Chat
July 11, 2007

The Autonomy Gap: Empowering Principals to Produce Gains in Student Learning

Guests:

Steven J. Adamowski, superintendent of the Hartford, Conn., public schools and the author of The Autonomy Gap; Michael A. Durso, principal of Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Md.; and Jacquelyn Davis, executive director of the New Leaders for New Schools’ project in Washington, D.C.

David J. Hoff (Moderator):
    Welcome to today's chat on The Autonomy Gap, a look at how principals feel when they they don't have the power they feel they need to improve their schools. We look forward to a lively discussion. Please submit your questions and our guests will answer them as quickly as possible. Let's get the discussion going.


Question from Laura Brown, AHA Solutions LLC:
    To truly enable principals' decisionmaking, shouldn't allocations to schools be made based on their zero-based budgets (not categorical funding, union mandated staffing ratios or district aggregate costs) that determine the actual cost of educating each and every child? If so, wouldn't federal and state governments have to change their allocation methods?

Jacquelyn Davis:
    In general, budgeting should be a numerical articulation of the programatic design and goals. This means approaching budgeting in a zero-based way as to ensure that the dollars are matched to the program design and goals. For example, if a school determines that the best path for its improvement requires significant professional development instead of an art teacher, then the principal should have the latitude to fund the programs that make sense for his/her school's needs. Further, there are core components necessary for any effective school and the governing bodies who allocate funds should ensure that there is a minimum baseline of funding that supports these minimal components.


Question from Evelyn Carter, Assistant Principal, Suitland Elementary:
    How can technolgy play a role in helping special education students to achieve?

Michael Durso:
    Depending on the level of the student's disability, technology use will be determined by the particular teacher, their comfort level with technology, and the overall philosophy of the department or school.

We must remember that technology for all of our students is a tool and not necessarily the ultimate answer.


Question from Sy Roth, Assistant Principal, Candlewood Middle School:
    Since the study shows there is little that principals can do related to making changes in staff, should staff members work habits diminish over the years, is the principal merely relegated to spinning his or her wheels during his/her tenure in a district?

Michael Durso:
    No, not at all. There are always some non-traditional methods of "counseling" incompetent or marginal teachers. This of course, is easier said than done, but over a period of time, I have found that even the most difficult teachers will eventually make the effort to improve. If all else fails, the administrator must then make the decision that it is best for this teacher to be removed.

Another tactic, rather than just sit idly by, is to enlist writtten comments from parents and students. However, as we both know, this process can be time consuming and quite frustrating.


Question from Anonymous:
    What are some less obvious examples of the ways in which principal autonomy is constrained?

Michael Durso:
    Some less obvious examples..... 1. Personnel requests are delayed 2. Work orders are not immediately filled 3. Leave requests are not acted upon 4. Principal input is not sought out

It is important also, that the principal or administrator not become too paranoid over lack of action on requests from a supervisor or the central office. Sometimes, both large and small bureaucracies move very slowly. Another strategy is to try and develop a working relationship with that supervisor, even if it might be adversarial at times.


Question from Ned Vare, education columnist, Journal-Register Companies (CT):
    The public schools are dominated by the teachers union and the Federal Government. The principals are a small cog in the chain of command and they do what they're told to do by the union and the feds. There can be no real autonomy until education is freed from control by unions and government. Question: What say you about that?

Steven Adamowski:
    Ned,

I think the degree of autonomy that principals have can be expanded greatly within the constraints you mention through state and district policy. These fall in two main categories: the ability to determine the school's staff and the ability to allocate resources (the school budget). The move toward weighted student funding of schools is a good example of the latter. Autonomy in hiring and assignments were the greatest areas of concern to the principals we interviewed.

SA


Question from Diane Hanfmann, Parent, Teacher:
    Can you please address the conflict of interest aspect of principals' wanting to create favorably viewed data as it relates to NCLB and crippling the gifted rather than allowing them to soar? Thanks.

Jacquelyn Davis:
    Educators need to focus on moving every child forward, regardless of their starting point at the beginning of the school year. If a child is basic, he/she needs to move significantly. If a child is proficient, he/she needs to move to advanced. All quartiles of students need to grow. If a student is at grade-level, he/she needs to grow at least a year. If the student is below grade-level, he/she needs to grow much more to catch up to grade-level --- more than one grade-level of growth is needed in a year.

NCLB gives us important data about where the school currently sits with all of its students and provides an overall snapshot in time. In order to avoid preverse incentives to move some students on the cusp of a quartile into the next while ignoring others, it would be helpful to track individual student data to ensure every child is moving and to use value-add data that reflects the impact the school and teacher are having on individual student growth. For example, the value add model would recognize a high school that moves a 3rd-grade level student 3 grade-levels to 6th grade, but under NCLB the student would still present at "below basic" as the student is not on grade-level and school would appear as having failed that student since he/she is not on grade-level. Value-add would recognize the school's great impact.


