is instead engaging in what he calls critical pragmatism in that he is questioning some of the most fundamental assumptions surrounding the organization of traditional public schools in order to ultimately suggest reforms that will hopefully provide meaningful change within the field of special education and public education as a whole.

In particular, he is questioning four highly-debated assumptions on which the special education system within the United States is based.  The first is that mild disability, i.e. learning disabilities, emotional disturbance, and mental retardation, is pathological.  In Skrtic’s view, this assumption is not valid because such diagnoses are highly reliant on subjective forms of measurement.  As you will learn later in the course, the results of an IQ test can be interpreted by school districts in various ways such that a student may have a right to receive special education services in one district but not another.  

The second assumption is that diagnosis is objective and useful.  Once again, Skrtic holds that this assumption is invalid because while diagnosis of disability might be considered objective, there is little evidence to suggest that receiving a diagnosis and special education services leads to a “direct” instructional benefit for most students.  

The third assumption is that special education is a rational system .  Skrtic asserts that contrary to what some opponents of REI believe, special education is not a rational system.  Although it can be argued that special education is rational in the sense that it gives children an entitlement to services, in order for a system to be considered rational, there must be a way to monitor progress and implement technical change within it.  

The fourth assumption is that progress is rational and technical in that it can be monitored over time and be a metric for purposeful reform.  According to Skrtic, there is little consensus within the field of special education as to whether progress within the system can be measured and used in such a way as to make meaningful change possible.

Graphic organizer.
The 4 REI Proposals from least inclusive to most inclusive (from left to right).

Skrtic then surveys the different proposals for reform within the REI movement.  He identifies two critical questions on which the different proposals disagree:  

1) Whom to Integrate

2) Whom to Merge

He then surveys the reactions within the field of special education to the various REI proposals.  As a way of keeping this summary concise and useful, we provided a graphic organizer that describes the REI proposals.  They are very interesting to learn about, and we encourage you to look at the article in its original version if you would like to know more about them.   As you begin to read the section of Skrtic’s article provided in this UDL BookBuilder version, keep in mind Skrtic’s main point regarding the potential effectiveness of REI or any reform within the field of special education.  In order to implement meaningful change, practitioners, administrators, and policymakers must have an understanding of the organizational assumptions upon which public schools as a whole are structured.  With this understanding, they must also be willing to question whether the structure of traditional public schools is conducive to providing an appropriate education for students with disabilities.


Generally speaking, there are two sources of insight into school organization and adaptability: the prescriptive discourse of educational administration , and the theoretical discourse of the multidisciplinary field of organization analysis . The field of educational administration is grounded in the notion of scientific management , an extremely narrow view that presupposes that organizations are rational and that organizational change is a rational-technical process (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Scott, 1981). Although scientific management is a purely functionalist approach for organizing and managing industrial firms, it was applied to schools and other social organizations during the social efficiency movement at the turn of the century (Callahan, 1962; Haber, 1964), and has remained the grounding formulation of educational administration ever since.34

The theoretical discourse of organization analysis is grounded in the social disciplines and thus, in principle, provides a much broader range of perspectives on organization and change. Ultimately, however, the theories produced in the field of organization analysis are shaped by the various modes of theorizing or paradigms that have been available to and, more important, historically favored by social scientists (Burrell & Morgan, 1979).35 Because functionalism has been the favored mode of theorizing in the social sciences, the theoretical discourse on organization, like the prescriptive discourse of educational administration, has been dominated by the functionalist paradigm, and thus by the presupposition of organizational rationality (Burrell & Morgan, 1979). However, over the past thirty years, the same revolutionary developments in the social disciplines that were noted previously have produced a number of new theories of organization that are grounded in other modes of social theorizing that had been underutilized in organizational research.36

