Feature

Autonomy for School Leaders

What does research have to say about how much freedom at the site level is too much? by JAMES ECK AND BRYAN GOODWIN

A conversation has emerged in education circles over how much latitude or autonomy principals should have. Should school districts simply find great school leaders and stay out of their way? Or should they take a more directive approach, guiding improvement efforts all the way down to the classroom?


In 2007, the American Institutes of Research and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report titled “The Autonomy Gap,” which argued that principals, who shoulder much of the burden of accountability systems, typically lack the authority they need to really improve student performance, especially when it comes to school staffing.

James Eck and Bryan GoodwinJim Eck (right) is a senior director at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Denver, Colo., where Bryan Goodwin is vice president for communications and marketing.



Due to this lack of authority, the authors wrote, “We suspect that principals who once yearned to be dynamic executives and change agents ‘selected out’ of the system in frustration, perhaps to run a charter school or enter a completely different field.”

More recently, an elementary school in the Denver Public Schools made waves by asking its local board and teachers’ union for waivers from district rules and collective bargaining agreements to enable the school’s leadership team to exert more control over personnel, budgeting and scheduling.

“We don’t see this as radical,” Greg Ahrnsbrak, physical education teacher and union representative at the school, told the Denver Post. “We see this as common sense. We want to be released from this bureaucratic entanglement that will allow us to do better.”

While granting schools more control over budget and staffing decisions may seem like common sense, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation learned the hard way that school autonomy, in and of itself, is no guarantee for improved performance. After spending roughly $1 billion to create small, autonomous schools, the foundation learned these efforts had generated mixed results, at best.

“[One] thing I got wrong at the beginning was autonomy,” the Gates Foundation’s former executive director, Tom Vander Ark, told Education Week in 2005. “I visited 100 great schools and made the observation that they were all small, autonomous and assumed that was a path to school improvement. It turns out giving a failing school autonomy is a bad idea.”

Research Guidance
So how much autonomy should superintendents give school leaders, and how much is too much? McREL’s research on district leadership helps answer this question. McREL’s meta-analysis of research on superintendent and district effectiveness, reported in Tim Waters’ and Robert Marzano’s March 2007 School Administrator article titled “The Primacy of Superintendent Leadership,” found a statistically significant relationship (an average effect-size correlation of 0.24) between effective district leadership and student achievement.

The research findings also demonstrated the importance of school districts setting clear, non-negotiable goals for student achievement and classroom instruction, closely monitoring those goals, and marshaling resources and board support to achieve the goals. While the study validated common assumptions about high-functioning districts, it also surfaced two perplexing, and seemingly paradoxical, findings, which upon further examination shed light on how districts should define autonomy for school leaders.

School autonomy at the district level was reported to have a positive correlation (r = 0.28) with average student achievement. In other words, an increase in building-level autonomy was associated with an increase in student achievement. However, site-based management was found to have a negative correlation with student achievement (r = -0.16). In other words, an increase in site-based management (which implies a higher degree of autonomy) was associated with a decrease in student achievement.

Waters and Marzano concluded from this finding that effective superintendents provide principals with “defined autonomy.” That is, they set clear, non-negotiable goals for learning and instruction, yet provide school leadership teams with the responsibility and authority for determining how to meet those goals.

In our experience working with school districts nationwide to implement these research findings, we have found that many, regardless of size, location or past performance, struggle to strike the right balance with school autonomy. In fact, it is often the perennially high-achieving districts that suffer most from autonomy gone wild. Their overall high achievement in the past has masked gaps between subgroups of students. As district leaders attempt to close the gaps through districtwide direction and consistency, they often meet with resistance from principals.

Defining Autonomy
So what exactly should superintendents control and what should they leave up to principals? McREL’s research study provides some answers to this question, as well. Of 33 district-level leadership practices found to be correlated with higher levels of student achievement, more than half shed light on how school district leaders define school leaders’ autonomy.

Moreover, many of these practices are closely related to the attributes of what McREL has described in previous publications (for example, “The Balanced Leadership Framework”) as “purposeful communities,” which display four key elements of high-performing organizations:

•  Developing and pursuing outcomes that matter to all;

•  Establishing and following agreed-upon processes;

•  Using all available assets, both tangible and intangible, to achieve these outcomes; and

•  Demonstrating a strong sense of collective efficacy.

These four elements of high-performing organizations are consistent with Shirley Hord and Rick DuFour’s work on professional learning communities as well as a wide examination of business literature (e.g., Jim Collins’ Good to Great and Jonathan Low and Pam Cohen Kalafut’s Invisible Advantage), living systems theory (e.g., Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science), studies of organizational development (e.g., Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations) and Texas A&M researcher Roger Goddard’s examinations of “collective efficacy.”

Defining Purposes
Just as Collins has urged business leaders to focus their companies on achieving “big, hairy audacious goals,” and Larry Lezotte long ago extolled the importance of creating climates of “high expectations for students” and establishing “clear and focused” missions, McREL’s analysis of research on superintendents found that leaders of high-performing districts:

•  Adopt five-year, non-negotiable goals for achievement and instruction;

•  Establish clear priorities among the district’s instructional goals and objectives;

•  Develop coherent goals that call for higher levels of achievement rather than maintenance of the status quo; and

•  Commit their districts and schools to continuous improvement.

Stated differently, effective district leaders identify goals that capture what members of their organizations can do only because they are together, make it clear that the district’s goals are non-negotiable, and rely on school leaders to ensure that school staff understand these goals and carry out school-level plans for achieving them.

Most school districts we work with have some type of strategic plan, with overall goals for student achievement. However, few have established non-negotiable goals for both achievement and instruction, to be adhered to by every school in the district.

