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Learn how to change school policies that benefit students, promote health and safety, and improve the school system.


  • What do we mean by changing policies in schools?

  • Why should you work to change policies in schools?

  • When should you try to change policies in schools?

  • Who should be involved in changing policies in schools?

  • How do you change policies in schools?

When the Watsons came to Perryville High School for their eldest son’s first scheduled parent conference of ninth grade, they found something that neither ever saw in a school when they were students. In the hallways on every floor, as well as in the cafeteria, there were vending machines offering soda.

Rita Watson was a hospital nutritionist, and her husband, Mel, was an athletic trainer who worked with the football and baseball teams at the local university. They had always provided a healthy diet for themselves and their two sons, and had taught their children good eating habits. Both of them were well aware of the rise in childhood obesity – it was more and more visible on the streets of Perryville these days – and they knew that soda was a major contributor to that rise. They felt that the high school – which, after all, offered health classes that taught students about good nutrition – should not be offering kids drinks that could be bad for them.

They returned from the conference with a glowing report of their son’s progress, and the beginnings of a plan. As they researched the issue of soda and snack machines in high schools, they found that their presence was all too common. They also found that schools made a lot of money from contracts with soft drink companies – money that paid for extracurricular activities, supplies, and equipment. While the Watsons were supportive of these activities – both of their sons were athletes – they felt strongly that the school should be safeguarding students’ health, not encouraging unhealthy habits.

The couple set out to change the school policy on vending machines. They wanted them either removed from the school, or to offer only foods and drinks that contributed to, rather than harmed, children’s health. Aware that they had an uphill battle on their hands – Perryville High made over $50,000 in contracts and soda sales every year – they enlisted their friends and determined to keep at it until they were successful.

Sometimes school policies, like those that allow vending machines that sell unhealthy foods, can be harmful to students’ health or education. Sometimes, schools or school systems lack policies that would benefit students in particular ways. Sometimes their policies, formal or informal, are discriminatory or abusive of students’ rights. Parents, students, or concerned citizens often find themselves wanting to change school or school system policies…and many do. This section looks at what kinds of issues school policies might cover, and what it takes to change policies in a school system.

What do we mean by changing policies in schools?

When the Community Tool Box was conceived, this section was meant to deal specifically with changing school policy to encourage healthy behaviors among students and discourage unhealthy ones. Since then, it has become obvious that the issue of school policy change is far too broad to confine to a single topic. We’ve therefore tried to include a range of possibilities to consider, of which health promotion is only one.

In the U.S., the variation among school systems – from state to state, from community to community, even from school to school – is enormous. There are obvious differences in size – many rural schools have fewer than 10 students a class, while some urban and suburban schools in large cities have thousands of students – but the variation doesn’t stop there. Looking at public schools alone, there are comprehensive and specialized high schools; charter schools; technical and trade high schools; magnet schools; alternative schools for students who can’t function in a standard classroom setting; and community-run schools, to mention only a few.

This section focuses on public schools. While private school policies are subject to change from parents and students as well, they present a different situation. Because students pay to attend, and the schools are financially dependent on parents’ good will, and because they aren’t subject to many of the state rules and regulations that public schools are, private schools are usually much more willing than public schools to bend rules, make exceptions, and change policy when asked to by parents.

The ways in which these schools are organized and run vary as much as their purposes. Some are relatively independent: what goes on in the school is largely determined by the principal and teaching staff. Some involve parents as partners in planning and implementing both curriculum and school management. Some, unfortunately, have to be concerned with student violence, and feature metal detectors and police patrols. Some have strict dress codes – sometimes to the point of requiring uniforms – others have none. Some are devoted to academics, and to sending as many students as possible to top-ranked colleges; others seem much more concerned with sports or other extracurricular activities. By and large, schools mirror the educational philosophy and attitudes of the people in their districts.

All of these schools have policies regarding everything from academic and curriculum requirements to the scheduling of lunches. System-wide policies are generally decided upon by the local school committee, while policies unique to a particular school are often set and implemented by the school staff.

Most school systems and schools are hierarchical – they have a clear (at least to themselves) chain of command, and you have to follow that chain in order to communicate with the system. In the U.S., the links in that chain are usually (from the top down):

  • School Committee
  • Superintendent of Schools
  • Assistant Superintendents
  • Other system-wide administrators (coordinators of curriculum, athletics, special education, business, physical plant)
  • Principals
  • Teachers and other professional employees (nurses, guidance counselors and school psychologists, coaches)
  • Support and custodial staff

Each of these levels is one you might have to deal with in attempting to change school policy. (See Tool #1 for a more detailed description of “the players.”)

In addition to whatever difficulties the system hierarchy might offer, there is the fact that most public school teachers and other non-administrative employees are unionized, a circumstance that can complicate (or, occasionally, make easier) a change initiative. The change you’re seeking might – or might appear to – conflict with the union contract, for instance, or might require a union member’s job description to change (a circumstance that would require union negotiations). Given the two factors of the management hierarchy and the union, advocates are often faced with the possibility of having to move the whole of a large and resistant bureaucracy in order to affect change.

There are alternatives. Some schools are relatively independent, and can make decisions without having to go through several layers of school system. Some unions are willing to make compromises in the service of better outcomes for students. Often, if the policy change in question relates only to a particular school, and if it’s not momentous, the principal or faculty can make the change quietly, without fanfare or bureaucratic hassle.

