Saturday, October 27, 2012

When Policies, Procedures, and Rules Matter More Than Our Students

One of the biggest hurdles in public education isn't lack of resources, ineffective teachers, or even bad leadership. These things are often present and bad enough, but one of the most destructive force in public education is something more overt, something that is right in front of us as school leaders. That force is made up of our policies, procedures, rules, regulations and legislation. 

To put this into perspective only takes one question, "How many times do we as educators find ourselves in the position of defending and/or carrying out policies and procedures that we know are not in the best interest of the students in our charge?" Granted, none of these things are so sinister and evil that a student is physically harmed, but more often than not, these policies and procedures just make it harder for us to do what is right for kids. Let's look at some examples.

  • Calendar Laws: In North Carolina, our state legislature, lobbied fiercely by the tourism industry, passed a law that dictates the start and end date of the school year. Public schools, except for charters of course who are excused from the law, cannot begin school before August 25, and must end their school year by June 10. At the high school level, this means that our first semester exams are not administered until after Christmas break, which is usually about 2 weeks long. In other words, students are out of school, they come back to school for about a week or two, then we give them their first semester exams. If we were doing what's in the best interest of our high school students, and not the tourism industry lobby, we would end first semester just before Christmas holidays and have exams then. This clearly a case where policy, state law, and the tourism industry interests trumps the interest of kids.
  • Transportation Rules: The world of public school transportation is riddled with all manner of rules, regulations, policies, procedures and legislation, and one has to wonder if this part of public education sometimes even knows its primary purpose involves students. Any administrator will tell you that one of the first walls you run into as a first time assistant principal are regulations governing the transportation of kids. For example, I have a shuttle bus that transports students back and forth from our sister high school at four points throughout the day. This bus recently broke down and had to be put in the shop. Because of regulations, this bus is not classified as part of the "yellow" bus fleet; it is classified as an "activity bus." This meant that when it broke down, I could only use another "activity bus" to transport students, not one of the many "yellow buses" sitting idle in the parking lot. The problem really became thorny when no activity buses were going to be available. Because someone, and you never know who that someone is, says I can't use a "yellow" bus as a shuttle to replace my  normal shuttle bus, I have students who have no transportation to get back and forth between the schools. Once again, policies, regulations, and rules prevent doing what's best for kids, even when it comes to transportation.
  • Child Nutrition Rules: Public school child nutrition rules, regulations, policies, procedures and legislation are all a maze of dos and don'ts that few people really know completely and understand. Much of these rules filter their way down from our federal government because of federal subsidies, but these rules, regulations, and policy often make strange things happen in our public schools. For example, there have been instances where school districts, in an effort to keep from losing money, which often happens with lunch programs, pass rules and procedures that are clearly not in the best interest of kids. A good example of this is the practice of no money, no lunch, which is sometimes enforced in bizarre ways. No money-no lunch happens when students don't have money to pay for lunch. Cafeteria managers, who aren't the bad guys here, are instructed to take a lunch away from a student who comes through the line if they either have no lunch money in their account, or if they have already charged too much. Sometimes they are even instructed to discard that lunch, and sometimes that happens right in front of the kids, with the cafeteria personnel throwing it away right in front of the student. Most of us who have been in the schools any length of time, know how often students are sent to school without lunch money. Parents are human. They forget. Some have bills to pay, and did not budget properly, so they did not have any money to give their kids. The kid comes to school without lunch money. Because of rules, regulations, policies, and procedures put in place , we have a young student going without lunch. My question is, "How could that possibly be in the best interest of kids?"
  • State Contract Purchases: Purchasing anything for schools is long, convoluted process that could cause any administrator a headache. Sometimes these headaches are more apparent when trying to purchase supplies or resources for the school. For example, if I decide to purchase a computer or calculator for our school, it is not a matter of just looking for the cheapest price. Very often, there's a list of "State Contracted Purchases" that must be consulted if you are going to use certain state funds. In other words, if I wish to purchase a computer, and if I want to use a certain state fund to do it, then I have to buy what is listed in state contract, even though it might not fit my needs, or it might even be more expensive. As an administrator in the business of trying to meet the educational needs of children, being able to get students exactly what they need is important. Also important is being a good steward of the tax payer money we have in our charge. This means making what little money we get go further, which is also in the best interest of our students. Yet, when rules, regulations, policies, procedures and legislation dictate purchases from a negotiated contract, rather than allowing for student need, we clearly have another instance where policies rule and kids lose.
  • Federal and State Fund Expenditure Guidelines: This is the least favorite part of my role as administrator. Navigating all the rules and expenditure guidelines for all funding streams is akin to getting four root canals all at once. There are rules and guidelines tied many of the funds a school receives. What that means is for example, because this block of $10,000 comes from our state government earmarked for purchasing textbooks, it can only be used for that. That means spending them on e-readers or tablets is out of the question. Never mind that we don't use textbooks that much anymore. We can only buy textbooks from a list of books approved by a board in our state capital, two-hundred miles away. In the world of spending guidelines, a school leader can easily get lost, but that is minor compared to the fact that in the world of public education we are often forced to spend money on things we don't really need or want, instead of taking those funds and spending them on what we know our kids need. Once again, policies, rules, regulations and legislation trumps the needs of kids, even when spending on them.
  • Many, many More: In the twenty-plus years in education, there are many times decisions are forced by policy, rules, regulations, and legislation that are not always the best decisions of kids. I am sure you could easily add yours here. When schools and school districts lose sight of their reason for existence, it is easy to get lost on the policies, procedures, rules, regulations, and legislation.
Now, I realize there needs to be policies, procedures, rules, regulations and legislation. Too often, without these things mistakes are made that costs our kids even more. But, there needs to be some kind of solution that allows school leaders to make decisions in the interest of kids, even when rules and regs say otherwise. 