One important substantive outcome of these developments has been a shift in emphasis on the question of the nature of organization and change itself. Whereas the functionalist notion of rational organizations (that is, prospective and goal-directed) and rational-technical change had been the exclusive outlook in organization analysis, many of the newer theories are premised on the idea that organizations are nonrational entities (that is, quasi-random, emergent systems of meaning or cultures) in which change is a nonrational-cultural process (Pfeffer, 1982; Scott, 1981). Methodologically, the trend in organization analysis, as in the social sciences generally, has been away from the traditional foundational notion of one best theory or paradigm for understanding organization. Thus, the contemporary discourse in organization analysis is characterized by theoretical diversity (Burrell & Morgan, 1979; Pfeffer, 1982; Scott, 1981) and, at the margins at least, by an antifoundational methodological orientation (Morgan, 1983).37

Drawing on these substantive and methodological developments, the following analysis considers school organization and adaptability from two general frames of reference that, together, include several theories of organization and change drawn from each of the modes of theorizing found in the social disciplines. The structural frame of reference includes configuration theory (Miller & Mintzberg, 1983; Mintzberg, 1979) and what will be referred to as "institutionalization theory " (Meyer & Rowan, 1977, 1978; Meyer & Scott, 1983). By combining these two theories, we can understand school organization as an inherently nonadaptable, two-structure arrangement. The cultural frame of reference includes what will be referred to as paradigmatic (Brown, 1978; Golding, 1980; Jonsson & Lundin, 1977; Rounds, 1979, 1981) and cognitive theories of organization (Weick, 1979, 1985), which, when combined, provide a way to understand school organizations as cultures or corrigible systems of meaning. The two frames of reference are presented separately below and then integrated in the next major section where the relationship between organization structure and culture is used to reconsider the four grounding assumptions of special education as an institutional practice of public education.38 Although the reader no doubt will begin to see in the following analysis some of the organizational implications that I will emphasize in subsequent sections, at this point I will refrain from commenting on those implications. My aim here is merely to set the stage for the sections to follow.

The Structural Frame of Reference39

The central idea in configuration theory is that organizations structure themselves into somewhat naturally occurring configurations according to the type of work that they do, the means they have available to coordinate their work, and a variety of situational factors. Given these considerations, school organizations configure themselves as professional bureaucracies (Mintzberg, 1979), even though in this century they have been managed and governed as machine bureaucracies (Callahan, 1962; Meyer & Rowan, 1978; Weick, 1982). According to institutionalization theory , organizations like schools deal with this contradiction by maintaining two structures: a material structure that conforms to the technical demands of their work and a normative structure that conforms to the cultural demands of their institutionalized environments. By combining the insights of configuration theory and institutionalization theory, school organizations can be understood in terms of two organizations, one inside the other. On the outside, their normative structure conforms to the machine bureaucracy configuration, the structure that people expect because of the social norm of organizational rationality. On the inside, however, the material structure of schools conforms to the professional bureaucracy configuration, the structure that configures itself around the technical requirements of their work.

The interior of the Truck Assembly Room at the Winther Motor and Truck Company, Kenosha, WI in 1921.
The interior of the Truck Assembly Room at the Winther Motor and Truck Company factory, Kenosha, Wisconsin, 1921.

Differences between the Machine and Professional Bureaucracies

The differences between the two organizations stem from the type of work that they do and thus the way they can distribute it among workers (division of labor) and subsequently coordinate its completion. Organizations configure themselves as machine bureaucracies when their work is simple; that is, when it is certain enough to be rationalized (or task-analyzed) into a series of separate subtasks, each of which can be prespecified and done by a different worker. Because it can be completely prespecified, simple work can be coordinated by standardizing the work processes through formalization, or the specification of precise rules for doing each subtask. Organizations configure themselves as professional bureaucracies when their work is complex; that is, when it is ambiguous and thus too uncertain to be rationalized and formalized. Because their work is too uncertain to be broken apart and distributed among a number of workers, division of labor in the professional bureaucracies is achieved through specialization . That is, in the professional bureaucracy (which typically does client-centered work) clients are distributed among the workers, each of whom specializes in the skills that are needed to do the total job with his or her assigned client cohort. Given this form of division of labor, complex work is coordinated by standardizing the skills of the workers, which is accomplished through professionalization , or intensive education and socialization carried out in professional schools.

