Across the nation, urban public charter schools are posting impressive student achievement gains. Under pressure to achieve similar results, many traditional public districts have chosen to follow in charter schools’ footsteps and grant some of their schools more autonomy. These hybrid schools are still operated and supported by district officials but are permitted to opt out of certain district policies and practices in staffing, learning models, curriculum, budgeting, school calendar and schedule, and professional development.

But does giving traditional public schools more autonomy actually raise student achievement? A new report from the Progressive Policy Institute answers this question by analyzing state standardized test scores in four districts that operate autonomous schools: Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles. The authors control for race and ethnicity, language proficiency, socio-economic status, and special education status.

The data show that a positive relationship exists between school autonomy and student achievement. Students at some autonomous schools in Boston and Los Angeles were more likely to be proficient than their counterparts in traditional public schools, but independent charters outperformed all autonomous school models in Boston, Los Angeles, and Denver.

Memphis was the only exception. In 2010, the state of Tennessee created the Achievement School District (ASD), a state-run turnaround district made up of schools that scored in the bottom 5 percent on state exams. The same legislation that created the ASD permitted districts to create innovation zones, or iZones, for other low-performing schools that would remain under district control but be given increased flexibility and support in exchange for greater accountability. Results indicate that students at independent charters and Memphis’s iZone schools did as well as students at traditional public schools, and better than those at ASD charters. The authors suggest that these unique results may be due to an influx of funding, support, and talent at iZone schools.

To close the report, the authors offer five possible explanations for the findings, including that charters have true autonomy, are schools of choice, and are held accountable for student performance via closure or replacement, unlike their district counterparts. The report also offers recommendations for districts interested in implementing autonomous schools. 

SOURCE: David Osborne and Emily Langhorne, “Can urban districts get charter-like performance with charter-lite schools?” Progressive Policy Institute (August 2018).

Jessica Poiner - Fordham

Jessica Poiner is a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked as a high school English teacher in Memphis, Tennessee. While in Memphis, she taught for Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District. A native of Ohio, Jessica holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Baldwin-Wallace University. 

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