One thing I have learned working or studying in various aspects of the education and legal system now for decades is that what people seem to think of as "rules" are rarely that. We self-govern on the basis of these "rules" more restrictively than any actual set of statutes, regulations, policies, or procedures would ever have us comply. This self inflicted straight jacket of rules is suffocating the American education system from preschool to graduate school. It is a straight-jacket based almost entirely on norms, not laws. Tightly adhering to laws is the implementation of democracy; tightly adhering to norms is the implementation of culture. While these two obviously mix together, they have extremely different implications. Both laws and norms can be changed, usually without that much difficultly, but through different approaches. While law is typically changed from the top down, culture is typically changed from the bottom up. There is a lack of understanding, though, that the "rules" that bind the education system are mostly cultural, not legal. Thus, most people labeled as "education reformers" like to spend their time trying to change policy (without much effect) when spending time trying to change norms can be much more effective. As a result of failing to understand this distinction, we are seriously limited in our potential for actual reform across the entire education system.
On this Leadership Day #2014, it is worth sharing this insight because it is central to what I have seen as a distinguishing variable while watching both leaders that are successful in implementing reform and those are have not been successful. When leaders that have not been successful have found themselves bound by what they perceive to be some "rule," they nearly subconsciously assume it must be a form of law and, thus, out of their hands. When leaders that have been successful face that same "rule," they assume it is only cultural unless it is proven that it is legal. Even then, they are questioning of the true nature of the legal basis (because it does matter, and there is a sliding scale of how seriously one needs to take education laws, but that is for a different post). Assuming the "rule" is cultural, though, immediately changes the reformers approach. They think bottom up, not top down. Instead of what policymakers must be involved in reform, they think what teachers or students must be involved in reform? The understanding is not "it's out of our hands" but rather "this is our decision to make together." From this initial assumption, different approaches to reform follow and there is a different likelihood of changing the actual situation for students (which is the goal, changing a law is not an end in itself as some policy-types seem to believe). This understanding between the real power behind the "rules of education" seems to be an absolutely critical component of effective transformational leadership.
Thus, next time you find yourself stymied by a "rule" ask either yourself or your superiors to show you the law (statute, regulation, policy) that limits your ability to change in that instance. If you are asking others, do it in a friendly way, but also in a way that clearly shows your assumption is that no such law governs the situation. Once no law is found (or your superior gives up), as is likely, ask a follow up question to either yourself or your superiors of "who would we need to get on board to change this? or "what would it take to get this done?" If an answer emerges to either of those two questions, now you have a path to real reform. Make it happen and the world will be, perhaps ever so slightly, a better place for it.