Principal independence: Easier said than done

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In this photo from our February 2007 special report on Autonomy and Accountability, 2nd-graders at Talcott Elementary participate in an innovative science program their principal developed within the traditional bounds of CPS. With a template provided by the Chicago Children’s Museum, they reconstruct a dinosaur with bones made of white clay.

Photo by Jason Reblando

In this photo from our February 2007 special report on Autonomy and Accountability, 2nd-graders at Talcott Elementary participate in an innovative science program their principal developed within the traditional bounds of CPS. With a template provided by the Chicago Children’s Museum, they reconstruct a dinosaur with bones made of white clay.

Then

In 2005, the Chicago Public Schools invited “star principals” from 85 schools to join Autonomous Management and Performance Schools (AMPS), the district’s first effort to reward high-performing principals with greater freedom from central office rules and regulations.

The new freedoms included greater control of school budgets, the option to offer in-house induction for new teachers, and release from supervision by middle managers then known as area officers. AMPS principals were given greater budget flexibility, but plans to give them student-based budgets ended up on hold. Ultimately, AMPS principals enjoyed only marginally greater freedoms than other principals in the system, many of whom were charting their own course within existing district structures.

Chicago’s version of principal autonomy stood in stark contrast to that in New York City under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While Chicago viewed autonomy as a reward for high performance — later expanded to include schools showing gains in student achievement, not just strong absolute performance — New York saw it as a precondition for innovation, offering autonomy in exchange for accountability.

See “Chicago amps up autonomy,” and “Principals get creative within the bounds of district bureaucracy,” Catalyst February 2007


Now

Research on the outcomes of AMPS was confined to a small subset of participating high schools. It suggested that at best, the program had marginal impact on student achievement. During Jean-Claude Brizard’s tenure as CEO, AMPS died a quiet death.

Soon after, Brizard’s successor, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, trumpeted the district’s new student-based budgeting system as a tool to increase principal power over spending. Rather than receiving money earmarked for specific expenses, principals would receive lump sums to spend generally as they saw fit. “I loved it when I was a principal,” she told Catalyst, adding it had allowed her to carve out funds for an art teacher.

But some principals felt that being handed budget authority in a time of declining resources left them taking the heat no matter what decisions they made. The difficulty was compounded by conflicting and unfunded mandates, such as increasing time for arts instruction and physical education while maintaining a two-hour time requirement for literacy. “CPS has left principals with the choice of where to fail students,” charged Adam Parrott-Sheffer, then a CPS principal,  in an op-ed for Catalyst. (Parrott-Sheffer later left Chicago for the suburbs.)

See “CPS adopts per-pupil budgets, equal charter funding,” Catalyst March 2013 and “Talking with Principals, Part 1: Speaking out from the trenches,” Catalyst June 2014


Next

The new CPS effort to grant 25 high-performing principals greater independence differs from AMPS in several respects. Most notably, the freedom is assigned to the principal, not the school, so that outstanding principals can take it with them should they change schools. As with AMPS, these principals would be free from middle management oversight, meaning, for example, no required network-led walk-throughs, budget approval or meetings. The principal’s evaluation would be conducted through Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson’s office, not the network.

Almost immediately, one outspoken principal, Blaine’s Troy LaRaviere, took issue with the new program, arguing that separating the system’s strongest principals from weaker colleagues would be a mistake. Better to remove “incompetent network leadership” and offer principals incentives to take on additional responsibilities for supporting their colleagues, he suggested.

Ironically, New York City now appears to be moving away from autonomy as a precondition for innovation. A report published in February by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform found that allowing principals to choose their own support providers, known as networks and operated by both the district and outside nonprofits, had little effect on overall student performance.

Earlier this year, new schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced a district governance shakeup that would restore both support and supervision of principals to local superintendents’ offices. However, in May, Fariña allowed a subset of high schools to opt out of the new structure and continue choosing a non-profit support provider. But they would have to commit to their choice for at least three years, up from one previously.

See “More autonomy for top-performing principals,” Catalyst August 2015