No one can quite agree on what it takes to do education right. Lots of oversight. No oversight at all. Strict rules. Loose rules. There are dozens of theories, and they all seem to contradict one another. At the heart of the storm are educational leaders. People tasked with choosing what route a school district will wind up taking.
Parents who want to have a say about what goes on at their children’s school must first understand who is calling the shots, and how they can have their voices heard. Read on to learn how educational leaders positively impact school culture.
Why School Culture Matters
Education is standardized within the United States. Whether the student is in Arkansas or St. Louis, or Alaska, students are all learning approximately the same things, and being held to approximately the same standards.
Of course, within this framework, there is nearly unlimited room for variation. Differences in state standards. Differences in quality of instruction. Nevertheless, the educational experience should be familiar and similar no matter where you go.
The biggest variable? School culture. What it feels like to get educated here versus over there. How that difference in feeling translates into different educational outcomes.
Of course, educational leaders aren’t the only ones who contribute to school culture. They may not even be the biggest factor in what shapes it. That distinction goes to the parents — the people who shape student behavior and attendance.
Still, leadership has an enormous influence on who gets hired, what solutions are thought up to solve the problems that will inevitably crop up, and even how students are disciplined. The right leader can have a positive influence on school culture that translates into better student performance, and overall satisfaction.
School Leaders Decide How School Money is Spent
When there is a funding issue within a public school it is usually the leadership who is at fault. You’ll occasionally hear a splashy story about an educational professional using district money like their personal piggy bank.
More often than not, however, the transgressions are of a more negligent nature. It’s not so much that the leaders want to misuse the money, it’s that they don’t know how to make the most of it.
For example: School A and School B are both given $20 thousand in grant money to do with as they please.
School A uses the money for classroom enrichment. A full bookcase in every hallway. Upgraded chrome books for the kids. The impact isn’t massive, but reading scores go up, and the teachers all agree that students are taking advantage of the new materials.
School B spends the money on a “curriculum consultant.” A man who promises to help supercharge the way things are taught to produce better test scores. Except it turns out that he’s actually the brother-in-law of a board member. And two months in, he elopes in Vegas with the custodian and no one ever sees him again (an example that is regrettably not as ridiculous as you might assume).
Same money. Different outcomes because of school leadership.
Discipline is a tricky thing to master. Go too hard, and it discourages students, making them more likely to disconnect from their schoolwork and generally continue to experience poor academic outcomes. Go too light and any semblance of rules will quickly go out the window.
Well-informed, thoughtful academic leaders can help make disciplinary decisions that maintain law and order while helping every student reach their full potential.
Who are the Educational Leaders?
It’s hard to define educational leadership because it is very tiered. Teachers are educational leaders. Principles, superintendents, all the way up to the school board. All of these people play various roles in enforcing the rules and making key decisions that help shape the student experience.
While they aren’t always the ones to blame when something goes wrong, they are the ones who will need to fix problems that do arise.
A Hopeless Problem?
Ok, you’ve convinced me. School leadership is important. But what do you want me to do about it? I don’t hire the teachers?
Actually, in a way, you kind of do.
Funny. You’d think I would remember something like that.
Ok, you don’t literally hire the teachers. But you appoint the people who do. Public schools operate as a sort of representative democracy. Teachers, superintendents, and principals are all hired positions. You don’t get a say in who fills them.
However, you do get to appoint the school board, which subsequently handles the hiring and firing. School board members are elected officials who sit above the superintendent, operating as a sort of checks and balances system to monitor their behavior.
They interview potential teachers, approve all hiring decisions, oversee the budget, and even have the final say on expulsions. That’s not to say that superintendents can’t make a move without checking in with them first, but it does mean that parents, and in fact, anyone living within the school district will always have a chance to have their voice heard.
Even when it isn’t time to elect a school board member, you can still speak your mind at monthly meetings, and make a point of attending PTO when you can. Active parents tend to have the most say in what happens at school, so take every possible opportunity to make your voice heard.
Wait, wait, wait. The end? I work nights. I’m not a registered voter. I have a felony on my record and can’t vote. I’m an undocumented immigrant, I, I, I, I….
Ok, so it’s not a perfect formula. Parent participation in the public school system tends to dramatically favor middle-class working parents. People whose children are usually at a relatively low risk of negative academic outcomes, to begin with.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer to this problem. The best anyone can do is advocate for themselves. If you find that your voice isn’t being heard at school, consider reaching out to other parents to see if they relate to your experience.
By working together with people who are in your position, you may be able to negotiate for different meeting times or other resources that might help you take a more active role in your student’s academic life.
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