Photo courtesy of Ville Miettinen

Most school organizations are set up in traditional hierarchy power models of superintendent, central office staff, principals, and then teachers and other instructional staff.

In general, power is conveyed by school boards to superintendents, who delegate it to central office and principal levels … but only in rare cases to the teacher level.

The result is that important curricular, staffing, and resource allocation decisions happen after discussions of those at the top and the decisions are also made by those at the top. It’s a closed circuit system.

Sometimes, teacher unions are involved in parts of these decisions – but the involvement is frequently restricted to traditionally bargained topic areas and the decisions are nearly always imbued with self-interest. Note that I’m not being critical of unions in this arrangement, an important role for them is to pressure for better wages, benefits, and working conditions for their members – but there are a host of other critical decisions that relate to building good schools teachers are left out of completely.

While some argue for flatter schools to put budget targets on those higher in the fiscal food chain, there is a more compelling reason to flatten school organizations that is unrelated to budgetary issues.

Flattening traditional power arrangements and bringing teaching staff into discussions about the strategic direction of schools makes sense when you consider that those with the best information about students should be centrally involved in the decision making processes that affect them.

Issues of trust and accountability frequently stand in the way of flatter school organizations. Many just don’t believe that rank and file teachers have “what it takes” to stand in leadership roles, or don’t believe that classroom teachers are strong enough to stand behind tough decisions that often have to be made in schools. Another important impediment is capacity – or the ability of teachers to actually engage in leadership roles. A union leader said to me recently that “even when teachers are given formal power roles through statute, they rarely are able to use those to drive meaningful improvements.”

To me, this is a capacity issue among teachers. They have rarely been challenged or trusted to assume leadership roles so it should be of no surprise to us when they struggle when presented with opportunities to lead.

Going forward, it will be critical that we simultaneously flatten organizational power structures so that we get those on the front line more involved in decision making. At the same time, we need to provide support and coaching to help teachers engage in these new leadership roles.

We need teachers to assert primary ownership over this profession, and the larger endeavor of education for that matter. This is a central challenge we must put before our teachers in the United States if we really want to emulate the practices of the highest performing systems in the world.

Make no mistake, assuming the role of leadership involves responsibility. No longer will it be a luxury to sit back, be reactive, and criticize decisions as they come down the pike. Flattening organizations and putting teachers into formal leadership roles for curricular, personnel, and resource decisions demands a higher level of involvement and a willingness to step up and take responsibility for the decisions reached.

For our schools to make the kinds of dramatic improvements we need, flatter school power configurations that put faith in, as well as demand leadership from, teachers will be a necessary component.

Jason Glass
Des Moines, Iowa