Quality Design Principle #5: Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership

“I’m asking teachers to allow students to drive their learning. That means I need to allow teachers to drive the policy, the culture, and the decision-making.”

– Juan Carlos Ocón, Principal, Benito Juarez Community Academy, Chicago Public Schools, IL, 2017


Distributed leadership and a culture of empowerment enables schools to create the flexibility to personalize learning, respond to students’ changing needs and rapidly respond to emerging issues. This view of leadership is distinct from most traditional schools that generally draw upon a bureaucratic culture and top-down management strategies. Distributed leadership encourages schools to become more adaptive by providing the autonomy to those closest to students to respond to their needs in real time. When students are building agency and having voice in their education, it is important that teachers are equally empowered to engage and co-construct learning experiences. A competency-based school without this feature will be hard-pressed to reliably meet students where they are.

Key Characteristics

  • Leadership. Leadership sets the tone for the culture of empowerment. Leaders model specific values and behaviors, including seeing mistakes as an opportunity to learn rather than one for blaming.
  • Empowerment. Students and educators are able to make or participate in decisions that support their personal learning paths and progress. Empowerment is reflected in management and operational structures.
  • Transparency. For distributed decision-making to work, stakeholders need access to timely and accurate information, guiding principles and opportunity for consultations and collaboration.
  • Collaboration. While decision-making is distributed, it is not solely autonomous. Students and teachers make decisions in partnership with others. Partnerships may occur through conferences, professional learning communities, knowledge management processes or other structures and protocols.
  • Clear decision-making. While decision-making is distributed, it is not random or disorganized. There are clear criteria, processes and protocols for making decisions, as well as clear parameters (sometimes thought of as “tight loose” definitions) to define the boundaries of decision-making. These parameters ensure that decision-making is distributed, while also ensuring that all decision-making contributes to collective success.
  • Flexibility. Decision-making is located as close as possible to students and teachers. Accordingly, students and teachers (and leaders and schools) have the flexibility to make these decisions. Unlike top-down management approaches that expect them to follow set
    curriculum, rituals and routines, students and teachers in competency-based systems have the room to exercise
    personal and professional judgment vis-à-vis critical aspects of learning environments and experiences.
  • Risk-taking. Empowering decision-making requires creating a safe environment for employees to take risks. Strong cultures of learning and professional learning communities are essential to building the respect and trust that enables risk-taking.

How Does Cultivating Empowering and Distributed Leadership Relate to Quality?

The culture of traditional districts and schools value order and compliance. Likewise, they value hierarchical processes that slow decision-making down as it moves problems up and decisions down the bureaucratic ladder. Although the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional education system could be directed and coordinated by a central office, personalization cannot. Personalization requires empowered, strategic and coordinated action from the people who are closest to learning: students and teachers. A culture of distributed leadership contributes to quality by generating greater flexibility and responsiveness to meet student needs and address issues as they emerge.

And yet, we also understand the concerns and fears that can accompany distributing leadership:

  • If we “let a thousand flowers bloom, how will we know what’s working or even know what is happening?
  • If we empower teachers, can we rely on them to make good decisions?
  • If everyone does something different, how will we have the resources to support them all?
  • If we “let go,” will teachers retreat into silos?
  • Will students simply spend all their time on devices?

These are not unreasonable fears. If distributed leadership is understood as a free-for all, it could certainly detract from quality, and it could lead to disorganization. Therefore, specific structures and parameters are necessary to ensure that distribution promotes quality and does not detract from it. First, in competency-based schools leaders manage decision-making processes as much or more than they make decisions. Leaders play vital roles in leading the effort to create a shared purpose, guiding principles, structures and protocols that guide decision-making. There is clarity about where decisions are made (e.g., what is tight, what is loose), as well as how decisions are made (who is involved, what data is used and how decisions are evaluated). Explicit criteria or guiding principles based on the shared purpose are used to help teams make strong organizational decisions. Similarly classroom management practices create shared visions and codes of cooperation to enhance relationships and guide student decision-making.

Second, leaders understand that their job is to cultivate leadership of others. Distributed leadership holds that leadership qualities can be nurtured in everyone. Not only do leaders set the tone for distributed leadership, they also play a key role in hiring and developing the right talent to participate in distributed leadership environments. They also seek to help others build decision-making skills through coaching, supports and commonly used protocols. In this way decision-making is closer to the customer (students). One of a leader’s most important leadership functions is to support professional learning communities, making sure teachers have the time to meet and are staying true to the norms that allow them to be a source of collaborative, professional learning. In turn, teachers play a critical role building these same skills in students. While skill-building will look different for a six-year-old and a fifteen-year-old, all students will need support developing the competencies required to act as agents of their own learning.