Moreover, in their haste to get things done, districts often skip over the need to set goals collaboratively and instead impose top-down mandates, which fail to energize their communities by identifying outcomes that matter to everyone. In contrast to the top-down method, one midsize district we are working with has, in the midst of a massive systemic effort to close achievement gaps, engaged stakeholders from across its system to repurpose itself by establishing non-negotiable goals for (1) achievement to close gaps; (2) an instructional program based on the International Baccalaureate framework; (3) cultural proficiency for all staff, students and the community; and (4) professional learning.

Operating Principles
Another key characteristic of purposeful communities is that they established agreed-upon processes for accomplishing their shared goals. Living systems theorists point to the simple but powerful organizing principles of natural systems. The complex, synchronous ways in which flocks of birds and schools of fish move together without colliding is actually based on a few core principles that are instinctively understood by each member of the community.

Similarly, members of effective organizations share principles and values, which guide their behavior. In the business world, FedEx has created a strong corporate culture built around the theme that every employee of the company should “absolutely, positively, do whatever it takes” to satisfy customers. The result? FedEx is not only a profitable company, but also consistently ranks as one of Fortune magazine’s “best companies to work for.”

Our analysis of research on school districts similarly points to the importance of developing clear operating principles and processes. Specifically, we found that effective superintendents:

•  Focus their human resource systems and policies on hiring and retaining capable, experienced teachers;

•  Direct district staff to work with principals to screen, interview and select teachers;

•  Establish teacher evaluation as a priority for principals; 

•  Develop policies and procedures for rewarding successful teachers and terminating the employment of unsuccessful teachers;

•  Establish strong agreed-upon principles/values that direct the actions of all district staff members; and 

•  Develop a shared vision and understanding of “defined autonomy” for school leaders, making it clear what principals are responsible for doing and what district office personnel are responsible for doing.

In short, effective superintendents provide principals with the authority over personnel matters they need to serve as strong building leaders, while seeking to ensure consistent approaches to evaluation for all teachers in the district and preventing arbitrary and capricious personnel decisions and practices.

Tangible and Intangible Resources
In their groundbreaking 2002 book, Invisible Advantage, business researchers Jonathan Low and Pam Cohen Kalafut note that even in the hard-nosed world of Wall Street, 35 percent of professional investors’ allocation decisions are driven not by companies’ tangible assets, such as their number of stores, cash reserves or profit margins, but rather by nonfinancial data — what they call “intangibles,” such as a company’s reputation, leadership and ability to innovate.

School and district success are similarly influenced by intangibles. Such intangibles as school climate and culture likely have as much (if not more) influence on student achievement than a school’s physical assets, such as the number of books in its library, computers per student or student-teacher ratios.

Effective district leaders focus on ensuring the equitable distribution of tangible assets and the systematic development of intangible assets by:

•  Controlling resource allocation to ensure the equitable distribution of the district’s tangible assets, including its work force; 

•  Allowing for and promoting innovation (an intangible asset) at the school level; and

•  Providing extensive teacher and principal staff development to develop the human capital (an intangible asset) necessary to achieve the district’s goals for teaching and learning.

Stated differently, effective district leaders understand the importance of distributing tangible assets equitably — for example, ensuring that all schools in the district are staffed with highly capable teachers. At the same time, they recognize the importance of providing principals with enough latitude to be able to innovate and create a culture of high expectations within their schools (an important intangible asset).

This might mean having enough flexibility in staffing and budgeting to create an interventionist or teacher-leader position within the school (a tangible asset) in an effort to develop the more important intangible asset of improved teaching quality in the school. Or it might mean giving principals enough freedom and authority to work with their school leadership teams to identify and implement new strategies for helping the school accomplish the district’s goals.

Collective Efficacy
Roger Goddard, Texas A&M professor of educational administration and human resource development, has made a strong case for the importance of collective efficacy, a shared belief among teachers that all students can learn (a notion sometimes referred to as the Pygmalion effect) and that, by working together, they can help all students in their school succeed. Stated simply, it’s a “can-do” attitude that permeates staff. As Goddard has noted, collective efficacy is actually a better predictor of school success than student socioeconomic status or race.

Psychologist Albert Bandura has identified several sources of collective efficacy, including mastery experiences (helping people experience initial successes or “quick wins”), social persuasion (relying on influential individuals to create high expectations and encourage others to meet those expectations) and group enablement (providing individuals and groups with opportunities to offer input or develop their own responses to identified challenges).

Superintendents can support the development of collective efficacy in schools through a variety of practices, including:

•  Maintaining high expectations for school perform-ance to reinforce the notion that all students can learn;

•  Including socializing functions in district meetings to develop and reinforce the shared belief that every school in the district is capable of ensuring the success of every child;

•  Celebrating initial successes by rewarding students beyond standard honor rolls and recognition assemblies for exceptional performance; and

•  Empowering individuals and school communities within the district to increase reliability of the system by quickly responding to system failures (e.g., the under-achievement of student subgroups).

A Balancing Act
It’s important to note that defining autonomy for principals is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Veteran principals in high-achieving schools confidently handle more autonomy or degrees of freedom, while novice principals or struggling schools may need more guidance and direction from central-office administrators.

Defined autonomy for school leaders is probably best described as a balancing act, with districts being directive in some areas, such as establishing goals and expectations for achievement, setting a general course for continuous improvement and defining high standards of performance for all personnel.

At the same time, effective district leaders recognize that some actions are best left up to principals, such as evaluating personnel based on district-approved criteria, developing or removing staff as necessary to meet performance standards, and developing cultures of high expectations within their own schools.

Jim Eck is a senior director at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Denver, Colo. E-mail: jeck@mcrel.org. Bryan Goodwin is McREL’s vice president for communications and marketing.