There are many situations where a major policy change initiative like that described in this section simply isn’t necessary. If you can accomplish your purpose – placing a crossing guard at a dangerous intersection, or opening the school gym in the late afternoon for community use – by simply explaining to the principal why it’s important, and offering to help make it possible, then that’s the way to go. If the change is small, reasonable, and doesn’t involve any major disruption of the school or the system, you can probably make it happen in a very low-key way. Even some major policy changes can be easy if the need for them is obvious. Don’t organize the community for a minor request – the simpler you can make things, the better.

In general, however, the School Committee is responsible for setting policy, and the Superintendent for carrying it out. Although the two advise and consult with each other, system-wide policy changes usually have to be approved by the School Committee, but that usually means that they must have the approval of the Superintendent as well, since most Committees value the Superintendent’s advice. If you can convince the Superintendent that change is necessary, it will probably happen, though perhaps not always as quickly as you’d like.

That doesn’t always mean that administrators and teachers will go along. In Philadelphia in the 1960’s, a Superintendent was hired to shake things up in a less-than-stellar school system. He instituted, with the support of the School Committee, a number of reforms that actually spoke to improving education in the district...but the teachers essentially ignored them. By a combination of foot-dragging and outright defiance, they were able to frustrate most of the Superintendent’s plans, and he was gone within a fairly short time. If he had involved the teachers in planning, the situation might have been different, but the reality is that policy change was instituted, and nothing happened anyway.

The Watsons wanted to eliminate vending machines or change their contents. What kinds of school policies might you want to change? The list is almost endless – and there is often someone who wants a change exactly opposite from the one you want. A short list of possibilities:

  • Institute a no-smoking policy in the school system (for teachers and administrators as well as students).
  • Serve healthy food in the cafeteria, and eliminate food that is only empty calories or actively bad for kids’ physical and mental development.
  • Change the discipline system (to be more rigorous, less rigorous, student-generated, to involve parents, etc.).
  • Address school prayer (eliminate it; institute a moment of silence; reinstitute school prayer – philosophies vary).
  • Institute or revamp a health or sex education curriculum.
  • Change the dress code.
  • Beef up or change the academic content for students at various levels.
  • Add ESL (English as a Second or Other Language) or bilingual programs for a growing immigrant population.
  • Change sexual harassment policies to better protect students and staff.
  • Change policies on student use of school computers.
  • Change policies toward Channel 1 and other advertising during the school day.
  • Tighten or loosen the requirements for participation in extracurricular activities.
  • Change the limits of students’ freedom of speech in school newspapers.

Why might you want to change policies in schools?

There are seven overarching reasons to change school policies: to improve students’ health; to improve education; to meet the needs of particular groups; to improve classroom and school climate and culture; to protect students (and staff) from harm; to safeguard students’ rights; and to respond to a perceived community need.

Policies can be changed in different directions. Where a group in one community may be attempting to make schools more democratic, a group in another community may be concerned with making them less so. While it seems obvious to many which is the right direction, everyone has a right to try to change policy in the direction they think is appropriate. The one thing to remember is that any policy change should either be beneficial to or not detract from the educational experience of students.

To improve students’ (and others’) health.

Schools often teach health courses, but they don’t always practice, or encourage students to practice, what they preach. Some policies that actually might improve student health:

  • Smoke- and tobacco-free schools
  • School breakfast as well as lunch, with healthy food for both
  • Elimination of soda and snack vending machines
  • A physical education or exercise period every day
  • A good K-12 sex education curriculum (age-appropriate at each grade level), as part of a good K-12 health education curriculum

To improve education.

Changes in curriculum, in educational content, in expectations for students, in teaching methods, in class size, in teacher independence – all these and many other factors can lead to a better educational experience for students. Some other possible changes involve:

  • Class content.
  • Textbooks and other instructional materials.
  • Foreign language requirements.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches.
  • Advanced placement.
  • Expectations for all students.
  • The academic schedule.
  • Student assessment (i.e. grades).
  • Graduation requirements.

In 2004, a Dover, PA school board voted to include the teaching of “intelligent design” – the assumption that the world and the diversity of species are too complex to have evolved in the way Darwin described, and that there must, therefore, be a guiding hand – in the ninth grade biology curriculum. Religious beliefs notwithstanding, this assumption is not grounded in science and is more appropriate for a theology class. When a federal judge in 2005 struck down the vote as an unconstitutional attempt to teach religion in the guise of science, he dramatically brought about a change in the content of the curriculum.

  • Textbooks and other instructional materials.
  • Foreign language requirements.
  • Interdisciplinary approaches.
  • Advanced placement.
  • Expectations for all students.

There are many studies, going back over 50 years, that demonstrate that expectations determine to a very large extent how much students learn and how well they do in school. Raising the bar for everyone – starting with the assumption that all students are capable of learning just about anything, given the time and appropriate instruction, for instance – is likely to make a huge difference for those who would otherwise be mired at low levels all through their school careers.

  • The academic schedule.

Many high schools have in the past several years adopted block scheduling, which changes the standard class period from 40 or 50 minutes to twice that long, on the assumption that fewer, more intense classes give teachers better teaching opportunities, and create better learning experiences for students. Others have extended the academic year or the academic day. A few have attempted to schedule classes to match adolescents’ internal clocks, which are actually on a different schedule from those of adults and younger children.

To meet the needs of particular groups.

Some groups of students may need services in addition to those offered to the general school population, and it may take a policy change to obtain them. These groups include:

  • Students with physical disabilities, including speech, hearing, and vision impairments.
  • Students with emotional difficulties or mental illness.
  • Students with developmental disabilities.
  • Students with learning disabilities.
  • Immigrants or other students who are not proficient in English.
  • Teenage parents.

To improve classroom and school climate and culture.