Radiology specialists examining a patient's x-ray.
Sgt. Christopher Queen (right), of Broken Arrow, and Spc. Johnathon Castille (left), of Glennpool, examine a patient's x-ray.

The logic behind rationalization and formalization in the machine bureaucracy is premised on minimizing discretion and separating theory from practice. The theory behind the work rests with the technocrats who rationalize and formalize it; they do the thinking and the workers simply follow the rules. Conversely, specialization and professionalization are meant to increase discretion and to unite theory and practice in the professional. This is necessary because containing the uncertainty of complex work within the role of a particular professional specialization requires the professional to adapt the theory behind the work to the particular needs of his or her clients (Schein, 1972). In principle, professionals know the theory behind their work and have the discretion to adapt it to the actual needs of their clients. In practice, however, the standardization of skills is circumscribed ; it provides professionals with a finiterepertoire of standard programs that are applicable to a finite number of contingencies or presumed client needs. Given adequate discretionary space (see below), there is room for some adjustment. However, when clients have needs that fall on the margins or outside of the professional's repertoire of standard programs, they either must be forced artificially into the available programs or sent to a different professional specialist, one who presumably has the right standard programs (Perrow, 1970; Weick, 1976). A fully open-ended process — one that seeks a truly creative solution to each unique need — requires a problem-solving orientation. But professionals are performers, not problem solvers. They perfect the programs they have; they do not invent new ones for unfamiliar contingencies. Instead of accommodating heterogeneity , professionals screen it out by squeezing their clients' needs into one of their standard programs or by squeezing them out of the professional-client relationship altogether (Segal, 1974; Simon, 1977).

An organization's division of labor and means of coordination shape the nature of interdependency or coupling among its workers (March &Olsen, 1976; Thompson, 1967; Weick, 1976). Because machine bureaucracies distribute and coordinate their work by rationalizing and formalizing it, their workers are highly dependent on one another and thus, like links in a chain, they are tightly coupled. However, specialization and professionalization create a loosely coupled form of interdependency in the professional bureaucracy, a situation in which workers are not highly dependent on one another. Because specialization requires close contact with the client and professionalization requires little overt coordination or communication among workers (everyone knows roughly what everyone else is doing by way of their common professionalization), each professional works closely with his or her clients and only loosely with other professionals (Weick, 1976, 1982).

Managing Professional Bureaucracies Like Machine Bureaucracies

Given the prescriptive discourse of educational administration and the social norm of organizational rationality, traditional school management (Weick, 1982) and governance (Meyer & Rowan, 1978; Mintzberg, 1979) practices force school organizations to adopt the rationalization and formalization principles of the machine bureaucracy, even though they are ill-suited to the technical demands of doing complex work. In principle, this drives the professional bureaucracy toward the machine bureaucracy configuration because, by misconceptualizing teaching as simple work that can be rationalized and formalized, it violates the theory/practice requirement and discretionary logic of professionalization. Thus, by separating theory and practice and reducing professional discretion, the degree to which teachers can personalize instruction is reduced. Complex work cannot be rationalized and formalized, except in misguided ways that force the professionals "to play the machine bureaucratic game — satisfying the standards instead of serving the clients" (Mintzberg, 1979, p. 377).

    Fortunately, however, the imposition of rationalization and formalization does not work completely in school organizations because, from the institutionalization perspective, these structural contingencies are built into the outer machine bureaucracy structure of schools, which is decoupled from their inner professional bureaucracy structure where the work is done. That is, the outer machine bureaucracy structure of schools acts largely as a myth that, through an assortment of symbols and ceremonies, embodies the rationalization and formalization but has little to do with the way the work is actually done. This decoupled arrangement permits schools to do their work according to the localized judgments of professionals — the logic behind specialization and professionalization — while protecting their legitimacy by giving managers and the public the appearance of the rationalized and formalized machine bureaucracy that they expect.

