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Working Paper: School Autonomy and Its Impact
In analyzing data from principal surveys and case studies at a broad sample of schools in Los Angeles from 2011 to 2014, Ayesha K. Hashim, Susan C. Bush-Mecenas, and Katharine O. Strunk find wide variation in the implementation of autonomy and close association between faithful implementation and better instruction.
Advocates for education reform a generation ago and across the spectrum—from Ted Sizer, Deborah Meier, and Albert Shanker to John Chubb and Terry Moe—called for more school autonomy as a critical means to improving instruction.
“The profession must be radically strengthened,” Sizer wrote in Horace’s Compromise (1984). “And teachers must be given the privilege of autonomy and the complement of accountability to an unprecedented degree—if we are to take the implications of the new research seriously.” In describing a primary motive for the creation of Central Park East in the early 1970s, Deborah Meier wrote in The Power of Their Ideas (1992): “We spoke a lot about democracy, but we were just plain sick and tired of having to waste so much time and energy negotiating with school officials over what seemed like commonsense requests, worrying about myriad rules and regulations, being forced to compromise on so many of our beliefs. We came together with our own visions of what teaching could be if only we had control.” In articulating his vision for charter schools in a speech at the National Press Club in 1988, Albert Shanker faulted the current structure of schools as too rigid and contended “that we need an institution that responds to people in the best way other professions and institutions respond.” In Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools (1990), John Chubb and Terry Moe declared that “the most important prerequisite for the emergence of effective school characteristics is school autonomy, especially from external bureaucratic influence.”
On account of such consensus, an array of schools with more autonomy emerged: from independently managed charter schools to district schools with substantial site-based authority. Yet little research has addressed how such autonomy is exercised and to what effect.
In “Inside the Black Box of School Autonomy,” Ayesha K. Hashim, Susan C. Bush-Mecenas, and Katharine O. Strunk take up this challenge. The authors focus on the Los Angeles Unified School District, a pioneer in authorizing significant school autonomy and in several forms. In analyzing data from principal surveys and case studies at a broad sample of the district’s schools from 2011 to 2014, the authors at once find wide variation in the implementation of autonomy and close association between faithful implementation and better instruction.
Original, rigorous, and lucid, this study paves the way to a fuller understanding of a topic central to debate about educational governance.
Samuel E. Abrams
May 16, 2019
Published Thursday, May. 16, 2019