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Aurora Institute

Competency-Based Education Quality Principle #5: Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Lead Change and Innovation, Evaluate Quality

This is the sixth article in a series based on the book Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education. You can find the section on Principle #5 Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership on page 48. The links to the other articles can be found at the bottom of this page and will be updated as they are posted. For more on equity, see Designing for Equity: Leveraging Competency-Based Education to Ensure All Students Succeed.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to implement or sustain a personalized, competency-based system through top-down bureaucratic approaches. You can’t simply write a memo to tell schools and educators how to change their practices. You can’t tell people to change their beliefs and assumptions. The change process requires engagement. Engagement requires trusting relationships and time for dialogue and learning. Trust is developed and demonstrated by listening to, investing in, and respecting the ability of others to make strong decisions. Thus, districts and schools making headway in creating competency-based systems will usually refer to the importance of empowerment and distributed leadership that give schools and educators more autonomy. But autonomy doesn’t mean the individual makes all decisions. Rather, it refers to decisions being made closer to and involving the people who are being impacted.

The other problem with top-down decision-making in the transition from traditional to competency-based education is that it will slow decisions down. Decision-making forms bottlenecks as problems are identified and move up and down the hierarchical ladder. Furthermore, the superintendent or principal is unlikely going to have a grip on all the information they will need to make a wise decision. They are going to need to bring in multiple perspectives and involve others in thinking through the chain reaction of changing any one piece of the system. Thus, even though distributed decision-making may appear to take longer, it is actually likely to make better and, in the long-run, faster decisions. Some schools embrace the mantra Go slow to go fast to help them shift their values from expediency to effectiveness. (See the Code of Culture about the use of heuristics.)

Leader Becomes Leaders. Roles Change.

District and school leaders will have to rethink their roles if they embrace distributed leadership. Is the job of a principal or superintendent to make decisions or, as Jaime Robles, former principal at Lindsay High School has explained, is it to “make sure our decision-making processes are managed effectively”?

At one point in their journey, the previous superintendent of D51 boldly turned to holacracy as a method to manage roles and decision-making. Although the holacratic model was discontinued after a change in leadership, D51 continues to invest in a strong leadership team. Other leading districts do the same. Instead of bureaucratic turf, with each division managing vertically, there is a constant focus on horizontal intersections. Thus, the emphasis is more on leadership teams and less on one top-dog leader. Think leaders, not leader.

The Power of Trust

Building trusting relationships is a needed ingredient for distributed decision-making. (See The New School Rules.) People need to feel that they can speak their truth and bring attention to problems without repercussions. They need to feel respected and listened to. Thus, when we talk about a culture of inclusivity and belonging, it applies equally for the adults as well as students in a school or district.

Vulnerability comes before trust and helps to create trust. Thus, leaders and leadership teams will need to role model vulnerablity. In the Code of Culture, Dr. Jeff Polzer, a specialist in organizational development, explains that vulnerability “is about sending a clear signal that you have weaknesses, that you could use help.” And if that behavior becomes a model for others, then you can set the insecurities aside and get to work, start to trust each other and help each other. If you never have that vulnerable moment, on the other hand, then people will try to cover up their weaknesses, and every little microtask becomes a place wheres insecurities manifest themselves.

Thus, instead of viewing a leader as a decision-maker, tough, and charging ahead (there are clearly some gender-related themes here in how we often think of leaders), in a distributed leadership model, leadership teams are strong question-askers, reflective, and comfortable with a growth mindset that says I’m not sure of the solution…yet.

