School & District Management

Easing Rules Over Schools Gains Favor

By Catherine Gewertz — March 16, 2007 8 min read
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Massachusetts’ recent decision to offer charterlike freedom to four of its lowest-performing schools has renewed debate about the role autonomy plays in school improvement: Should it be earned through good performance, or given as a vital tool for improvement? Is it risky to extend it to struggling schools?

Interest in the issue is keen. The New York City and Chicago school districts are engaged in high-profile experiments with giving schools autonomy. Both the governor of Nevada and a coalition of groups in Connecticut are proposing legislation to give principals more authority to decide the pathways to better student achievement.

Experience has shown that state takeovers don’t often help ailing schools, policy experts say, and that cutting a beleaguered school loose to “do its own thing” doesn’t often deliver good results either. So, school leaders are experimenting with combinations of regulation and independence based on a school’s performance, approaches some refer to as “differentiated autonomy.”

Districts and states are using widely varying starting points. Joseph Olchefske, the managing director of school district consulting for the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, said some districts start from a place of control, obligating schools to follow district rules until their performance earns them greater autonomy. Others start with autonomy, then revoke it for schools whose troubles suggest a need for outside direction.

“You can start from either default position—autonomy or no autonomy,” said Mr. Olchefske, who allowed schools in Seattle substantial freedom as the superintendent there from 1998 to 2003. “The place you start from reflects very deep and fundamental things about the way you think the world works.”

The move by Massachusetts illustrates a growing recognition in the field that neither autonomy nor intervention, by itself, is a cure. The state is freeing the four schools from many operating restrictions, but it also plans to support and closely monitor them, and hold them to specific performance goals, in a bid to ensure that they gain ground.

Roots in Boston

“We are not affording them the option to perpetuate the low level of performance that got us to this place to begin with,” said Christopher R. Anderson, the new president of the Massachusetts state school board, who led last November’s effort to let the four schools shape their own turnarounds rather than be labeled “chronically underperforming” and have the state do it.

For the schools, the state panel created a new category called “commonwealth pilots,” patterned after the pilot schools created by the Boston district and its teachers’ union in 1995 as a response to the charter school movement. Boston’s 19 pilot schools secured that status with the approval of two-thirds of their faculty members. Their leaders can decide curriculum, staffing, budget, and other significant matters.

English High School in Boston, Academy Middle School in Fitchburg, and two schools in Springfield—Duggan Middle School and Putnam Vocational-Technical High School—are developing plans that the state board expects to review next month. If approved, the schools will become Massachusetts’ first commonwealth pilots next fall.

Mr. Anderson said he hopes to extend the pilot option to all schools statewide. However, the idea of affording significant autonomy to struggling schools is hotly debated. The Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, a Cambridge, Mass., think tank, is bringing together key players in the commonwealth-pilot experiment this month to discuss whether the tactic is a sound way to help low-performing schools.

S. Paul Reville, the president of the Rennie Center and the director of the education policy and management program at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said the experience of the academic-standards movement suggests that clarifying goals, assessing progress, and creating incentives to improve aren’t necessarily enough. Many school systems need to build their capacity to improve, and often states and districts don’t know how—or lack the resources—to help schools do that, said Mr. Reville, who is a former member of the state school board.

“It’s pretty clear to everybody that simply granting autonomy isn’t going to be enough,” he said. “What will make or break this experiment is the support, guidance, direction, additional capacity-building the state is able to give these schools.”

Up Front or Afterward?

Chicago is an example of a district that believes schools must earn autonomy.

Its Autonomous Management Performance Schools, or AMPS, program, begun in 2005, was designed to reward with additional freedom schools that met rigorous standards of achievement and managerial competence. Low-performing schools are subject to tighter controls.

Melissa Megliola, who oversees the program, said the 420,000-student district takes a “fairly hands-off approach” to those 90 schools, reviewing key data once a year for signs of trouble. The district believes that a careful selection process reduces the risk that autonomy will lead to trouble, she said.

Conditions for Mass. Districts Seeking Freedom for Some Schools

School districts in Massachusetts that propose to convert underperforming schools to “commonwealth pilot” schools are required to have certain conditions in place, including:

Local Approval. The superintendent and the leader of the local teachers’ union must approve the school’s conversion in writing.

Autonomy. The school’s governing body must have full autonomy over budget, staffing, curriculum and assessment, governance, and scheduling. The school must be released from district mandates and union work rules that would otherwise apply.

School Budgets. The district must agree to provide the school with a budget appropriation equal to or greater than the district average per-pupil expenditure for school-based costs, times the number of students to be enrolled. Pilot schools can either choose to purchase central services from the district or have the equivalent money included in their budgets.

