26 SES 04 A, Examining Principal Autonomy from a Comparative Perspective
Over the past decade or so, teacher autonomy has become an increasingly popular research topic, and as such reflects wider national and global education trends, including the ways in which teacher autonomy (among other things) has been offered as a key ingredient for Finland’s success in PISA (Sahlberg, 2011; Wieland Wermke & Salokangas, 2015). Indeed, teacher autonomy is closely related to the position of principals. In this symposium, we argue that we must discuss principal autonomy from a comparative perspective.
There exists interesting research on the role of principals in public education that encourages theoretical discussions on their autonomy. On the one hand, principals must relate to their teachers. Research has suggested here a distinction of principals as head teachers or administrational managers (Hoyle, 2008; Jarl, Fredriksson, & Persson, 2012; W. Wermke & Höstfält, 2014)). The relation of principals to society and community, on the other hand, has also been a focus of other scholars (Lortie, 2009; Seashore-Louis, 2015; Wahlstrom & Seashore-Louis, 2008). To complicate this, it has also been argued that principals often have to handle a governance system which is a hybrid of a hierarchical political model with top-down decision-making from the state and a bureaucratic model related to municipal administration (Moos, Nihlfors, & Paulsen, 2016). This means that principals are also positioned between the state and decision makers at municipal and private owner level. In conclusion, this configuration results in the principal having to handle many different expectations, which is why the principal might be described as positioned in the middle. The question becomes what scope of action principals possess in coping with such expectations.
However, beside the fact of the existence of such kinds of framing and tension, there is relatively little empirical research on how principals’ autonomy is framed by teachers, parents and superiors at different levels, as well as how they act within the described fields of tension from a comparative perspective. Such a perspective enables the relating of different political and administration structures to principals’ agency and thereby furthers our understanding of how educational organisation function.
This symposium presents different methodological approaches in order to investigate the phenomenon of principal autonomy from a comparative perspective. We argue that this of high significance, because it would be a further step in understanding how educational organisations interrelate with particular nation-specific particularities. The aim of this symposium is not normative, even though it advocates a certain autonomy principals must have for the best possible kind of public education (even if this would be the favoured final result of this research). We want rather to contribute to a further understanding of which configurations of principal autonomy result in which kinds of educational organisations. For example, it might be possible that principals reject autonomy in some dimension of their work, but desire extended discretion in other dimension, in order enact their educational leadership in a particular way.
The symposium’s contributions are methodologically framed by a multidimensional model that aims to render autonomy in public education empirically investigable. We will present a matrix that unites three different perspectives (the classroom level, the local school level, and school system level related to various actors in the school system), and the different domains in which autonomy can evolve (educational, administrational, social, developmental domains). This matrix is contextualised by both school and national particularities, at least. This does not mean that research on principal autonomy must always investigate all of these aspects, but that it must be aware of the complex nature of the autonomy, and make and motivate the choice of the dimension or domain in focus.
Hoyle, E. (2008). Changing conceptions of teaching as a profession: Personal reflections. In D. Johnson & R. Maclean (Eds.), Teaching: Professionalization, development and leadership (pp. 285-304). Dordrecht: Springer. Jarl, M., Fredriksson, A., & Persson, S. (2012). New public management in public education: A catalysts for the professionalisation of Swedish school prinicipals. Public Adminsitration, 90(2), 429-444. Lortie, D. C. (2009). School principal: managing in public. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Moos, L., Nihlfors, E., & Paulsen, J. M. (Eds.). (2016). Nordiska skolchefer: aktörer i en bruten kedja. Malmö: Glerups. Sahlberg, P. (2011). Finnish lessons. What can the world learn from educational change in Finland? New York: Teachers College Press. Seashore-Louis, K. (2015). Linking leadership to learning: state, district and local effects. Nordic journal of Studies in Educational Policy, 1(2). Wahlstrom, K., & Seashore-Louis, K. (2008). How teachers experience principal leadership: The roles of professional community, trust, efficacy, and shared responsibility Educational Administration Quarterly, 44(4), 458-495. Wermke, W., & Höstfält, G. (2014). Contextualising teacher autonomy in time and space. A model for comparing various forms of governing the teaching profession. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(1), 58-80. Wermke, W., & Salokangas, M. (2015). Autonomy in education: theoretical and empirical approaches to a contested concept. Nordic journal of Studies in Educational Policy.
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