How are policies developed, agreed upon, and implemented in different educational settings? This is a fundamental question if you’re interested in a career in education. It goes back to the roots of schooling in this country, and its roots reflect the complex nature of the system that has developed there. Decisions about education are made at many different levels, from the institutions themselves to the federal government. Still, in every case, academic experts must deeply understand how schools function and commit to developing evidence-based policy reflecting public needs. If you think that could be you, this article will help you remember where your talents might be most productively employed.
The history of US schooling
When Europeans first settled in North America, they came from countries where efforts were increasingly being made to educate all boys, and in some cases girls as well, at least up to the start of puberty, when all but the wealthiest would start to take on adult roles. The new Americans were keen to show that they could succeed without the Old World’s support and improve upon its civilized values. Wherever settlement was dense enough, they set up schools and soon began founding the country’s first universities.
Most of these early educational establishments were private, charitable, or religious institutions, with little standardization around rules and regulations or even curriculum. Most only admitted white children, and it took a while for a teaching profession to develop – before that, the job was taken on by whatever educated people could be spared from other tasks, with no guarantee that they knew how to engage with their students or understood what they were endeavoring to pass along. However, the school still played an important role in society, as mass literacy and numeracy were essential to building up a country that could participate effectively in the international economy.
Standardization and the federal focus
Federal involvement in education began in 1870 and centered on ensuring that schooling was available to as many children as possible. Although they would remain segregated for many years, this included building schools for children of color. States gradually began to make schooling mandatory, with homeschoolers required to demonstrate that their children could attain certain standards. The biggest problem was in rural areas, as school buses were not an option for several decades. Still, after the Great Depression, the federal government stepped in with a massive school-building program.
After the Supreme Court voted to end racial segregation in schools in 1954, the government worked to persuade states to take action accordingly, and it stepped in again in 1975 to ensure that students with disabilities had access to a proper education. The federal government’s role in education was thus established as one of oversight and the protection of children’s rights. With the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, it took on an additional role, offering increased funding to schools in exchange for their agreement to adhere to standardized educational goals and track their students’ progress accordingly. In the years since then, this responsibility has largely been handed over to individual states, but as no state wishes to be seen as falling behind, most continue to take a similar approach.
Public school regulation
By how they developed, public schools are not allowed to discriminate based on origin, race, or color. Students’ freedom of religion is protected, including their right to express their faith by wearing crosses or headscarves. Math, science, reading, writing, art, and social studies must be taught, though states have some freedom regarding how they do this. In most states, teachers need college degrees and are licensed, so parents can be confident they know what they’re doing. In most states, teachers need college degrees and are licensed, so parents can be convinced they know what they’re doing. Schools generally get to decide on an individual basis whether or not to offer vocational courses or foreign languages, which often depends on the skills of their staff. They must also provide school meals for children whose families fall below a minimum income threshold.
Public schools educate most people in the US, and others can rapidly adopt successful innovation in one. If you’re interested in contributing your ideas, you don’t have to be at the top of the system to make a difference. The wording of rules generally leaves room for interpretation, and how they are implemented makes a big difference to the experience on the ground. Students’ school experience often depends less on federal or state policy than on the choices made by their teachers, who, as far as they’re concerned, generally have the final word.
Charter schools must meet the same academic standards as public ones and follow the same anti-discrimination policies, but they are not as tightly regulated and have more freedom to do things in their way. Independent of school districts, they operate according to their specific contracts or charters (hence the name). This means they must adhere to the conditions established in those charters, and changing an established alliance is a slow and complex process. Beyond that, they are free to make many of their own decisions. Because they generally cater to minority populations, they tend to be governed in a way that reflects those specific community needs. Many have parents and community leaders involved in their governance. This gives a greater degree of accountability to the people they serve, though they are less accountable to elected bodies. They vary significantly in terms of their achievements because their success is more dependent on the input of individuals.
