School Bureaucracy

I’m sure that all of you have been angry or frustrated at one time or another with the public schools – the rules can be so inflexible and trivial!  But here’s the thing – most of what is frustrating and ridiculous in public schools is directly related to the fact that public education is a bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies don’t like to pay attention to individual needs, and they almost never make changes in response to individual people – and this is true whether you’re inside or outside the system.  It’s like hurling yourself at a pillow – the system absorbs the blow and stays the same.  That’s because no one is actually in charge of anything – there’s a handbook or a policy manual or a state regulation that is responsible for decisions, not a human being.  For those who work in the system and follow the rules, there is no behavior or decision that will change their job duties or their salary.  People who work in bureaucracies aren’t bad people, and they’re often as frustrated as you are, but the rules of the game reward compliance (doing what you’re told) and punish innovation (coming up with a better way).

Think about what happens in a system that rewards compliance and punishes innovation.  All the incentives are to stick with the program, follow the status quo, and keep your bright ideas to yourself.  That’s how a teacher and a principal get good evaluations and a comfortable work environment.  Innovative ideas make trouble, make others look bad, and upset the apple cart.  That’s how school employees can get bad evaluations and an uncomfortable work environment.

Think about what happens in a system in which salary is not based on behavior, achievement, hard work, or great ideas.  There is no external reason to work hard and do excellent work, and great ideas will often get you in trouble.  School salaries are based on the number of years of experience, and the only way to raise one’s salary is to get a master’s degree or become an administrator.  In the school bureaucracy, administrators are not educational leaders; they are compliance officers – a role that does not attract innovative, creative people.

So in schools, as in all other bureaucracies, everyone’s motivation and drive for excellence has to come from within themselves.  Everyone has to get personal satisfaction from doing meaningful work, and that has to be enough for them to keep going.  And there is part of the problem – much of what teachers and principals are asked to do is not “meaningful work” – bus duty, hall duty, lunch duty, collecting money from the fundraiser, chaperoning the dance, driving the bus, filling out endless self-evaluation forms, etc.  So they get burned out and they stop caring – and just as there is no external reward for excellence, there is no external consequence for mediocrity.

In our culture, those who make a lot of money get the most respect – even if what they do is greedy and self-serving.  Money is how our culture keeps score, and those who work in education (and other human service fields) aren’t even in the game.  It is certainly possible to have a long, excellent career in education, but it takes self-motivation and the ability to be rewarded in ways other than money and respect.  How hard would your banker work for a thank you note and a loaf of banana bread?
Navigating public school for our own children requires an understanding of the underlying “rules of the game” of the bureaucracy.  Those who fight furiously may win a battle or two, but they lose the war – or win a Pyrrhic victory (a victory that costs so much to win that it ends up destroying the victor).  I’m not saying that is right or good – I’m just saying that’s what happens.  Families get tired, and bureaucracies do not!  So what can parents do that will be successful and effective?

First, parents need to understand that principals and teachers do not have control over the rules, procedures, and goals that govern their school.  They have to follow state education laws and regulations, federal education law and regulations, local school board policies, directives from the district superintendent and other central office staff, and sometimes union contracts too.  The only thing that building level administrators and teachers control is the small stuff – and they do it with a vengeance!  Many an inflexible, narrow little tyrant has been born in an assistant principal’s office – when you don’t control much, you want to control it completely.

Because the rules and regulations that affect our children at school are not under the principal’s or teacher’s control, it’s very important that parents have at least an overview of the laws that govern public education.  There’s no use having a huge fight over something that the school cannot change!

Be aware that the umbrella federal education law is still No Child Left Behind, although it is in the process of reauthorization.  The law includes absolutely everything in Titles I through X:  programs for disadvantaged children, instruction for students with limited English proficiency, Safe and Drug-Free Schools, regulations about guns in schools, charter schools, programs for gifted and talented students, arts in education, Indian education, the Unsafe School Option, educational rights of homeless children…  It’s all online on the U.S. Department of Education site (, but there is so much that it’s best just to google the specific topic that interests you.  State and local laws and regulations can be found on the websites of your state department of education and your local school system.  It’s particularly important to be up-to-date on the regulations and policies in your local schools.

One of the best ways to think about making an impact on the educational bureaucracy is Tactics vs. Strategy.  Tactics are the actions we take to meet immediate objectives, and strategy is the overall plan to meet our goals.  When parents use the tactics of anger and confrontation in reaction to something that has happened with their child in school, those tactics often backfire.  Schools just circle the wagons, quote the policy, and get defensive – and defensive people are not in a cooperative frame of mind.

So the name of the game – the strategy – is to focus on being effective!  I can’t emphasize this enough – there is often a difference between being right and being effective.  In dealing with the school bureaucracy, you have to do what works.  And never lose sight of the fact that schools and parents have a common goal: educating children to become successful adults.  So what can parents do?

Let’s start with the basic assumptions you have to operate from:
1. Nobody is perfect.  We all make mistakes.  We can learn from mistakes.
2. Parents want the best for their children.
3. School personnel want the best for the children in their schools.

There may be this teacher or that principal who don’t want the best for kids.  I’ve met some pretty poor parents too.  But blaming, criticizing, and getting angry are not effective ways to change behavior.  Assuming that all the adults want the best for a child is the best way to get it – people tend to meet expectations, positive or negative, and people are embarrassed to let others down or look bad.  And remember, changing behavior is the best way to change attitudes.

So our action plan starts with two preliminary steps:
1. Assume that the school staff wants the best for your child.  They may have a        different definition of “best” than you do, but make the assumption anyway.
2. Stay away from the tactics of anger and confrontation.  These tactics make    schools defensive and unreceptive to your point of view.

The next four action steps are these:
1. Do your homework: look up the policies and procedures, learn the rules, find out the facts.  You cannot effectively express a concern or make a request if you don’t have the background knowledge.  School websites and student handbooks are excellent sources of information.
2. Write down your concerns and your requests, so you can effectively express them in a potentially stressful situation.  Keep it positive – say what you want to have happen rather than venting about your concerns.  Bring your list to any meetings.
3. Find another person to work with you.  It might be your spouse, your neighbor, a retired teacher, your child’s tutor, or a student support person from school.  The idea here is to have someone to help you listen, express your views effectively, and stay calm.  Parents especially need someone to come with them to meetings.
4. Vent anger before talking to school people or coming to school.  We all get angry when we’re upset about our children, but presenting yourself in a calm, organized, decisive way is the best way to help your child.

This is just a brief overview of what we’re facing when we start to talk about school reform – either on a system level, or on a personal level for our own children.  Changing public education will require changing the whole culture of school – what is rewarded, what is punished, what is tolerated, and what is not.  It will require breaking up the bureaucracy.  Simply making laws that punish schools and teachers for poor test scores (as with No Child Left Behind) will not work.  We don’t need more laws and mandates.  Creative leadership, flexibility, and great ideas have to be rewarded!

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