School Bureaucracy II: The Rules of the Game

Last time we discussed the nature of the school bureaucracy, and how the underlying incentives and consequences do not support creativity and innovation.

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 sometimes 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 now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) – the latest authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. 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.

Next time we’ll start looking at specific things that parents can do to be effective within the school bureaucracy.

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