It is difficult to compare the outcomes of charter schools to public schools directly because overall poorer performance may reflect the fact that charter schools are more likely to serve disadvantaged students. Some are extremely successful, and many have specific strengths that reflect the priorities of parents who send their children there. They may excel at math, languages, or engineering. They may use unusual teaching methods to reach children who don’t fit in at other schools because they are neurodivergent or unusually intelligent. These schools may also have a particular focus on discipline and model behavior. Rules and priorities tend to reflect the parents’ concerns of students already in attendance, affecting which parents decide to send their children there.
Because private schools are privately owned as non-profit corporate entities and do not receive public funding, they are exempt from most federal regulations. However, they are still required to abide by state regulations. Because they depend on fees or endowments, they must take an approach that makes parents or other funders happy. However, within each state’s regulatory framework, they have more freedom to alter their curriculums than any other school type. They can also make many rules around the selection of students, for instance, by requiring them to pass an entrance exam or make a certain impression at an interview. They may choose to limit the selection to a specific area, though private boarding schools with a high record of achievement often take students from across the country or even from other countries.
Beyond what is established by the state, private schools make decisions through boards or committees whose members can be appointed or elected and are often a mixture of both. It is common for school alums to be involved at this level, ensuring that individuals with experience of living under a school’s rules are available to inform adjustments to them. Once they have built up their reputations, private schools often resist change. They may hang onto practices seen elsewhere as archaic because this help to distinguish them and the particular ethos they seek to promote.
The state’s role in the regulation
Many of the most important educational decisions are made at the state level. It is stated that they set budgets for public funding and determine the curriculum in public schools while outlining requirements for private and charter schools and setting limits on what they are permitted to teach. They organize assessments and take action if schools fail to get adequate results. Such action may include enforcing changes in the curriculum or how the school treats its students and intervening in disciplinary matters. States are also responsible for financing the construction of new schools where needed, so they can be obligated to step in if a school’s standards are slipping because it simply has more students than it can cope with.
States are where the buck stops if serious problems develop in a school. They are empowered to step in if other authorities fail. Day to day, they advise school districts on changes they feel are necessary, with varying degrees of pressure. Because state governments are elected, their choices are influenced by voters’ desires. Groups of voters can lobby for policy changes, and anyone can stand for a role in government.
At a lower level, school regulation is handled by local school districts. Although they have the least power, their decisions affect many matters in the day-to-day running of schools. They are one of the easiest places to approach individual citizens interested in making a difference in education policy. They are the primary choice for parents seeking help when they’re dissatisfied with decisions made by their children’s schools. They can bridge the interests of individual schools and their communities of students, parents, staff, and state policymakers. They also support special events and information campaigns within schools, helping teams liaise with other government departments and charitable organizations.
Most important policy decisions affecting the day-to-day running of schools are taken at the school district level rather than within individual institutions. Most important policy decisions affecting the day-to-day running of schools are taken at the school district level rather than within individual institutions. Although individual schools are responsible for decisions in areas like health and safety, school districts channel funding, oversee work, and assess outcomes. They take on a lot of the administrative burden so that teachers and principals have more time to focus directly on the needs of their students.
Research and rule change
Because regulatory changes often need approval at multiple levels, nobody wants to make them without solid evidence to base decisions. This is where researchers come in and where the difference between Ed.D. and Ph.D. learning matters. As Marymount University’s useful explanation clarifies, an Ed.D. will qualify you to work on education policy in any of the contexts discussed in this article. Still, a Ph.D. is generally necessary for conducting the research that provides this vital evidence base. Unlike education graduate students who can only participate in research projects overseen by others, Ph.D. holders can direct and lead their research, identifying areas where too little is known for a good policy to be formulated and investigating those areas, opening up new areas of knowledge.
Whether you study for a Ph.D. or an Ed.D., you’ll be in a strong position to inform and develop policies to improve schools’ operations. You might focus your efforts on an individual school, a particular group of students you feel need more support or a much wider area. You’ll need to reflect on the values that attract you to education policy as a career and consider the different priorities within education. Today’s education policy shapes tomorrow’s economic policy and much more. Today’s education policy shapes tomorrow’s monetary policy and much more. If you get it right, you can make a significant positive difference in the lives of young people. What’s more, in helping them, you help to shape the future, creating a better world for everyone to live in.