Third, leaders uphold transparency and consistency as core features of the district or school. Transparency is an important part of creating an environment that empowers others. Teachers are empowered to respond to students’ unique motivations and learning needs in real-time. In the classroom, the learning process and the learning targets are explicit so students can take more ownership of their education. Transparency is cultivated by a combination of relationships, holding consistent expectations and timely, accurate data. Through relationships and open dialogue, especially regarding mistakes and disagreements, stronger understanding of the shared purpose develops. Leaders play a vitally important role in creating systems of consistency and transparency where measurable learning objectives, rubrics and moderated understanding of how to determine proficiency supports teachers’ decisions about student progress. Without transparency and consistency, teachers might make different decisions about different students based on inconsistent definitions of progress and proficiency.

Fourth, leaders recognize that centralized control can inhibit responsiveness and pursue greater autonomy for schools and teachers. To best respond to student learning, schools need autonomy to manage budgets, schedules, organizational structure, staff roles and hiring. It is one thing to empower others to make decisions, but there is much more value when resources can be allocated to support action. With the expectation that teachers will tailor instruction for students and cultivate student agency, they must also be empowered to have professional agency. This requires them to use their professional judgment.

Fifth, professional judgment is highly valued. Therefore, professional learning is valued as well. Teachers are supported in personalized professional learning to build their knowledge and skills in the context of student learning. Professional learning communities support the development of collective professional judgment drawing from the knowledge of multiple teachers. Finally, leaders understand that their actions, words and behaviors can lead to strengthening or weakening the culture of learning. Being empowered means being open to risk-taking. Students and teachers, even when they use the best data and follow all protocols, simply cannot know whether something is guaranteed to work. They must use their personal and professional judgment to do what they think is best, evaluate the outcome and adjust course. This does not happen if there is a feeling of being unsafe or no margin of error to be wrong. In competency-based schools, being wrong and learning from it are called “smart failures.” Making mistakes produces valuable knowledge about what’s working and what is not. These are fostered through connection and collaboration. While distributed leadership empowers individual action, it results in quality when it is also supported by profoundly cooperative action.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • Clear decision-making processes are established so that everyone knows when and how decisions are developed.
  • Decision-making includes representatives of those who are impacted by the decision, including students.
  • Decision-making is based on predetermined criteria that values and weighs what is good for students above all else.
  • Reflection is a routine used by adults and students during and after learning new skills or projects.
  • Teacher evaluation has been updated to reflect the values and culture. Teachers are supported in their learning new skills before it has been included in the teacher evaluation.
  • Educators have the autonomy and resources they need including time to plan, strong professional learning communities, and effective feedback on their instructional skills and assessment literacy. This may seem obvious, but many schools try to move forward without having these elements in place, only to find that they are important ingredients.

Examples of Red Flags

Making the transition based on compliance rather than empowerment. When state leadership has bravely set the course toward next-generation education, it can create an unintended consequence. Instead of starting from an empowered commitment to equity, districts and schools start the transition to competency-based education as an act of compliance. Thus, it is difficult to create the necessary empowering culture needed to transform the school to do what is best for students. Teachers are more likely to implement technical practices without first taking on the inquiry-based stance needed to continually learn and improve in response to students. Consider a period of shared inquiry about the learning sciences, the limits of the traditional system and why a personalized, competency-based system may be a better way of organizing schools followed by asking educators to vote whether they want to go forward.

Hierarchical decision-making continues with decisions being pushed up to the school leader or superintendent. In some districts and schools, the leaders are more comfortable with top-down decision-making and continue to have problems that emerge in the conversion to competency-based education lifted to the administrative level. The result is bottlenecks with educators waiting for a response, implementation slowing down and frustration on the rise. These are lost opportunities for engaging staff in reflecting on the values, beliefs and norms that operate in the traditional system as compared with personalized, competency education. Some districts begin the process of moving to competency-based education by investing in leadership teams, reflecting on leadership strategies and learning what is required to manage the process, not the decision.

The school has begun implementation with the development of a learning framework or continuum but professional learning communities are weak or non-existent. Helping all students master all the knowledge and skills they need for success begins with adult learning. If adults don’t have the opportunity to plan and learn it is unlikely that the school will be able to move beyond a standards-referenced approach. Professional learning communities for monitoring student learning, planning, collaboration and professional learning are simply non-negotiables for the transition to competency-based education. The first step in preparing for the transition to competency education begins by making sure professional learning communities are healthy.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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