Sunday / May 19

6 Strategies for Creative Compliance to School Reform

I recently met with a school leadership team as part of a strategic planning session. We were discussing ways to unstandardized the curriculum so students could receive a more relevant, equitable, and fun education experience. During the course of the discussion about ways to unstandardized the curriculum, several of the school leaders asked, “But how can we do that? Like it or not, standardized curriculum content is the law of the land now, and we have to implement it. I don’t like it, but I have to roll it out and make sure the teachers teach it. What can I really do?” 

That was not the first time I heard the “What can we do?” question about a school reform program or mandate. Many educators have shared that exasperated response with me in one form or another regarding education. Whether it is teacher evaluation programs, high stakes standardized testing, standardized curricular mandates, or other mandates, some school leaders seem at a loss for ways to critique education reforms and determine how to take action if they believe a reform is potentially ineffective. Similarly, they sometimes seem at a loss for ideas on how to capitalize on positive aspects of a reform. Many just “roll it out.” 

Creative Compliance 

My response to “It’s the law, what can I do?” has always been: “creatively comply!” Gain an understanding of the reform, and then customize it at the local level to benefit students, teachers, and stakeholders. Leaders must act in the best interest of their constituency. Regardless of the reform proposal or policy, school leaders have the power to mold it, shape it, delay it, repackage it, or try to circumvent it in ways that do not violate the law.  

Take leadership actions that keep the school in compliance yet minimize the negative aspects of the reform while accentuating the positive. Procrastinate on the rollout, and give teachers time to redesign their professional practice as a way to blunt the negative effects of the reform and enhance any positive aspects. Negotiate with the district for more support and resources for teachers and students. Look for holes in the law or mandate and circumvent the proposal with other ideas, or tack in a different direction to do something better. There are a host of strategies leaders can use to creatively comply.  

History is replete with examples of leaders who followed questionable or bad policies instead of finding ways to lead in the cracks of those policies. In many cases, the lack of leadership is not due to a lack of a desire to lead. The desire is there, but perhaps the leader does not know where to start or what to do.  

What is Creative Compliance? 

Creative compliance takes place when school leaders seek openings or cracks within the bureaucratic and legal structures of a reform where they can influence the implementation at the local level in order to do less harm, do more good, and 

maintain ethics of caring and justice. Creative compliance has its roots in a concept known as creative insubordination (Buskey and Pitts, 2013), but it does not rise to the level of insubordination.  

Creative compliance does not require outright disobedience, nor does it require school leaders to commit professional suicide or break the law. Creative compliance allows leaders to critique a reform and consider alternative paths of implementation rather than unquestionably or blindly following reform mandates imposed from above. Reform does not have to be negative. It can be productive, creative, and innovative! 

Creative compliance does not encourage deceitful behavior. It requires school leaders to understand the details of the reforms they implement and creatively search for ways to implement them so that the positive aspects of each reform are maximized and the negative side effects are minimized. In some cases, school leaders must purposefully and strategically deviate from federal, state, or local guidance in order to maximize the positive aspects of a reform. Deviation need not be deceitful or unethical, but is should be strategic, creative, and informed by the best available information.

6 Strategies for Creative Compliance

Strategy #1: Crack the Code 

Federal and statemandated education reform programs derive from legislation or state education code. A careful read of the legislation or code can sometimes identify loopholes or cracks that allow school leaders to comply in ways that limit some of the negative effects or accentuate the positive aspects.  

Strategy #2: Procrastination 

Procrastination (Hoy and Tarter, 2007) is one strategy that leaders can use to slow or blunt the potential negative effects of a reform while buying time to accentuate the positive. The pace at which a reform is implemented can be purposely slowed through raising questions, missing deadlines, forgetfulness, or simply waiting out portions or all of a reform until commanded or threatened to take an action. School leaders, and educators in general can look for piecemeal procrastination openings within the totality of a reform in order to slow the process.  

Strategy #3: Tacking  

Buskey and Pitts (2009) defined tacking as “strategies [that] involve simple actions designed to test the commitment of the system to the directives or to delay implementation until the situation changes” (p. 60). Tacking can include any actions school leaders use to divert attention and resources away from direct implementation of the reform they find to be unethical or educationally suspect and toward the positive aspects of the reform or toward changing the trajectory of the reform in order to do less harm. 

Strategy #4: Negotiation 

 Negotiation involves direct discussion with some level of the power source of the reform. It is a strategy that involves more potential risk for the leader compared the previous strategies. The negotiator aims to change the direction of the reform or abort the reform in favor for another practice 

Strategy #5: Waivers  

In the context of creative compliance, a waiver is something requested by a subordinate from a supervisor or government agency that allows the individual, school, or district to not implement the mandated reform, but instead implement an alternative program in its place, aimed at accomplishing the same overall goal (D. Gutmore, personal communication December, 20, 2017). The waiver is a formal “ok” not to implement the mandated reform and it is akin to a permission slip to deviate from the original plan or mandate. Waivers can be part of a larger negotiation strategy. 

Strategy #6: Circumventing 

Buskey and Pitts (2009) identified another strategy that school leaders can use for creative compliance: circumventing. The authors defined circumventing as acts that people use to “work around the directives or change the nature of their implementation to mitigate the negative effects” (p. 60). One way school leaders can use circumventing as part of creative compliance is to customize the reform at the point of contact through any openings or cracks they find in the legal or bureaucratic aspects of the mandate through code breaking. 

Take Action  

School leaders do not have to embrace the defeatist attitude of “like it or not” when it comes to implementing education reforms. One cannot be a leader in title or position only. One must lead, and leadership requires action. When school leaders recognize that compliance with a reform mandate might cross an ethical boundary or not be in the best educational interest of all students, or they want to capitalize on a reform in a way that deviates from the mandated implementation, they may choose to engage in creative compliance.


Buskey, F. C., & Pitts, E. M. (2009). Training subversives: The ethics of leadership preparation. Phi Delta Kappan, 91(3), 57-61. 

Buskey, F. C., & Pitts, E. M. (2013). Personal ethical checking in courageous school leadership. NCPEA Education Leadership Review, 14(3), 73-81. 

Hoy, W.K. & Tartar, J.C. (2007). Leaders solving the problems of practice: Decision making concepts, cases, and consequences. 3rd Edition. New York: Pearson. 

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