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We like to think of education as the one U.S. institution that adamantly supports individualism and free speech. In many ways our schools, public and private, do just that. Administrators and teachers encourage free expression and a personal approach to academic development. State and federal education policies take proactive stances in supporting equal opportunities for everyone to attend school, study meaningful topics, and earn certifications and degrees that will prepare them for adult civic life and a career.

However, the complex bureaucracy that supports K-12 education can be confusing at best and erratic at worst with regards to certain issues. It is challenging to oversee a huge educational process in our country that guides students from kindergarten through high school graduation from a variety of diverse backgrounds and skill levels. The National Center for Education Statistics published information about public high school graduation rates in May 2019 indicating that in school year 2016-17, the Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rate (ACGR) was 85 percent, the highest level since 2010-11 and its initial measurement. We often wonder whether to praise the current system for this success rate or question whether a different approach is needed to raise the graduation rate even higher.

However we view these percentages and future directions, it is important for educators and parents to work together in providing a support system for students that will help them to become active learners and successful graduates. Strong academic programs not only teach students discipline-related information about core subjects like English language skills, communication, math, and science. They also train students how to think critically and how to develop life-long learning skills that enable them to process facts and information that can be utilized as stored knowledge. Parent-teacher conferences and monthly meetings bring educators and families together to explore relevant concerns and issues in the students' educational experience. District superintendents, boards of education, and onsite administrators direct and oversee the academic structure in place within their school systems and work closely with the district officials, teachers, and parents by providing guidance and support.

Due to the interconnected nature of these relationships, misunderstandings and tensions often arise. Most are unintentional but still lead to uncertainties and conflicts about the best way forward on critical issues. When individuals and groups cannot agree, administrative leaders will typically make crucial decisions. The school board can also hold a vote on complicated situations. Other circumstances may be determined in the board's executive session, which is exclusive to board members only. Many parents find this type of governance structure comforting. If they have helped to support or vote for administrators and school board members, they trust those representatives to faithfully serve their children's educational interests. Moms and dads are often so busy with their jobs, relationships, and finances that they prefer to leave the operation of the school and its bylaws to those with more experience and insight. They believe that the administrators and board members know best, and they seldom interfere with the process in place.

Generally, parents and teachers are welcome to express opinions at board meetings or in conferences with the superintendent or principal. However, they are not always involved in decision-making procedures like a vote.

The hierarchy of bureaucracy causes some to question the effectiveness of this network. Many wonder if teachers who work with the students on a regular basis should play a more dominant role in making decisions that affect policies and procedures governing the school. Likewise, parents might complain that they feel powerless to be advocates for their kids or the teachers when they are left out of certain negotiations or decisions, especially those related to sensitive topics like sex education or health care practices within the schools. Some of these individuals would prefer more of an open session format for discussing important issues without feeling like they will be targeted as a troublemaker for voicing a dissenting opinion.

In particular, newer teachers worry about being too vocal in a public meeting about concerns with which administrators may disagree. The threat of not having their teaching contract renewed or not being awarded tenure when they become eligible poses a career threat that keeps many educators silent on topics about which they hold passionate views. They do not want to be given classes with mostly troubled or difficult students to teach. Nor do they want to be denied professional development funds because of having a different view than an administrator.

Similarly, some parents remain quiet at PTA meetings or school board sessions because they are concerned their family will be branded as non-compliant or troublesome. They don't want their children to be denied educational opportunities like honors classes, team sports positions, or scholarships based on the parents' diverse perspectives. Instead of petitioning the school for special services needed by many or all students, some parents will volunteer to provide the service themselves, such as tutoring or coaching.

In an ideal school system, whether small or large, bureaucracy provides a voice for all constituents to equally discuss and decide major topics. Occasionally the numbers are uneven, with more parents or teachers than administrators or vice versa. But the negotiations should remain balanced to give everyone a fair share of time to express opinions and present evidence if applicable. When one group dominates the meeting or proceedings, the others tend to feel overshadowed or pressured to conform.

One way to address bureaucracy inequalities is to let each group form a consensus if possible and vote as a single entity rather than as individuals. This would level the playing field to allow all parties to have an equal say. Another approach is to assign issues to each of the constituent groups and addressed. The groups would then bring recommendations to the administrator, whether a principal, superintendent, or school board, for discussion and a vote or automatic adoption.

No matter how complex the bureaucracy may be, everyone can feel like a valued member when respect is shared among all the members, and trust is consistently built over the school year at each meeting.

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