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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Sharon F. Rallis

Second Advisor

Kathryn A. McDermott

Third Advisor

Eve Vogel

Subject Categories

Educational Leadership


The idea that competition improves schools is the current mantra of public education policy in the United States. Over the past three decades, parallel policy reforms across the country have increased school choice options for families, and held schools accountable to centralized standards based on the assumption that schools in high-competition/high-accountability environments would seek to improve their performance in order to survive and thrive. Despite these changes, widespread gains in student achievement have not been realized. The logic behind these reforms assumes schools and parents make rational decisions; however, the public education system is typified by unclear goals, incomplete and biased information, and ambiguous decision-making criteria, which makes rational decision-making difficult. In addition, school organizations resemble “organized anarchies” that make decisions based on a complex interplay of institutional pressures, socially-constructed information, political dynamics, and timing as opposed to utilizing rational processes (Cohen, March, & Olsen, 1972). This research illustrates this complexity through a qualitative case study of a traditional public school district in rural western Massachusetts using Cohen, et al.’s (1972) “garbage can” model of organizational decision-making that shows how social, political, temporal, institutional, and market factors influence a school organization’s decisions in a high-competition/high-accountability environment. Data collected through stakeholder interviews, observations, and artifacts from sources such as local news media and social media show that during the 2016-17 school year the case study district’s decision-making centered around problems related to resources, academics, and student behavior, all of which were directly or indirectly related to family flight to other schooling options. Despite these serious threats to organizational viability, stakeholders were consumed by a debate over its high school’s “Indians” mascot. This case study provides an illustration of organizational decision-making that problematizes the assumption that regulations that increase competition and high-stakes accountability automatically focus school districts’ attention and energy on improving student achievement. It also suggests that values and beliefs can act as powerful motivators for school organizations to engage in deep change processes.