Why I’m Skeptical of Autonomous District Schools

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In most cities I visit, the issue of autonomous district schools eventually comes up. Advocates propose that giving more autonomy to district principals will lead to increases in student achievement.

I generally express deep skepticism. But, if I’m reading the rooms I’m in correctly, I’m not sure that I’m influencing many people. This strategy is as popular as ever amongst the reform crowd.

With this post, at the very least, I’ll get all my thoughts down in one place. See below for why I’m skeptical of autonomous district schools.

1. District School Autonomy is a Management Reform 

At the heart of my skepticism is the difference between governance and management reforms.

Charter schools are a governance reform. Generally, in the move to chartering, non-profit boards of directors replace elected school boards as the school site governing entity.

Autonomous district schools are a management reform. The governance structure of public education remains in place; it is just managed differently. That means all of the problems of our current governance structure (lack of accountability, monopolistic conditions, poor regulation, etc.) remain in place.

I actually have very few opinions on management: I’ve seen excellent school operators give their school leaders a lot of autonomy, and I’ve seen excellent school operators give their schools leaders little autonomy.

2. District School Autonomy is Not Politically Sustainable 

Governance reforms (chartering) allows for strategic and operational consistency. A non-profit board is self-perpetuating; it’s members select new replacements. To the extent that the founder’s vision continues to serve students well, the drivers of the school model can remain in place.

Autonomous district schools are subject to the continual whims of election cycles and superintendent turnover. Even the most embedded autonomous reform efforts, such as those put in place by Joel Klein in NYC, risk being overturned as electoral politics change.

3. District School Autonomy is Often Void of Entrepreneurship 

Charter school formation is predicated on entrepreneurship: an education leader must come up with an idea, build a team, and launch a school. In many sectors, entrepreneurship is the main driver of innovation and continual improvement.

District school autonomy, as often practiced, skips over entrepreneurship. The reform effort simply grants more autonomy to existing school leaders. This bypasses perhaps the most important part of charter schooling.

Also, entrepreneurship is not just important at the movement of founding. It’s important for scaling. An autonomous district leader will never be able to create an organization such as KIPP. The district structure makes it impossible.

4. District Autonomy is Usually Not that Autonomous 

In most cases, district school leaders, in practice, receive relatively little autonomy. Generally, they are still bound by the union contract. How autonomous can you be if your union contract prevents you from entering a teacher’s classroom unannounced to provide feedback?

Moreover, the central office is still the central office. Budgeting, procurement, and human resources still go through the bureaucracy. I’ve talked to many principals of autonomous district schools, and few describe real autonomy.

There are exceptions, I’m sure. But real autonomy doesn’t appear to be the norm.

5. There is No Evidence that District Autonomy Works Better Than Charter School (and Little Evidence that it Works at All)

Three cities are perhaps most recognized for giving some principals more autonomy: Boston, Denver, and New York City.

In each city, the charter sector outperforms the traditional sector.

In two of the three cities, from what I gather, the autonomous schools perform the same or worse as traditional schools.

In Boston, researchers from MIT found that Boston’s autonomous district schools (pilot schools) performed worse than regular traditional schools.

This study on Denver’s autonomous district schools (innovation schools) found very little differences in achievement between these and traditional schools.

The closet thing I could find to positive evidence was the recent study of NYC’s small high schools. However, this model combined entrepreneurship and positive constraints on the school model.

At best, it’s possible that autonomous district schools may outperform regular traditional schools. But in both Boston and Denver this hasn’t been the case.

But in all these cities the evidence is clear: charter schools are serving students better.

In Sum

As a reform strategy, autonomous district schools: attempt management reform when it is governance reform that is needed; are subject to political whims; are often void of entrepreneurship; are actually not that autonomous; and continue to deliver poor results for students.

And yet it remains the foundational strategy for so many district reform efforts.

4 thoughts on “Why I’m Skeptical of Autonomous District Schools

  1. Wm Murphy

    If accountability and board composition are important distinctions between autonomous district schools and charters, what happens when accountability is lessened bc charter boards are too friendly, too toothless, or too ill-informed to take action in the interests of kids and families? Or if a saturated market with decreasing outside operator interest and increasingly stagnant performance yields extensions for some F schools? What’s the next evolution to prevent a regression toward old habits in different drag?

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Hey Bill – on first point, I think toothless boards will, over time, lose their charters (assuming their actions cause student achievement to drop).

      Per your second point, I think start-ups are probably the only way out of this, which is why I hope NOLA keeps on creating space for new orgs to form…

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  2. Andrew Balson

    A clear and coherent argument. That said, I would take issue with the point about entrepreneurship. If charters are ever to become scale players in education, best practices need to be codified and replicated in a way that delivers consistent results. Entrepreneurs are great for driving innovation, but at the point at which the game becomes scale and not fundamental innovation then systems and process that incorporate innovations and appropriate incentives and governance become the key challenge.

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    1. nkingsl Post author

      Andrew, good to hear from you.

      I agree that scale requires systems and processes. I just think that CMOs are 10x more likely to figure this out.

      The problem with government run schools, of course, is not that districts don’t have scale. They do. They just use it poorly, as is often the case when scale is a result of monopolistic conditions rather than competition.

      I think Uncommon Schools is perhaps the leader here. I hope other CMOs will follow. And sometimes I do worry that the charter movement started as such an anti-establishment cause that its leaders will resist necessary codification.

      Time will tell. And thanks for your note.

      Lastly, one interesting note: as we moved to an all charter system in NOLA, we saw trends toward greater uses of some best practices.

      Decentralization plus accountability is, I think, a much better recipe for best practice adoption than the top down mandates of politically controlled monopolies.

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