“Classroom climate” is a term that refers to what a classroom feels like – student and teacher attitudes, the level of tension, whether the purpose of the classroom seems to be work or otherwise, etc.. The culture of a school can be considered in much the same way as the culture of a society – the customs, norms, standards, and behaviors that the majority of students, teachers, and other school personnel define as appropriate and approve of, as well as those that are disapproved by the majority.

The type of policy change needed in a given situation hangs on the character of the school. If the general atmosphere is too chaotic, it needs to be calmed; if it’s too rigid, it needs to be loosened up. Some of the potential targets of policy change that follow could be changed in either direction, depending upon what’s needed.

  • Dress codes. These might be instituted, stiffened, eliminated, etc..
  • Disciplinary systems. Discipline could be tightened to reduce in-school violence, changed to involve students in generating classroom rules and sanctions, loosened to allow particular activities, etc..
  • Advising. A change might institute advising groups, change the focus of such groups, train teachers and/or counselors to be better advisors, etc..
  • Counseling.
  • Issues of tolerance. Promoting an atmosphere of acceptance and mutual respect among students of different races, ethnic backgrounds, language groups, sexual preferences, etc..
  • Peer mediation and conflict resolution programs.
  • Student-teacher and student-staff relationships.
  • Democracy, both in the classroom and among teachers, administrators, and other school employees.

To protect students (and staff) from harm.

In some schools, particularly in gang- plagued urban neighborhoods – where a culture of violence may be entrenched among teens – this may mean protecting everyone from gang-related or random physical violence by students or outsiders. But, in any school system, it may also mean protecting students from physical or psychological bullying (by teachers as well as other students), from safety hazards, and from health hazards.

There is obvious overlap here among several of the reasons for working toward school policy change. Eliminating smoking protects students and staff from secondhand smoke. Halting bullying typically means changing the school culture, and redefining what is acceptable – for teachers as well as for students. The lines among reasons may blur, but the bottom line is always the same: to create the best possible educational experience for students.

Some changes that might help provide protection:

  • Metal detectors and police patrols. These may not improve the learning experience, but they may be necessary to prevent bodily harm.
  • Anti-bullying policies. As mentioned, these can only work by changing the school culture. If teachers and other staff don’t see bullying as a problem, it will continue.
  • Repair of building safety hazards. Falling plaster, broken windows, unshielded heaters, etc..
  • Elimination of the use of dangerous or toxic chemical solvents, cleaners, and pesticides.
  • Halting corporal (physical) punishment. There are still many school systems that use corporal punishment to discipline students, and many more where it is permissible, but rarely, if ever, used.
  • Careful oversight of athletics. Guarding against overtraining, inadequate protective equipment, heatstroke, potentially injurious training or punishment exercises, etc..

To safeguard students’ rights.

Children have rights, just as adults do, although those rights are tempered by children’s need for structure and protection. Nonetheless, when those rights are violated unnecessarily, policy change to safeguard them is in order. Some of the constitutional rights that should be attended to:

  • Separation of church and state. All children have a right to practice their chosen religion or lack of religion, and to be free in school of any attempt to impose someone else’s beliefs on them. (This doesn’t mean religion shouldn’t be discussed or studied, but rather that neither a particular religion nor religion in general should be presented as “the truth,” nor made part of any required school activities.)
  • Free speech and expression. Federal law, dating back at least to a 1969 Supreme Court decision that states that students “do not shed their Constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate,” protects students’ rights in this area to a point. The law makes exceptions particularly in the case of speech or expression that is obscene; slanderous or libelous; or that would disrupt the orderly functioning of the school (hate speech, for instance, or a call for a student strike).
  • Civil rights. In a school context, these might include, among others, the right to question disciplinary proceedings; the right to a hearing; the right to equal treatment regardless of race, ethnic background, gender, religion, sexual preference, etc.; and the right to freedom from bodily harm.

To respond to a perceived community need.

This may have to do with the establishment of a particular course or program (a multilingual program as a response to an influx of immigrants, for instance, or a tolerance course to address recent hate crimes), safety or security concerns (traffic patterns, procedures for school visitors), or the timing of the school day or school year (in Aroostook County, Maine, for instance, students get a three-week break in September and October to help with the potato harvest).

When should you try to change policies in schools?

Changes should obviously be attempted whenever it’s necessary, but there are some times that present especially good opportunities.

  • Before the beginning of a new school year. Once school is in session, it’s difficult to convince a School Committee, administrators, or staff to change what they’re doing or to generate new policy. It’s much easier to effect change if you start well before you want the change to take place.
  • When there’s an obvious need. When classes are overflowing with students who don’t speak English well, or when very few students are passing the state math exam, it’s easier to convince schools to examine the situation and change policies to address it.
  • When a situation comes to light that makes a need obvious. When a sexual harassment case in the schools breaks, it may bring other students forward and highlight a problem that school officials have either been unaware of or have been successfully ignoring. The community – and, in the ideal, the schools as well – might well see this as an opportunity to change policy to protect students.
  • When the School Committee or staff members do something that seems the opposite of good educational policy. Examples might be an ill-advised academic decision (eliminating foreign language study in the high school, for instance), misuse of funds, obvious racial discrimination, gross misconduct, or covering up or glossing over that misconduct.
  • When there’s a clear threat to students’ or staff members’ health, safety, etc. This might be the time to bring up no-smoking policies, or metal detectors.
  • When students’, parents’, or teachers’ basic rights are threatened. School policies may be contrary to existing law, or there may be no policies that govern the present situation. If students’ freedom of speech is being squelched, if teachers are being demoted or fired for voicing unpopular or critical opinions, if the wishes of a majority of parents for their children are systematically being ignored, there is probably support for policy change.

