Traditional American public schools are bureaucracies (Max Weber), the best are learning organizations (Peter Senge), and most are in a transitional form between the two. I believe that the structure of open source communities, like Drupal, can inform this transition.
Bureaucracy supports tightly-coupled systems: organizational hierarchy, proscribed duties, and strictly enforced disciplines are designed for efficiency and control of people doing work. Factories, governments, and armies must be like this, so that everything keeps working predictably as people are replaced.
As an element in a wider government bureaucracy, public school districts must conform to external pressures, sacrificing changes that support their educational mission. Weber called this sacrifice of mission goals for system goals an "iron cage". Anyone who has worked in, or with, a bureaucracy knows that cage.
We are constantly trying to "fix" our schools with bureaucratic solutions (more standards, more enforcement) and it never works. One reason is that schools are not factories - they cannot be tightly coupled, because they deal with autonomous individuals in changing circumstances.
Learning organizations eschew bureaucracy for individual autonomy and self-organization. The Drupal community, an open source organization, is a current example I am familiar with. When many Europeans who planned to attend DrupalCon San Francisco last month were trapped by a volcano in their airports, they used Twitter to find each other and create mini-conferences, and used conference website tools to be active participants.
My bedtime book now is Christopher Alexander's The Timeless Way Of Building (a cross between the Tao Te Ching and Town Ordinances). In Alexander's characterizations of "living" and "dead" buildings I see similar contrast between bureaucracy and learning organizations. Alexander writes of "pattern languages" that inform the organic creation of builldings and communities by autonomous individuals. Each barn adn home and field is different, adapted to its environment and the builder's will - and yet all are the same, and recognizable by their patterns.
(Unfortunately, the term Alexander came up with for building informed by this process was "the quality without a name" - so it may have failed to enter popular discourse as well as it might have. "The Tao" was good enough for Lao Tze...)
Anyhow, this morning, my Google Alert for "open source education" revealed Marie Bjerede's post, Educational Technology Needs To Grow Like A Weed, in which she discusses the same mismatch between bureaucratic paradigms and the facts on the ground. She paraphrases Alan Bain's description of "emergence" in The Self-Organizing School. Bain describes emergence the way Alexander does pattern language: autonomous individuals informed by formative rules and feedback loops create buildings, schools, and communities. Gregory Bateson, in Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, used the same language to describe how life forms evolve.
Bjerede paraphrases Bain: "As with the emergent behaviors of ant hills and flocks of birds, the simple rules drive elegant, complex system-level behaviors that adapt to changing circumstances." So to describe the quality of a learning organization in contrast to a bureaucracy, instead of Alexander's "quality without a name", I now have "emergence." That works - thank you, Alan Bain!
This same quality of "emergence" informs open source projects, and explainis how primed their members are to adapt to changing circumstances in informed, coordinated ways - armed with technologies that speed up evolution.
Over the past ten years or so, open source communities have been mastering the art of distributing collaboration and ownership of knowledge work, blending face-to-face and online work to stay in sync with rapid change. The same tools those stranded European Drupalers used to support and reinforce principles of self-organization and coordinated collaboration are available to schools.