Who Makes Decisions in Schools

As many of you know, I am committed to making the ways schools work more transparent to all students, parents, and community members. Learning how these processes work can empower people to influence, direct, or otherwise make change happen. But finding out who makes decisions in schools and which decisions they make is not easy.

The following positions represent as the typical “flow” of decision-making affecting students in public schools. This is not a linear continuum; instead, different people may exert different kinds of influence in every decision. Each person is not guaranteed a place “at the table” (most here often are excluded); instead, this is a summary of everyone who might be involved. Let me know what you think of this list:

  • Student: Individual students have the ultimate decision-making authority over their own education – because they can choose whether or not they are going to actively participate and learn in schools.
  • Peers: Younger and older students actively and passively influence other students’ decision-making, for better or worse.
  • Student Leaders: Many schools have active programs that draw out “natural” student leaders by identifying certain skills or abilities students have. These students have a range of abilities, mostly focusing on activities that affect students only. However, a growing number of student leaders have an increasing amount of ability to affect whole school reform. There are also “unacknowledged” student leaders whose influence over their peers’ decision-making has not been acknowledged in school.
  • Parents: Guiding children is one of the most important jobs of achild’s legal parent, guardian, or other person standing in loco of parentis, such as grandparent or stepparent with home child lives, or a person who is legally responsible for the child’s welfare. Parents can passively or actively affect decision-making.
  • School support staff/paraprofessionals/adult volunteers: Secretaries, adult tutors, coaches, librarians, classroom assistants, and parent representatives may influence student decision-making. Paraprofessionals are people who are hired to work in schools to help students and teachers be successful.
  • Community members: Leaders, businesspeople and concerned folks can bring their voices to school site councils, district and state school boards, and other places. There are routinely spots for community members on school advisory councils, as well.
  • Teachers: Everyday students are subjected to a range of decisions made by teachers about grading, curriculum, behavior management, and relationships with students. Teachers are also responsible for executing others’ decisions.
  • Teacher leaders: Among the faculty at a school are teachers whose experience, knowledge, or influence gives them ability, authority, or position to make decisions for other teachers. These teachers may lead grade-level or curriculum areas, participate on special committees, or influence decision-making in other ways.
  • Counselors: Students often go to counselors to ask questions, seek advice, and talk to when they need a supportive adult in school. While they often guide student decision-making with classes or life after high school, counselors may also help students make decisions about life in general.
  • School site council: Representatives of parents, teachers, administrators and other community members advise the school administration in identifying student needs, setting instructional objectives, budgeting funds, evaluating the school, and modifying school improvement plans.
  • Assistant principals: In larger schools principals need assistants to guide behavior management, budgeting, staff supervision, curriculum, and other areas. They affect students by doling out punishments and rewards; guiding student activities; and in other ways.
  • Principals: The commonly acknowledged “leader” of a school is responsible for most areas of school operations, including many of the assistant principal roles listed above. They also publicly represent the school; mediate conflicts among students, staff, parents, and community members; and interact with district, state, and federal authorities.
  • District administration: Officials on the district level administer programs, funds, rules and regulations given to them by their superiors. In some states districts are simply counties (Maryland) or large regions. New York City has more than 10 districts. District offices may also be known as a local education agency, or LEA.
  • District superintendent: The “leader” of a given area or group of schools, superintendents are often the first elected official in the chain of decision-making affecting students. Sometimes they are appointed by the district school board or city mayor. They act as the figurehead and authority of all education-related issues within their physical area of authority.
  • District school board: These elected officials get recommendations from the public and the superintendent to deliver their range of decision-making authority. They set the budget and agenda of schools, assign students to schools, make rules and policies, set learning standards, and more.
  • Regional administration: These are in-between organizations that may offer professional development, administrative guidance, or funding to districts and local schools. These offices have different names, including Educational Service Districts (Washington); BOCEs (New York); or Regional Service Centers (Texas).
  • State administration: These officials are responsible for administering federal and state programs designed to meet the goals of schools. Also know as the state education agency, or SEA. In several states this is the Office of Superintendent of Public Administration.
  • State education leader: The state education leader may be elected or appointed; they may also work equally with the state school board and governor, or independently. They are responsible for guiding the implementation of the rules, regulations, laws, budgets, and programs of the state legislature; in some states, the governor; and the federal government. This person may be called the Chief Education Officer, or the Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI).
  • State school board: An elected group of officials that overseas all schools and ensures the state’s adherence to federal rules and regulations.
  • Governor – State Legislature – State Supreme Court: The state-level officials who are responsible for setting state priorities and funding for education, as well as ensuring local, state, and federal compliance with education laws.
  • U.S. Department of Education: The federal agency that is responsible for administering the budgets, rules, and regulations of the Secretary of Education and the Congress.
  • U.S. Secretary of Education: The individual official responsible for setting and implementing the President’s education agenda.
  • U.S. Congress: Elected officials responsible for setting the President’s educational policy recommendations into motion, in addition to supplementing their states’ policy with additional funding.
  • U.S. Supreme Court: These individuals are appointed to make sure schools comply with the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  • U.S. President: The elected official responsible for setting national educational priorities affecting all public schools.

When students understand who makes decisions, they begin to understand how, where, when, and why decisions are made the way they are. Other players in schools to consider include education writers, professors, and other education leaders who offer ideas and critiques that can influence teachers, young people, school boards, principals, and elected officials. Education advocacy organizations and think-tanks similarly offer ideas and suggestions to influence decision-makers. Special thanks to Dana Bennis for reminding me of that.

Tell me what you think.

One thought on “Who Makes Decisions in Schools

  1. Great summary of the players involved in educational decision-making, Adam, and I strongly agree on the importance of transparency in decision-making and in bringing out this transparency, something that schools and school districts rarely discuss.

    A couple additions of people/groups that have more of an indirect role in decision-making:

    – community members: can bring their voices to principals, school boards, and others to impact decision-making.

    – education writers, professors, and other education leaders: offer ideas and critiques that can influence teachers, young people, school boards, principals, and elected officials.

    – education advocacy organizations and think-tanks: similarly offer ideas and suggestions to influence decision-makers.

    Just some quick thoughts…

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