Who should be involved in changing school policies?

The more stakeholders – those affected by, or having to implement, the policy in question – that can be involved, the more likely it is both that the policy change will take place, and that it will be maintained once it’s made. Stakeholders include:

  • Students
  • Parents
  • The School Committee
  • The Superintendent
  • Other school administrators
  • Teachers
  • Particular groups affected by the proposed change (Hispanics, for a bilingual Spanish program, for instance)
  • Groups interested in the issue addressed by the proposed change (e.g., police, for a violence prevention program; health professionals for a healthy school food initiative)
  • Concerned citizens

How do you change policies in schools?

School policy change, at least officially, has to happen from the inside. The School Committee (or at least the principal, if the change concerns only a single school) has to approve and institute the change. Furthermore, as we mentioned earlier, the school staff involved in implementing it have to actually do so, rather than just go through the motions, if the change is going to mean anything.

At the same time, policy change often originates from outside the system, and that’s where you come in. Schools, as we discussed, are hierarchical, and like many hierarchical organizations, they can be resistant to change of any kind. They are often particularly resistant to change that implies that what they’ve been doing is wrong, incompetent, or harmful. It may take a good deal of pressure from parents, students, community members, and/or officials to get them to respond.

This isn’t always true. Sometimes, the proposed policy change fills such a great need, or is so obviously beneficial that all it needs is to be suggested, and adoption quickly follows. The steps that follow apply equally to the easy and the difficult changes to put in place. You should always develop a strong rationale for changing policy and muster community support...and in the ideal situation, you won’t need them.

Marshal your support and begin to strategize.

The order of steps here is open to discussion. The author of this section sees the logical progression as one of putting together a supportive core group, and then learning all you can about the situation so that you can decide how to go about effecting change. The editor sees the logical order as the opposite: explore the situation, decide how to make the change, and then gather a support group. Since both of us have had experience in this area, it’s clear that there’s no one right answer. In reality, you’ll probably engage in at least part of both steps at the same time. Adapt your process to what makes the most sense in your situation.

Make contact with the allies you’ve identified. As you start to put a group together, people will bring others in. You don’t have to be secretive, but at this point, you might not want to publicize your effort. You may decide that the best approach is to see if you can accomplish what you want without going through the School Committee, in which case, the less publicity, the better.

It is often crucial to find allies within the school system, at as many levels as possible. Teachers, administrators, the Superintendent, sympathetic School Committee members – anyone who’s supportive of what you’re doing should be involved to the extent possible. It’s important not to place anyone in a compromising position, but the more allies you can get inside the system, the better your chances of success.

There are many situations in which allies inside the system may not be needed. That crossing guard we used as an example earlier, for instance – you probably won’t need a whole crew of teachers lending support to convince a principal or the superintendent that a child being hit by a car in front of the school would not be a good thing. Recruit teachers and other school employees when you need them, and realize when you don’t.

Once you assemble at least a core group, drawing from as many sectors of the community as possible (the more sectors, the more support you can muster), you need to consider how you’re going to approach the situation. There are many possibilities: going around the School Committee entirely, a simple request, taking time to build support on the Committee, threatening a lawsuit, creating massive publicity through the media, using the steamroller of angry parents and community members (if you have one, and it’s appropriate)--every approach will work in some situation, and no approach will work in every situation. That’s why planning is important, and why it’s important to involve others in your planning. You may need only a bare-bones idea of whom to approach, or you may need a full-blown strategic plan; either way, you have to do some planning to decide on your course of action.

As with most situations covered in the Community Tool Box, we recommend a participatory, collaborative planning process wherever possible. You often end up with better ideas, and you’re more likely to end up with a plan that everyone has bought into, and will work hard to carry out. If you plan well, you’ll come up with an action that’s the simplest, least confrontational, and least expensive – in terms of time, people, and other resources – that you can take to solve the problem.

The other important tasks here are to work out systems of coordination and communication. If a particular organization takes the lead in a policy change effort, then that organization will usually act as the central point. If the effort is driven by an unorganized group of concerned parents, students, and others, they’ll need to establish some way to make sure that everyone knows what everyone else is doing, and to get the word out when action is needed. You don’t necessarily have to create a formal organization to accomplish these tasks, but it is important to set up a structure to make sure that they’re taken care of.

Do your homework.

The more you know about current policy, the school system, the issue your proposed changes relate to, and the individuals involved, the better your chances of success will be. The homework you need to do:

  • Learn about current policy. Find out exactly what the current policy on the issue is. If it’s written down, be sure you have a copy. It’s possible that it already covers the situation, and that all you need to do is insist that it be followed. It’s also possible that it somehow conflicts with federal or state law, something that more homework and/or a lawyer can tell you. (It’s also possible that there’s no policy relating to your issue at all, which can often work to your advantage, since that may provide the opportunity for you to create one.)
  • Know the issue inside out. Make sure you understand the issue well enough that you can answer any questions put to you, and anticipate and counter opponents’ arguments. Know your opponents’ arguments as well as your own, and make sure they can’t come up with anything you haven’t thought of.

If your opponents have legitimate arguments you have no answer for, then you should either incorporate those arguments into your thinking, or if it’s simply a true difference of opinion, acknowledge it as such. (But if it is, try to find as much real evidence as you can to back up your opinion.)

