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Working Paper: School Autonomy in Denver
Philip Gigliotti analyzes Innovation Schools in Denver from its inception in 2009 through 2014. Gigliotti focuses on student scores on annual state tests in reading, math, and writing to measure the effectiveness of greater managerial authority. He finds that while Innovation Schools on average brought about impressive results by the second year of implementation, these results soon after declined substantially.
One year ago, we published a working paper on how administrators at schools belonging to the Public School Choice Initiative (PSCI) in Los Angeles were granted greater autonomy and to what effect. In their analysis, “Inside the Black Box of School Autonomy,” Ayesha Hashim, Susan Bush-Mecenas, and Katharine Strunk drew on principal surveys and case study data to assess PSCI and found both wide variation in the exercise of autonomy and close association between faithful implementation and better instruction. We now publish a working paper addressing a similar program in Denver called Innovation Schools.
In “School Autonomy in Denver: The Impact of Innovation Schools,” Philip Gigliotti, a doctoral candidate in public administration and policy at the State University of New York at Albany, analyzes Innovation Schools from its inception in 2009 through 2014. Unlike PSCI, launched in 2010 and comprising several forms of school governance (from traditional district schools to solo charter schools and networked charter schools), Innovation Schools comprise only traditional district schools, all endowed with substantial authority over curriculum, scheduling, personnel, and spending. Moreover, whereas PSCI was limited to Los Angeles, Innovation Schools is a statewide program.
By 2013-2014, the final year studied by Gigliotti, Innovation Schools amounted to 30 of Denver’s 200 public schools, or 15 percent of the total. By 2013-2014, also the final year studied by Hashim, Bush-Mecenas, and Strunk, PSCI schools amounted to 130 of Los Angeles’s 900 public schools, or 14 percent of the total. While the number of PSCI schools peaked with the addition of 16 schools in 2013-2014, the number of Innovation Schools in Denver has continued to grow and today stands at 52, or 25 percent of the city’s total. In addition, there are now 54 more Innovation Schools spread across 15 other school districts in Colorado.
Instead of employing principal surveys and case study data to determine the degree of autonomy exercised by school leaders, Gigliotti focuses on student scores on annual state tests in reading, math, and writing to measure the effectiveness of greater managerial authority. Building on studies of Innovation Schools by Roland Fryer in 2014 and by Atila Abdulkadiroglu, Joshua Angrist, Yusuke Narita, and Parag Pathak in 2017, Gigliotti employs a wider time frame than his predecessors, with longer pre- and post-treatment periods, and provides estimates for 11 schools not studied by Fryer. Gigliotti finds that while Innovation Schools on average brought about impressive results by the second year of implementation, these results soon after declined substantially.
Advocates for education reform across the spectrum have for decades called for more school autonomy as a central means to improving instruction. 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 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.”
In this clear, rigorous study of Denver’s Innovation Schools, Gigliotti adds to our understanding of the potential for greater school autonomy and its enduring challenges.
Samuel E. Abrams
June 11, 2020
Coming soon: Charisse Gulosino and Jonah Liebert on urban versus suburban and rural charter schools in California; Katharine Parham on charter schools and special education; and Francisco Lagos on Chile’s Inclusion Law of 2015.
Published Thursday, Jun. 11, 2020