America’s schools are one of the first places where we learn to become citizens. It is the place where we go to learn about our history, our values, and how we will contribute to the common good. Scholars often refer to this vital aim of schooling as the democratic equality goal. Educational researcher David Labaree explains that “ . . . a democratic society cannot persist unless it prepares all of its young with equal care to take on the full responsibilities of citizenship in a competent manner.” Further, democratic equality involves the building of a common life among citizens, a collective vision of the past, present, and future of the country.
This goal does not only entail citizenship training, however. It also promotes equal treatment of all students regardless of background and equal access to opportunities. With these additional ends in mind, one might imagine that a central, nationalized system of education would be most effective in ensuring that all students receive an equal education in preparation for their future roles as active, engaged citizens. As cited in the 1983 national education report A Nation at Risk, “A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture.”
However, the American public school system could not be more different from this picture. Instead, our system has always been defined by its unique reliance on local control of schools even in this day of policies like standards-based accountability. How is it possible that the democratic equality goal is held so strongly while localism has been so deeply entrenched in our administration and leadership of schools? Perhaps the answer is that Americans deeply value one tenet that bridges the gap between these sets of conflicting ideals: individual autonomy. Both democratic equality and localism value autonomy for both individual citizens and institutional bodies. In fact, autonomy is so highly valued that it is built into the very structures that govern America and its schools, leaving a legacy of pervasive autonomy under which school leadership still operates today.
The idea that individual autonomy actually contributes to the common good goes back hundreds of years in America. The Founders felt that power corrupts, so power was purposely fragmented throughout the federal government in order to avoid insurmountable power resting with any particular person or group. After all, they had just rebelled against a distant king. Further, power was greatly localized with a great deal of authority given to the states, which is further fragmented to local levels. Belief in the virtue of the government upholding various levels of autonomy only grew with the aging of the republic and was solidified by the rise of the Native Protestant Ideology and the common school movement. In his landmark book Pillars of the Republic: Common Schools and American Society, 1780-1860, renowned education scholar Carl Kaestle discusses how this thinking promoted ideas of social morality, character, and the role of personal industry in defining merit. However, he notes that the ideology also promoted values that perpetuated the roles of autonomous individuals and institutions. It was the virtue of free ability to act and self-govern, proponents argued, that made the collective viable and free.
These values promoting autonomy had serious and lasting implications for the structure of American school leadership throughout the last two centuries and into this one, and local autonomy is perhaps its most impactful, if not its most prominent, feature. This proclivity toward autonomy derives from the belief that proximity yields effectiveness, that is, those who are nearest to students and schools are best able to determine what is best for them. Just as was the case in America’s early history, Americans still hold a deeply entrenched belief that distant power is a threat. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “That government is best that governs least,” and Americans still greatly employ this belief in the governance and structuring of its institutions. The design for leadership of the American education system is a prime example of this. David Cohen and James Spillane point out that it was purposely designed to be intensely local and distrustful of centralized power.
This emphasis and predominance of localism plays out at every tier of the system, with the greatest amount of control being concentrated at the district level. Unlike virtually all other national education systems, Cohen and Spillane also note that “. . . direct federal governance is marginal.” While educational power is officially and de facto concentrated in the central government in most countries, constitutional authority over education in America resides with the states. Even at that level, however, comparatively little power is leveraged by states over local education agencies at the district level, although this dynamic has changed somewhat in the last few decades with the rise of the standards movement and legislation such as “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). In his well-known 1975 book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, researcher Dan Lortie also makes a key point regarding local leadership and its selection. Not only are schools governed by local leaders, but they are ultimately governed by the citizens who elect them. Thus, voters have a major voice in how they want their schools run and their children taught. Leadership could not possibly be more local than that.
This entrenched belief in the virtues of local educational control has ossified into a dynamic that has seemed to rule at all levels of educational leadership throughout the 20th century and into the 21st: the basic bargain. It is simple in theory and pervasive in practice. Essentially, leaders at each level of organization agree with those in the administrative level below that in exchange for carrying out directives, the operating bodies get to choose how to implement them. Thus, the basic bargain is the definition of laissez faire management. This extreme level of autonomy is a staple of the American system, where leadership is traditionally “long on prescription, short of description,” as Lortie describes it. As a result, states, districts, schools, and even classrooms have been led in whatever way leaders at the corresponding levels have seen fit. They have been free to do their jobs as they wish so long as they have gotten their jobs done.
Autonomy is no longer so simple. With greater accountability measures enacted by legislation such as NCLB, education leaders are now under pressure to produce results. Other efforts are mounting from groups such as the National Governors Association to create more standard guidance for instructional content and materials. However, it is difficult to foresee what these efforts will mean for school leadership—and administrative autonomy—at all levels.