  • Research the alternatives. If the current policy is unacceptable or isn’t working – or if there is no current policy – what should be proposed in its place? It would do no good to adopt a policy that, in its own way, is just as harmful or ineffective as the one it replaced. Look for best practices, or at least policies that have worked elsewhere, to achieve the results you want.
  • Prepare a solid rationale for the proposed change. Be prepared to:
    • Explain exactly why the change is necessary. If it’s to remedy a problem, you should be able to define and cite examples of the issue, demonstrate why it is a problem, and describe what the hoped-for results of policy change would look like. If the change is meant to fill a gap or add a needed program, you should be able to show convincingly how the change will benefit students (or the school, or the community), and how its consequences will be an improvement over the consequences of the current policy, or lack of one.
    • Show how whatever costs are involved in the change are outweighed by its benefits.
    • Refer to research that backs up your arguments. Studies that show improvements in various kinds of student outcomes – reading scores, attendance and graduation rates, etc. – as a result of the kind of change you’re seeking can help to convince the appropriate people to take action.
    • Defend your proposal against attacks and counterarguments. This gets back to knowing opponents and their arguments.

In some cases, your answers to their concerns won’t convince them, because they’ll be sure they know you’re wrong despite all the evidence to the contrary. (Many people are convinced, for instance, that sex education encourages teens to be sexually active, even though studies consistently show the opposite.) If your opponents’ beliefs are based on emotion, you may be able to frame arguments that make your case from their emotional perspective. When that’s not possible, your arguments can still convince others, and provide enough pressure for policy change to take place.

  • Consult with or recruit experts in the field to add credibility to your arguments. This may be easier if your community houses, or is close to, a college or university.

Make sure that the presence of an outside expert won’t increase tensions between two sides of the debate over policy change. While experts can often add the weight of authority to an argument, they can also be seen by teachers, superintendents, or School Committee members as arrogant, or as interfering in a community they know nothing about.

Sometimes, the best “experts” you can find are students or parents in the community who’ve had first-hand experiences that back up the need for change. Personal stories are often the most compelling, especially when the people telling them are the neighbors and fellow community members of those listening.

  • Learn everything you can about the structure of the school system and the personalities of those within it. You can’t deal with a school system without understanding how it operates. Once again, most systems are hierarchies, and hierarchies have protocols – rules – about whom to contact first, who makes decisions about various issues, etc.. If you don’t know the protocol, you can easily make a mistake that might offend or threaten someone whose support you need. An ally or sympathetic advisor within the system may be able to help you understand what your best approach might be.

Take the time to find out the structure of the chain of command in the system. Is it rigid or flexible? Who reports to whom? Where do you start if you have a complaint or want to discuss an incident or issue? At the lowest level? At the highest? Whom will you offend if you don’t follow protocol?

In most systems, the place to start is closest to the issue. An issue that relates to a single classroom should start with the teacher. If the resolution there is unsatisfactory, or if the teacher can’t help, the principal is the next step, followed by the superintendent, and ultimately by the School Committee. For a system-wide issue, you’d start with the superintendent. If the issue called for a system-wide policy change, you’d still start with the superintendent, if only to avoid blind-siding her. Ultimately, any major system-wide change has to come before the School Committee.

As important as the protocol are the personalities of the people involved. Who are the members of the School Committee? Which members are potential allies in a policy change effort, which are potential opponents, and which are the neutrals you’ll have to convince? What positions have they taken on the issue in the past? What’s important to them? Who are their friends and constituencies? Who is up for reelection or reappointment?

Occasionally, effecting a policy change can be a matter of electing or voting out the right person. A change of one or two seats on the School Committee can signal a shift in attitude and lead to new policy. That’s what happened in Dover, PA, the town where the School Committee decided to teach intelligent design along with evolution. Even before the judge’s ruling, eight of the nine School Committee members who had voted for the policy were defeated in an election, and their replacements quickly repealed it.

Attend School Committee meetings to understand how the Committee functions. Who are the powerful voices on the Committee? Whose opinions are respected, and whose are ignored? Who influences whom? Who responds to what kinds of arguments? Does the Committee function well as a body, or is it racked with disagreement and distrust?

The School Committee is the policy-setting body in most school systems. Some committees rely heavily on the advice and consent of the superintendent and/or teachers; others make their own decisions, sometimes based on reasoning, sometimes based on what they “know,” which may be considerable or very little, may be accurate or far-fetched, etc.. It’s important to know whose support you need and whose opposition to avoid if policy change is to be relatively easy.

How are decisions made within the system? The superintendent may be almost totally independent, or may only act on the direction of the School Committee. The standard is usually somewhere in between, with the superintendent free to develop programs and initiatives on his own and/or with staff, but having to get approval from the Committee to carry them out. The superintendent’s opinion carries a good deal of weight with most Committees. What’s his educational philosophy (or does he have one)? What’s his management style? Is he concerned with educational quality, or simply with keeping his job?

Other people to be acquainted with, at least at a distance, include other administrators, teachers, and staff, particularly union leaders and activists. Who is influential in the system, and whom do they influence? What are their priorities and concerns? What do they want and need (it’s often handy to know what you might be able to use as a bargaining chip)?

  • Identify your allies and your opponents, both in the system and in the community. There may be groups that are obvious allies on a particular issue. More flexibility in the dress code would probably have strong student support; healthier cafeteria meals might garner support from parents, coaches, and health professionals.

Allies and opponents don’t always break down neatly into identifiable groups. Sometimes, where a policy doesn’t particularly benefit or harm a particular group, it’s simply a diverse collection of individuals on each side of the issue, disagreeing about the right way to do things. In that case, you have to identify allies and opponents one by one.

