NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Schools Have Freedom to Make Reforms

February 5, 2013

School administrators and school system leaders frequently complain that statues, rules, regulations and contracts restrict their ability to make improvements in school governance and pedagogy. In reality, school and system leaders have incredible latitude in cutting through and reshaping unnecessary restraints, say Frederick M. Hess, executive editor of Education Next and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, and Whitney Downs, a student at the George Washington University Law School.

Hess and Downs say that schools have a "culture of can't," which is the largest barrier to progress in U.S. schools. For instance, when the California legislature allowed schools to apply for waivers from cumbersome laws or rules only 100 waivers were filed in a state with more than 1,000 districts. Truly demonstrating the attitude that "it can't be done," most of the 100 waivers were not necessary and the actions sought by the schools were already legal.

  • Rules and regulations are being used as justification for maintaining the status quo.
  • Many school administrators have operated under the mentality that they are hemmed in by rules for so long that when they are given greater freedom they act as if their flexibility is still restricted.

There are three steps education reformers can take to fight for changes in policy that will break the embedded routines and culture of can't:

  • Reformers need a stronger will to get creative with their contracts and push administrators to examine policies for ways to improve.
  • District officials need to lawyer up with good skilled lawyers outside of a district's general counsel to push the boundaries of what can be challenged in court and ruled legally permissible.
  • Reformers need to engage outside partners and build working relationships with non-profits and foundations that deal with education reform and innovation.

Source: Frederick Hess and Whitney Downs, "Combating the 'Culture of Can't'," Education Next, January 29, 2013.


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