    But decoupling does not work completely either because, from the configuration perspective, no matter how contradictory they may be, misplaced rationalization and formalization require at least overt conformity to their precepts and thus circumscribe professional thought and action (Dalton, 1959; Mintzberg, 1979). Decoupling notwithstanding, managing and governing schools as if they were machine bureaucracies increases rationalization and formalization and thus decreases professional thought and discretion, which reduces even further the degree to which teachers can personalize instruction.

Reading braille.
Reading Braille. Image courtesy of Jason Pearce.

Similarities between the Machine and Professional Bureaucracies

Even though they are different in the respects noted above, the machine and professional bureaucracies are similar in one important way: both are inherently nonadaptable structures because they are premised on standardization . All bureaucracies are performance organizations; that is, structures that are configured to perfect the programs they have been standardized to perform. Of course, the standardization of skills is intended to allow for enough professional thought and discretion to accommodate client variability. However, even with adequate discretionary space, there is a limit on the degree to which professionals can adjust their standard programs and, moreover, they can only adjust the standard programs that are in their repertoires. In a professional bureaucracy, coordination through standardization of skills itself circumscribes the degree to which the organization can accommodate variability. A fully open-ended process of accommodation requires a problem-solving organization, a configuration premised on inventing new programs for unique client needs. But the professional bureaucracy is a performance organization; it screens out heterogeneity by forcing its clients' needs into one of its existing specializations, or by forcing them out of the system altogether (Segal, 1974).

First graders in a breakout reading group.
First graders in a breakout reading group.

Because bureaucracies are performance organizations, they require a stable environment. They are potentially devastated under dynamic conditions, when their environments force them to do something other than what they were standardized to do. Nevertheless, machine bureaucracies can change by restandardizing their work processes, a more or less rational-technical process of rerationalizing their work and reformalizing work behavior. However, when its environment becomes dynamic, the professional bureaucracy cannot respond by making rational-technical adjustments in its work because its coordination rests within each professional, not in its work processes. At a minimum, change in a professional bureaucracy requires a change in what each professional does, because each professional does all aspects of the work individually and personally with his or her clients. Nevertheless, because schools are managed and governed as if they were machine bureaucracies, attempts to change them typically follow the rational-technical approach (Elmore & McLaughlin, 1988; House, 1979), which assumes that changes in, or additions to, the existing rationalization and formalization will result in changes in the way the work gets done. Of course, this fails to bring about the desired changes because the existing rationalization and formalization are located in the decoupled machine bureaucracy structure. However, because such changes or additions require at least overt conformity, they act to extend the existing rationalization and formalization. This, of course, drives the organization further toward the machine bureaucracy configurations, which reduces teacher thought and discretion even further, leaving students with even less personalized and thus even less effective services.

Children and teachers in Dublin participate in a protest for schools.
Children and teachers in Dublin participate in a protest for school funding.Image courtesy of William Murphy/Infomatique

Even though schools are nonadaptable structures, their status as public organizations means that they must respond to public demands for change. From the institutionalization perspective, schools deal with this problem by using their outer machine bureaucracy structure to deflect change demands. That is, they relieve pressure for change by signaling the environment that a change has occurred, thereby creating the illusion that they have changed when, in fact, they remain largely the same (Meyer, 1979; Rowan, 1980; Zucker, 1981). One way that school organizations signal change is by building symbols and ceremonies of change into their outer machine bureaucracy structure, which, of course, is decoupled from the actual work. Another important signal of change is the ritual or decoupled subunit. Not only are the two structures of schools decoupled, but the various units (classrooms and programs) are decoupled from one another as well. As we know from the configuration perspective, this is possible because specialization and professionalization create precisely this sort of loosely coupled interdependency within the organization. As such, schools can respond to pressure for change by simply adding on separate classrooms or programs — that is, by creating new specializations — to deal with the change demand. This response acts to buffer the organization from the change demand because these subunits are decoupled from the rest of the organization, thus making any substantive reorganization of activity unnecessary (Meyer & Rowan, 1977; Zucker, 1981).