  • Decide whether policy change is really what’s needed. Sometimes, a change in policy won’t solve the problem, or isn’t necessary. Depending on the situation, there may be a range of alternatives.
    • Change of personnel. The problem may not be policy, but simply the way an individual or group chooses to do things. Changing the people may solve the problem. We’ve already mentioned defeating School Committee members in an election. Another possibility is advocating for the firing of a superintendent or other school employee.

Firing someone is a drastic step, and not easy to do. Ironically, the easiest person in a district to fire is often the superintendent, since she serves at the pleasure of the School Committee. Most other system employees are protected by union rules. They can be fired for cause, but the cause has to be documented, and has to be serious enough to justify the firing. The fact that you don’t like the way someone teaches, or disagree with the way he treats students, will not be enough unless there’s enormous community support for getting rid of him, or unless he’s clearly incompetent or has violated important rules.

  • Reframing the current policy. The School Committee may be willing to redefine the policy in a way that addresses the issue, without actually instituting a change.
  • Compromise. A compromise may not give you everything you want, but may satisfy the basic need that prompted the effort for change.
  • Passage of a law. You may be able to get a bill passed that settles the issue once and for all – banning smoking in all public buildings in the state, for instance, or making corporal punishment illegal.
  • A lawsuit. This should be a last resort, because it’s expensive, hugely time-consuming, and there’s no guarantee of the outcome. The chances are that by the time the suit is settled one way or the other, the students who were affected by the policy you wanted changed will have kids of their own. It’s important to know that the option for a lawsuit is there, however, if there’s no other alternative.

Work to get your proposal for policy change implemented.

Now that you’ve laid the groundwork for policy change, it’s time to start taking action. You should almost always start by following established procedure. (You might make an exception when there’s already a huge controversy over the issue in the schools and/or the community, and you know you have a fight on your hands.) That procedure varies from system to system (and sometimes even from school to school within a system), but if you’ve done your homework, you’ll know what it is. If following procedure doesn’t work – your proposal is rejected out of hand, no one will even give you a hearing, you’re blocked by bureaucratic stalling – it’s time for community action. We’ll look at both possibilities.

Draft the policy you want

It’s absolutely necessary to be crystal clear about what you want the policy change to accomplish. The best way to clarify is to draft the ideal policy, so that you know it speaks to exactly what you’re looking for. Then review your draft with both your core group of supporters and your allies inside the system, to filter out potential snags with community members and the institution. If you’re careful and thoughtful in this process, you’ll find and correct any flaws in your original ideas as well. Some areas to pay close attention to as you work on your draft:

  • Beware of unintended consequences. Try to envision all the ways in which your new policy could play out, not just the “obvious” positive ones. You might be surprised at some of the possible negative results. Better to be surprised now, and to revise your policy to guard against negative possibilities, than to be much more unpleasantly surprised later.
  • Possible misinterpretation, either by the community or by those who will carry out the policy. Make sure your draft means exactly what you think it means, and that its intent is unmistakable. If people don’t understand it, it could get twisted, either in the implementation, or in the way the community views it.
  • Possible misuse, intentional or unintentional. Again, if you’re not clear, school personnel who misunderstand it, or with a philosophy different from yours, could, in the future, use your policy to do the opposite of what you worked for.
  • Cultural offensiveness. Make sure that there are no aspects of the policy that are culturally offensive to particular groups, unless you’re trying to correct an attempt to impose cultural or religious values on the majority, as seen in the evolution example earlier in this section.

Some policies that may seem necessary to one group – sex education, for instance – may in fact be offensive to some parents. The fair way to deal with this is to give those offended the option of excluding their children from the policy. Exceptions could also, for example, be applied by providing exclusion from a no-hats policy for Orthodox Jews or Muslim women. This can get complicated if the kids don’t want to be excluded from the policy, and may be a counseling issue, and involve consultation with parents. Perhaps, if the policy change in question is somewhat controversial, some of that can be built in.

The question arises about what to do when the conflict is between fact and belief. We’ve already mentioned that many people are certain sex education encourages adolescent sexual activity, even when it’s demonstrated to them that studies overwhelmingly find the opposite. There may be little you can do in such situations, or you may be able to put your arguments within the context of their world view. Offering a choice seems to be the best compromise, but your opponents may object even to that, in the belief that they should protect all children, not only their own.

Make your policy change effort as collaborative as possible. When you can, suggest setting up a committee of parents, students, teachers, administrators, School Committee members, and/or other interested citizens to consider alternatives, language, etc. to present to the School Committee.

In general, start your discussions at the lowest responsible level in the hierarchy.

This is both a matter of courtesy and a good strategic choice. Unless you already have an adversary relationship (and sometimes especially if you have an adversary relationship), it’s usually a bad idea to spring something on a school administrator with no advance warning. Suddenly appearing in a principal’s office with a group of angry parents, for instance, without first discussing with her the situation they’re angry about is more likely to make her defensive and entrenched in her position than to open her up to considering policy changes.

Furthermore, it is very much in your interest to gain the support of the person(s) who will have to carry out the proposed policy. If you have to go farther up the chain, that support will help at each level.

The importance of lower-level support depends upon how power is viewed and exercised in the system. In a well-managed system, a policy that has the support of teachers and principals is very likely to be viewed favorably by the superintendent, and in turn likely to be passed by the School Committee. In a system where the superintendent or Committee is too fond of wielding power, lower-level support may be seen as a challenge rather than a recommendation, and may doom a proposal. In such a situation, while it's still important to have the support of teachers and principals, you may have to use pressure from parents and the community to sway the School Committee.

