Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on how autonomous school governance can create a culture of trust and commitment that is sustainable.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

Autonomous School Governance: Create a Culture of Commitment

By Nancy Allen Mastro

The school accountability movement began in the 1990s out of a growing fear that student achievement was edging toward the brink of disaster, especially when comparing American students’ academic performance to their international peers. With nothing but standardized test scores to defend or debunk the assumption, the conversation around schooling in the United States whipped into a political frenzy. Even before then, state and federal regulation had been on the rise. But when No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, the focus on accountability reached new heights. Power shifted considerably from the local level to the state house, and judging a school’s performance almost exclusively on test results was here to stay.


Since then and multiple iterations later, policy makers have continued to focus solely on conventional solutions that include hundreds of pages of mandates prescribing what schools, teachers, and principals must do, all in the name of getting better student outcomes. The accountability movement could just as well be dubbed The Compliance Movement. Legislators have taken the stance that they know best, leaving those closest to the students little room for making decisions. Increasingly, schools don’t look and feel like places where practitioners are trusted or respected, and teachers are more frustrated than ever.  


But teachers are a determined lot. After more than three decades of being sidelined, some are taking matters into their own hands and acting on what they believe is best for students. Through autonomous school governance, an approach in which teachers design and run the school by making decisions together with input from students and parents, the landscape is changing.


Autonomous school governance increases everyone’s commitment. Decisions that affect students most are made by those who know them best. A clear and compelling vision drives teachers’ actions, which are guided by their combined professional knowledge, insight, and expertise. When teachers believe that what they do and how they do it makes a difference in how well students learn, they have collective efficacy. Collective efficacy is powerful because those who possess it are bound together by a shared sense of responsibility.  


Responsibility is different than accountability. Teachers have long argued they cannot be held accountable for student learning; only the student can be, and they are right. Accountability is individual in nature; one cannot be accountable for another’s actions or inactions. But responsibility can be shared, and teachers are responsible for creating the conditions for learning. Autonomous school governance places that responsibility squarely in their hands.


The idea of teachers governing their work is not new. Its roots can be found in past pursuits like site-based management, which goes back decades. Then, teachers were given more say, but they were not given the power to affect change. As a result, a massive amount of time was spent processing, but little actually changed. Autonomous school governance comes with a different promise. The distribution of power goes deeper, and teachers are given real authority to make decisions.


Perhaps the best known model for autonomous school governance in today’s terms can be found in the flourishing Teacher-Powered Schools movement. A total of 120 teacher-powered schools dot the national landscape in at least 18 states, and the list is growing. Their guiding question is, “How do we make school better for kids?” From there, all decisions flow.


Recently I spoke to Alex Vitrella, Director of Network and School Support at Education Evolving. Vitrella is an enthusiastic advocate for teachers taking the lead. A former teacher in Minneapolis who was frustrated with what she was seeing in schools, she now sees great hope. Several years ago, St. Paul-based Education Evolving was seeking a way to promote student-centered learning. Intuitively, they knew it would require ways for teachers to work more autonomously. They decided to collaborate with the Center for Teaching Quality in Carrboro, North Carolina and together they launched the Teacher-Powered Schools movement in 2014. Vitrella joined Education Evolving four years ago and has been working with the movement ever since then.


Unfortunately, traditional models for school leadership can prevent teachers from having or feeling like they have autonomy. According to Vitrella, teachers don’t feel like they have the time or space to plan on a larger scale with their colleagues in the traditional arrangements offered, such as curriculum committees, site teams, and other ways school leaders attempt to distribute leadership. It can be difficult for communication to flow freely and effectively between the different layers of decision-making. Add to that the range of leadership levels within the system and you create the added potential for a breakdown in message and intent. This web of complexity, Vitrella points out, causes teachers to turn inward and focus on what they can control, which is what happens in their own classroom. Many close the door and keep doing what they’ve always done.  