I am often baffled by some of the reasoning often given for allowing charter schools to exist. One of those arguments is so that schools can operate without all the red tape and regulations. But if "all the red tape and regulation" is a bad thing, THEN GET RID OF IT. Instead we have legislators passing more of it for public schools, then creating charter school laws exempting them from the same rules and regulations they created.

I suppose the only sure way for this issue to have some resolution is straightforward and simple. When school leaders, policymakers, and politicians engage in creating rules, regulations, policies, procedures, and legislation, then need to do so thoughtfully and mindfully. I'm not saying they don't, but the guiding question should always be, "Will the kids win or lose from implementation of this policy or rule?" The answer should included "always" every time.


  1. We too face many of the red-tape barriers you mentioned (misery loves company). In reference to the school calendar, Virginia's Kings Dominion law (named after the theme park) also limits the ability of schools to start before Labor Day. Schools can get an exemption (as ours does) for excessive snow days. Our county was looking at an earlier start date for the same reasons you mentioned, but it's been tabled.

    In regards to #2, we have many kids coming to high school with $50+ in unpaid lunch fees (our feeder middle schools allow "charging"). Our school doesn't allow charging, but we've created a principal's account to help students who don't have money. We start the year off w/ some money in the account and add to it with money that is found, repaid money, etc.

    1. When commercial interests are more important than kids, our kids lose, like the calendar laws. All the talk about giving schools the flexibility to their jobs is often just that, talk, and it sounds like you have the same issues. The lunch issue is definitely a problem. I did the same thing as you describe above in a middle school where students already had an excessive charge amount. Unfortunately, that does not address the real problem either, the parents failing to pay the bill. Thanks for commenting.

  2. What we need are more superintendents, principals, and teachers who are willing to break the rules when they aren't in the best interests of students. I know I did when I was a principal. As it's hard for principals to know everything teachers do, it's difficult for central office to know what every principal does, and it's difficult for state education departments and the feds to know what superintendents do. If you don't have leaders at all levels willing to break the rules, you have crappy leaders. Rules are likely to have stupid unintended consequences. Great post. Keep up the good work.

    1. I think some of the skills necessary for being an administrator is knowing how to satisfy the "rule and policy-pushers" and at the same time do what's right for kids. That can be tricky too. Thanks for commenting.