Salaries and Transfers. Local teachers’ union members who work in a commonwealth pilot school will accrue seniority in the district and be paid the salary and benefits established in its union contract. Employment in the schools is on a voluntary basis.

Accountability. The state education department will analyze data from the school, including test scores, and report on the school’s progress on multiple indicators of student engagement (including attendance, suspension, and transfers) and student achievement (such as course failures, honor roll, graduation, and college-going rates). At the conclusion of two years of commonwealth-pilot-school status, each school will undergo a “school quality review,” including a site visit by practitioners who will report their findings publicly.

SOURCE: Massachusetts Department of Education

In response to interest from principals, she said, the district is expanding its selection criteria to allow into the AMPS program additional schools that argue they deserve autonomy because of their rapid progress, or for other reasons they may specify.

“We had a lot of people asking if autonomy couldn’t be used as a tool to help other kinds of schools as well,” Ms. Megliola said. “Our original theory of action was to choose the high-performing schools and leave them alone. You had to earn it. But now, we’re dipping our toe in the water to see if [autonomy] can be used for other purposes, too.”

The nation’s largest school district, the 1.1 million-student New York City system, is undertaking a massive initiative in autonomy for principals. The theory in that district is that school autonomy must be given up front, to drive improvement, not in recognition of doing well.

In 2004, 29 schools opted to join what was then called an “autonomy zone,” which freed them from many of the district’s rules on staffing, budgeting, and curriculum in exchange for their promise to meet specific performance goals.

The effort has changed name and scope: There are now 332 “empowerment schools,” and Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein outlined plans in January to offer similar freedoms—with several new sets of support structures—to all of the city’s 1,400 principals.

“It’s easy for folks to understand autonomy as a reward. On the other hand, we view it as a prerequisite,” said Eric Nadelstern, who heads the initiative. “When we put people into the lowest-performing schools to lead them, we don’t want to take away the tools they need to be effective.”

Four-year performance agreements ensure that principals will deliver results with the freedoms they have, Mr. Nadelstern said. School leaders choose where to get their support and services for all their basic operations, such as budgeting and professional development. They can receive such help from newly designed teams within the district, from networks of empowerment schools, or from outside partners who provide such services under contract.


Steven J. Adamowski, who is now the superintendent of the 24,000-student Hartford, Conn., school district, helped define the concept of “differentiated autonomy” as the superintendent of the Cincinnati schools from 1998 to 2002. In that job, he created a five-level system that geared prescriptive measures and guidance to a school’s performance. He is using a similar model now in Hartford.

Arlene Ackerman, a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and a superintendent-in-residence with the Broad Foundation, followed a similar philosophy as the superintendent in San Francisco from 2000 to 2006. As schools’ academic troubles deepened, the district took over more of their decisionmaking powers and supplied greater supports, such as intensive professional development and top priority in choosing staff members, she said. The worst-performing schools were reconstituted and walked through a highly structured academic-planning process, she said.

“At some point, enough is enough,” she said. “You have to look at the staff.”

Proposals afoot in Nevada and Connecticut would give more power to principals to run their schools. Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican, is proposing to fund 100 “empowerment schools” modeled after a four-school pilot program in the Clark County district, which includes Las Vegas. A coalition of groups in Connecticut is advocating converting some of the state’s most troubled schools into independent operators like Boston’s pilots.

Under Massachusetts’ commonwealth-pilot program, some supports are built into the agreement to convert to such status. State guidelines require certain district and school-level conditions before a conversion can be made. For instance, schools agree to an annual review of data and practices by the state. The schools’ plans for operating must show, among other features, a strong assessment system, individualized student instruction, provision of faculty coaches in English and mathematics, and enough time for teachers to plan and analyze instruction.

The Center for Collaborative Education, a Boston-based nonprofit group that has studied the city’s pilot schools, is partnering with the state department of education to provide coaching and leadership development to the commonwealth pilots.

Dan French, the center’s executive director, said the power of the pilot model is that it enables a school community to “embrace a unified mission” that the community’s members believe is best for their school. That can work even in a low-performing school, he said, noting that Boston High School used the pilot approach to move from the brink of closure in 2002 to strong performance today.

The key, and the cautionary note, in the commonwealth-pilot experiment, Mr. French said, is whether schools that sign on as an alternative to a takeover are willing to embrace a fundamentally different way of operating.

“These are schools with their backs against the wall,” he said. “Are they choosing this because they understand the concept and want to take advantage of the autonomies and innovations, or are they choosing it to avoid being declared chronically underperforming? If it’s only the latter, we might not have the traction we need to turn these schools around.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at

A version of this article appeared in the March 21, 2007 edition of Education Week as Easing Rules Over Schools Gains Favor


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