Report analyzes differing autonomous school strategies in Boston, Memphis, Denver, & LA and offers recommendations for in-district models in other cities
WASHINGTON–The Reinventing America’s Schools Project at the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) today released a new report examining district-operated autonomous schools in four cities and comparing their performance to local charter schools. In three of the four cities, charter schools outperformed the “charter-lite” district schools.
The report, authored by PPI’s David Osborne and Emily Langhorne, is based on analysis of test scores from 2015 and 2016 and interviews with participants in Boston, Memphis, Denver, and Los Angeles. It examines different models of autonomous schools, looks at their results, and draws out lessons for other districts considering an autonomy strategy.
Facing competition from public charters, urban school districts across the country are looking for ways to increase student achievement. Some have attempted to spur charter-like innovation by granting traditional public school leaders more autonomy over staffing, learning models, curriculum, school budgets, school calendars and schedules, and other matters.
According to Osborne and Langhorne, public charter schools outperform both traditional public schools and district-run autonomous schools for five primary reasons:
- Most independent charter schools have true autonomy.
- Most charter schools are schools of choice.
- Most independent charters are held accountable for student performance and closed or replaced if it lags too far behind grade levels.
- Most independent charters go through a careful authorization process.
- Independent charter sectors are more sustainable than in-district autonomous zones.
“The evidence strongly suggests that cities can create better outcomes by building strong charter sectors,” Osborne and Langhorne write. “But, in contentious political environments, it is often easier to create in-district autonomous schools than independent charters.” In cities with political landscapes that make it difficult to invest in a growing charter sector, they add, in-district autonomous models are the second best option.
“If they can give school leaders true autonomy and hold their schools accountable for results, districts can use in-district autonomous models to produce an increase in student achievement – perhaps approaching that of strong charter sectors. By following these recommendations, districts can create self-renewing systems of schools in which every school has the incentives and the autonomy to continuously innovate and improve. At the same time, they can offer a variety of school models to families to meet a variety of children’s needs.”
The recommendations for districts include:
- Protect unrestricted autonomy.
- Create a district office or independent board to support and protect autonomous schools.
- Articulate a district-wide theory of action and secure buy-in from central office staff.
- Turn some central services into public enterprises that must sell their services to schools, in competition with other providers.
- Authorize district-run autonomous schools like charter schools.
- Ensure continuous improvement by using a clear system of accountability to close and/ or replace failing schools.
- Invest in the development of autonomous school leaders.