New Tools

Leaders and leadership teams will find that they need to change their practices. They may be small such as creating open administrative spaces rather than closed-off offices. Or there may be new ways of doing their work that take time to fine-tune. Patricia DeKlotz, superintendent of Kettle Moraine, described some of the new practices she and assistant superintendent Theresa Ewald have introduced:

  • Rounding: Drawing from the hospital practice of rounds, the administrative team visit schools and engage in conversation with the cook, new teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and students. DeKlotz emphasized, “I want the communication. I want to know people’s names and what they are thinking about. There are so many things to celebrate in a school, and by being in the school, we can recognize and lift up small and large achievements. Rounding is critical to our building and nurturing the culture that relationships matter.”
  • Practice critical conversations: Conversations matter as well. There are many crucial conversations during any transition process or learning process. The district team took time to model and engage principals and teacher leaders in how to have conversations with teachers who were having difficulties of one kind or another; conversations about beliefs, skills, and actions; and conversations about when expectations weren’t being met. This capacity has helped to create the learning culture. Everyone knows there will be mistakes, that expectations need to be discussed so they are shared, and that feedback is valued.
  • Focus on high performers: Teachers matter. DeKlotz knew that high performers were driving the change to personalized learning. So DeKlotz worked closely with principals about how they thought about recruiting and nurturing high performers. Questions such as How are you re-recruiting your high performers? How do you know your high performers are satisfied with their jobs? guided the conversations.
  • Invest in principals: DeKlotz and/or Ewald meet with principals individually every other week. This creates opportunity for dialogue, reflection, and problem-solving. It also gives them another way to discover trends or emerging problems early.
  • Power of modeling: DeKlotz and Ewald are very intentional about their modeling. They both have an open way of engaging and talking. But don’t be fooled, they are constantly seeking out opportunities to engage in conversation and reflection that deepen the understanding and skills to implement personalized learning.

Distributed Decision-Making Processes Requires Supports and Structures

Creating explicit, well-managed decision-making processes is necessary but not sufficient. Staff and teachers are going to need time – the scarcest resource of all – to learn, reflect and imagine, and participate in decision-making. They may need support in creating shared decision-making processes and protocols.

There also needs to be a strong culture with shared values and/or principles to guide decision-making. Creating a shared purpose and shared principles provides a framework for reflection along the way. (See example of shared beliefs that were created by practitioners from different districts.)

Teams will need to have access to the information necessary to make informed decisions. Thus, transparency will be important so that teams can think through the implications of decisions, including for students and budgets.

Finally, and vitally important, is a culture of reflection and learning. Mistakes will be made through distributed leadership in the same way that mistakes are made by individual leaders. There will be unanticipated consequences or problems in implementation that cause a backlash. Leaders and leadership teams will need to be ready to take the heat when necessary and protect the decision-making teams so they have an opportunity to reflect and learn so that better decisions are made in the future.

A Few Final Thoughts on Policy and How it Relates to Distributed Leadership

Empowering leadership strategies is something that needs to be considered at the state level as well. Although I have the utmost respect for the visionary leadership of state policymakers who envision a new education system and advance a statewide policy, I think there is a risk of reinforcing a compliance mentality that is at odds with the values of personalized, competency-based education. Certainly, the case of Maine raises questions (remember that extremely limited support was offered to districts) about statewide policies to advance modernizing schools.

My current thinking is that it would be better to start with a statewide policy that schools use pedagogical approaches aligned with the research on learning and teaching rather than requiring every district and school to become personalized and competency-based. States could then allow districts and/or schools to opt in to a system that gives them more autonomy and doesn’t hold them hostage to age-based accountability systems by developing dual systems. Why can’t there be a moderated system of proficiency-based progress and credits and another one that relies on external state-developed accountability examinations?

Read the Entire Series:

  1. Quality Principles for Competency-Based Education
  2. Purpose-Driven
  3. Commit to Equity
  4. Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity
  5. Foster the Development of a Growth Mindset
  6. Cultivate Empowering and Distributed Leadership
  7. Base School Design and Pedagogy on Learning Sciences
  8. Activate Student Agency and Ownership
  9. Design for the Development of Rigorous Higher-Level Skills
  10. Ensure Responsiveness
  11. Seek Intentionality and Alignment
  12. Establish Mechanisms to Ensure Consistency and Reliability
  13. Maximize Transparency
  14. Invest in Educators as Learners
  15. Increase Organizational Flexibility
  16. Develop Processes for Ongoing Continuous Improvement and Organizational Learning
  17. Advance Upon Demonstrated Mastery