From compliance to empowerment

Traditional education is top down. States create laws that tell districts what to do, Superintendents and Boards create policies that tell Principals and teachers what to do, and teachers create lessons and classroom rules that tell students what to do. In a top down system, the culture is focused on compliance: everyone does what the person one authority level up tells them to do.

So, what’s wrong with compliance? Three things. First, in a compliance culture people do not have the permission (or sometimes even the will!) to take initiative. In a modern classroom leaders at all levels, from the classroom to the boardroom, need to be creatively problem solving to meet student needs and improve educational quality. In a compliance culture, they can’t.

Second, when everybody is looking “one level up” for answers, no one is learning! When a student looks to a teacher for the next step, when a teacher looks to the scope and sequence for the next lesson, no one is actively figuring out how to do things for themselves. And, as research on the learning sciences tells us, “learning is an activity carried out by the learner.” When there is no agency, there is no learning.

And finally, how could we possibly think that the person “one level up” has all the answers? The implication of this is that the person at the very top is smartest and knows best what should be happening in each and every classroom. But in fact it is the people closest to the work – closest to the students, closest to the teachers, closest to the principals – who have the best and most accurate information about what needs to happen. So, when we don’t let those people lead we dumb down our decision making instead of making it smarter.

Questions to Consider:

  • How might you assess the culture in your school or district? What do data and input from your community suggest? In what ways are you compliant? Empowered?
  • What connections might exist between your school’s or district’s culture and your outcomes? Specifically, your teacher quality and retention data? Student outcomes?
  • What culture does your school or district need to move toward your vision? What would this look like in practice?
  • What existing policies, systems, or structures might impede the culture you want? What might be getting in your way?
  • What new policies, systems, or structures can help create the culture you want? Where will you start? Who will you involve?