For a system-wide issue, protocol usually requires that you start with the superintendent, who will, if he views it favorably, work with you to present a proposal for policy change to the School Committee. Even if he doesn’t lend support, he won’t be surprised by your eventual approach to the School Committee. (If you’re seeking to change a School Committee-generated policy, start with the Committee.)

An advantage to starting at a low level is that sometimes, an issue can be handled at that level without going further. In many systems, a school principal can institute policy in his school (assuming it doesn’t have system-wide implications) without having to get permission from the superintendent or the School Committee. A teacher may be able to institute classroom policy to correct a problem, or may be able to change course content without any fanfare.

If your issue can be resolved at a lower level, you may be able to save yourself a lot of trouble. If, however, you want to see broader changes, it still makes sense to start with the people who’ll have to implement the policy – especially if you can enlist their support. At the very least, they won’t be furious at you for sneaking up on them with something new. If you’re successful at this lower level, many of the steps below won’t be necessary. If you’re put off or denied, simply go up to the next step on the ladder, until you get to the School Committee.

Get your group on the School Committee agenda.

If the Superintendent and some Committee members are involved, they can make sure that you get enough time for a proper presentation.

Present the proposed policy change at a School Committee meeting.

For real results, you have to do more than simply show up. Here’s where your prior organizing will pay off.

Although the assumption here is that your group will present the policy itself, it may be even better to have it presented by a sympathetic School Committee member or superintendent. That will give it credibility and show that there’s support for it within the system.

  • Pack the meeting with supporters from as many sectors of the community as possible. Students, parents, teachers, interested community members, groups that are concerned with the issue the policy addresses (health professionals if it concerns smoking, for instance, or police if it concerns violence) – the more representation you can produce, the more obvious it is that there’s broad-based enthusiasm for your proposal.
  • Do all you can to gain media coverage. Call your media contacts, send out press releases, etc., to assure that the media will be there, or at least report on the issue.

In some communities, the media are always there – public access cable often covers School Committee meetings, and in large cities, they’re often covered by the network affiliates or by popular cable news stations. Most communities at least have newspaper reporters present. You should keep this in mind. Never say or do anything that you’re not prepared to see on TV or in the newspaper, even if the discussion gets heated. You want the media there to generate positive publicity for your proposal, not to make you or your supporters look bad.

  • Choose spokespeople carefully. If several members of your group are allowed to speak, use the opportunity to showcase people who are articulate (but not apparently too different from most of the community), represent a range of stakeholders (parents, students, particular groups affected), can present themselves respectfully but firmly, and have compelling stories to tell or arguments to make. Personal stories, particularly, can make a powerful impression, especially if those who tell them are familiar to the audience, or are people with whom they can identify.
  • Make sure your message is clear and consistent, no matter who is delivering it. What your group has to say should be straightforward, informative, and non-confrontational (this isn’t always possible, but do your best). It should be backed up with facts, statistics, study results, the experience of other school systems, and/or educational (or psychological or scientific) theory. Most importantly, it should emphasize how this will benefit students, education, and/or the community. (If it won’t, why are you advocating for it?)
  • Be prepared for opposing arguments. Make sure you can counter them with hard facts and other substantiation. If your group is asked a non-trivial question you can’t answer (no matter how much homework you do, you can’t cover everything), offer to find out the answer and bring it to the next meeting. Even if the question is trivial, treat it with respect unless it’s obviously meant to ridicule or humiliate you. If it is meant as ridicule, answer it with humor, not anger.
  • Respect the Committee’s time limits, but don’t allow yourself to be pushed aside without making your point.
  • Respect the Committee’s decision-making procedures. Some School Committee bylaws may mandate a one-or two-meeting delay on policy decisions. Often, even in the absence of such a bylaw, major policy decisions are not made the first time a policy change is brought up. Rather, time is allowed at one or more future meetings for more discussion before the change is brought to a vote. If this is the case, just be sure that you continue to produce a large, diverse, and vocal group of supporters at School Committee meetings leading up to the vote, and that your message remains consistent.

If it looks like you may not be successful, there are some ways you may be able to salvage the situation. One is to be sure you have a fall-back position, a variation of what you’re asking for that may not give you everything you want, but that will get at the most important points while at the same time dropping the most controversial or difficult part of your proposal. Another tactic might be to agree to, or even advocate for, more study of the proposal. Given time to reflect (and time for you to gather your support), the Committee might realize that a controversial or difficult step is nonetheless necessary for the good of the students and the system.

If your proposed policy change is rejected, regroup and strategize again.

There are a number of reasons your proposed change might have been rejected.

In a sense, this may be even harder to deal with than the actual issue at hand. Most schools are, in fact, organized around the needs of the adults involved, rather than those of the children. “The way we’ve always done it” is often the path of least resistance, and steering people off that path can be extremely difficult.

  • The Committee honestly felt that it simply wasn’t in the best interests of the students. If you continue to believe they’re wrong, you should continue to push for change. Put together an even more impressive array of facts and figures to support your arguments, continue to build community support in order to exert pressure on the Committee, invite Committee members to be part of a group to study the issue, work for the support of teachers, etc.. Over time, if your proposed change really does make sense and will benefit students, it’s reasonable to expect that you’ll bring enough Committee members around to get the policy change approved.
  • The Committee rejected the proposal because the change wouldn’t fit into the way things are done in the system. If a change is educationally beneficial for students, it should happen unless it actually isn’t affordable (Everyone knows that very small classes are better for students, but most systems can’t raise enough taxes to make them possible) or it would impose an unfair workload on teachers and administrators. If the reason is simply that it’s too much trouble, or that “we don’t do things that way,” that’s a failure of the Committee’s and the system’s duty to students. Your efforts should be aimed toward pointing this out, and, again, continuing to build support and substantiation.

