Why is autonomy from outside authority so important for effective school organization?

Autonomy is vital for many reasons, but two seem to be paramount. First, and clearly most important, if schools have control over their personnel, they are far more likely to develop many of the qualities of organizational effectiveness than if they do not. A principal who has the power to staff a school – to hire teachers, and if need be, fire them – is likely to fill the organization with teachers whose values, ability, methods, and behavior are compatible with his or her own. In other words, such a principal is likely to create a team whose members are deserving of trust. Team members are therefore more likely to be involved in school decisions, to be delegated more authority, and in general to be treated like colleagues. Because of all of these influences, teachers are also likely to treat each other more like colleagues. The end result, then, of vesting more control over personnel in principals is to increase the prospect that a school willpursue a coherent mission as an integrated, professional team.

The result of withholding control over personnel from principals is much the opposite. Stuck with staff that have been assigned to the school and cannot be easily removed, the principal will discover that teachers disagree with his or her educational objectives, and with the objectives and methods of each other. In this setting of conflict and disagreement, which the principal ultimately can do little about, the principal is going to be reluctant to involve teachers in school decisionmaking or to delegate additional authority to them. Teachers are also less likely to feel great affinity for each other and therefore less likely to work together closely. The school willtend, then, not to operate as a professional team but as a bureaucratic agency managed by explicit rules and careful supervision. Unfortu­nately, the personnel systems of many public schools leave principals so little discretion that the schools do tend to operate much like other, less professional government agencies.

Personnel provides but the most important reason that autonomy is vital to school organization, however. Another reason, close in importance, is that successful teaching is probably more art than science. In any case, teaching is a highly contingent process, its results depending on the interaction of the methods used and the students those methods are used on. No one method, employed inflexibly, will work for all students. Unfortunately, when officials outside of schools try to direct teaching, they inevitably push teachers toward the utilization of one best method. In the extreme, the well-intentioned regulation of curriculum and instruction so limits teacher flexibility that the quality of teaching deteriorates for many students, especially those whose needs are not met by the one best method. And this is not just a hypothetical problem: many researchers have identified overregulation of curriculum as a serious problem in today's schools. [34] Ours is hardly the only research to find that schools with too little autonomy from external control often perform badly.