School autonomy all over the map

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Schools CEO Arne Duncan has presided over a surge of new school models and academic programs. Families eyeing public schools for their children today can choose among 47 charters, 21 small high schools, 12 vocational high schools, eight math and science academies, four military academies and dozens of selective, magnet and new Renaissance schools. Among the hundreds of elementary and high schools offering specialty curricula are 26 that offer prestigious International Baccalaureate credentials.

At the same time, Duncan’s team has crafted varying levels of school autonomy and oversight based on student performance and local managerial deftness. Exceptional schools are rewarded with more freedom. Those struggling at the bottom wind up on probation—with extra supports, yet under threat of possible closure.

However, Duncan’s initiatives in school choice, autonomy and accountability do not always work in tandem. Some choice schools have no autonomy; some autonomous schools are not available as choices. Schools facing accountability sanctions work under particularly tight restraints.

Duncan has pegged the district’s future on this curious blend. Yet in New York City—where all schools will have the opportunity to be autonomous—choice, autonomy and accountability are woven into a more seamless approach to improving school performance citywide. Many eyes are trained East.

In our backyard, it’s difficult to know what’s going on, and so far, the available data don’t shed much light. The 2006 test scores, for one, are clouded by changes in format. In the following pages, Catalyst Chicago provides a starting point for assessing and reporting progress on the many fronts.