Question from Amanda Klein, Rising Senior at Johns Hopkins University:
    Which aspects of charter school autonomy are most difficult, yet most important to incorporate into traditional public schools?

Steven Adamowski:
    Amanda,

What a great question. In my opinion, the ability to determine the staff and the ability to allocate the school's resources would be the top two. Third place might be the ability to assign the time of staff and students.

SA


Question from Katryn Bowe, student, University of Pennsylvania:
    Are lessons from the private sector irrelevant since superintendents and principals will always be public officials -- and therefore political appointees -- who will have to compete in a political, rather than managerial, way?

Michael Durso:
    I would not agree that private sector issues are irrelevant. Please keep in mind that most of these concerns we discuss have to do with interaction between individuals or within a particular hierarchy, whether that be public or private. I believe that these situations are more similar than different, probably the private sector has a bit more leeway in relation to regulations and guidelines, as oppposed to a public school system.


Question from Josh, Freelance writer:
    For Ms. Davis: Can you describe how and how much the principals you train differ from typical public school principals? If the difference is significant, as I suspect it is, how serious is the challenge of getting high-quality school leaders into public schools?

Jacquelyn Davis:
    We work in public schools -- both charter and district. We train our leaders to serve as instructional leaders -- with the bulk of their time on supporting and coaching teachers to increase student learning and setting up all the systems that maximize student learning building-wide. Some principal training programs focus on building and management operations -- we focus on those components but make instructional leadership the priority.

We work closely with our district partners to ensure our leaders have all of the skills and competencies the district expects. Additionally, we also help leaders develop any skills beyond what a district might require that we see as correlative to high performing principals. In all of our cities, our candidates compete equally with other candidates applying for leadership positions and are held to the same standard. They receive no preference.


Question from Amanda Klein, Rising Senior at Johns Hopkins University:
    To Adamowski: Have your own practices changed in the Hartford District, based on the research results you found in the report?

Steven Adamowski:
    Amanda,

I was a Senior Fellow at the American Institutes for Research in DC when this research was conducted and have been in Hartford the past six months. We have developed a Theory of Action that redefines the relationship of the District with each school on the basis of its performance on a set of measures. In this system we give progesssively greater levels of autonomy to schools that are high performing and/or improving while invervening and redesigning those schools that are declining and low performing.

SA


Question from allen majorovic, interested party, no affiliation:
    If principals have expanded authority, what implications does that hold for district staffing requirements and attendant budget? What are the out limits of principal empowerment? Hiring-firing? Authority to initiate capital improvements? Entry requirements or lack thereof for students?

Michael Durso:
    Although we talk of expanded autonomy, complete autonomy with no restrictions or oversight can be dangerous. Obviously, a budget amount must be adhered to, unless there is the option of hiring someone without regard to a particular scale. I believe a principal should be able to hire an individual of their choice, with the understanding that it becomes the principals responsibility if that hire does not work out.

Capital improvement autonomy is an area that is severely constrained by budget or spending limits. Within a public school, unlike private or parochial schools, we must enroll all students, unless of course, extenuating circumstances dictate an alternate placement.

We should be careful not to equate autonomy with complete license to do whatever we wish.


Question from Jeff Howard, student, Harvard University:
    To Dr. Adamowski: What do leadership strategies in the private sector teach us about how superintendents might overcome the entrenched public interests that inhibit their autonomy?

Steven Adamowski:
    Jeff,

I am a big fan of John Kotter's work at the Harvard Bussiness School. In his book, Leading Change, he outlines eight steps or strategies that the leader should follow.

SA


Question from Anonymous:
    If we want level 2 leadership from our Principals do we need to recruit different candidates to the profession or can we train Principals to take this initiative? How can we do either?

Jacquelyn Davis:
    Just like any great cake, you have to start with the right ingredients. Getting people with the base competencies and belief systems is critical. We have ten selection criteria (e.g. belief in the ability of all children to learn at a high level, project management to get results) that are research-based and correlative to high-performing princpals. We use an experential, rigorous three-step admissions process to select New Leaders to then train.

Our training model includes intensive coursework and a year-long, full-time Residency at the Assistant Principal level in a building under the guidance of a Mentor Principal. During the Residency, New Leaders put their coursework into practice and are coached by our staff to demonstrate their proficiency in each of our Principal Leadership Competencies.


Question from Tracy Robertson, Public School Teacher, Massachusetts:
    To what degree is the "achievement gap" a direct result of the "autonomy gap"? Does NCLB's success rely on closing the autonomy gap?

Steven Adamowski:
    Terry,

Inherent in our findings is the belief that a higher level of principal/school autonomy is a necessary but insufficient factor in closing the achievement gap and meeting the accountability requirements of NCLB.

SA


Question from Erich Martel, Social Studies Teacher & school advisory comm member, Wilson HS, DC:
    The advocacy for greater principal autonomy assumes that principals know what's best & won't abuse greater freedom to make decisions. For many, that's true. In many large systems, minimal oversight results in mismanagement and complaints are ignored. What mechanisms of accountability - within the school - do your guests propose as a balance to greater autonomy?