By sheer virtue of its name, a teacher-powered school sounds like one in which there is no longer a principal. On the contrary, it doesn’t mean eliminating administrators at all, says Vitrella. “It’s about inverting the traditional hierarchy and moving those at the bottom of the triangle who know the kids and families best and giving them more of a say. That can be done with or without school administrators. Admin is still there and have an incredibly important role. It’s a way a lot of really good leaders lead. This [the teacher-powered model] formalizes that.”


Trust is foundational to the success of a teacher-powered school. Getting teachers to follow teachers means changing the culture. “It requires a lengthy trust-building process so that teacher feel like professionals and act like them too,” Vitrella states. A lot of time and energy is centered around building shared purpose. “This can be overlooked when it comes to running a school but it is so rewarding.”


One of the most important things that autonomous school governance offers is the ability for a school culture to sustain itself, even when changes in leadership or new teachers come on board. The culture is not dependent on one individual. It empowers all the individuals in the school. Stable cultures are good for everyone, especially students. In steady and secure environments, initiatives can be fostered and supported through the normal stages of development, thereby increasing the chances for success. What isn’t working at first can be gradually resolved, allowing the best ideas to take root and evolve in deep and meaningful ways. Add to that a continuous improvement cycle and you have a winning combination.  


When asked if there is a typical way in which leadership is organized, Vitrella says each teacher-powered school is arranged differently. “It depends on the culture. There can still be a principal, or there may be lead teachers, rotating leads, or the whole school makes the decision.” Teacher-powered schools are charter schools as well as district schools. Of the 120 around the country, about half can be found in each setting, meaning even a traditional school become a teacher-powered school. “It’s easier in a new school school because you get to select people who are passionate about the system you are building and are committed to its purpose. But there are schools in traditional districts who are teacher-powered, and the movement has seen quite a few of them successfully convert.” But, Vitrella admits, “it is hard to change an existing system. When it gets hard, people go back to what they know.” However, it can be done, as evidenced by schools finding success no matter their type.


The elephant in the room would seem to be teacher unions, but Vitrell insists they have found incredible support from local unions. “Teacher-powered schools transcend the traditional divides between management and union. It [teacher autonomy] is a concept everyone seems to be able to get behind. Unions see it as the next step in professionalizing teaching.” That said, having a formal agreement, a memorandum of understanding, or waivers with the local union is important. For example, in addition to selecting teachers, teacher-powered school leaders need to be able to deselect them when the fit is not right. This and other important aspects of the master agreement need to be fleshed out in advance for true autonomy to exist.  


The rewards of being a teacher-powered school are many, and Vitrella is quick to point them out. “Teachers feel respected; if they have a problem, they have to change it themselves. You don’t have the ‘water cooler’ complaining.” They have the autonomy, in fact the responsibility, to fix it. She also claims a lot fewer teachers leave teaching in a teacher-powered school because there is a much stronger shared purpose. Students and adults know what is expected. There are even rewards for the principal. “You get to lead in the way you had hoped to lead. Principals were former teachers who want to do this work. They did not want to be paper pushers. They like the collaborative model, and they don’t feel so alone.”


No matter how a leadership structure is organized in schools, one thing is for certain: Teachers need to have a voice. While this can be accomplished in a number of ways, we need to keep in mind that substance is more important than structure. Whether you are in a traditional school, a charter school, a private school, or some other configuration, ensuring a seat at the table for teachers that is a real, authentic, and impactful part of the power structure is important.


What does the leadership structure look like in your school? How are teachers given voice, what decisions do they make, and what do they see as their responsibility? If you have a union, how would it look upon granting waivers for schools wanting to assume greater responsibility for critical decisions? These are questions we increasingly need to ask.


If you are interested in finding out more about autonomous school government, considering visiting the Teacher-Powered Schools website. It provides an expansive and detailed guide for those who are ready to wade into the waters and start empowering themselves and those around them. Better yet, visit a teacher-powered school. You can find one close to you by checking out this list. There is even a national conference in November in Boston, which offers yet another way learn more.