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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Local Decisions... State Approval

By Peter DeWitt — June 14, 2013 3 min read
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It’s not really a local decision if those decisions require state approval.

Anyone who works with young children, or has children, understands the idea of choice. Typically adults give children two or three options, all of which the adult secretly agrees with, and then the adult asks the child which one they choose. It’s considered a win-win because the adults are comfortable with what the child chose and the child feels as though they got their way.

It’s adult-controlled but gives the child the autonomy to make a decision. The child then learns what choice is all about. Most times, at home, this revolves around what they want to eat for dinner or what movie they want to watch. In school, it might be used during disciplinary situations (remember...I said young children) or in some of their learning choices. “You can draw the picture or you can write the words.”

It’s not really the decision of the child because the adult provides the choices but it seems like the child’s decision...to the child. Which leads us to public education...

State Approval
In a recent N.Y. Times article, Merryl Tisch stated, “We set educational policy for the state,” she said. “We do not run the city’s school system.” This has always been a convenient stance for Dr. Tisch.

Many states are considered local decision states, which means that the state education departments provide the rules but it’s up to the school districts to decide how they enforce those rules. Two local decisions which are really state-generated are the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR), also known as teacher and administrator evaluation.

However, just like with the adult-child concept...public schools are being told that they can make local decisions, just as long as they get state approval. It’s not really a local decision if those decisions require state approval. Local decisions that are not approved by the state are kicked back to the schools to do over again. This wastes time and money and seems to be more about power than about solid educational practice.

Educators should also keep in mind that in some states, like New York, the regents is meeting next week to decide whether they want to change the weight of exams from 20% to 25%, which will change all local decisions.

One of the most influential pieces of research on power was completed by French and Raven in the late 50’s. Their research covers the five bases of power that influence people. One base may stand out more than others depending on what state you happen to work in.
Reward - If you do what you are told then you will be rewarded. It’s the old carrot and stick analogy. Do what you’re told and you will get a reward. Not only does this happen at the state level, it happens in school buildings and classrooms.
Coercive - If you don’t listen than you will be punished. For some state education departments, this seems to be the way they lead. However, some teachers and administrators may lead by this rule as well.
Legitimate - The leader has the power so therefore, they get to make the rules. Besides the idea that teachers and administrators may hold the information needed from day to day (Sage on the Stage), state education departments also have this philosophy. To some, it doesn’t matter what others think. It only matters who holds the power.
Referent - This typically comes from the idea that the person is perceived as attractive or worth listening to. Perhaps inspirational leaders fall under this category.
Expert - The person in power is the expert and holds the information. They have the knowledge that others want.

In the End
We can learn some valuable life lessons from all of this because even the worst leadership can teach us something. If we don’t like the power being held over us, than perhaps we can loosen up the power we have over others.

However, when it comes to state education departments, they have to be more honest. Too often they throw the “local decision” factor into the face of schools, when ultimately the decision is up to the state education department.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.