The Cultural Frame of Reference

Organization theorists working from the cultural frame of reference think of organizations as bodies of thought, as schemas, cultures, or paradigms. Their theories are premised on the idea that humans construct their social realities through intersubjective communication (see Berger & Luckmann, 1967). As such, the cognitive and paradigmatic perspectives on organization and change are concerned with the way people construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct meaning and how this relates to the way action and interaction unfold over time in organizations. Cognitive theories emphasize the way people create and recreate their organizational realities; paradigmatic theories emphasize the way organizational realities create and recreate people. Together, these theories reflect the interactive duality of the cultural frame of reference — people creating culture and culture creating people (Pettigrew, 1979).

Organizations as Paradigms

Paradigmatic theorists conceptualize organizations as paradigms or shared systems of meaning. They are concerned with understanding the way existing socially constructed systems of meaning affect and constrain thought and action in organizations. From this perspective, an organizational paradigm is a system of beliefs about cause-effect relations and standards of practice and behavior. Regardless of whether these paradigms are true, they guide and justify action by consolidating disorder into an image of orderliness (Brown, 1978; Clark, 1972). From this perspective, organizational change requires a paradigm shift, which is difficult because the paradigm self-justifies itself by distorting new information so it is seen as consistent with the prevailing view. Nevertheless, when sufficient anomalies build up to undermine the prevailing paradigm, a new one emerges and action proceeds again under the guidance of the new organizing framework (Golding, 1980; Jonsson &Lundin, 1977).40    

One way that anomalies are introduced into organizational paradigms is when values and preferences in society change. However, to the degree that the new social values are inconsistent with the prevailing paradigm, resistance emerges in the form of political clashes and an increase in ritualized activity, which act to reaffirm the paradigm that has been called into question (Rounds, 1979; see also Lipsky, 1975; Perrow, 1978; Zucker, 1977). Another way that anomalies are introduced is through the availability of technical information that indicates that the current paradigm is not working, which can bring about a paradigm shift in one of two ways (Rounds, 1981). The first way is through a confrontation between an individual (or a small constituency group), who rejects the most fundamental assumptions of the current paradigm on the basis of information that the system is not working, and the rest of the organization's members, who are acting in defiance of the negative information to preserve the prevailing paradigm. The second way is when an initially conservative action is taken to correct a generally recognized flaw in what is otherwise assumed to be a viable system. Here, the corrective measure exposes other flaws that, when addressed, expose more flaws, and so on, until enough of the system is called into question to prepare the way for a radical reconceptualization of the entire organization.

"mutually shaping circularity of structure and culture."
"Mutually shaping circularity of structure and culture."

Organizations as Schemas

From the cognitive perspective, an organization is a cognitive entity, a paradigm or human schema, "an abridged, generalized, corrigible organization of experience that serves as an initial frame of reference for action and perception" (Weick, 1979, p. 50). That is, although an organizational paradigm orients the thought and action of its members, the members are active in creating and recreating the paradigm. Through activity, selective attention, consensual validation, and luck, people in organizations unrandomize streams of random experience enough to form a paradigm that — correct or not — structures the field of action sufficiently so that meaningful activity can proceed (Weick, 1979, 1985). Members' sampling of the environment, and thus the paradigms they construct, are shaped by prior beliefs and values, which act as filters through which they examine their experiences. Moreover, activity in organizations, which from the cognitive perspective is the pretext for sense-making, is shaped by material structures like formalization, professionalization, and bureaucracy itself. These structural contingencies shape members' organizational realities because they influence the contacts, communication, and commands that they experience and thus affect the streams of experience, beliefs, values, and actions that constitute their organizational paradigms. Furthermore, the paradigm and its values and beliefs also "constrain contacts, communication, and commands. These constraints constitute and shape organizational processes that result in structures" (Weick, 1979, p. 48). Thus, from this perspective, organization is a mutually shaping circularity of structure and culture. Depending on where one enters the circle, organization is a continuous process in which structural contingencies shape the work activities or organizational members, which in turn shapes the members' value orientation and thus the nature of the organizational paradigms they construct to interpret the organization's structural contingencies.

