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Controlled autonomy: novice principals’ schema for district control and school autonomy

Jennie M. Weiner (Neag School of Education, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA)
Sarah L. Woulfin (Department of Educational Leadership, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 2 May 2017




The purpose of this paper is to gain insights into how a group of novice principals, all in schools that deployed principles of autonomy as mechanisms for improvement, conceptualized what the authors label “controlled autonomy” – a condition in which school leaders are expected to both make site-based decisions and be accountable to district oversight. The study aims to support more effective interactions between school and district leaders around controlled autonomy to increase performance.


Using schema as a framework to guide the inquiry, this paper uses qualitative methods and interviewing in particular to explore the questions of interest. Seven novice principals were each interviewed three times over the year each interview lasting approximately one hour (n=21). Data were analyzed thematically using both inductive and deductive coding techniques.


Findings show that principals tended to group potential district supports into four categories: operations, instruction, advocacy, and vision and their perceptions regarding the balance between their and the district’s control over activities in each category was dynamic, varied and dependent on views relating to issues as broad as values alignment to perceptions of bureaucratic efficiency.

Research limitations/implications

Because of the small sample size and methodological approach, it may be inappropriate to generalize the findings across all controlled autonomy contexts. Further research in additional settings is encouraged to support the proposed findings.

Practical implications

This paper has a number of implications for districts and school leaders. Among these is the need for districts to better articulate the parameters of controlled autonomy and for school leaders to receive more and more effective training and support to effectively utilize autonomy as a mechanism for reform.


This work fills a gap in the research regarding on how principals conceptualize controlled autonomy or, more specifically, how they view what school autonomy should look like relative to district control and is this paper’s focus. It also provides insights into practice and potential means to enhance a growing, but so far unevenly implemented and under performing reform initiative (i.e. controlled autonomy).



Weiner, J.M. and Woulfin, S.L. (2017), "Controlled autonomy: novice principals’ schema for district control and school autonomy", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 55 No. 3, pp. 334-350.



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