In a sense, this may be even harder to deal with than the actual issue at hand. Most schools are, in fact, organized around the needs of the adults involved, rather than those of the children. “The way we’ve always done it” is often the path of least resistance, and steering people off that path can be extremely difficult.

  • The Committee rejected the proposal for reasons that are irrelevant to education, mistaken, irrational, or simply unacceptable (lack of belief in evolution, unwillingness to confront the fact that a large percentage of teens are sexually active, racial prejudice, etc.). In this situation, you may have to convince the community either that the Committee is dead wrong, or that their reasons conflict with sound educational practice, logic, and/or common decency (not to mention the Constitution). That often calls for community action – organizing your support, using the media, and engaging in various kinds of direct action.

The reality is that a social action approach may be necessary in any of these three situations, if the School Committee proves immovable and you believe the proposed change is necessary for the educational, physical, or psychological welfare of students. Some social action tactics that might prove helpful:

  • Organize to defeat oppositional School Committee members at the next election. This may take some patience. Some communities elect a whole School Committee at once for a set period (usually 2 or 3 years). Others stagger three- or four-year terms, so that only a third or a quarter of the School Committee is up for reelection in any given year. That means that you may have to wait two or three years to actually gain a favorable majority on the Committee, even if all your candidates win.
  • Use the media. You can get your message out widely and quickly through careful use of the media. That involves, among other activities, establishing relationships with (sympathetic) reporters, editors, station managers, etc.; holding press conferences, orchestrating letters to the Editor, and making sure you get coverage for events and actions you stage; and contacting state- and nation-wide media, to broaden your support and put even greater pressure on the School Committee.
  • Maintain a vocal presence at School Committee meetings. If it’s appropriate, continue to pack meetings with supporters, and call for the policy change at every opportunity. Media coverage of meetings will help spread the word. The worse you’re treated by the School Committee the worse they’ll look and the more sympathetic the community will be to your cause, as long as you remain reasonable and respectful at meetings.
  • Take direct action. Stage public meetings, rallies, demonstrations, petition drives, picketing, and other events meant to draw attention to and explain the need for policy change. Such events will also demonstrate the extent of your support, and put pressure on the School Committee, as an elected body, to respond to public opinion.
  • Recall the School Committee (or the members of the Committee blocking your proposal). This takes less time than the election process, but is dependent on there being a recall clause in the community’s (or the School Committee’s) bylaws. If there is, obtaining a certain number of signatures can force a recall election. Before you take this route, you should be sure that there’s at least a reasonable chance that the recall will succeed, and that the people who take the places of recalled School Committee members will be sympathetic to the policy change you want. Recall elections tend to create community divisions and animosities that can take years – even lifetimes – to heal, and shouldn’t be entered into lightly.
  • Work to pass legislation that will make your policy change into law statewide. If you already have a legislative champion, or a relationship with one or more legislators, this may be a good direction to take. If you’re starting from scratch, it could still be worthwhile, but it will take much longer, and involve a major organizing effort. The advantage is, of course, that you won’t have to fight the battle over policy change again, and you’ll be benefiting far more students than those in your own community.
  • File a lawsuit. As explained earlier,this is usually a last resort because of its expense and the length of time it’s likely to take. On the other hand, the threat or actual filing of a suit may be enough to move the School Committee to change its mind. A sympathetic attorney (there may be one among your supporters) can be helpful in developing strategy here.

Once you gain the policy change you’re seeking, reorganize and tackle the next issue.

Whether this effort was easy or difficult, you’ve put together a group that has worked together to effect a policy change . . . but your work’s not done. As with so much else described in the Tool Box, you need to maintain the gains you’ve made – make sure that the policy change is not only carried out, but carried out in the way that’s most beneficial to students, and continued for the foreseeable future. Furthermore, it’s unlikely that this is the only change necessary, either in the school system or in the community. Take some time to savor your victory, to celebrate, to congratulate yourselves . . . and then get back to the job of making the school system and the community the best it can be.

In Summary

Sometimes, it’s necessary to seek policy change in schools or school systems, in order to enhance or protect the educational benefits to students, the physical and psychological health and safety of students and school staff, or the management and integrity of the system. Because schools and school systems tend to be hierarchical and difficult to move, this can lead to conflict or impasse, leaving students to suffer the effects of inferior learning opportunities, deteriorating or dangerous schools, or unfair or abusive treatment by school personnel or other students.

It’s most effective to work collaboratively with the School Committee, the teachers’ union, and parents, students, and interested community members to arrive at the best solution to the problem and change and oversee policy accordingly. When there’s resistance to that course – because of a sincere difference of opinion, because of resistance to change of any sort, or because of unacceptable assumptions or ideas on the part of the policy makers (racism, for example), conflict of some sort may be inevitable. By putting together a strong and diverse community group of supporters of change, and

by using the leverage that group commands – public pressure, media attention, research into best practices, etc. – you can achieve the change you’re aiming for. The less nasty and the more collaborative you can make the process, the better the chances will be that the next change effort – and there will be a next change effort; there always is – will be easier.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

Eight steps to policy change from North Carolina Tobacco-Free Schools.

ERIC Digest 148 – school dress policies (uniforms and other dress codes as violence prevention).

Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. Gets you to a huge resource for gay/lesbian/straight issues.

How to start a gay/lesbian/straight alliance in a school, a PowerPoint.

Kit on changing food policy in schools from Massachusetts Public Health Association

Site of Californians for Pesticide Reform – how to change school policy (decent rules for any issue).