The education reform world is beset by many constant refrains. “Give schools more money,” for example, “recruit more highly-trained teachers,” or “schools need more autonomy.” But what do these things actually mean when put into practice? If reform is as easy as that, then why hasn’t someone done it already?
In a report from Bellwether Education Partners, Kelly Robson, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen examine the design of autonomous schools in four states to give us an answer: It’s not that easy. Autonomous schools are public schools that exchange more school-level decision-making power for greater accountability, and they vary greatly in their design, making it difficult to say if they “work” or “don’t work” for improving student outcomes. The report analyzes different components—school autonomy and governance structure, accountability measures, and implementation—and gives recommendations to policymakers and school leaders.
These distinct components create a wide range in what’s considered an “autonomous school.” Governance structure refers to which entities oversee decision making and to whom schools are held accountable. A school may be managed by a district, an independent organization, or some combination of the two. In a tightly managed school, oversight decisions are made by a school board and district leaders or by an independent board, such as a charter management organization. In an autonomous school, school leaders have the liberty to make certain (or all) decisions. The areas over which they have control—including curriculum, length of school day, staff, etc.—vary according to what schools wants to accomplish. To make sure it’s working, a relevant, data-based accountability system is essential to understanding which aspects of autonomy are supporting the school’s goals and which are not.
To create a successful autonomous school, the report contends that policymakers and school leaders must be conscious of the purpose for increased autonomy, how the specific aspects of autonomy will be designed to address that purpose, and how accountability structures will determine which autonomous features are successful in that design. For the school to reach its intended goals, coherence among all these elements is crucial. “Autonomy is not a single thing,” the authors write, so there isn’t a single “what works” solution. Establishing and running an autonomous school must be a mindful and purposeful process.
Navigating all these nuances to design an effective autonomous school is difficult enough. Ensuring that school leaders and teachers are prepared to implement autonomous policies is an additional challenge. It’s not safe to assume that, for example, principals given budgetary autonomy will know how to leverage this to reach their schools’ goals. For school leaders to manage an autonomous school, the report points out, they will likely need additional training and support to prepare them to make pertinent decisions. It’s also important to consider how autonomous policies could affect teaching and instruction. What supports will there be to help teachers use data systems to inform and adjust their decision making? Is asking them to do this feasible or overburdening? Being cognizant of capacity building in school staff is essential to ensuring the successful implementation of autonomous school policies, the report notes.
It also describes some autonomous schools as uniquely able to involve local communities in school decision-making, saying, “Autonomous school policies are one way that policymakers are attempting to return to a truer sense of local control while also focusing on improving student outcomes.” While this could potentially increase buy-in, it could also affect consistency and quality if schools are trying to appease the needs of a variety of non-professional stakeholders. But it could also be beneficial if autonomous schools were liberated from the often highly-bureaucratic school systems that don’t necessarily prioritize the needs of families and were instead more responsive to those whose children are being served by the school.
The biggest takeaways from this report are ones that can be applied to all education policy matters: intention, coherence, and follow-through. Autonomous schools shouldn’t be instituted just because it seems like it’s “what works.” Policymakers and school leaders should be intentional about what their goals are and tailor specific aspects of autonomy to reach those goals. School leaders and teachers must be supported in the capacity-building necessary to implement autonomous policies, and to partner effectively with community members. Relevant accountability structures should be in place to ensure autonomy is working. And if it isn’t, data systems should be utilized to adjust what’s not. Intention, coherence, and follow-through are important to the success of any policy, but especially so when our end goal is to improve the lives of the students we serve.
SOURCE: Kelly Robson, Jennifer O’Neal Schiess, and Phillip Burgoyne-Allen, “Staking Out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” Bellwether Education (February 2020).