From this perspective, school organizations are "underorganized systems" (Weick, 1985, p. 106), ambiguous settings that are shaped and reshaped by values and beliefs (see also Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972). Change occurs in such contexts when organizational members believe, correctly or not, that a change in the environment was caused by their own actions. Although this may be an error, when environments are sufficiently malleable, acting on a mistaken belief can set in motion a sequence of activities that allows people to construct the reality that the belief is true. From the cognitive perspective, confident action based on a presumption of efficacy reinforces beliefs about efficacy contained in the paradigm. For good or ill, things are done in certain ways in ambiguous, underorganized systems because people believe their assumptions and presuppositions. And, because believing is seeing in these settings, things change when these beliefs change (Weick, 1985).

Thus, the very underorganized nature of schools that prevents change from a structural perspective is the precise condition that makes change possible from a cultural perspective. Under conditions of increased ambiguity and uncertainty, the presuppositions that underwrite the prevailing paradigm are called into question. Change occurs when someone or something introduces new presuppositions that explain the ambiguity and thus reduce the uncertainty (Brown, 1978; Golding, 1980; Rounds, 1981; Weick, 1979). The recognition of an important, enduring ambiguity — an unresolvable anomaly in the prevailing paradigm — is an occasion when an organization may redefine itself. From the cultural perspective, organizations like schools are human constructions grounded in values. Schools change when apparently irresolvable ambiguities are resolved by confident, forceful, persistent people who manage to convince themselves and others to adopt a new set of presuppositions, which introduces innovation because the values embedded in these presuppositions create a new set of contingencies, expectations, and commitments (Weick, 1985).

As a conclusion to this BookBuilder book, the remaining sections of the Skrtic article are summarized.


The section “Special education as an institutional practice” uses the structural and cultural frames to reflect again on the four highly-debated assumptions on which the special education system is based (these four assumptions were laid out in the introductory summary).

From a structural and cultural perspective, the first two assumptions - that mild disabilities are pathological and that diagnosis is objective an useful -  are “inadequate and incomplete” (p. 228).  Participants in the REI debate believe that many students are wrongly identified as having a disability simply because the their needs cannot be addressed in a regular education classroom. From an organizational perspective, student disability can actually be seen as an “organizational pathology, a matter of not fitting the standard programs of the prevailing paradigm of a professional culture” (p. 228). From a structural perspective, schools are unable to adapt to students’ needs given the fact that the rational-technical approach to change constrains teachers’ ability to think in new and innovative ways.

The third assumption is that special education is an instructionally rational system.  Participants of the REI debate reject this assumption and contend that special education is really just a “politically rational system” that provides services to specific students, although these services are not always effective and may be stigmatizing (p. 228-229). Skrtic suggests that from an organizational perspective, the institutional practice of special education is actually “an organizational artifact”; schools use special education as a symbol to the public to suggest that change has occurred (p. 229). From a structural perspective, Skrtic argues that special education “functions as a legitimizing device” (p. 229). And, from a cultural perspective, Skrtic argues that special education serves to “distort the anomaly of school failure” in an effort to preserve the prevailing paradigm (p. 229). Skrtic believes that this distortion “ultimately reaffirms the functionalist presuppositions of organizational rationality and human pathology in the profession of education and in society” (p. 229).

