Autonomy or Empowerment?

This Friday, I had the chance to spend 2 hours talking about the Jeffco Generations report with about 125 of Jeffco’s instructional coaches. These folks are typically classroom teachers who have strengths in teaching others about instructional best practices in buildings. The conversation was fast moving and exciting, and it was a real treat for me to get to learn from this group.

One of the ideas we touched on was the concept of “autonomy” when it comes to our schools and our educators. The term autonomy conveys a meaning of self-regulation and freedom from interference from any outside force.

When we apply the term to our schools and teachers, it usually is in the context of something called “site-based” decision making, where you give the people at the building the flexibility to make key decisions, as opposed to them being imposed through a district-level system. In Jeffco, student-based budgeting is one important form of site-based control. The creation of charter schools are still another.

In my professional opinion, of course we would want building-level leaders to have a great deal of control over key decisions. Its naive to believe that we would have the context and insight to micro-manage decisions on things such as personnel moves at the building level.

However, the term autonomy can also imply isolation, and isolation is the enemy of excellence. Our schools and educators should be given the latitude to make key decisions for their students and schools. However, they should also be connected to a larger network of professional expertise and wisdom.

So maybe the term we need is empowerment, which implies that decision-making power and authority is given, but it does not imply a “lone ranger” mentality, with any school or any educator working in isolation.

Empowerment provides the site-based decision-making we want. It also leaves space for collaboration, shared professional wisdom, teaming, and cross-school networking that is necessary for us to scale improvement.

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