The Rules for Rule-Making in Education


Anyone who has been in school administration for any time knows the myriad of rules and laws that affect the way we run education. For better or worse, these rules give a framework to our relationships and provide guidance for behavior and boundaries for action.

Making rules for schools does not require we prepare a lengthy list of "do’s" and "don’ts." In fact, current management theory suggests just the opposite--that all members of the team have a role to play in the management of the school district as a community. In his 1964 book Law and Morality, noted legal scholar Lon Fuller wrote about ways to make laws fail. These same principles apply to academic and interpersonal relationships.

Offering Rationale
From his work and others, we have adapted four rules for making rules.

  • The rules should say why.

    Modern management techniques and interpersonal communication theory say that most people respond better if they know why they are doing something. It's not enough to say, "Here's what I think is appropriate behavior." District-level administrators owe it to site administrators and staff to tell them why the rule is important.

    For example, many school districts have instituted a zero-tolerance policy regarding drugs, alcohol and weapons on school property. The need for these rules may appear to be self-evident, but it is still important for policy statements to provide a rationale for the rules. In addition, these explanations help teachers and administrators know they have the support of the central office when making enforcement decisions.

  • The rules should have a pattern and should be applied consistently.

    In his 1986 book Out of the Crisis, W. Edwards Deming pointed to "lack of constancy" as one of the "diseases" that cripples improvement. Thus, if the rules don't have a consistent pattern, faculty and staff never are sure what the rules are going to be from day to day. Rules that always change leave faculty and staff confused, bewildered and constantly struggling to figure out what the rules actually are.

    All other things being equal, the rules should stay the same, and similar rules should lead to similar behavior. And here again, the "why" rule comes into play.

    Consider dress codes. All schools have rules, either written or just understood, about what attire is appropriate for teachers and staff. These rules must be applied consistently or else rumors, confusion and hurt feelings will abound.

    If the rules are not applied consistently, then questions such as, "What exactly are the rules here? Some people follow the rules while others get by doing whatever they want" will inevitably lead to confusion and possibly hurt feelings, with a concomitant drop in feelings of "community" in the district and local school. The purpose of consistency is to make sure everyone knows what the expectations are. Constantly changing the rules means there really are no rules.

  • Open Sharing
  • The rules must be known to everyone concerned.

    One of the fastest ways to have a communication breakdown is to assume someone else can read your mind.

    Everyone has heard the following kind of comment, probably more than once: "But I thought everyone knew about the local purchase policy." Too often management relies on word-of-mouth to make sure policies are explained. Too often a written policy does not exist. Too often employees are confused when they suddenly find what appear to be new rules.

    The best way to ensure the rules are known to everyone is to have a written set of policies and procedures that are updated as needed.

    Like inconsistent rules, rules that suddenly appear as if out of thin air cause mental turmoil and uncertainty. The solution: open and honest communication.

  • Judgments (penalties) must reflect the rules.

    Despite our best efforts, sometimes people insist on breaking the rules. Just as in the legal system, violations of the school rules should usually lead to some sanction or penalty.

    Take the rule on tardiness. The district should have explicit rules for faculty and staff calling in late. Then there has to be some kind of sanction, known to all, for consistent tardiness: loss of pay, suspension, termination.

    Like all other rules, the penalties have to explain why, be consistent and be known to everyone.

  • Reciprocal Relationship
    These suggestions for making rules in schools presuppose there is collaboration in their development. An attitude of quality must start with proactive management. And we have known for years that dictatorial managerial methods are inefficient.

    Fuller, the American legal scholar, noted the failure of rules results in anarchy. He further pointed to a kind of reciprocity between how the rules are formulated and how they are followed. Sloppy, non-caring rule-making leads to sloppy behavior, and sloppy behavior leads to a don't-care attitude. And a don't-care attitude is a harmful state of affairs in our professional and personal lives.

    Larry Burriss is a professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, P.O. Box 272, Murfreesboro, Tenn. 37132. E-mail: Kathleen Glascott is an associate professor of elementary and special education at Middle Tennessee State University and a former public school teacher.