Performance, not perks, is what autonomy should be about

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Editor Veronica Anderson

Editor Veronica Anderson

Mayor Daley and Schools CEO Arne Duncan talk a good game about empowering principals to do what it takes to improve student performance. But you’ve got to wonder whether they really believe school autonomy is a remedy for struggling schools. Take a look at which principals have significant freedom and you’ll find there are precious few.

Charter school leaders have the most autonomy. They can configure their staffs any way they want, within the confines of their budgets. They can hold classes for as long as they want, for however many days or months they want. They can set and follow their own academic programs.

Yet there’s not much status quo for charter leaders to shake up since these schools are built—with public funds—from the ground up, outside the bureaucratic structure and systems of the district. It’s pretty much the same story for principals of non-charter schools that are being created under the mayor’s Renaissance 2010 initiative. They can call more of the shots, but there’s no entrenched, toxic culture to overcome.

The deal for all of these schools is that they must produce results.

Under another program called AMPS, the district has granted some autonomy to principals at regular elementary and high schools. However, these principals oversee schools that are at the top of the achievement heap, serving many children who are high-achievers.

Then there are the star principals the district tapped to turn around four schools where scores have been mired at the bottom for years. If any regular school leaders were good candidates for autonomy, it would be these. But that’s not what they got.

These academic turnaround specialists did get some extra money for themselves and their schools. The district provides them with financial incentives, in the form of signing bonuses and extra cash in their budgets.

One result: When Adrian Willis arrived at Earle Elementary in Englewood—from a cushy post at Keller Gifted in Mount Greenwood—he was able to replace beat-up furniture, initiate a conflict resolution program and fill the void of social studies textbooks.

“It’s a go-to when you’re running short on funds during the course of the year,” Willis says. “It’s been real helpful.”

These principals also get extra support. A SWAT team of central office administrators who will parachute in to help keep things moving forward in a pinch, monthly meetings with a mentor, periodic seminars at a highly regarded program at the University of Virginia and networking with principals from Philadelphia, Richmond and Dade County, Fla. “By far, some of the best training I’ve ever had,” says Principal Lorraine Cruz of Ames Middle.

Yet, Cruz laughs when asked whether she has any more power now than she did before. “Oh no,” she says. “We have been empowered with tools and resources to right the wrongs.”

Meanwhile, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the bold step of offering every principal in the district an opportunity to run their schools more autonomously.

Financial incentives, including a promising measure to reward principals for moving kids from the lowest-scoring quartile on tests to higher ones, are buttressed by freedom to set curricula and schedules, and make a host of other educational decisions.

Bloomberg gets it. Autonomy should be about performance, not perks. Daley and Duncan don’t, at least not yet. Is there a method to the madness of school autonomy in Chicago? The city’s scattershot approach will likely render scattershot results, and no one will know whether they’ve been effective.