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  • Writer's pictureJenni Donohoo

Why Can't Teachers Make Decisions on Their Own?

Updated: Oct 25, 2017

Shared decision making...

March 12, 2017

Today's guest blog is co-authored between Peter DeWitt and Jenni Donohoo. Donohoo is a Provincial Literacy Lead in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Branch in the Ontario Ministry of Education.

The phrase 'shared decision making' might conjure up different ideas by teachers based on their past experiences. Sometimes the image is one of excitement because the last opportunity to share in decision making was empowering, provided growth in thinking, and resulted in actionable steps that changed the learning environment for students and teachers.

And then sometimes...maybe most times...the image is not so exciting. Perhaps because teachers' voices didn't really count.

When formal leaders provide opportunities for shared leadership by affording others the power to make decisions, everyone benefits. Decisions are better understood and more readily accepted. Change is more likely to be effective and lasting when those who implement it feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for the process.

It helps to build collective efficacy. Tschannen-Moran & Barr (2004) define collective efficacy as, the collective self-perception that teachers in a given school make an educational difference to their students over and above the educational impact of their homes and communities. We want that, right?

How could we argue with the idea of collective efficacy, which John Hattie, someone we both work with as Visible Learning trainers, has research to show it has a 1.57 effect size. 1.57 is nearly quadruple the hinge point that equates to a year's worth of growth for a year's input. Unfortunately, sometimes leaders leave teachers out of the planning, which leads to a weakening of the collective efficacy of teachers.

Schechter and Qadach (2012) found that teachers' sense of collective efficacy weakened when they lacked information regarding factors related to school environments - including not knowing the outcomes of decisions in schools.

It is to everyone's benefit to ensure decision making processes are transparent and involve teachers in authentic, meaningful ways. Unfortunately, there is a moment in the process when teachers are authentically or compliantly engaged in the process, and leadership is at the heart of that moment (DeWitt. 2016). Why? Because there are varying degrees of involvement in school decision-making.

Simply inviting participation does not guarantee that teachers will feel empowered. Simply inviting participation does not increase the sense of collective efficacy. Instead, teachers will experience feelings of alienation or empowerment based on their perception of the scope of their influence. Teachers will feel less empowered (perhaps even disempowered) if they perceive their influence as low.

And we wonder why some teachers only want to be told what to do?

Raising Collective Efficacy Leaders need to look at their practices and reflect on the actions they take that lead to collective efficacy and those actions that strip collective efficacy. We, as leaders, all take some actions that strip collective efficacy. There are times leaders mean to do it because they want to maintain control and get what they want, and there are leaders who do not mean to do it, and sometimes don't even know they are doing it.

Teachers will feel a greater sense of engagement and increased efficacy if they perceive their influence as high. The Ladder of Teacher Involvement in School Decision-Making outlines varying degrees of teacher involvement (Donohoo. 2017). The higher up one moves on the ladder of involvement, the greater the influence. 

Source: Donohoo, J. (2017). Collective Efficacy: How Educators' Beliefs Impact Student Achievement. Corwin, Thousand Oaks, CA. A modification of Fletcher, A. (2003). Meaningful Student Involvement: Guide to Inclusive School Change, Modified from Hart, R. (1992). Children's Participation: From tokenism to citizenship.

From the image above, we can see the type of involvement leaders ask of teachers. Those levels of involvement, explained by Donohoo (2016) are:

Manipulation - Use teachers to support causes by falsely claiming those causes are inspired by staff.

Decoration - Teachers are used to help bolster a cause in a relatively indirect way.

Tokenism - Teachers appear to be given a choice but in fact have little or no choice.

Teachers informed about and then assigned action - Teachers are assigned specific roles but are told how and taught why they are involved.

Teachers informed and then consulted about action - Teachers give advice on projects or school-side activities owned and run by formal leaders.

Administrator initiated shared decision making with teachers - Projects, school-wide activities and school improvement processes are initiated by formal leaders, but the decision making is shared with teachers involved.

Teacher initiated and direct action - Teachers initiate and direct projects and school-wide activities, including professional learning and strategies for school improvement. Administrators are involved in a supportive role.

Teacher initiated shared decision making - Same role as above, but these projects empower teachers while at the same time allowing them to access and learn from experience and the experiences of others. 

If we truly want teachers to build collective efficacy and have a voice in the process, we need to get away from the regular tokenism of shared decision making and move more toward teacher initiated shared decision making. Unfortunately, there are many leaders who are not willing to give up that control because they believe they know better than a group of teachers. 

In the End The bottom line is that successful influence, improves efficacy. When staffs successfully influence decisions and experience positive results, it heightens their belief in their collective ability to overcome challenges they'll face in the future. The feeling of empowerment that comes from successful influence not only enhances efficacy, it also results in an increased engagement and a desire to be involved.

We want to end with this reflection activity. Think about the teacher teams in your school. In regard to involvement in school decision-making:

  • Think of a time you experienced non-degrees of participation in school decision making. What was the experience and what did it feel like?

  • What are teachers' perceptions in regard to their scope of influence?

    • Do they feel empowered?

    • Do they feel alienated?

    • Or somewhere in between?

  • What are the opportunities to increase the involvement of teacher teams in decision-making?

Jenni Donohoo, Ph.D. is the author of several best selling books on collaborative inquiry. Check them out here. Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press/Learning Forward). Connect with Jenni  and Peter on Twitter. 

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 

Originally published:

Donohoo, J., & DeWitt, P. (2017). Why Can’t Teachers Make Decisions on Their Own? Education Week, March 12, 2017. Download available from:



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