The autonomy gap

Four years back, Fordham teamed up with The Broad Foundation to publish Better Leaders for America's Schools: A Manifesto. This call to action depicted a role for the public school principal akin to that of a CEO. Under the then-new No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), we pointed out, school leaders were being held ever-more accountable for boosting the achievement of their pupils and the performance of their schools. In some places, principals who didn't get satisfactory results could even lose their jobs. This was as it should be, we argued, but, in return for this heightened accountability, leaders also need functional authority in their schools. (The first law of management is that an executive's authority must be commensurate with his/her responsibility.)

Most disinterested analysts agreed that principals should be in charge of key school functions, operations, and decisions, particularly with regard to personnel, curriculum, and budget. But to what extent do principals themselves agree that they should have this authority? And to what extent do they actually possess it? If not, why not? What gets in the way? Federal regulations, state rules, district mandates, union contract provisions, or something else? Or is a perceived lack of authority mostly in their minds?

Nobody, to our knowledge, had asked those questions. So we did. We joined with a research team at the American Institutes for Research led by Dr. Steven Adamowski (former Cincinnati Superintendent, university professor, analyst, now superintendent of schools in Hartford) to sit down with a decent-sized population of principals for extended interviews. Thus was born a new Fordham/AIR report, The Autonomy Gap, which looks at--and begins to answer--some key questions about school leadership.

What did Adamowski and his colleagues find? Some of their results are no surprise. Principals working in the traditional public education system describe themselves as possessing scant authority over functions that they themselves regard as critical to raising student achievement, especially in the domain of school staffing. Steve terms this distance between the authority they need and the authority they have "the autonomy gap." Principals in a "right to work" state enjoy greater autonomy in personnel matters than their counterparts in collective-bargaining states. And charter school principals enjoy still more. (A few charter heads were included in the sample.) These findings are in line with previous research--and with common sense. They're also plenty troubling from the standpoint of serious school reform.

But Adamowski and company also gleaned new insights that seem to us even more disturbing. Most important: despite having their hands tied with respect to critical school-leadership decisions, most district principals appear content with, or resigned to, the meager authority they possess. They don't aspire to be CEOs; rather, they seem to accept the role of middle manager within a vast bureaucracy. Yes, they would welcome greater control--especially over personnel; particularly hiring, firing, and transferring teachers--but they don't demand it. They don't expect it. They don't quit over it. They have learned to work the system, not change the system. They seek to do the best they can as managers, not revolutionary agents of change.

Yes, it's understandable, deserving of empathy not criticism. How could one rise from bed in the morning and head off to a long, hard day's work if one were constantly frustrated by the terms of that job? Better to adjust one's expectations. If one cannot adjust, better to enter a different line of work.

Understandable from the principal's standpoint, yes, but surely not good for education reform. Apple founder and cultural icon Steve Jobs recently asked, "What kind of person could you get to run a small business if you told them that when they came in, they couldn't get rid of people that they thought weren't any good?" Part of his answer seems to be: most public-school principals.

Should we abandon hope for finding principals who yearn to be hard-charging executives, marshalling all of their schools' resources to increase pupil achievement, and knocking down all barriers in their way? Not yet. We may be seeing a version of the classic chicken-egg paradox. Which comes first: greater authority for principals or principals who demand greater authority? Absent real autonomy in key areas (again: personnel, budget, instruction), 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 to work in a different field that gives them greater scope for entrepreneurialism and innovation. Those who remained--dedicated men and women who worked their way up through the system, often over many years--have come to accept the system's parameters.

Some places are trying to loosen those parameters and empower their principals. In other school systems, however, the parameters are tightening further as reform-minded districts embrace "managed instruction," whereby key curricular and instructional decisions are made centrally. In those settings, the principal's job is to ensure teacher fidelity to, and successful implementation of, the mandated program. The jury is out as to how well this strategy will serve children. It's fairly clear, however, that in such districts the principal's role as "instructional leader" is further diminished.

Of course, there's another way. If districts want to tap the energy and experience of effective leaders in education and beyond--and draw talented new individuals into school leadership roles--they could embrace a decentralized approach, in essence treating every school like a charter school. Las Vegas and New York City, for example, have established "empowerment zones" in which principals enjoy substantially greater autonomy. Dallas is pushing this way, too, and training its current school leaders to make the transition.

Such developments are promising. But it's genuinely hard for school districts to transition from command-and-control to autonomy-in-return-for-accountability. Such a shift means doing battle with meddlesome states, powerful unions, and central-office fiefdoms. It means paying principals more and micromanaging them less. Not an easy shift, but one worth making. If leadership is as important a factor in school success as research indicates and as just about everyone acknowledges, and if great leaders demand (and need) true authority, taking this difficult step will justify the effort. It's the best way to close the autonomy gap--and thus a key to closing the achievement gap as well.

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