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View From Inside: Understanding Education Bureaucracy Vital For More Meaningful Parental Participation

View From Inside: Understanding Education Bureaucracy Vital For More Meaningful Parental Participation

By Dr. Leon A. Barrett
PRIDE Education Columnist

Dr Leon A BarrettIn an earlier commentary, I hinted that parents’ involvement in their children’s education at school is complex and could be a test of wills. Here, I will begin to simplify the structure, through which the education product is delivered to students.

This will enable parents to better understand the education system, and so facilitate more meaningful participation in the education process to better benefit their children.

The participation of parents in the formal education process often starts at the school level. Schools, however, are part of a larger education bureaucracy.

A bureaucracy is an administrative structure, organized like a pyramid or ladder. There are different levels of positions. Duties are usually specialized and set out in great details. And there is uneven distribution of power and influence on this ladder.

The higher one goes up on this ladder, the more power and influence he or she is allowed to exercise. At the same time, the lower one is on this ladder, the less power and influence he or she has and can exercise.

Let us take a look at a typical education bureaucracy or system. Let us use Ontario as the example.

At the top of the bureaucracy, or ladder, is the Ontario Ministry of Education. It largely sets educational policies, determines what should be taught (curricula) and provides the bulk of the funding for the operation of the education system.

Below the ministry of education are the district school boards. They interpret the ministry policies in a way that they can be implemented in the schools. They also set certain policies to help guide how education is organized and delivered in their particular area. They may raise additional funds for certain board operations. In addition, they account for the money they receive from the ministry of education.

Each school board then employs a director of education as the main manager. He or she is the chief implementer or enforcer and communicator of the policies. While he or she may have an input in the formulation of board policies, that is not his or her main function.

The director may be assisted by a number of associate directors, who are given jurisdiction over certain areas of board operations. An associate director may be responsible for School Support Services, or Operational Support Services, or Instructional and Equity Support Services.

Below the director and associate directors are superintendents. They are responsible for the supervision of a number of schools in a specific geographical area.

At the school level is a principal, the main enforcer of policies. He or she may be assisted by a vice principal or two or three, depending on the size of the student population. The administration is assisted by the office staff that provides support services, including regulating access to the administration, that is, gate-keeping functions.

If the school is a secondary one, there might be heads of subject departments. Then there are the front line teachers. There might also be support services in the form of teaching assistants. And at the bottom of the ladder are the students. So in terms of the bureaucracy, students would have the least formal power and influence.

So the education bureaucracy illustrates a kind of chain of command.

The Ontario Education Act and Regulations clearly set out the managerial duties of the principal and personnel above that level. The vice principal has no defined tasks. His or her duties are dictated by the principal and is accountable to him or her. Teachers too are accountable to the principal.

The principal has very limited independent powers. Almost everything he or she does is dictated by a policy. So he or she needs to be knowledgeable about policies to function to expectation. Major decisions have to be approved by the supervisory officer or superintendent.

This education bureaucracy has important implications for parental participation and how to address complaints and conflicts. In this system, parents have to deal with, not only individual persons but a particular school culture, also based on power relationships.

In a recently published book, Succeeding in the Educational Maze — written by four educators, including myself — in our presentations, for example, we note how some educators regard the school as their power domain or fiefdom.

So school personnel are most comfortable when the outsiders (parents) act in a subservient, subordinate way, doing what they are told.

It is all well and good when parents come in to sell cookies or chocolate for fundraising. It is all well and good when parents accompany staff on school field trips. It is all well and good when parents play “dumb” and accept that school personnel have the monopoly on what is best for their children. It is all well and good when parents act as cheerleaders for the school.

It is not well and good when parents question this part of the school culture. A parent-teacher conference then, is not a dialogue between partners when parents seek information on how their children are being educated. It is not well and good when parents offer suggestions to improve the education process. Such behavior is an affront to some school personnel

As parents then, you enter the school at your own risk. Regardless of who you are, when you enter the domain, some educators treat you as if you do not belong, and you enter as an uninformed intruder. You are talked down to, and even when legitimate questions are asked and concerns raised, a defensive stance is taken.

It is common for parents to experience attempts by some educators to deliberately mislead them. Sometimes it is not until parents reveal that they know the policies, regulations and expectations that attempts are made to be straightforward with them.

It should be pointed out, however, that some school boards have been devoting resources to make schools more hospitable and less hostile to parents and other stakeholders.

Then there is the reality that school is not organized to address the individual needs of individual students. It is a “numbers” game. The refrain is “Show me the data?”

(To be continued)

Dr. Barrett is a retired Peel Region District Board teacher and educator. Write to him at pridenews@bellnet.ca.

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