Jacquelyn Davis:
    Autonomy should be tied to a leader's capacity and competency and should not necessarily be given out universally, especially if there are low-capacity principals in the district. If a leader demonstrates the skills/competencies, beliefs and respect for the responsibility, then he/she should be granted autonomy to have the flexibility to lead the school to get the best results for students.


Question from Diane Hanfmann, Parent, Teacher:
    The nation's gifted are not making great progress in learning gains as the country focuses on the lower performing student. Accountability systems may count a mere proficiency as the point of success, tending to make the gifted's lack of gains hard to detect. Principals may earn bonus money and shiny reputations without producing growth in our best young minds. Your thoughts appreciated.

Steven Adamowski:
    Diane,

The focus of our study was on the type and degree of autonomy principals felt they needed to increase student performance and meet Federal and State accountability requirements. We did not look at the effect of autonomy on students with different needs although, one could argue that greater autonomy would enpower a principal to differentiate curriculum and instruction and reallocate resources to better meet the needs of sub-groups of students such as those requiring greater challenge

SA


Question from Ryan Major, Parent, North Andover Mass.:
    To Ms. Davis: What kinds of bureaucratic obstacles does "New Leaders" encounter?

Jacquelyn Davis:
    For leaders to be most effective, schools need the basic central office services (e.g. procurement, human resources, facilites)to work. In many districts, these systems are badly broken and impede principals' ability to spend time on the work that matters most for student achievement. Instead, principals in broken districts spend time trying to get the heat fixed or the procurement system to allow them to buy toner for their printers.

Another example of a bureaucratic obstacle is having central office personnel who are more focused on compliance and mandates than the factors that lead to increased student achivement.


Question from Max, Student, Northwestern:
    For Jacquelyn Davis-

How viable is the New Leaders model ultimately? Will the expansion of programs like KIPP and TFA lay the groundwork for an expansion of NLNS? Do you see it ever outgrowing its role as a niche player?

Jacquelyn Davis:
    Fortunately, there are many great educators across our country who with the appropriate training and support will make outstanding school leaders. Thus, we have a good pool from which to recruit and select. To date, roughly 6% of the candidates who apply for our program meet our selection criteria for acceptance. Programs like TFA and TNTP recruit and develop teachers who have similar belief-systems and a sense of personal responsibility for student success that we look for in our leaders.

We do not aim to serve all the principal vacancies in the country, but instead to build a scaled corps of outstanding urban school principals who serve cities across the country well and show that it is possible for all children to achieve at a high level.


Question from Prilla Krone, Education Pioneer:
    What suggestions do you have for attracting more people to the principalship with an interest in a CEO (rather than middle manager) role?

Michael Durso:
    Although it was not a question for me, I think this could be accomplished through an alternative route to the principalship for those who have been CEO's of other public or private organizations.

I also answered this because I am interested to know about what you do as an "Education Pioner".

Steven Adamowski


Question from David J. Hoff:
    This is the moderator chiming in with a question for Mr. Durso: Can creative principals work within the rules of a system to get more autonomy than the rules actually allow?

Michael Durso:
    Absolutely! However, with that being said, one needs to be careful not to overstay their welcome with the central office. For example, if a principal wished to initiate a controversial program, it probably would not be wise to come back immediately with another request.

The key frequently is one's judgement, because if a "stretch" in autonomy does not work, then another opportunity could become a problem. Conversely, if something questionable is successful, many others will immediately jump on the band wagon.


Question from Evelyn Carter, Assistant Principal, Suitland Elementary:
    Explain how the principal can help the staff to use data for student achievement?

Steven Adamowski:
    Evelyn,

This was not the subject of our study. However, there are several method and on-line tools that can be used to disaggregate by subgroup and provide content analysis if you state does not provide that information. ASCD is a good source for these. In my experience, this is essentially a process of group work by grade or team that identifies where and for whom the current school program needs to change.

SA


David J. Hoff (Moderator):


    Our hour is up. Thank you so much for so many great questions from the field. And big thank you to our guests for answering each and every question submitted. You'll be able to find the transcript of this chat on www.edweek.org. It will be posted shortly. Thanks again to everybody.


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The Fine Print

All questions are screened by an edweek.org editor prior to posting. A question is not displayed until the moderator poses it to the guest(s). Due to the volume of questions received, we cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered, or answered in the order of submission. Guests and hosts may decline to answer any questions. Concise questions are strongly encouraged.

Please be sure to include your name when posting your question.

Edweek.org's Live Chat is an open forum where readers can participate in a give- and-take discussion with a variety of guests. Edweek.org reserves the right to condense or edit questions for clarity, but editing is kept to a minimum. Transcripts may also be reproduced in some form in our print edition. We do not correct errors in spelling, punctuation, etc. In addition, we remove statements that have the potential to be libelous or to slander someone. Please read our privacy policy and user agreement if you have questions.

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