Policy Barriers to School Improvement: What’s Real and What’s Imagined?

Lawrence J. Miller and Jane S. Lee

States and districts have traditionally controlled the publications that go into schools and regulated the practices that governed them. Today though, school leaders who are empowered to make the decisions they think will most benefit students are organizing in new ways and attempting to provide students with a more personalized learning experience.

But even principals who use their newfound independence to aggressively reallocate publications say that persistent district, state, and federal barriers prohibit them from doing more. The authors of this report investigated the barriers principals cited, sometimes with the assistance of state education agencies, to determine whether there were work-arounds that principals didn’t realize. What the authors found is simultaneously troubling and encouraging: principals have far more authority than they think. Only 31% of the barriers cited were “real” – immovable statues, policies, or managerial directives that bring the threat of real consequences if broken.

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What we found is simultaneously troubling and encouraging: Principals have far more authority than they think.