Before reconsidering the fourth assumption in terms of the EHA and the REI Proposals, Skrtic introduces a new organizational configuration, the adhocracy. The adhocratic configuration is an innovative, collaborative, problem-solving organization. Skrtic describes that team members within an adhocracy rely on mutual adjustment, a process of working together to continuously invent and revise solutions to problems within the organization. This collaboration and mutual adjustment brings about a “discursive coupling arrangement that is premised on reflective thought, and thus on the unification of theory and practice in the team of workers (Burns & Stalker, 1966)” (p. 230). Finally, in terms of accountability, there is a shared sense of interest and purpose among members of an adhocracy as members work together toward a common goal. Skrtic contrasts the adhocracy with the professional bureaucracy. When a problem arises, he states that the adhocracy “engages in creative effort to find a novel solution,” while the professional  bureaucracy “pigeonholes it into a known contingency to which it can apply a standard program” (p. 231).

Skrtic then moves on to analyze the EHA from an organizational perspective. He asserts, “The basic problem with the EHA is that it attempts to force an adhocratic value orientation on a professional bureaucracy by treating it as if it were a machine bureaucracy ” (p. 231). The goals of EHA are adhocratic: the law seeks to promote collaboration and problem-solving between educators and parents in order to support students’ needs.  However, this goal is completely inconsistent with the orientation of the professional bureaucracy, where educators work in isolation. From a cultural perspective, this contradiction results in resistance (thus, undermining collaboration) and increases the established patterns and routines of the organization (thus, reinforcing the prevailing paradigm). From a structural perspective, the EHA's means are fully in line with the orientation of the machine bureaucracy structure since the law "extends and elaborates the existing rationalization and formalization in schools" (p. 231).

Skrtic reveals that the “segregated special classroom” and the “resource room” are really just “symbols of compliance” that make it appear as though schools and districts are complying with the law (p. 232). Skritc refers to these classrooms as “decoupled subunits”; they are programs created so as not to disturb the basic school organization (p. 232). In theory, the EHA was enacted to minimize the impact of disability by providing specialized instruction and promoting inclusion. Yet, Skritc states, “Given the bureaucratic value orientation of schools and of the procedural requirements of the law itself, the result has been an increase in the number of students classified as disabled, a disintegration of instruction, and a decrease in personalization in regular and special classrooms53” (p. 232-233). 

To conclude this section, Skrtic analyzes the REI Proposals from an organizational perspective. Like the EHA, he suggests that the REI Proposals also assume that schools are rational organizations and that change occurs in a rational-technical manner. The REI Proposals assert adhocratic values; however, the proposals end up reinforcing the professional bureaucracy and preventing collaboration among educators. Skrtic asserts, “In principle, as long as the work in schools is distributed through specialization and coordinated through professionalization, there is no need for teachers to collaborate” (p. 233). Skrtic acknowledges that the REI Proposals are valuable in that they reject the idea that disabilities are pathological. Yet, Skrtic states, “In terms of the adequacy of its grounding assumptions, special education cannot be considered a rational and just response to the problem of school failure” (p. 234).


In this section, Skrtic asks us to consider the mainstreaming and REI debates within the larger debate around educational equity. He then compares that to the excellence debate within the effective schools and restructuring movements within general education.  Skrtic argues that “the equity and excellence discourses parallel, mirror, and ultimately converge upon each other” (p. 235). Firstly, the debates are similar in that “each discourse is an extreme form of naive pragmatism that merely reproduces the problems it sets out to solve” (p. 235).  The failure of the mainstreaming movement contributes to the failure of the REI movement.  The failure of the effective schools movement contributes to the failure of the school restructuring movement.  Skrtic argues that the problems of the past two decades in both special education and general education are bound to be reproduced.

Skrtic identifies the problems within both debates as “the emergence and persistence of homogeneous grouping — curriculum tracking, in-class ability grouping, and compensatory pull-out programs — as an indication of deep structural flaws in traditional school organization” (p. 235).  He points out that both these two movements mirror each other.  While both reject the functionalist discourse on school failure, the REI movement rejects the notion of disability as pathology, and accepts the assumption of organizational rationality, whereas the restructuring movement accepts disability as pathology, and rejects organizational rationality. While the restructuring debate might be critical of practices like tracking and the overrepresentation of minorities in special education, “it does not criticize special education as an institutional practice (see Goodlad, 1984; Oakes, 1986a,b; Sizer, 1984), and thus retains the assumptions that school failure is pathological and that diagnosis is objective and useful” (p. 236).

