New Report: ‘The Road to Autonomy’

By Christina A. Samuels — June 21, 2011 1 min read
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Yesterday, I wrote an article about a sweeping new reform plan in Detroit that is intended to take the district’s lowest-performing schools and place them under the umbrella of an operating authority. This new authority will lengthen the school day and year, hire new teachers, and devote more money to classroom instruction.

(Here’s an FAQ document on the new authority, prepared by the school district.)

The reform effort was lauded by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who found it important enough to add his thoughts during the press conference via video. But the whole idea left me with a few questions, including this one: Who has the ability at a failing school to turn it around? If a school has been struggling for years, giving the school more autonomy won’t help if there is not enough capacity to develop good ideas and follow through with them.

So this report released today from Education Sector called The Road to Autonomy is timely. The movement toward school autonomy—giving school leaders the ability to hire and fire teachers, select a curriculum, and create their own budgets—has been going on for some time. As this report notes, sometimes the process works well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

The author, Erin Dillon, draws on school reform efforts in Washington, D.C, another struggling urban district, for her examples. The District of Columbia gives autonomy to some schools as a reward for good performance. The district also has “Partnership Schools,” which are lower-performing schools managed by charter organizations. Those schools are also granted flexibility in staffing, budgeting and instruction.

The report also explores districts like Boston that have reduced the autonomy of individual schools and seen increases in student performance.

One thought that I took away from this report was, ironically, the importance of central administration in these efforts. Central office staff have to support the schools as they transition to autonomous management, and must still ensure some level of consistency among schools. They can’t just let enthusiastic school leaders drive a school into a ditch with a failing reform model. But this new Detroit program seems to be designed to let schools escape entirely from the inefficient, chaotic central office. I’m still not sure how the new authority will work, but it will be interesting to watch.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.