Gary K. Clabaugh, Emeritus Professor of Education, La Salle University

Here is a short-hand way to make sense of school conflicts. Imagine them as clashes between three fundamentally different images of the school: Temple, Factory or Town Meeting.

The School As Temple

The most ancient and time-honored image of the school is as a moral community — a temple of learning. As a temple the school has a primarily formative function. Students are supposed to learn to be “good,” and to fulfill social expectations.

Old fashioned Catholic schools exemplify the Temple Image. What was studied was good. What was avoided, was not. What Sister told you to do, you did. Their authority was unquestioned. Defiance and disobedience were a form of sin. Success was defined in terms of character formation and fidelity to the faith. Basic academic skills were certainly expected, but not of paramount value.

This image captures what some people expect from schools. They want the principal to be a sort of high priest; teachers to be subordinate clergy; students to be novices learning the faith. Civic dogma, conventional morality and obedience to authority are the basis for decisions. And success is defined primarily in terms of intrinsic values, such as social acceptance and, in a narrow sense, patriotism. 

The School As Factory

Now let’s look at a very different school image: the School as Factory. This image of public schools is presently paramount and has been ever since mass public schooling became policy. in fact it is so omnipresent that we accept it as the norm.

Here the emphasis is on managing costs and maximizing efficiency. So far as the principal is concerned. her she is primarily a production manager. Teachers are, put accurately but ungenerously, production line workers. Students are the raw materials to be shaped into a finished product. Success is measured by achieving output, quality quotas and cost controls. Presently this is primarily measured by standardized test scores. 

Appeals to morality or fairness, wisdom or ideology are treated with a veneer of concern. But they are not paramount. What matters most are institutional goals and procedures. Social controls are also important, but primarily because their absence interferes with production and reduces efficiency. 

This image supports the popular assertion that schools should be “run like a business.” 

The School As Town Meeting

Let’s describe the last image of the school: the school as Town Meeting. Here negotiation and compromise become key issues. Trading off values for power and the control of resources. In this image the principal is a representative of an interest group: the administration. But he or she must also be an arbitrator. They are expected to mediate, 

This is because, in this image, parent’s and teacher’s expect to engage in negotiation and compromise. Why? Because in this image success is measured by achieving one’s objectives and gaining access to resources, not by appeals to morality or efficiency. 

And political issues, while they have moral and technical dimensions worthy of consideration, are not the basis on which issues are decided. They are decided based other considerations, for instance, avoiding court suits, convincing state officials, meeting contractural and legal obligations, and so forth. Here most of what is decided is based on pragmatic rather than moral considerations and negotiations are a key.

Teachers negotiate too as do the students as they grow older. All are more or less involved in the give and take of the Town Meeting.

Another aspect of the Town Meeting is that people in authority typically give lip service to the ideals the community professes. But they practice the behavior that it tolerates. Thus hypocrisy and underlying equivocation gain center stage. This is the school as Town Meeting.


Clearly these three school images are incompatible. To the extent that the school is any one of them, it is not the either of the other two. Nevertheless, people often subscribe to all 3 of them, just in different degrees depending on their circumstances. 

There is nothing odd about that. One’s expectations often are contradictory. Take, for instance, parents of a special needs youngster who requires expensive school services. The parent’s primary emphasis will be moral. They very likely believe their child is entitled to whatever resources are required. Why? Because that is the right thing to do. Do they rule out efficiency or politically responsiveness? Yes, but only to the extent that they interfere with the special treatment they believe their child is legally entitled to. 

This is an expression of the school as Temple. But their subtext is probably the school as Town Meeting. They probably will remain respectfully silent while others express the needs of their children. They may also recognize the advisability of negotiation and compromise. But, in the end, they press for their needs, and the needs of their child. They expect them to be heard and satisfied. Of course, so does everyone else.

Now imagine the same couple retired and living on a fixed income. Their property taxes go up every year. So what image of the school do they now favor? Very likely it’s the school as Factory. They want efficiency. The schools should be run like a business, etc. What happened to the school as Temple or Town Meeting? From their point of view, those images are no longer of primary concern.

This is the dynamic that is behind most school conflicts. The dynamics shift. Not only from individual to individual, but from circumstance to circumstance. How can this be avoided? It can’t. It is an inevitable feature of schooling; and particularly of public schooling. The best educator’s can do is try to dynamically balance conflicting expectations. This means constantly adjusting priorities and inevitably having at least some dissatisfied “customers.”