Graphic organizer.
A graphic organizer showing the similarities and differences between debates of educational equity and educational excellence.

Both debates reject the assumptions of functionalism and the 20th century discourse on school failure.  This is significant because the ways these debates converge provide grounds for a larger critique of public education. Skrtic argues that without the functionalist discourse on school failure, public education must account for the fact that it is neither equitable nor excellent and must reconstruct itself in order to embody the Jeffersonian ideals of democratic education.


In the final two sections of the article, Skrtic reconsiders the debates regarding REI and restructuring that were discussed at the beginning of the article.  He cites two theoretical areas of convergence between these two reform movements.  The first is that both are trying to eliminate the rationalization and formalization that are found in the modern-day school which, as you will recall, is according to Skrtic structured as a professional or machine bureaucracy.  In practical terms, both movements seek to eliminate the practice through which schools group students on the basis of ability because, according to advocates, this practice ultimately leads to the marginalization of low performing students and students with disabilities.  Secondly, as such, these two movements seek to consolidate different systems of educating students, i.e. special education and tracking, into one system of general education that is equitable and promotes excellence for all students.

This is in juxtaposition to the opponents of REI who believe that the legal regulations of IDEA are necessary because they garner rights for students who cannot be, without special intervention, served by traditional public schools.  In Skrtic’s view, the opponents of REI are wrong because they assume that public education cannot innately serve all students.  In Skrtic’s view, it is the structure of traditional public schools as machine bureaucracies that ultimately leads to groups of students being marginalized as these organizations often overemphasize efficiency and standardization. 

However, Skrtic also believes that the REI proponents do not go far enough in terms of their proposed reforms.  Although they are correct to question the rationalization and formalization that occurs in public schools, they do not fully question the degree of specialization and professionalization that exists in public schools.  In other words, their proposals do not go far enough because their ideas to merge general and special education focus primarily on classroom level reforms.

In Skrtic’s view, in order to make the REI effective, the structure of the traditional classroom in which one teacher controls all activities and is not necessarily encouraged to collaborate with all school personnel to problem solve must be abolished.  In its place, there must be a school that is structured as an adhocratic, problem-solving organization.  Only if public schools are structured as adhocracies can they achieve the democratic ideal of providing all students with an education that is equitable and promotes excellence.

However, this cannot be achieved without first questioning the criteria by which we measure equity and excellence. In Skrtic’s view, traditional measures of equity and excellence in educational organizations have been inappropriately dictated by the bureaucratic structure of traditional public schools. In order to consider this point further, he cites the work of progressive reformers such as Max Weber and John Dewey. In Weber’s view, the bureaucratization of government that accompanies industrialization is by its very nature antidemocratic in that it causes government to overemphasize efficient performance and standardization. Bureaucracies in Weber’s view also are undemocratic because they are relatively unresponsive to change.  Yet bureaucracies are essential to industrial democracies because they provide government with the structure necessary to oversee the enactment of policies and the equitable distribution of social goods. 

John Dewey in 1902.
John Dewey in 1902.

For Dewey and other progressive reformers in education, the bureaucratization of public schools created a system that did not emphasize problem solving.  Although progressive reformers tried to initiate education that more strongly emphasized problem solving and acknowledged student diversity inability, according to Skrtic, these reforms failed because professional bureaucracies, i.e. traditional public schools, are not designed to be problem-solving organizations.  In Skrtic’s view, a post-industrial definition of equity and excellence in education must shy away from standardization and emphasize problem solving in order to give students the critical thinking ability and exposure to individual diversity that exists in the 21st century.  In his view, schools that are structured as adhocracies are the only organizations that can reverse the failures of traditional public schools and, in turn, help revitalize democracy in the U.S. by providing an equitable and high-quality education to all students.

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