Read an Excerpt
Who They Are and How You Can Work with Them to Solve Problems and Prevent Crises
Understanding who is responsible for what in your child's school system is key to knowing where to go for help when you need it.
Ever since the first statewide school system was established in Pennysylvania in 1834, school districts have been set up and run in pretty much the same fashion: a centralized administration stands in the middle between government courts and agencies which allocate funds to, rule on, and in some cases set policy for education on the one hand; and the teachers, parents, and students of individual schools on the other.
Federal Department of Education
State Department of Education
Local School Boards
Principals/Assistant Principals/Directors of Special Education or Pupil Services
Teachers and Support Professionals
Parents and Community Residents and Students
School districts are defined differently in different areas; they can be set up as urban, suburban, rural, community, countywide, or regional districts. And while the names of the departments and administrators within them may vary from one district to another, the hierarchy is the same.
The list above shows that what happens at your neighborhood school is colored by what happens at the highest levels, beginning with the federal courts, and what happens at the bottom levels, meaning parent, student, and community influence. Here is what each of them does for education:
Federal Courts,Congress, and the Federal Department of Education: Traditionally, the courts (U.S. district courts, courts of appeal, and the Supreme Court) do not set education policy, but they do rule on the legalityor the illegalityof existing policies that concern the constitutional and civil rights of children, parents, or school personnel. Congress and the Federal Department of Education try to be responsive to pressure for change in education with legislation and programs or incentives that help guarantee the right of all children to equal educational opportunities. They leave most of the power to enact broad school policy to the states, their courts, and legislatures.
State Departments of Education: Most states have a department that is the education policy-making body for the state. State legislatures usually consult with this body, which conducts the day-to-day business of education for the state's schools, including such operations as budgeting and accounting, personnel and labor relations, equal education services, and curriculum and research. In larger states, these jobs may be divided up regionally. Most states mandate curriculum guidelines describing what must be taught in each grade, but they vary as to how much flexibility they give local boards of education in carrying those outin choosing textbooks and teaching methods, for example.
State education departments also certify teachers and other school personnel, define the age parameters for compulsory school attendance, set high school graduation requirements, and decide the length of the school year.
At the center of the hierarchy is your local administration. Even though efforts beginning in the 1980s toward decentralization of school administrations have brought about change in some districts, most local districts will look much like the actual suburban Connecticut school district described in the chart below.
Positions noted on the flow chart most likely to be included in most districts are:
School board or committee: School boards are almost always made up of elected citizens whose job it is to oversee the school administrators for the schools in their district. Usually these members are unpaid, and terms of office are usually two or four years.
Most importantly, the school board serves as the district's policy-setter and goal-setter, within state guidelines. The board can decide how money is raised and allocated for schools and programs, and can decide whether new schools are needed or old schools should be closed. It works with the superintendent, both giving him direction and using him as a consultant in decision making. The school board is also charged with responding to questions and concerns raised by parents, students, and teachers.
Superintendent and assistant superintendents: Most school superintendents are hired by the local board of education. He or she is the plant manager for the school district, and is charged with hiring school staff and overseeing the district's daily operations, from business decisions and program management to curriculum planning. All personnel in the school district are ultimately answerable to the superintendent.
The superintendent is also responsible for seeing that the district meets goals set for it by the state and by the school board.
Directors of Special Education or Pupil Personnel Services: They oversee professionals providing special education and related services. School psychologists, social workers, and coordinators of gifted programs, for example, all report to this director.
Directors of Curriculum: If you live in a large school district, there may be one or several directors of curriculum. They are responsible for making sure the state and local curriculum guidelines are being met by working with teachers on selecting appropriate curricula and evaluating new curriculum ideas.
might include assigning classroom space, scheduling classes, overseeing registration, and directing home study programs), student services (which might include overseeing personnel in specialized areas like special education, along with the school psychologist, school counselors, social worker, and school nurse), or administrative services (which might include coordinating student teachers, writing the faculty handbook, supervising bookkeeping and school expenditures, and submitting reports to state agencies on school goals and student achievement).