I’ve been ruminating on top-down decision making, particularly in school districts. District leadership making bold decisions can create expedient change in an otherwise snail-paced education space. These same hasty decisions from well-intentioned leaders can also push a district into relative chaos, creating resentment among team members and making already-exhausted teachers overwhelmed.

My company partners with school districts in over 30 states to implement transformative visions for student learning. We start our partnership conversations at the district level with superintendents and their cabinets because we think there it’s imperative to have the entire district leadership on-board when implementing system-wide changes. When we’ve worked with individual schools in the past, they have struggled from lack of district support or other school sites with which to collaborate.

Some of my superintendents take months to make the decision to partner with us, bringing cabinet members, school leaders and teacher leaders to the table one-by-one to weigh in. Other district leaders act in a matter of weeks, gathering the opinions of a few select colleagues. The variance in this decision making time make me wonder about district structures for decision making. Whose input should be gathered, and when?

My company’s services directly involve district and school leaders, and the desired result is a foundational shift in classroom instruction, i.e., how teachers teach. We have great client relationships and achieve impressive results, yet teachers — the final implementer of these classroom changes — are seldom involved in the initial decision to partner with my company.

It sounds scandalous to not involve teachers in big teaching decisions, but I think this top-down decision making is common to most organizations. A CEO makes a big decision, and the company moves in a stark new direction. A U.S. President comes into power, and suddenly career bureaucrats—the ground-level experts—are reeling from the demands of a new leader. The reality is that those at the ground-level don’t always get a chance to chime in on the decisions that affect their work.

A school district is a big bureaucracy. It’s hard to gather input from its distinct stakeholders, much less come to consensus for a decision. For example, one of our clients is Fulton County Schools in Georgia, which has 96,000 students and 10,500 full-time employees, of which 7,000 are teachers. That’s a lot of potential opinions to reconcile.

Still, this doesn’t mean that quick top-down decision making is good or even necessary. There are alternatives. Some tools like Thought Exchange are based on the premise that organization-wide decisions are more powerful and sustainable with more ground-level input. 

As an entry-level professional, I wonder what due diligence means in terms of collecting my input for organization-wide decisions? If a transformation initiative affects my daily work, in a dramatic way, shouldn’t I have input?

My company has been transitioning to Holacracy as an organizational model to address this tension. Holacracy is a system of distributed leadership that encourages dynamic job roles, clear accountabilities, and meeting protocols for allowing each employee to address problems with their work — rather than push decisions up the chain of command. Holacracy also has provisions that, in theory, allow for even the most junior of employees to have agency in affecting top-level decisions that would objectively obstruct their work.

Holacracy Org Chart

A screenshot of our Holacracy Org Chart (slightly modified for privacy)

Emphasis on “in theory.” Holacracy is hard. Our organization has made strides in improving individual agency through holacratic meeting protocol, and we’re getting better at clear accountabilities and dynamic roles, but we still struggle to create an organization-wide understanding of the theory and the radical changes in behavior Holacracy requires. To be honest, I’m still trying to understand how to leverage Holacracy and its many ideas in my own work.

Undergoing this organizational transformation made me think critically about decision making at our school district partners. What agency do teachers have in district decision making? How are districts empowering distributed leadership, allowing schools and teachers to be more nimble in addressing local issues? How do teachers propose changes to their job responsibilities, or to propose changes to others’ roles to improve the results of the system? How can school district governance structures become more adaptive?

I don’t have answers. I plan to explore this topic in depth over the next year. To start, I found a 2013 paper titled “Negotiating Site-Based Management and Expanded Teacher Decision Making: A Case Study of Six Urban Schools.” One of the opening sentences from that paper gets at the heart of why I feel compelled to explore teacher agency: “Those closest to schooling are presumed to be in the best position to identify and understand the needs of students and the practices that must change to meet those needs.” (Peni Mayer et al, 2013, quoting Briggs & Wohlstetter, 2003).

The above paper is interesting, but it wasn’t one of the first pieces I found. Initial google searches about teacher agency in district decision making yielded me primarily articles about professional development. Things like, “how to personalize PD” or “how to give teachers choice and voice in professional learning.” Papers like this white paper from the National Commission on Teaching and Learning, Moving from Compliance to Agency: What Teachers Need to Make Professional Learning Work.” Or Dr. James Noonan’s Harvard Doctoral Dissertation, “Teachers Learning: Engagement, Identity, and Agency in Powerful Professional Development.” Both seem powerful, but they speak to professional development, not structures of governance, accountability and change management.

I know there exists a large body of research around site-based (i.e., school-based) decision making. When I specifically googled “site-based decision making schools,” there were plenty of results, the top being a research summary from the American Institutes of Research in 2000 titled “Site-Based Decision Making: Its Potential for Enhancing Learner Outcomes.” The summary cites studies from as far back as 1988.

What’s great about the above article is the obvious fact that scholars have been contemplating public school governance, teacher agency, and decision making for a long while. Probably for centuries, though I’m ignorant as to when research has blossomed and diminished in this field. What’s disappointing to me is that the top Google result for “site-based school decision making” (my rough proxy teacher agency in district decision making) is a research article that is 17 years old.

In light of innovation-programs likes the XQ Super School challenge and advancements in education technology, I’m not convinced of the pertinence of 17-year-old organizational decision making articles. Especially in light of changes in our interpersonal communication and productivity tools, I feel like agency and decision making in schools is radically different now.

Whether it’s Holacracy or simply better communication practices, I sense a need for increased teacher agency if school districts are going to become dynamic enough the address the modern challenges of educational equity and political tumult. I welcome suggestions as I try to understand how teachers can be empowered to affect the decisions in their district that directly impact their work.